The Student Visa (F-1) allows an applicant to attend school at an accredited US college or university. Some students wish or need to work during their course of study. It is imperative that the applicant discuss this up front with the school before agreeing to attend. That is because students are allowed only limited employment during a course of study.
After graduation, most students are allowed to work for one year in their chosen field, through the Optional Practical Training program. Under the STEM program, students graduating in the science, technology, engineering and math are granted a twenty nine month employment period. Graduation from an accredited U.S. university also opens up the possibility of a longer-term stay via an H-1B or other immigration employment visa. Employment options are discussed at length below.
What are the F-1 visa requirements, just to become a student?
It is very important for a student to understand all requirements of their F-1 visa. DHS now monitors students very closely and sometimes arrest students who fail to maintain their status. Violators can include those who fail to attend school full time or who inadvertently let their student visas expire without renewal. Unfortunately, students often find themselves in violation of their status due to misguided advice from a foreign student advisor. For this reason, I recommend that potential and current students seek the advice of a qualified immigration attorney to better educate themselves on the limitations of their visa.
Basic requirements include:
- Non-immigrant intent, i.e. a firm desire and intent to return to the home country after the authorized grant of stay
- Strong home ties
- Intention to pursue a full course of study
- Acceptance from an approved USCIS educational institution
- Financial ability to support oneself such that the student will not have to work (but see work exceptions below)
- Passage of TOFL exam, where English is not the student's native language
- Full Time Attendance
When can a student also seek employment?
As a general rule, students are not allowed to work while pursuing their course of study. There are several exceptions to this rule: on campus employment, off campus employment and curricular/optional practical training.
On campus employment is allowed for a maximum of 20 hours per week while pursing a full course of study. The student may work full time during vacation, between semesters and during transition between two academic levels at the same institution. The student should first discuss potential employment with the school's DSO, to ensure compliance with school and federal rules.
Off campus employment is allowed for a maximum of 20 hours per week when the student can demonstrate severe economic hardship. Examples include loss of financial aid, fluctuation in exchange rate, tuition or rent increases, medical conditions or unexpected changes in the financial condition of the student's source of support. The student may work full time during vacation. To qualify a student must have been in F-1 status for one full academic year and was caused by circumstances beyond his or her control. The student must first obtain approval from the school's DSO and then obtain an EAD card from DHS.
Curricular Optional Training can be granted for part or full time. This allows a student to gain practical experience during the course of study. To qualify a student must have been in F-1 status for one full academic year and in an academic program requiring the work as an integral part of the established curriculum. This makes the applicant ineligible for Optional Practical Training. The school's DSO must approve COT.
Optional Practical Training may be used during a course of study or after and is generally issued for twelve months. If used during school, the student does not need an offer of employment, may work 20 hours during school and full time on breaks. After graduation, the student may work full time. The student must first obtain approval from the school's DSO and then obtain an EAD card from DHS. Once in OPT status, the student must actually work and is only allowed 90 aggregate days of unemployment over the twelve month period.
Under the STEM program, students graduating in the science, technology, engineering and math are granted a twenty nine month employment period. This applicant follows the same procedures as students who are granted the twelve month OPT period. However these students are allowed 120 aggregate days of unemployment over the twenty nine month period.
Regardless of category, it is of critical importance that the student works closely with the school's foreign student advisor as regulations and policies often change, and most actions are very time sensitive.
Business Visas That Might Apply Before and After Optional Practical Training:
After graduation and Optional Practical Training, students are eligible to change status to the H-1B visa. In addition to H-1B visas, DHS also grants business immigration visas to investors, intra-company transfer employees and applicants seeking on-the-job training (however those having used their OPT are not eligible for the J-1 training visa). For more information about these business immigration visas, please read these articles:
- B-1 and B-2 VISAS: Business and Pleasure
- E-2 VISA: Investors
- H-1B Visa: Speciality Employees
- H-3 Visa: Training Visa
- J-1 VISA: Trainee and Intern Exchange Visitors
- L-1 A and L-1B VISA: Managers, Executives and Specialized Knowledge Employees
- O VISA: Persons of Extraordinary Ability
- P Visa: Internationally Recognized Athletes, Artists, Entertainers and Culturally Unique Entertainers
- TN VISA: Canadian and Mexican Workers