As an international student it’s not impossible to work while studying - but you need to be careful and follow the rules. Here's what you need to know.
Working while studying
Violating the terms of an F-1 visa - the U.S. non-immigrant student visa - will result in a student losing the right to remain in the U.S.; the student could be deported and any unlawful stay in the country would be documented on their permanent immigration records.
The first thing to note is that since an international student’s visa status is contingent on the university they are attending, students must check with their university’s International Student Office prior to applying for any jobs.
Working on campus
Even though international students are not eligible for federal work-study programs (which provide undergraduate and graduate students who have financial need with part-time jobs to help finance their education), there are often many on-campus opportunities for work. Students can accept on-campus employment without seeking prior permission from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).
- International students can commonly work in dining halls, residence commons - where students go to pick up packages - as well as convenience stores, restaurants, bookstores, or cafeterias that are located on campus.
- These students are considered employees of the university and can generally work under 20 hours per week in accordance with the rules of their visa. Students may only work more than 20 hours per week on campus during times when there are no classes, such as Thanksgiving break.
- An additional and excellent way for international students to bring down the cost of their education is to become a Resident Assistant:
- Resident Assistants, or RA’s, are regular students that live in and manage a residence hall. The typical RA will make door tags for residents, put up monthly bulletin boards to display important news, and do “rounds” of their building to ensure that all residents are safe and following policy.
- As compensation, RA’s receive free housing and food - that can add up to nearly $10,000 per year depending on the university.
- In order for students to apply to become a Resident Assistant, they must first contact the residence life department at the university and ask for an application. The application is generally online, but may be on paper.
- Students may be required to submit their university transcript - only students that have already finished a semester may apply to be an RA - recommendation letters and essays of interests.
- Depending on the school, the student may need to go through a series of interviews and perhaps even take a training course. The best way to understand your specific university’s process would be to contact the residence life coordinator expressing your interest.
Off campus working
Students holding an F-1 visa may only accept off-campus employment after completing the first year of studies, if granted permission by the USCIS. There are several routes to working off campus:
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
International students with an F-1 visa are allowed to work while studying as long as the job is directly related to their major. For example, a student studying electrical engineering could get a job as a design engineer for Apple.
Students need to apply for OPT more than 90 days in advance of the start of the job. Students cannot begin employment until their OPT has been approved by both the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and the university’s International Student Office.
Here are the steps to obtaining OPT:
- Apply for a job related to your major
- Apply to your university for OPT - school will issue a new i-20 authorizing the student to work. This may cost up to $200; cost varies per university.
- Submit the i-20 and other required documents, found here, to the immigration agency USCIS - this may take up to 3 months for processing. Make sure to list your job’s start and end date.
- Receive Employment Authorization Document (EAD) - this card will list the date you are able to start working.
- If you do not already have one, apply for a Social Security Number (SSN)
- You can now start working once you have a SSN!
Because of how arduous this process it, it would be wise for students to apply and receive an offer of a job at least four months in advance to ensure that the entire process will be completed prior to the employment start date. Your university’s international student office is going to be your best friend throughout this process.
OPT is limited to 12 months full-time for each degree earned - both bachelor's and master's. STEM students are eligible for a STEM OPT extension, which can add up to 24 months to their OPT time.
Assuming that a student is working towards completing a bachelor’s in a non-STEM field, they will have 12 months of OPT employment available total - meaning that if they use this time for internships during university, they will have less time to search for employment after college.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
This is similar to OPT but a bit more specific to the student’s education. Students may be employed in this manner when the job is an integral part of their curriculum or academic program.
This is basically anything other than OPT that is a required internship/practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school.
CPT jobs can range from an intern at the health administration department at a hospital to an entry level business analyst for start-up companies. As long as the employment is directly related to the field of study and/or can be used for credit, there are many possibilities for CPT jobs.
Students should be careful not to exceed 12 months of full time CPT, as they will no longer be allowed to have a 12 month OPT.
Steps to obtain CPT are as follows:
- Register for the course that is tied to the internship/ employment opportunity
- Gather your documents - you will need a CPT employer letter, a CPT request form filled out by you and the department, and your most recent i-94 arrival record
- Receive your new i-20 after approximately 10 days
- Apply for a SSN if you do not have one already
- Start your employment on or after your CPT start date
Severe economic hardship
International students suffering severe economic hardship as defined by the USCIS may be granted permission to work off-campus 20 hours per week. These students must:
- 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.
Employment with an international organization
International students that have held an F-1 visa may be employed by a recognized international organization, such as an organization on the official State Department list, the Red Cross, African and Asian Development Banks, the World Health Organization, and the World Trade Organization.
Some of the neat things about this employment route is that does not have to be related to the student's major, students may be employed beginning in their first semester, the employment does not affect the student's OPT eligibility, employment authorization may be granted for a whole year and is also renewable. Another very significant potential benefit is that these institutions can grant full working visas after you have graduated - so getting your foot in the door early is a smart move.
In order to obtain this type of employment, a student would have to find and apply for a job with a recognized international organization. Indeed.com is a great website with up-to-date information on jobs in the U.S.
After a student has applied for and been offered one of these jobs, they can apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which may take up to 3 months. A student cannot begin working prior to receiving an EAD.