Working in the USA with a Student Visa

By Jessica Pedraza, Esq.

One of the most common questions students ask me through my immigration law practice is whether they can work while studying and how to maximize this benefit. You will be pleased to know there are working opportunities for many student visas. In this blog post, we will be talking about the employment opportunities for F-1 students. Please note: you cannot rely on employment to fund your stay or studies in the USA. In order to be an F-1 visa holder, you must have proof you have funds to cover your expenses while in the USA. 

F-1 visas are granted to full-time students seeking a degree, diploma or certificate and enrolled at an accredited university, college, high school, elementary school, seminary or language training program. The visa is granted for the duration of your studies and you will need to maintain full-time status. 

On-Campus

On-campus jobs are a bit more straightforward. Once you get your F-1 visa and arrive in the USA you can begin working at a maximum 30 days before the commencement of your classes. An F-1 student is allowed to work on-campus on a part-time basis (this means up to 20 hours per week). In order to work on-campus part time, your Designated School Official (DSO) has to certify and approve the job. This needs to be done to determine that your employment is not displacing another American worker. For this reason, your part-time work must be one that is typically filled by students at your university, not by American workers. Typically these jobs involve working at the library, cafeteria or another university facility providing student services. However, work as a janitor would not qualify because it is not typically held by students but by American workers. If you are a recipient of a scholarship or fellowship you may also be employed in a position that is part of your academic program. It is also important to note that you may work full-time during any school breaks/vacation or holidays. 

Off-Campus 

During the first year of studies, F-1 students are not allowed to work off-campus. However, you can work on-campus your first year and switch to off-campus employment after one year of studies. After the first year, a student can work off-campus provided the student is in good academic standing (determined by the DSO) and you qualify for a training program discussed below. We are going to be reviewing four different opportunities you have for working off-campus while studying and their benefits. 

  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) - OPT is a great benefit for students seeking to work in a job related to their area of study. OPT allows you to obtain valuable experience in your area of study and develop valuable contacts during your time in the USA. For F-1 students, you are allowed one full year (12 months) of OPT full-time work in the aggregate. You cannot participate in OPT full time during the school year but you can do so during the summer/winter breaks or after you graduate. Part-time OPT work is allowed during the school year. Furthermore, 1 month of part time OPT work counts as half a month of full time OPT work. Therefore, if you decide to do 10 months of OPT work on a part-time basis during your junior year, then when you graduate you will be allowed to work 7 months of full-time OPT. In order to qualify for Optional Practical Training or OPT you have to satisfy certain requirements.
  • Your OPT job/tasks must relate to your major course of study and level of education. For example, if you are studying engineering, you cannot work retail at a clothing store. 
  • EAD - You need to go through an added step and apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) with USCIS and seek permission to work.
  • Must have completed one year of studies before you apply for OPT.
  • Your 12 months OPT must be completed within 14 months of graduation
  • If applying for OPT after graduation, your application MUST be received by USCIS within 60 days of completing your program (this is not the same as your graduation date). 
  • Must not be enrolled in English language program as main course of study.
  • Must not have completed 12 months of full-time Curricular Practical Training (discussed below). Part-time CPT does not affect OPT. 

Keep in mind that if you work 12 months after graduating and continue your studies to a graduate level, you may still be authorized to work another 12 months after completion of your graduate studies.  

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT) - CPT is another training program where students can work off-campus. You may apply for either part-time (less than 20 hours) or full-time (more than 20 hours) CPT.  The CPT must be directly related to your area of study. For example, a student studying education may need to complete a certain amount of hours working as a teacher at a school. In this case, a student applying as a substitute teacher would qualify for CPT.  The CPT must also be an integral part of your curriculum.  In other words, the work must be required for your curriculum or you must receive course credit for the work. One major advantage of CPT is that, unlike OPT, you do not have to apply for a work permit or an EAD with USCIS. However, you still have to get approval from your DSO and get their endorsement. The following are some requirements to keep in mind if you’re interested in CPT work:
  • Need your University’s DSO endorsement shown on your I-20.
  • Must have completed one year of academic studies. However, there is an exception for graduate students. 
  • Work needs to be part of your program of study. For example, if your curriculum requires practical work in the form of an internship or work-study opportunity, then this certainly qualifies for CPT. It is best to check with your DSO as every University interpretes CPT policies and at times have their own requirements. 
  • You must have a signed cooperative agreement or a letter from your employer.

There is no limit on how many months a student can do CPT work. However, please note that if you work 12 or more months of full time CPT before graduation, then you are ineligible for OPT after graduation. If you seek to maximize your employment opportunities while studying, you should seek to work part-time CPT during your studies followed by a 12 month OPT. Accrual of part-time CPT does not affect your OPT eligibility. In the alternative, you can work for 11.5 months of full-time CPT and then 12 months of OPT once you graduate. Unlike OPT, CPT cannot be completed after graduation. 

  • OPT through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) - Through this program, any student majoring or completing a graduate degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics can extend their OPT for an additional 17 months after their OPT runs out. If you think you qualify for this, it is best you consult with an immigration attorney for up to date news. On February 12, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security will be deciding whether to continue this program or not and you should be aware of the latest developments. 

These are some of the options you have to work and study in the USA. Please understand that if you ever fall out of F-1 student status, you will lose your work authorization. We hope this article was helpful and that you can optimize the benefits of your F-1 visa. 

Jessica Pedraza, Esq. is an immigration attorney for Global Immigration Solutions Law Firm. She can be contacted at jessica@gislawfirm.com

Read Ms. Pedreza's articles Understanding the F-1, J-1 and M-1 Visas and Working in the USA with a Student Visa.

Please note: this article is provided to the Study in the USA community and is meant to provide information but does not constitute legal advice. Even though we strive to provide accurate and detailed advice based on the current immigration laws of the United States, all legal advice must be tailored to specific facts and laws are constantly changing. Nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of an experienced immigration attorney.

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