Options to Work while Studying in the U.S.

The United States differs from Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and Australia in that the U.S. government imposes restrictions on part-time work that international students are allowed to do.


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Options to Work while Studying in the U.S.
Written by Jennifer Aranda.
Updated March 6, 2017 | United States of America

Many international students, regardless of the country they are admitted to, want to work while they are studying to practice their English language skills, earn extra money and to assert their independence.  The desire to also practice previously learned theoretical knowledge is also a strong draw.

The United States implements a "dual-intent" doctrine that views all non-immigrant visa applicants as intending immigrants.  And as there are several visa categories for international students, exchange visitors and trainees to choose from, applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for the visa that best suits their purpose.

Small wonder therefore that restrictions on part-time work are place on the F-1 student visa as this is issued for full-time educational purposes only.  If you are therefore intersted in working part-time while studying or wish to remain in the United States to gain more practical training, you should get as much information possible about studying in the U.S. as an international student.

If you are an international student bound for the United States, you should know that working part-time may be a complicated process.  However, as long as you know the legal requirements and are prepared to follow regulations and immigration laws, you can prepare in advance for a more successful job hunt.

The most important rules for international students working in the United States are the following:

  1. You must maintain full-time student status at all times.
  2. In the main, you cannot work off campus during your first academic year of study. During that time, you are permitted to work on campus part-time (no more than 20 hours a week) while classes are in session.
  3. After one academic year, you can work off campus in a position related to your field of study through the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) options.

And an invaluable piece of advice.  Most colleges and universities hold orientation programs that provide information about employment options among others.  If you missed out on that, then visit the international office of your school and ask them about the rules. Take care of your student visa and status!

On-Campus Employment

If you are someone who likes to look up laws and statutes, the definition for on-campus enrollment may be found in 8 CFR §214.2(f)(9)(i).

To be considered on-campus employment, the work you intend to do must meet the following criteria:

  • Your work should not  displace a U.S. Citizen or a Lawful Permanent Resident as they are given preference for jobs.
  • The number of hours of work is limited during the semester. That is, you should be working only 20 hours per week. You may work full-tim when school is not in session or during regular vacation breaks.
  • You should report your work to the Designated School Official (or DSO) who in turn, will present a letter to the Social Security Administration so you will receive a Social Security Number.
  • It must take place either at your college or university or at an educationally affiliated location. 
    • If your work will be done on school grounds, educational affiliation means the location is either:
      • Included in a financial aid package
      • A scholarship
      • A fellowship or assistantship
    • If your work will take you at an off-campus location, education affiliation means that it meets any one of the following criteria:
      • It is associated with your school's established curriculum
      • It is related to contractually funded research projects at the post-graduate level

There are other key considerations:

  • As an F-1 student visa holder, you may begin working as early as 30 days before your program of study starts.  There is no need for you to wait for one academic year before starting work.
  • Schools may have contracted with some companies to serve students directly such as cafeterias, book stores and the like.  If you work for a third-party company like this, the work you do must directly serve other students.
  • In connection with the first, you may be employed by the company based in your school's location.  You cannot be reassigned to work across town for the same firm. 
  • You do not have to apply for Employment Authorization from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to work on campus.  You must however, be sure to inform your school's DSO if you intend to begin working. You must also inform the DSO if there are changes in your employer and the hours you work.
  • You may continue on-campus work even if you finish one program of study provided you intend to enroll in a new program of study for the next term at the same campus.  You must also follow guidelines for on-campus employment.
  • You may work at more than one on-campus job.  However, your total work hours should not exceed 20 hours per week during a school term.
  • After graduation or Post-completion Optional Practical Training (or OPT), you will be given a 60-day grace period.  This period is for you to prepare to leave the United States unless you are beginning a new program of study OR are changing status.  You will not be allowed to work on campus during this grace period.
  • You may be allowed to work at another campus of the same school if the other campus meets the following criteria:
    • The other campus is within reasonable commuting distance
    • It is listed on the same Form I-17, "Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student"
    • It is within the jurisdiction of the DSO of the campus where you are enrolled.
  • On-campus employment at an off-campus location is available to all F-1 students.  Border commuter students, who live in Mexico and Canada and study in the United States, are issued F-3 visas.  They are no eligible for off-campus employment.  They may however, engage in either Curricular Practical Training (or CPT) or Post-completion Optional Practical Training (or OPT).

Off-Campus Employment

The definition for on-campus and the enrollment and regulations that define it may be found in 8 CFR §214.2(f)(9)(ii)(A).

When an individual applies for a student visa at a consular post overseas, the interviewing consul bases his decision on the perceived genuine intention of the applicant and the ability to afford the costs of tuition, school and living expenses before entering the United States.  An applicant is therefore not expected to plan to work off campus.

Exceptions may be made by the Department of Homeland Security (or DHS) however and in certain cases, an exception may be made to the employment rules.  If you have to work off-campus, you will have to apply for work authorization from USCIS.  Approval is on a case-by-case basis and will be based on:

  1. Emergent circumstances which occur when a world event impacts a group of non-immigrant and the Secretary of the DHS publishes a special Federal Register notice about it.  Emergent circumstances occur completely beyond a student's control such as the outbreak of war or a dramatic devaluation of the currency of a student's home country. Emergent circumstances such as the death or loss of employment of your primary sponsor, unexpectedly large medical bills not covered by insurance may also lead to severe economic hardship;
  2. Maintaining your F-1 status as you must have been enrolled in a full course of study for at least one academic year.

As your school's DSO will be recommending off-campus employment, you must be able to meet the following criteria:

  • You will have to demonstrate that working will not adversely impact your ability to attend school full-time and maintain academic standing;
  • You have tried and can show proof that you are unable to get on-campus employment or that the pay available from on-campus employment is insufficient to meet your financial needs;
  • The circumstances that necessitated the application for off-campus work are out of your control;
  • You have read and understand the guidelines for off-campus employment.

The DSO will provide you with a  Form I-20, "Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status," endorsed for each approval of a request for employment.  Once your DSO makes the recommendation, you must file a Form I-765, "Application for Employment Authorization," and pay the application fee to USCIS.  The filing of the Form I-765 must be done within 30 days of the day the DSO endorses the Form I-20.

If USCIS approves the application, you will receive a Form I-766, "Employment Authorization Document," (EAD) from USCIS and can begin working.  You cannot begin working while application is pending on your application for EAD,

Do note though that approval for off-campus employment is good for only one year. You must submit a new application 90 days to 6 months before the expiration of your EAD if you need to continue working off-campus beyond the one-year period.  And remember, the DSO has the option in SEVIS to cancel their recommendation for off-campus employment.

While you cannot appeal a USCIS denial of your I-765 application, you can file a motion to re-open or reconsider the decision. There are legal basis for doing so however. 

You must make an effort to maintain your F-1 status and be in good academic standing while working off-campus.  Otherwise, your employment authorization will automatically end if you do not maintain your scholastic standing or violate your EAD by working more hours than authorized.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

If you don't qualify to apply for Off-campus work authorization, just check your curriculum to see if practical training is has been incorporated into your program.  You must consider though that not all work done under CPT is paid.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT employment may provide you with an opportunity to gain one year of paid work experience in the U.S. in the field of your study. Many students choose to apply for OPT after they graduate with a certificate or Associate's, Bachelor's, Master's or Doctorate degree.

STEM OPT Extension

You may qualify for the additional 24 months of training/employment in the OPT STEM Extension if your program is listed in the STEM Designated Degree Program List. This means a total of 36 months paid work after graduation provided you meet the criteria.

H-1B Working Visa, Cap-gap Extension

If you are an F-1 student and have a filed a H-1B petition and change of status request, you may be eligible for a cap-gap extension if your F-1 status and current employment authorization will expire before the change of status to H-1B occurs (typically October 1).   Basically, the cap-gap extension bridges the gap between the end of your F-1 status and the start of your H-1B status. This allows you to remain and work in the U.S. during the "gap."

There's been a major update on the processing of H-1B visa petitions though.  As of March 3, 2017, premium processing of H-1B visas has been suspended, at the most, for 6 months. So, be sure to take this in consideration when applying for work authorization.

Got a question? Let us know - we're here to help.

About the Author

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer S. Aranda is the COO of IVC Immigrant Visa Center, Inc.

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