At the end of their studies or practical training, many students find an employer willing to sponsor them as a temporary specialty worker, on an H-1B visa. This is not the same as sponsorship for a green card, which is much more difficult to obtain – though it may eventually lead to such sponsorship.
The H-1B visa has many benefits, despite its time limit. It is initially good for up to three years, with the possibility of renewing it for up to a total of six years. H-1B visa holders are also treated with more flexibility than other work-related visa holders when it comes to applying for permanent U.S. residency: Unlike some visas, it allows “dual intent” – that is, you can enter the United States on this temporary nonimmigrant visa and simultaneously have the intent to apply for a green card that will allow you to stay in the U.S. permanently.
In fact, many employers use the H-1B visa as a way to test out potential long-term employees. And, because the green card sponsorship process can itself take several months or even years, having the foreign national working in the U.S. is a handy way of maintaining the employment relationship during the long wait.
F-1 students who wish to be sponsored for H-1B status after graduation should first apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT is a form of work authorization that is available for all F-1 students who have maintained their status while enrolled in school. OPT is not employer-specific -- that is, you can switch employers if you have been authorized for OPT. This allows students flexibility in pursuing employment related to their degree program without the fear of immediately falling out of status if a position does not work out.
The number of H-1B visas available each year is capped. Some employers are exempt from this cap but most are not. Even though there are a lot of H-1B visas available, they all tend to run out before the end of the government's fiscal year.
If your employer plans to request a new H-1B visa on your behalf, you will not be able to start working until the beginning of the government's fiscal year, which is October 1. In many cases, OPT will expire before October 1. If that is the case, your F-1 status and employment authorization may automatically be extended through September 30 if your employer's H-1B petition is receipted in at USCIS before visas run out. Check with your DSO to make sure you are eligible for this extension. See “When the H-1Bs Run Out: Alternative Visas and Strategies” for more on this issue.
During the extension period, you will request an updated I-20 form that shows you have received continued authorization to work. This authorization, and your F-1 status, will come to an end if your H-1B petition is denied. If approved, your F-1 status will change to H-1B on October 1.
For more on qualifying and applying for H-1B visas, talk to your DSO and an attorney. Also see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).