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Working in the US on a Student Visa – The Ultimate Employment Guide for F1 & J1 International Students 

 October 30, 2021

By  Chuky Ofoegbu

Pursuing higher education as an international student in the U.S. is a huge investment out of reach for many people. With the ever-increasing cost of a U.S. college degree, many international students seek employment opportunities in the U.S. to alleviate the financial burden.

Unlike their domestic classmates, international students face a unique set of challenges with employment in the U.S. due to the complications of working in the U.S. on a student visa. 

Despite these challenges, working in the U.S. on a student visa could be a very rewarding experience. One that many international students pass up on.

In this article, you will learn how to take advantage of the employment options for international students in the U.S. on F-1 and J-1 visas. 

In order to work in the U.S. on a student visa, international students are required to have a U.S. Social Security Number to receive employment income and pay U.S. taxes. U.S. Social Security Numbers are processed by the U.S. Social Security Administration Office. 

How To Work In The U.S. On A Student Visa Before Completing Your Studies 

ON-CAMPUS EMPLOYMENT

This is any employment paid directly by your university or an approved vendor serving students on campus in a building owned by your university. Typical on-campus jobs for undergraduate students are library assistants, cashiers at university cafeterias, front desk receptionists at university offices, and resident assistants in university dorms. For graduate students, typical on-campus jobs are teaching assistants (TAs) and research assistants (RAs).

Compared to all other options of working in the U.S. on a student visa, on campus jobs are the only form of employment that does not have to be related to your major. For most international students in F-1 and J-1 visa status  on-campus jobs are the first type of employment obtained in the U.S.

young students on a university campus

Working in the U.S. on a student visa is an excellent way to meet new people either on-campus or off-campus.

Benefits of Working on Campus

Apart from the money earned, working on campus is one of the easiest ways to gain meaningful US work experience that could be listed on your resume until you’ve gained more relevant work experiences. Furthermore, working on campus is a great way to meet people while also growing your professional network within your university.

This network of people could be invaluable when seeking future employment or pursuing further education. For example, your supervisors from previous on-campus jobs could serve as references when applying for a job or could write letters of recommendation when applying to graduate programs.

In most universities, graduate student jobs such as teaching assistants and research assistants provide discounted tuition rates and health benefits similar to full time university employees. 

Eligibility for On-Campus Employment

For on campus jobs, there is no authorization needed from your international student office to begin work. However, you are required to maintain F-1 or J-1 status while holding an on-campus job. This means that you must be enrolled in your university on a full-time basis during a long semester such as the fall and spring. 

Limitations of On-Campus Employment

Some of the limitations of on-campus employment are;

  1. You are allowed to work up to a maximum of 20 hours per week during a long semester (fall and spring) 
  2. You can work beyond 20 hours per week during the official university break such as the winter holiday and the summer semester if you are not enrolled in classes 

Applying for On-Campus Employment

If you will be applying for a U.S. Social Security Number for the first time, you first need to get a letter from your designated school official (DSO) confirming your status, and the type of work you will be doing with your on-campus employer. This letter will be used to obtain your Social Security Number from your local Social Security Administration office.

CURRICULAR PRACTICAL TRAINING (CPT) FOR F1 STUDENTS

Curricular Practical Training is defined as an employment that is integral to your academic program. This must be work experience that is either needed to complete your degree or work experience that you could earn course credit for. Engaging in CPT should not slow down the time to completion of your degree.

Some common examples of CPT are summer internships and multi semester co-op jobs which could be performed off-campus or on-campus. You can learn more about your options of using CPT by discussing with your academic advisor.

Benefits of CPT

CPT is a great way to get relevant experience in your field prior to graduation and is also an excellent opportunity to build and grow a professional network outside of your university.

Many students secure full-time post-graduation job offers from the companies they worked with during their CPT. 

Eligibility for CPT

To be eligible for CPT you must:

  1. Have been enrolled full time for at least 2 semesters while present in the U.S. on an F-1 visa. The only exception here are students who have programs that require an immediate participation in CPT within the first year of study 
  2. Have a job offer and the job must be directly related to your major
  3. Be able to earn course credit during the semester that the internship is held with slight exceptions depending on your university 

Limitations of CPT

  1. There are two ways you can use CPT, these are part-time - defined as 20 hours or less per week and full-time defined as more than 20 hours per week 
  2. However, note that if you complete 12 months of full-time CPT, you become ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). With part-time CPT, there are no restrictions, so you may work more than 12 months without affecting your opportunity to pursue OPT in the future
  3. CPT authorizations are employer and date specific. So any changes in your employment requires a new CPT authorization and must be reported to avoid violating your status 
  4. You are also required to pass the course for your CPT authorization, otherwise you will be violating your status 

Applying for CPT

Authorization for CPT employment is initially reviewed by your academic advisor but ultimately processed by your university’s international student office. 

The process of obtaining CPT might vary across universities but typically, you will be required to obtain the approval of your academic advisor. This can be done by providing a letter to your academic advisor with detailed description of the nature of your work with your prospective employer.

This letter should also specify the start and end date of your employment as well as the number of work hours per week. 

If your academic advisor agrees that your prospective employment is integral to your academic program or is eligible for course credit you will be issued a recommendation form.

With this form, your international office would process your CPT authorization and issue a new Form I-20 endorsed for CPT. This endorsed I-20 gives you a legal authorization to work temporarily with your prospective employer.

Learn the best tips to finding CPT jobs as an F1 international student in the USA.

PRE-COMPLETION OPT FOR F-1 STUDENTS

A less common method of working in the U.S. on a student visa before graduation is pre-completion Optional Practical Training. The OPT is a temporary employment directly related to a student’s field of study but unlike CPT is not an integral part of a student’s program.

Hence, the advantage of the Pre-Completion OPT is that you are not required to earn course credit compared to the CPT. However, engaging in Pre-Completion OPT may not be suitable for students who plan to work in the U.S. long-term after graduation.

To work on any type of OPT, you will need to obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). This document is issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and not by your international student office. 

Eligibility for Pre-Completion OPT

  1. Must be enrolled full time for at least 2 regular semesters in F-1 status while present in the U.S.
  2. No job offer is required to receive authorization unlike CPT
  3. You can only work in a field that is directly related to your major

Limitations of Pre-Completion OPT

  1. Most importantly, Pre-completion OPT subtracts from Post-Completion OPT at a 2:1 rate for part-time usage and 1:1 rate for full-time usage. For example, if you complete 6 months of part-time Pre-Completion OPT, your Post-Completion OPT will be reduced by 3 months. On the other hand, completing 6 months of full-time Pre-Completion OPT will reduce your Post-Completion OPT by 6 months 
  2. You can work part time during the regular semester and full-time while on university breaks. With the exception for PhD students in the process of completing their dissertation who can work full-time during the regular semester
  3. Pre-completion OPT stops upon graduation

Applying for Pre-Completion OPT

Like all other types of OPT, you’ll need to submit an application requesting work authorization to USCIS. If your application is successful, USCIS will issue an EAD card, which you must receive to begin work.

The processing of this document by USCIS could take as long as 6 months to obtain, so advanced preparation is needed. 

OFF-CAMPUS EMPLOYMENT BASED ON SEVERE ECONOMIC HARDSHIP FOR F-1 STUDENTS

Under certain unforeseen financial circumstances, an F-1 student may be eligible to work off-campus to cover financial needs. Some of these dire circumstances include:

  • Losing financial support from your family back home
  • Losing financial aid for reasons beyond your control
  • Considerable changes in the exchange rate from your home country
  • Financial hardship caused by medical bills

Eligibility for Employment Based on Severe Economic Hardship

In order to be eligible for employment based on severe economic hardship an F-1 student must:

  1. Have been enrolled for one full academic year
  2. Maintain F-1 status by being enrolled in a full course load
  3. Show evidence of economic hardship caused by circumstances out of your control

Applying for Employment Based on Severe Economic Hardship

The authorization for employment based on severe economic hardship is initially reviewed by your international student office but ultimately processed by USCIS. Similar to the Pre-Completion OPT, you will need to obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD card) before you can begin work.

Upon the receipt of your EAD card, you may work part-time while school is in session, and full-time during official university breaks.

VOLUNTEERING

Volunteer work is easily mistaken as any type of work that is unpaid. However, by U.S. labor laws this is not entirely correct. By U.S. laws, volunteer work must be:

  • Performed with no expectation of compensation of any kind
  • Performed for a charitable or non-profit organization
  • Performed such that a paid/regular employee is not displaced

International students in the U.S. must be aware of these labor laws as they pursue volunteering opportunities to prevent violating their F-1 or J-1 legal status.

Volunteering is a great way to gain extra-curricular work experience while serving the common good of society. Some examples of volunteer work could be serving at food drives at your local shelter or activities performed by charitable student organizations at your university such as Engineers Without Borders, Doctors Without Borders, etc. 

How To Work In The U.S. On A Student Visa After Completing Your Studies

POST-COMPLETION OPT FOR F1 STUDENTS

All F-1 students have the opportunity to work in the U.S. for a maximum period of 12 months upon the completion of their studies. This maximum 12 month allotment is reduced if you have engaged in Pre-Completion OPT. 

For many international students, the Post-Completion OPT is the pathway to transition from working in the U.S. on a student visa to other working visas such as the H1B and the Green Card. 

Eligibility for Post-Completion OPT

  1. Similar to the Pre-Completion OPT, no job offer is needed to receive authorization and you can only work in a field directly related to your field of study
  2. Must be present in the U.S. in legal F-1 status at the time of applying

Limitations of Post-Completion OPT

  1. F1 students on Post-Completion OPT may work on a full-time basis or a part-time basis (for a minimum of 20 hours per week) for one or more employers
  2. You can start a business and be self-employed. However, your business must in a field directly related to the degree program you completed
  3. Students may work as independent contractors, as long as the contracting work is directly related to their field of study. For example, a computer science graduate can perform freelance jobs developing software for online clients
  4. While on Post-Completion OPT, you may not accrue more than 90 days of unemployment, otherwise your F-1 status will be violated

Applying for Post-Completion OPT

Typically, you are allowed to apply for your work authorization as early as 90 days before your graduation date, and as late as 60 days after your graduation date (note that this 60-day window after your program end date is your F1 grace period). PhD candidates may apply as early as 90 days before their dissertation defense date and as late as 60 days after their dissertation defense date.

Due to the long USCIS processing time, applying for your Post-Completion OPT early is highly recommended. Learn more about how to apply for your F1 post completion OPT.

STEM OPT EXTENSION FOR F1 STUDENTS

F-1 students currently on a Post-Completion OPT with degrees in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may be eligible for an extension of 24 months after the completion of their 12 months of Post-Completion OPT.

Eligibility for STEM OPT Extension

To be eligible for the STEM OPT Extension an F-1 student must satisfy the following

  1. You must be engaged in Post-Completion OPT to apply for the STEM OPT extension.
  2. You must receive compensation for that is comparable to that of a US worker for the same position and similar educational and professional experience
  3. You must have a earned a degree (bachelors, masters, or PhD) in a STEM field within the last 10 years
  4. However, unlike the eligibility requirement for the OPT, you must have a job offer with a company that is registered in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's E-verify system 
  5. You must apply for an extension of your work authorization before the completion of your Post-Completion OPT
  6. Also you must not have accrued more than 90 days of unemployment while on OPT

Limitation of STEM OPT Extension

  1. Unlike the Post-Completion OPT, STEM OPT does not allow an F-1 student to be self-employed 
  2. Similar to the Post-Completion OPT, F-1 students must work for a minimum of 20 hours per week and could work for multiple employers
  3. While on STEM OPT an F-1 student must not exceed a total of 150 days of unemployment. This includes any unemployment days accrued during the first 12 months of Post-Completion OPT

Applying for STEM OPT Extension

Applying for STEM OPT is similar to that of the initial Post-Completion OPT in that you will be requesting work authorization from USCIS. However, with STEM OPT, an F-1 student must submit a request for STEM extension to USCIS before the expiration date of the OPT EAD card.

If your request for STEM extension is not received in a timely manner, USCIS may deny your application for extension.

While the application for STEM OPT extension is being processed by USCIS , F-1 students can continue working on their expired EAD card for a maximum of 180 days from the date of expiration.

ACADEMIC TRAINING FOR J-1 STUDENTS

J-1 students may engage in employment related to their field of study before or after the completion of their degree through Academic Training. The length of academic training can not exceed the duration of your program. The typical duration of employment through Academic Training is a total of 18 months, with an exception for PhD students who may work for a total of 36 months.

Unlike other ways of working in the U.S. on a student visa, the allotted time for Academic Training includes all periods of employment before and after completing your program regardless of whether the employment was on a full-time or part-time basis.  

Eligibility for J-1 Academic Training

  1. You are present in the U.S. while completing a full course of study
  2. You must apply before the completion of study listed on your Form DS-2019
  3. You must have a job offer providing a form of training directly related to your field of study

Limitations of J-1 Academic Training

  1. Academic Training performed during your studies must be part-time while enrolled in classes or full-time during university breaks 

Applying for J-1 Academic Training

J-1 students may apply for Academic Training at any point before the completion of their program of study. Academic Training is exclusively processed by your J-1 program sponsor.

Conclusion

Regardless of what option you decide to pursue, working in the U.S. on a student visa is an excellent way to not only apply the knowledge gained from your program of study but to also broaden your cultural experience. 

Chuky Ofoegbu


With almost a decade of experience pursuing higher education in the United States, I fully understand the pain points foreign students endure. I created this website to help foreign students successfully navigate their way through the challenges they will face while living in the United States.

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