Are you considering becoming an international student in the United States? In this post, we’ll look at your options for working in the US while studying, and how you can get work experience after you graduate.
First, think about what credential you want to graduate with. In the US, students can receive a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree from a college or a university. Diplomas and graduate certificates are less common options.
Below, we’ve illustrated what your study abroad timeline might look like and how your work opportunities can change over time. We’ll start with your international student enrollment, and end with how you can work towards eventually applying for citizenship.
Working While Studying in the US
You’ll start by enrolling in a post-secondary program. International students usually enter the US on a F-1 Visa (for academic students) or M-1 Visa (for vocational students). The college or university you apply to must be authorized by the US government to accept international students.
During your first year of studies, F-1 visa students may not work off-campus. However, F-1 visa holder students may work:
- Up to 20 hours per week during regular full-time semesters
- Up to 40 hours per week during scheduled breaks, like winter and summer break
After the first academic year ends, F-1 students may choose from three types of off-campus work:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT) – can be done while a student is completing their program or afterwards
- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)
On the other hand, students with M-1 visas can only start practical training after graduation. Both F-1 and M-1 students’ off-campus training must relate to their field of study. Lastly, all training must be authorized by USCIS and their institution’s Designated School Official.
Tip: Because international students have a limited time to secure post-graduation employment, we recommend applying for jobs well before graduating.
How Does OPT Work?
If you find full-time employment in your field, you have the right to exercise OPT (Optional Practical Training) for up to 12 months before and/or after finishing your academic program. This means you can work in the United States for a limited and specific time without a new visa.
Any time spent on OPT while still studying counts towards the maximum 12-month allowance, but the maximum of 20 hours of work per week still applies when school is in session. You may work full-time (40 hours/week) when school is on break.
As a student, you can choose whether to complete your OPT part-time throughout and/or after your academic program, or to complete your OPT full-time. Whichever you choose, remember that if you use up your OPT time while studying, you’re not entitled to any post-graduation OPT.
Did you study a program that’s on the STEM Designated Degree Program List? You might be eligible for a 24-month extension to your post-graduation OPT. Refer to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ STEM OPT page for more details.
Applying for Work Visas
The company you’re working for while you hold an F-1 student visa has the option to apply for H1-B Visa on your behalf. They may do this during your OPT, or after it ends. The H1-B is a lottery visa for new foreign workers.
There’s a yearly cap of 65,000 H1-B visas issued, and 20,000 more are available to grads with a master’s degree (or higher) from a US academic institution. However, the number of applicants is always higher than the cap. In the 2022 financial year, 308,613 people registered—so, H1-B visas are awarded by lottery.
If you receive an H1-B visa, you may live and work in the US for up to three years. This time may be extended, but usually can’t be longer than six years. If you aren’t awarded an H1-B, your employer can take other visa routes.
Important: If you’re an F-1 student visa holder, and have filed an H1-B petition and change-of-status request, but your F-1 status will end before your status change, you may be able to get a cap-gap extension.
Deciding to Stay
While working in the US under an H1-B visa, the company that employs you can apply on your behalf for a Green Card (Permanent Resident Card). A Green Card allows you to live and work permanently in the US. However, individual Green Cards are valid for 10 years, and must be renewed.
When applying for a Green Card, patience is important. It can take between four and seven months to process. While your status is pending, you will be able to stay in the US.
We hope this timeline and information on working in the US is helpful as you plan your journey as an international student.
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