As an international student it’s not impossible to work while studying, but you need to be careful and follow the rules. This guide will explain how to make some money without getting in visa trouble.
If your only goal is to do some good and fill some time, foreign students in the US are free to work as volunteers - so don’t hesitate about getting out there to help out! But if you’re looking to make money, there are some pretty strict rules you need to make sure to follow.
If you’re looking to start working because you’re struggling to support yourself during your studies, make sure you check in with your university first - they may be able to offer financial assistance, or point you towards organisations that can help you out because as you’ll see, working while studying isn’t simple.
Working while studying
As a non-immigrant student in the US, you’ll have an F-1 visa - and if you violate its terms, you could lose your right to remain in the US. This might even mean being deported if you try to stay anyway, which is permanently documented on your immigration record and makes it very difficult to live in or even travel to other countries.
Before you apply for any jobs, check with your university’s International Student Office to learn the specific terms of your visa because your university is responsible for making sure you remain compliant.
Working on campus
There are lots of opportunities for jobs on campus and there’s no question it’s the simplest option for international students. Though students who are on a federal work-study program (which helps students with financial need pay for their education by guaranteeing them a campus job), there’s often more than enough on-campus jobs to go around.
Campus jobs are a great option because you don’t have to seek permission from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) before accepting them. Plus, because they’re on campus, your bosses will know that you’re a student, so they’re naturally going to be willing to work around your class schedule.
You can work a maximum of 20 hours per week while classes are in session, and you can work an unlimited amount over breaks - but only if you’ll be registering for the following term of classes.
Off campus working
Taking off-campus employment on an F-1 visa is a little more complicated. You can’t work until after your first year, and you have to seek permission from USCIS to accept a job. And even then, the types of jobs you can take are pretty limited. Let’s break them down:
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
You’re allowed to take work that is directly related to your major. So, someone studying chemistry could take a job at a local hospital’s lab.
You need to apply for OPT more than 90 days in advance of the start of the job, and you can’t start the job until it has been approved by USCIS and your university. The process is pretty complicated, and your international student office is going to be your best friend in helping you through it. You need to make sure you’re seriously planning in advance to make OPT possible.
You can apply to USCIS for an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) once you’ve been enrolled in university for at least 9 months. You don’t need to have a job offer in hand to apply, and because it can take a while to get, it might be worth doing if you think you may want to work. However, be prepared: there are costs to the application which can sometimes be up to $400 or more overall.
OPT is limited to 12 months full-time for each degree earned - both bachelor's and master's - and STEM students are eligible for a STEM OPT extension, which can add up to 24 months to their OPT time.
There’s a big, big note here: OPT can be taken during or after your degree. So if you don’t do any OPT while studying, that means you have a full 12 months to look for full time work after finishing your degree. Any time you use while studying is time you won’t have afterwards. However, post-completion OPT requires a separate application, which has to be submitted before you graduate.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
You’re also allowed to work when a job is an essential part of your course of study, so you’re allowed to do internships, placements, and practicums if they’re required in order to graduate.
However, if you work a year or more of CPT, you won’t be eligible for OPT after you graduate.
Once again, your international office is going to be key to getting the proper applications and paperwork in place.
Severe economic hardship
If you fit the USCIS for ‘severe economic hardship’, you can be given permission to work off-campus for 20 hours per week. These are the requirements:
- Be in valid F-1 visa status for at least 9 months
- Be in good academic standing
- Provide evidence of economic hardship based on unforeseen circumstances
- Show that on-campus employment is neither available nor sufficient
- Make a good faith effort to locate employment on campus before applying
The hardship has to be ‘unforeseen’ - that is, you can’t show up in the US knowing you won’t have enough money to get by without work and apply for this category. Here are the kinds of things that apply:
- Unexpected medical bills or expenses
- A sudden change in your financial support system - for example, if a parent loses their job
- Losing your financial aid or on-campus work through no fault of your own
- Major changes in the value of currency or the exchange rate
Employment with an international organisation
This category is both the most flexible and the most narrow. On your F-1 visa, you’re allowed to take a job with a recognised international organisation. There’s an official State Department list of these, but some examples include the Red Cross, the World Health Organisation, and the World Trade Organisation.
Now, that’s the specific part. But these jobs don’t have to be required for your major (though they should be related to your field of study) and they don’t affect your OPT eligibility. You can be granted authorisation for these jobs for a full year, and the authorisation is renewable. Finally, these jobs are eligible to grant you a full working visa after you graduate. So if your goal is to stay in the US, getting your foot in the door at one of these organisations is a great idea.
After you’ve applied for and been offered one of these jobs, you can apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which may take up to 3 months, so make sure you’re planning ahead.
Overall, if you’re hoping to work, your best bet is to check in with your university’s International Student Officers - they’ll have all the info you need, and it’s their job to help you work all this stuff out!