Institutions of higher education in the United States welcome international students, but in order to pursue their academic goals there, these students must first seek permission from the U.S. government to enter the country. For most, this permission comes in the form of the nonimmigrant F-1 international student status. Nonimmigrant visa statuses are based on very specific purposes, and the main purpose of the F-1 status is to allow students to study in the U.S. If you’re primarily looking to work in the U.S., you must apply for a different nonimmigrant status that carries employment authorization. As with all rules, there are exceptions, which we’ll explore here.
F-1 Visa and Employment
When applying for an F-1 visa at a U.S. consulate abroad, showing that you’ve been accepted to an eligible school is only one step in the process. You’ll also need to prove that you plan to return home after completing your educational program and that you have enough funding to not have to work in the U.S. Remember, the purpose of the F-1 is to pursue an education, not to work. For any of the exceptions below which allow for work, you should first check in with the Designated Student Officer (DSO) at your school to ensure that no activity would violate your F-1 status.
Rules for Working
One of the exceptions to the no-working rule of the F-1 visa status is on-campus employment. Over the years, schools have allowed students to work on campus without violating their student status. This now includes working for commercial vendors who are on campus, such as food vendors, bookstores, and student service outlets. Internships with international organizations are also allowed. Another exception arises if not being allowed to work would create a severe economic hardship for you. This is a rare exception because at the time of the consular interview you must have proven that there is and will be sufficient funding for the duration of your educational program. Also, if your home country’s conditions are drastically changed, such as by a civil war or natural disaster, and if your original source of funding is severely impacted, then exceptions are allowed.
As far as off-site work is concerned, a number of options are available to you while you are enrolled in school. You’re allowed to engage in off-site employment with organizations that are educationally affiliated with the school. With permission from your school’s DSO, you’re allowed off-site employment after the first academic year (i.e., nine months) for no more than twenty hours a week. You can work full time during school breaks and vacations if you are, or will continue to be, enrolled. Any restriction against working may also be lifted by the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Curricular Practical Training
Another off-site work option is curricular practical training (CPT). This is available after the first academic year and where the work is tied to your course of studies. This often takes the form of internships, co-ops, or independent studies. These must be authorized by the school and often will have a classroom component to discuss the educational merits of the work or training. CPT may be on a part-time or a full-time basis. While you don’t need to apply specifically to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for any proof of CPT, you must contact the school’s DSO and obtain written permission. It should then be shown to your prospective employer as evidence of your eligibility to participate in CPT. In fact, the CPT authorization should designate the employer’s name. As a practical tip, please note that if you complete more than twelve months of full-time CPT, you’re not allowed to apply for optional practical training (OPT).
I’ll be going into detail about OPT as well as OPT extensions for students who have degrees in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields next week, so stay tuned.
About the Author:
Vincent W. Lau is the managing partner for Clark Lau LLC in Cambridge, MA and serves as adjunct faculty for New England Law Boston. He is also active with the American Immigration Lawyers Association where he serves as an appointed member of the national liaison committee to the U.S. Department of Labor.