*Updated February 4, 2020
Students with an F-1 student visa should not commence work, either on or off campus, without first consulting their designated school official (DSO). Authorization to work is required either from the DSO or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If you work without authorization, you will violate the terms of your F-1 student visa and fall out of status. Once you fall out of status, you will be forced to leave the United States.
To avoid falling out of status, make sure you know the rules before you start working.
Here is a summary of the various types of work programs available to F-1 students.
1. Working on campus
F-1 students are not allowed to work off campus during their first academic year, but they may work on campus under certain conditions.
First, jobs must qualify as on-campus jobs, which means:
- Jobs must be located at the student’s school and directly involve services to students, such as a bookstore or cafeteria.
- Jobs could be located at an off-campus location, but still fall under on-campus employment, if the work is associated with the school’s established curriculum OR the employer has a contractual affiliation with the school (for example, a research lab affiliated with your school).
Second, F-1 students are allowed to take on-campus jobs only if their employment does not take the jobs away from a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR).
F-1 students are allowed to start their on-campus jobs as early as 30 days before the start of a program of study. The maximum number of hours you can work per week is 20 hours, but you may work full-time when school is NOT in session, i.e., during school breaks and annual vacation.
You will need to obtain certification letters from your DSO and the employer, so you can apply for a Social Security Number* that’s needed for you to work.
*Note: Every student with F-1 visa who is authorized to work in the United States needs a Social Security Number.
2. Working off campus
F-1 students with severe economic hardships may be allowed to work off campus for up to 20 hours per week. Such students may work full-time when school is not in session.
To qualify for off-campus employment based on severe economic hardship, you must meet the following conditions:
- You have completed at least one full academic year of your program of study;
- You have valid F-1 student status;
- You are in good academic standing;
- You can prove that you have severe economic hardship resulting from new, unexpected circumstances beyond your control; and
- You must demonstrate that you have tried and was unable to secure on-campus employment, or that the pay from available on-campus employment is insufficient to meet your financial needs.
What counts as severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond your control? According to USCIS, it would include:
- Loss of financial aid or on-campus job for which you are not at fault;
- Substantial increase in tuition or living costs;
- Substantial decrease in currency value;
- Unexpected changes in the financial conditions of your sources of financial support;
- Large medical bills that are not covered by insurance; and
- Other substantial, unexpected expenses.
Here’s what you need to do to get authorization to work off-campus based on undue hardship:
- You should talk to your DSO and explain why you need it. Your DSO can then recommend you for off-campus employment and provide you with an updated Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status.”
- Once you have the new Form I-20, you must file a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” within 30 days of receiving your recommendation. You must also pay the requisite fee to USCIS.
- If USCIS approves your application, you will receive a Form I-766, “Employment Authorization Document” (EAD), which will specify the dates that you may work off-campus.
The authorized period is usually for a maximum period of one year. If you need to continue to work off-campus after the authorized period, you must submit another application.
3. Practical training
After completing their first academic year, F-1 students have three options when it comes to practical training, which are intended to provide students with valuable work experience.
- Curricular Practical Training
- Optional Practical Training
- Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension
A. Curricular Practical Training
Curricular practical training (CPT) is an option only when the employment is part of your program of study. So check with your DSO to find out your school’s CPT policy. Examples of CPT employment include: alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or other type of required practicum offered by an employer who has cooperative agreements with your college or university.
CPT is available for eligible undergraduate and graduate students. You are allowed to work full-time under this program.
To qualify for CPT employment, you must show the following:
- CPT is integral to your program of study.
- You have completed at least one full academic year of your program of study at a school certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), if you are an undergraduate;*
- You have valid F-1 student status; and
- You have a signed cooperative agreement or a letter from your employer.
*Note: If you are an F-1 graduate student, you are eligible for CPT employment during your first semester, provided that your program requires such experience.
If you’re interested in CPT employment, you should talk to your DSO and find out your school’s CPT policy. Your DSO can then authorize a CPT employment for you in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and provide you with an updated Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status,” that shows DSO approval for CPT employment.
Keep in mind though that you won’t be eligible for any OPT (see below) if you have 12 months or more of full-time CPT.
B. Optional Practical Training
Unlike CPT, F-1 students may apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) only if the employment is directly related to their major area of study. Eligible F-1 students may apply to participate in OPT as undergraduate and graduate students for up to 12 months at each level.
Note: OPT is not an option for F-1 students in English language training programs.
If you are eligible for OPT, you may apply either during your program of study (pre-completion OPT) or after completing your studies (post-completion OPT).
- Pre-completion OPT: You may apply for up to 12 months of pre-completion OPT only after you have been enrolled in school for one full academic year. Once you are authorized, you may work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session. You may work full-time when school is not in session.
Note: Keep in mind that your OPT period at each level of education (undergraduate and graduate) is capped at 12 months, so any time spent on pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT. For example, if you have 2 months of pre-completion OPT experience, you will only be eligible for a maximum of 10 months for post-completion OPT.
- Post-completion OPT: F-1 students authorized for post-completion OPT may work part-time (at least 20 hours per week) or full-time.
Here’s what you need to do to get authorization for OPT:
- Once you have the new Form I-20, you must file a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” along with supporting documents within 30 days of receiving your recommendation. You must also pay the requisite fee to USCIS.
- If USCIS approves your application, you will receive a Form I-766 (EAD), which will specify the dates that you may work. Please note that you may not commence OPT work before you receive your EAD.
How far in advance can you get the process going? That depends on whether you are applying for pre-completion or post-completion OPT.
|Pre-completion OPT||You may apply up to 90 days before you complete your full academic year, but you may not start working until after you complete one full academic year.|
|Post-completion OPT||You may apply up to 90 days before you complete your degree.
Note: The deadline is 60 days after completing your degree.
C. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) OPT Extension
F-1 students earning a STEM degree may be eligible for the STEM OPT extension — a 24-month* extension of their post-completion OPT — if they meet other specified requirements.
*Note: This 24-month extension is effective as of March 11, 2016, replacing a prior 17-month extension program. Students who are currently on a 17-month STEM OPT should check here for instructions on how to apply for seven additional months.
You may qualify for the 24-month extension if you meet the following conditions:
- You have been granted OPT and are currently in a valid period of OPT;
- You have received a STEM degree at a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level from a currently accredited and SEVIS-certified school, and you are seeking OPT employment that is directly related to your degree;
- Your prospective employer uses the E-Verify program; and
- You and your prospective employer have completed and signed the Form I-983, “Training Plan for STEM OPT Students.”
Here’s what you need to do to get authorization for STEM OPT extension:
- You must obtain your DSO’s approval. Once your DSO verifies that you have a completed Form I-983, you will be provided with an updated Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status,” that shows DSO approval for STEM OPT extension.
- Once you have the new Form I-20, you must file a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” along with supporting documents within 60 days of receiving your recommendation. You must also pay the requisite fee to USCIS.
- If USCIS approves your application, you will receive a Form I-766 (EAD), which will specify the dates that you may work.
How far in advance can you get the process going?
You may apply up to 90 days before you complete your degree. The deadline for application is 60 days after completing your STEM degree.
What if your initial post-completion OPT period expires while your STEM OPT extension application is pending?
If you file your STEM OPT extension application on time and your initial post-completion OPT period expires while your extension application is pending, you may continue to work for up to 180 days after your EAD expires.
Recipients of a STEM OPT extension have reporting responsibilities under the law. If you have received a 24-month extension, you are required to report to your DSO as follows:
- Report changes to your legal name, residential or mailing or email address, employer’s name and address, or loss of employment,* within 10 days of the change; and
- Confirm existing information every six months if there are no changes.
*Note: STEM OPT extension recipients are allowed to be unemployed for up to 150 days in total.
4. Program post-completion caveat
What should F-1 students do after completing their program?
Always be mindful to maintain your visa status. If you are on an F-1 visa and have completed your program of study and any authorized period of practical training, you have 60 days after the program end date on your Form I-20 to leave the United States.
If you wish to extend your stay without violating your status, you should talk to their DSO and consider other options, such as transferring to another school, changing the level of education you are pursuing, and changing your visa status.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.