Working in the U.S while studying is one of the biggest concerns for international applicants. Can they work in the U.S as an international student? The short answer is yes, they can work while studying, earn some extra money and gain experience! But there are limitations. Rules and regulations are to be strictly followed. Working is permissible only for F-1 and J-1 visa holders. Those with M-1 visa cannot gain employment. F-1, J-1, and M-1 are the three types of non-immigrant student visas to study in the USA. Here’s a quick preview of these three visa types -
The F-1 visa is for full-time academic studies and the most popular international student visa in the U.S. F-1 visa holders are eligible for part-time on-campus employment or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) which typically is 20 hours or less per week. In addition, F-1 students can work on optional practical training (OPT) for up to one year after completion of their academic program.
Also read: Interview Guide for F1 Student Visa for USA
The J-1 visa is issued to students who are required to obtain practical training that is not available in their home country to complete their academic program. The J-1 student visa allows similar employment options as the F-1 visa as long as requirements set by the exchange visitor program are met.
An M-1 visa is for non-academic or vocational studies. It is issued to a student who will attend a non-academic or vocational school in the U.S. M-1 visa holders are not permitted to work in the US during the course of their studies. Students with this visa category must also have evidence that sufficient funds are immediately available to pay all tuition and living costs for the entire period of intended stay.
Working in the US on F-1 visa
F-1 students who have completed atleast one academic year of college or university are eligible to gain work experience or what is termed as ‘Practical Training’. There can be two types of Practical Training - Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). Practical Training is usually on-campus employment. Any work occurring within the school campus or outside the school campus but affiliated to the school can be termed as on-campus employment. Also, the work conducted must be related to the school’s or program curriculum. So, on-campus employment does not necessarily indicate work within the school premises only. F-1 students can work 20 hours a week while school is in full session and full time during vacations, term breaks and times when school is not in session.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT is offered by sponsoring employers, undertaken by students typically for credit and to gain industry experience in their area of study. To be considered eligible for CPT you must have completed atleast 1 academic year, declared your major subject and must have a job offer by the employer. There could be a limited number of employers participating in CPT. CPT also requires that you apply for authorization at the time of job offer. This authorization is done by the Designated School Official (DSO) at the institution to check if the job meets CPT requirements. Since CPT requirements are different for undergraduate and postgraduate students, you must do your research and check these with the International Student Office of your university. CPT is considered part-time, it allows you to work 20 hours or less per week. You can also work full time but only when school is not in session. Remember, there is no limit to the number of CPT that can be used. However, if you are completing one year or more of full-time CPT you will not be eligible for Optional Practical Training. Keep track of the hours!
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
All F-1 students are entitled to gain OPT of 1-year duration provided they complete 1 academic year of their program. OPT is designed to complement the academic program and therefore the work is directly related to the specialization or major subject. If you are a student of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) designated degree program you may be eligible for a 24-month extension of the OPT that is a total of 36 months. While CPT must be completed before graduation, OPT can be completed before and after graduation. In the case of OPT employment, you must apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the local DHS Service Center.
Working hours and circumstances for F-1 OPT can vary, remember the following for OPT:
1. OPT can be undertaken while school is in session, not exceeding 20 hours per week
2. OPT is applicable during study breaks, annual vacations and at times when school is not in session. In this case, you are required to register for the next term or session and also meet eligibility criteria set by the employer and the school.
3. You can work full-time OPT if you have completed all course requirements.
4. You can work full-time OPT after completion of the entire program.
You must also keep in mind that OPT is related to your area of study directly if you are a student of economics you are not eligible to work as a graphic designer or vice versa.
In addition to the on-campus practical training stated above, F-1 holders can work off-campus, which may or may not be related to the area of study. Students who face financial hardship (unexpected loss of scholarship, robbery, currency devaluation among others) or have a job offer from an international organization may be eligible for off-campus employment based on certain criteria. It is the DSO’s role to further determine the legitimacy for off-campus employment requests by students.
Work options beyond OPT: H -1B Visa for F1 students
The H-1B visa is the most common working visa in the USA. Many students on completion of their OPT may return to their home countries however many students also desire to continue working. H-1B visas are non-immigrant visas, issued or sponsored by US companies to hire international workers in specialty occupations such as engineering, business, medicine, architecture, mathematics, law, education, physical sciences among others. It is possible for F-1 holders to transfer or change their status to H-1B. This will require a student to find a job with an employer in the U.S. who will be willing to petition for the H1-B. You may be hired by the same company where you have started working on OPT. It is the employer who will submit the applications to the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) criteria for the H1-B grant to the worker. Every year upto 65,000 H-1B visas are granted, this is called the H-1B Cap. In addition, 20,000 visas are granted to those who have earned advanced degrees such as MS or Ph.D. in the USA. In recent years USCIS also initiated a lottery system for accepting applications. In short, obtaining an H1-B visa is extremely competitive.
Working in the US on J-1 visa
J-1 visa holders are entitled to three types of employment options:
On-Campus – You are allowed to work in areas related or not related to your studies within the school premises under the exchange visitor program. For example, you can work for an event company operating in the school campus.
Academic Training – This is the authorized training module and related to the student’s field of study. If you are a J-1 visa holder, you are eligible for a practical training of up to 18 months on completion of your degree program. This requires that you have a job offer and apply for the academic training before the date of completion mentioned on the DS-2019 form. The DS-2019 is the document that allows you to apply for the J-1 Visa as an Intern or Trainee in the USA.
Off-Campus – Students under the exchange visitor program may be eligible for off-campus jobs basis unforeseen economic circumstances such as unexpected loss of scholarship, medical bills among others.
It is imperative for students to check with DSO for international students for work-related matters and keep oneself up to date. Be aware of the employee rights, social security number, contracts, benefits, minimum wage, tax deductions, and rules and regulations while working in the USA.
Start researching on companies who are willing to sponsor work visas. Investigate work options with a company after an internship. Explore rules, opportunities and options, costs, possible deadlines and so on.
Follow the International Student’s Office and Career Center of your university for general information, opportunities and latest updates. Get in touch with a career coach to help you plan your goals and resume building. Attend career fairs and other networking events. You can contact recruiters and other industry professionals through such events.
Be proactive and build a relationship with but not limited to the student community, faculty and alumni groups. Relation building and networking are crucial for finding your future employer or job.
Start planning and job search even before you graduate. Don’t wait till you complete your program.
Be willing to work hard and be patient.
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