Working on an F1 Visa: A Comprehensive Guide for International Students

Updated on April 11, 2024

Hey there, international students studying in the United States on an F1 visa! Are you curious about exploring work opportunities to gain some practical experience, beef up your resume, or help pay for your education? Well, you’re in luck! In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into the various ways you can work while keeping your F1 visa status in good standing, including on-campus employment, Optional Practical Training (OPT), and Curricular Practical Training (CPT).

30 Second Recap:

F1 students can work in the United States through on-campus employment, Optional Practical Training (OPT), and Curricular Practical Training (CPT). On-campus employment is allowed without additional authorization, while OPT and CPT require approval from your school and USCIS. STEM students may be eligible for a 24-month OPT extension. Other work opportunities, such as severe economic hardship and international organization internships, may be available in specific circumstances. Always maintain your F1 visa status while working by ensuring your employment is authorized and directly related to your field of study.

On-Campus Employment

On-campus employment is an awesome opportunity for F1 visa holders to gain work experience, earn some cash, and immerse themselves further into their campus community without needing any extra paperwork from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This option is designed to make sure that students can meet their needs while still putting their studies first. Here are some important things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about on-campus employment:

Work Hours Limitation

During the academic year, you’re allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. This part-time limit is set to make sure that your primary focus stays on your studies. But during scheduled breaks and holidays, like summer or winter vacations, you can work full-time. This flexibility lets you earn more when your academic workload is lighter.

Types of On-Campus Employment

On-campus jobs can be all over the place, ranging from positions in the school’s libraries and cafeterias to administrative offices and research labs. These roles are designed to be accessible to students, often not requiring a ton of work experience and providing a supportive environment for your first foray into the workforce.

Commercial Firms on Campus

Employment with commercial firms that operate on campus, like bookstores or food services, counts as on-campus employment if these firms serve the student population. This distinction is super important because it expands the types of roles you might consider, offering a broader range of job experiences directly related to the campus ecosystem.

School’s International Student Office as a Resource

Your school’s international student office is an invaluable resource for finding on-campus employment opportunities. They can guide you through the application process, help you understand your work eligibility, and give you advice on balancing work with your academic responsibilities. Plus, they can clear up any questions about what counts as on-campus employment and make sure you stay within the legal boundaries of your F1 visa conditions.

Need help with your F-1 visa?

Embarking on your academic journey in the U.S. with an F-1 visa can be exciting yet overwhelming due to the rigorous application requirements. If you’re feeling lost among the myriad of eligibility requirements, necessary documents, and the comprehensive application process, Stilt is here to assist. Our team of F-1 visa specialists is dedicated to simplifying the complexity, helping you understand and navigate each step with confidence.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is an amazing program for F1 visa students, designed to provide hands-on work experience in their area of study. OPT is split into two categories: pre-completion and post-completion, each with its own set of rules and opportunities. Understanding these categories and the requirements for participation is key to making the most out of this experience.

Pre-completion OPT

Pre-completion OPT lets you work part-time (up to 20 hours per week) while you’re still attending classes. This option is particularly great if you’re looking to gain work experience without interrupting your studies. During scheduled breaks and holidays, you have the option to work full-time, providing an awesome way to immerse yourself in professional experiences even before you graduate.

Post-completion OPT

Once you’ve finished your degree program, post-completion OPT lets you work full-time, up to 12 months, in your field of study. This period can be a critical step in transitioning from student life to a professional career, offering a platform to apply academic knowledge in real-world settings.

Participation Requirements

To be eligible for OPT, there are several key criteria you must meet:

  1. Academic Enrollment: You need to have been enrolled in a full-time course for at least one academic year. This requirement makes sure that OPT participants have a substantial academic foundation in their field of study.
  2. Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Application: Applying for an EAD through USCIS is necessary to legally work in the U.S. under OPT. The EAD is proof of your authorization to work in relation to your academic field.
  3. Job Relevance: Any job you take on during OPT must be directly related to your major area of study. This condition emphasizes the program’s goal of providing practical experience that enhances your academic learning.
  4. Visa Status Maintenance: It’s super important to maintain your F1 visa status throughout the duration of your OPT. This involves following all the rules governing your stay and work in the U.S.

STEM OPT Extension

For F1 students with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM), the United States offers an opportunity to extend their practical training in the country. This 24-month STEM OPT extension, beyond the standard 12 months of Optional Practical Training (OPT), is designed to benefit both the students and the U.S. industries in these critical fields. Here’s a closer look at the eligibility requirements and process:

1. Degree in an Eligible STEM Field

To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, your degree must be from an accredited institution and in a field recognized as a STEM discipline by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The list of eligible STEM fields is pretty comprehensive, covering a wide range of disciplines within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

2. Employment Through E-Verify

Your employer must be enrolled in the E-Verify program, a web-based system that allows enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States. This requirement makes sure that STEM OPT students are engaged in practical training through legitimate and verified employment.

3. Timely Application

It’s really important to apply for the STEM OPT extension before your current OPT period expires. The application process involves submitting the Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), along with any required documentation, like proof of your STEM degree and your employer’s E-Verify information. Starting the application process early is a good idea to avoid any gaps in employment authorization.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) provides F1 students with a way to gain practical work experience directly related to their field of study. This opportunity is not just great for the hands-on experience it offers but also because it’s recognized as part of the academic curriculum, so it integrates seamlessly with your educational journey. Here are the critical aspects of CPT that you need to understand:

1. Part-Time or Full-Time

CPT allows for flexibility in employment status. You can engage in part-time work (up to 20 hours per week) while classes are in session. Alternatively, full-time CPT is permitted when classes are not in session, or if you are in a graduate program that requires immediate participation in CPT.

2. Enrollment Requirements

To qualify for CPT, you must have been enrolled on a full-time basis for at least one full academic year in a college or university in the U.S. This requirement shows your commitment to your academic program before taking on practical work experience.

3. Curriculum Integration

CPT employment must be an integral part of your curriculum, relating directly to your major area of study. This ensures that the practical training you receive through CPT complements your academic learning, providing a holistic educational experience.

4. Authorization by Your School’s DSO

To participate in CPT, your school’s Designated School Official (DSO) must authorize it. This is done by issuing a new I-20 form with the CPT endorsement. The new I-20 form serves as official documentation of your eligibility and authorization to engage in CPT, reflecting the specific details of your employment, such as the employer, location, and duration of the CPT.

Other Work Opportunities

F1 students primarily engage in on-campus employment and programs like Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) to gain work experience in the U.S. However, there are specific circumstances under which they may be eligible for other types of work authorization. These exceptions are designed to support students facing extraordinary situations or those who have unique opportunities to work with international organizations. Here’s an overview of these special cases:

1. Severe Economic Hardship

F1 students who encounter unforeseen severe economic hardship caused by circumstances beyond their control may apply for off-campus work authorization. This could include sudden financial burdens due to currency devaluation, excessive tuition hikes, medical bills, or loss of financial aid or on-campus employment without fault on the part of the student.

To apply, students must submit Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), along with supporting documents that demonstrate financial hardship. Approval grants the student permission to work off-campus in any job, up to 20 hours per week during the school term and full-time during breaks.

2. International Organization Internships

Internships with international organizations that are recognized by the U.S. government, such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and others, offer a unique opportunity for F1 students. This type of work authorization allows students to gain experience that complements their field of study while engaging with global issues.

Similar to applying for severe economic hardship, students interested in this opportunity must file Form I-765 with USCIS, specifying their intent to work with a qualifying international organization. Approval of this application allows for part-time or full-time employment, depending on the student’s academic commitments and the organization’s requirements.

3. Special Student Relief

In response to natural disasters, political upheaval, or other extraordinary circumstances impacting students from a specific region or country, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may grant special student relief. This relief can include work authorization that exceeds the usual limitations on F1 student employment, providing necessary support during challenging times.

Special student relief is announced through official channels and typically specifies the conditions under which students may apply, including eligibility criteria, application procedures, and any deadlines. Students potentially eligible for this relief should closely monitor announcements from USCIS and consult with their school’s international student office for guidance.

Need help with your F-1 visa?

Embarking on your academic journey in the U.S. with an F-1 visa can be exciting yet overwhelming due to the rigorous application requirements. If you’re feeling lost among the myriad of eligibility requirements, necessary documents, and the comprehensive application process, Stilt is here to assist. Our team of F-1 visa specialists is dedicated to simplifying the complexity, helping you understand and navigate each step with confidence.

Final Thoughts

Navigating work opportunities as an international student on an F1 visa can seem daunting, but with the right resources and understanding of your options, you can gain valuable experience to complement your studies. Whether it’s through on-campus employment, OPT, CPT, or other special work authorizations, there are tons of avenues to explore. Remember, it’s important to stay informed, follow all the legal guidelines, and chat with your school’s international student office to make sure you maintain your visa status while advancing your career goals.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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