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Understanding Visas to Study and Work in the U.S.

Tuesday | January 28, 2014 | by Alejandro Ortiz

Visa application and passport

Many international students wrongly assume that they are not eligible to work while studying in the U.S. But, in reality, there are several employment options and visa types that international students can take advantage of in order to gain some professional experience while studying in the U.S.

F-1 Visa

The F-1 visa allows entrance to the U.S. for full-time academic enrollment. Because F-1 visa holders can arrive as early as 30 days in advance of their program, they are also given the authorization to start working on-campus within that period. For on-campus employment, you must comply with specific conditions which consist mainly of the following:

  • Working in a student service related field
  • Location of the job must be on-campus (up to 20-hours a week)
  • Applying for a Social Security Number (SSN)

Off-campus employment is also an option but it is granted only on the basis of extraordinary causes that directly affect the student’s ability to finance their program. Off-campus employment can start only if you are granted the option by your designated school official (normally this is the person who signs your I-20 application) and by filling out the corresponding I-765 form.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) & Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) statuses are given on the basis of providing an international student with the option of professional training before heading back to their country of origin. International students are eligible for both once they have finished their first academic year. The main difference between them are CPT is linked to a registered class, whereas OPT is not. OPT can be granted pre- or post-graduation but the field of work which international students will be allowed to practice has to be related to their major.

However, off-campus and OPT statuses are basically the same and you can only be granted one. That is the main reason why off-campus status is not common and only suggested in extraordinary conditions.

H-1B Visa

Obtaining an H-1B visa is your last step if you are contemplating a professional career in the U.S. Through the H-1B visa program, you are able to work in the U.S. for up to three years with a renewal of an additional three years. Obtaining an H-1B visa can be challenging, particularly because there is a standard cap of 65,000 granted annually (you also need to be sponsored by your workplace). Fortunately, this cap does not apply to higher education institutions or nonprofit organizations looking to hire international professionals.

Since 1997 the number of H-1B visas granted greatly exceeds the cap (in fact, in most years the number granted is more than twice the cap). In 2012, a total of 136,000 H-1B visas were granted and similar to student visas, they are also on the rise. It is important to note that the H-1B visa program is on a “first come, first served” basis.

In Conclusion

So what does this all mean for you? It means that as an international student, you are given multiple options to expand the scope of your student experience. For example, if you are interested in doing research, you can use the on-campus employment option to get acquainted with the methodologies and research topics that your university offers through its research centers. Or you can use the off-campus option to start building your own network of professionals. Most universities host on-campus job fairs that you can attend and use to connect with future employers. You can also use these employment options to gain further insight into the strengths and limitations of your program.

Remember these employment options are designed to help you put into practice the skills and knowledge you are learning in a professional environment. Ultimately, these different employment options offer you the possibility to gain access to one of the most competitive labor markets in the world.

This website contains general information and does not constitute legal advice.

Alejandro Ortiz

Alejandro Ortiz is a Research Assistant at World Education Services.