If you are about to graduate from a college or university in the United States, congratulations! Your future looks bright. All you need now is a little work experience. For many international students, this means obtaining Optional Practical Training (OPT).
But are you certain that OPT is the best option for you? What happens afterward? Will you be able to stay in the country? Can you keep working until you pay off your student loans? Is there a path to permanent residency or citizenship?
Did you know there are several work visa options that can help you achieve your goals, instead?
Your immigration goals will guide your job search. This blog post discusses the different types of work visas that are available to international students—and helps you choose between them.
Find five of their best tips below. Then, learn more by watching this YouTube video where experts answer questions from international students just like you.
Confused? Learn About OPT
5 Tips for International Students Considering U.S. Work Visas
Your Green Card Options Will Depend on Your Qualifications.
There are three types of Green Cards: marriage-sponsored Green Cards, employer-sponsored Green Cards, and self-sponsored Green Cards.
Unless you happen to fall in love with a U.S. citizen, the employer-sponsored Green Card is most likely the route you will pursue. (You can only get a self-sponsored Green Card if you are an individual with extraordinary abilities—for example, if you have won a Nobel Prize.)
There are several categories for employer-sponsored Green Cards. Your eligibility depends on your level of education (for example, graduate vs. undergraduate degree) and your level of experience within the company sponsoring you (for example, executive or managerial vs. entry-level worker).
Learn Your Likelihood of Getting a Green Card During OPT.
You will have a better chance of transitioning from OPT to a Green Card if:
- You are a STEM OPT student
- You are from a country other than China or India
Students from countries other than India or China who came to the U.S. to pursue a STEM degree have a huge advantage. Why? Because STEM graduates can work for any U.S. employer for three years through OPT. Meanwhile, the average wait time for a Green Card for non-Indian and non-Chinese graduates is just two years.
Therefore, if you are in this category and file your Green Card application on time, you most likely will receive your Green Card while you’re still on STEM OPT. You probably won’t need to worry about the H-1B lottery or any of the alternative visas described in this article.
Find Out If You Will Need a Post-OPT Work Visa.
To stay in the U.S. after their OPT, some international students will need additional work visas.
This will likely be true if:
- You are on a non-STEM OPT
- You are from India or China
But what happens if you pursued a non-STEM degree, and you can only work for one year on OPT?
And what if you pursued a STEM degree, but you are from India or China?
In either case, you are extremely unlikely to receive your Green Card while on OPT. One year is simply not enough time for the Green Card to be processed. And, because of the high number of applicants from India and China, even a three-year OPT extension might not be enough time. Citizens of India and China can wait as long as 10 years for their Green Cards.
But if you’re in this situation, don’t despair—just read the following tips.
Don’t Count on Winning the H-1B Lottery.
The H-1B lottery is just what it sounds like: a lottery based on sheer chance. Each year, employers submit more than 200,000 applications. But the number of H-1B visas awarded through the lottery is capped at 85,000. This means that even if you find an employer willing to sponsor you for the H-1B lottery, your chances of winning are only about 40 percent.
Therefore, while you certainly should not turn down an employer’s offer to enter you into the lottery, you should not stake your entire future on it.
You (and your employer) must have a Plan B (a backup plan).
Remember: There Are 12 Other Work Visas!
The media tends to focus on the H1-B lottery because it’s an exciting system that can make people’s dreams come true. However, there are 12 other visas that are much easier to obtain than the H-1B.
First, find out which of these visas you can potentially earn. Your eligibility is determined by the country you are from and your field of work.
It’s important to understand which visas you are eligible for first—and then plan your job search. Why? Because some employers can only hire employees with certain types of visas. You do not want to waste your time on an employer that cannot hire you.
Alternative Work Visas for International Students
As mentioned above, there are several types of work visas for you to consider, besides the H-1B.
Here are a few that international students might find useful:
H-1B Lottery-Exempt Visa
Did you know that there are H-1B visas that you will automatically get if your employer sponsors you? That’s right: You don’t need to win the lottery! However, there are only three types of employers who can sponsor lottery-exempt H-1B visas: (a) universities and colleges, (b) non-profits affiliated with colleges or universities (for example, teaching hospitals, research institutions), and (c) think tanks, trade associations, and non-profit research organizations. If you are interested in this visa, start your job search by looking for openings with employers that fit this profile.
Any non-governmental organization (NGO) on the U.S. government’s list of “international organizations” can sponsor employees for a G visa. There is no cap on the number of G visas granted.
Any Canadian or Mexican citizen in any of the high-demand occupations on the list of “TN occupation job titles” qualifies for an employer-sponsored TN visa. There is no cap on the number of TN visas granted.
If your country is on this list, any company headquartered in your country that has a U.S. office can employ you there using an E-1 or E-2 visa. If you are eligible for this visa, you should research companies headquartered in your home country that have U.S. offices; then, narrow down this employer list based on your preferred city and sector. When applying with these employers, be sure to mention how easy it is for them to get you an E visa; many of these employers are not aware.
If you are a journalist or working for an international media company’s office in the United States, you may be eligible for this visa.
This visa is for individuals working in a foreign embassy in the U.S. So, you might want to see if you can get a job at an embassy (it does not need to be your home country’s embassy).
These visas are available to individuals who do their OPT in the U.S. offices of a multinational corporation (MNC), and then transfer to the MNC’s offices in another country, but ultimately transfer back to the U.S. You can use this knowledge to guide your job search; if choosing between a job offer at an MNC and a U.S.-only company, and both are willing to enter you into the H-1B lottery, you probably will want to choose the MNC, since the L-1/L-2 visa will be available to you if you do not win the lottery.
The Bottom Line on Work Authorization and Immigration
The bottom line is that you need to be patient—and creative—when researching work visas. Always have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. The more information you have, the better prepared you will be.
Finally, remember that there is no substitute for consulting with a licensed immigration attorney. Most attorneys will provide an initial consultation free of charge.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).