Foreign students in the United States are expected to cover all their expenses without needing to accept paid employment. However, F-1 students have limited rights to do paid work, as described in this article.
F-1 visa holders (but not their spouses or children) can work at almost any job on their school’s campus without needing to obtain U.S. government authorization. If you want to work off campus, however, you’ll need to request authorization from either your DSO or the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Your DSO can authorize curricular practical training. USCIS can authorize limited types of off-campus work, including:
- off-campus employment due to severe economic hardship
- optional practical training (either during or after completing the study program), and
- international organization internships.
We’ll give a rundown of each type of work below, with links to other articles that explain the application process in cases where you need to obtain an actual work permit card.
You may work on the campus of your school for up to 20 hours a week while school is in session and up to full-time during school vacations.
However, there’s an important requirement: Before you start work, the DSO must certify that the job you have been offered will not displace nonstudent U.S. workers. In other words, the job must be one that is typically filled only by students. A job in the cafeteria, library or bookstore; or maybe with a professor or a campus science laboratory as a teaching or research assistant would likely satisfy this requirement. A job as secretary to the dean or as janitor would probably not.
On-campus employment is also allowed if it is part of a scholarship or fellowship and is part of your academic program. In fact, sometimes such work can be done off campus if the workplace is still “educationally related” to or “affiliated” with the school. An example would be working with a professor at an off-campus research facility. Your DSO will know if such off-campus employment is permitted within the limitations of permitted on-campus work.
Once your studies are over, you must stop working at your on-campus job. You may, however, be able to obtain authorization to stay in the United States and do paid practical training, as described below.
Off-Campus Work Due to Severe Economic Hardship
Despite all your plans to be self-supporting, something could go wrong. Perhaps your parent loses his or her job, the foundation that supplied your scholarship goes bankrupt, you or your family have new medical bills, or your school tuition rises sky-high. Luckily, the immigration laws provide for such contingencies. If you can show that you are experiencing severe economic hardship because of unforeseen circumstances beyond your control, you may be able to obtain permission to work for an off-campus employer. However, there are risks to submitting this application, as we’ll describe below.
If you have been in school for less than one year, you are on your own. You will not be able to obtain this special work authorization, and you will have to find some other way to cover your expenses. Your only option may be to return home and wait for better times to reapply for a student visa. Of course, you will want to talk to your DSO first, who may be able to help the school arrange a leave of absence, so that you will not have to reapply for school admission when you are ready to return.
If you have already completed a full academic year of study, are in good academic standing, and cannot obtain suitable or available on-campus employment to meet your new need, you can apply to USCIS for a permit to work off campus. Even if you already have an on-campus job, you can switch to off-campus work, which you may want to do if it pays more. You can work no more than 20 hours a week while school is in session, but you can work full-time during school holidays or vacations.
For information on how to apply for your work permit, see “F-1 Students in Severe Economic Hardship: Applying for an Off-Campus Work Permit.”
Curricular Practical Training
Curricular practical training is off-campus work that is an integral part of your curriculum and directly related to your major area of study. If your course of studies already has such a program (such as a cooperative education or internship program), you may take one of these jobs. You may or may not be paid for such work.
For example, if you are studying psychology and your program requires you to earn credit or fulfill your graduation requirements by working at a hospital or treatment facility, this would be considered curricular practical training. You will be allowed to work even if the work is not required. If it is “elective” (not a requirement for your degree) but your school lists it in the catalogue, names a faculty member in charge, and gives academic credit for it, it can potentially qualify as curricular practical training. Make sure you check with your DSO first as some schools will have stricter requirements than others about granting curricular practical training and some may only authorize it when it is required.
Curricular practical training is open only to students who have already completed one academic year at the college level or above. The exception is if you are enrolled in a graduate program that requires immediate participation in such training. Practical training is completely closed to students who are in English-language-only programs.
If you do one year of full-time practical training (curricular or optional, described below) during your studies, you’ll lose your eligibility to do more practical training after your studies are completed. That means you’ll lose a valuable right to spend some post-study time in the United States. You can avoid this problem by doing less than one year of curricular practical training, or making sure that your curricular practical training is part-time, not full-time.
You do not need USCIS permission ahead of time to do curricular practical training. The only procedural requirements are that your DSO:
- approves your plan
- reports your authorization to do curricular practical training to SEVIS, and
- endorses your SEVIS I-20 to show this approval.
You’ll be authorized for the duration of your curricular practical training plan under this procedure. The dates of authorization will be printed on your I-20 form. Unlike some other forms of off-campus work, you do not need a work permit card (“employment authorization document” or “EAD”).
Optional Practical Training
Optional practical training (OPT) is another form of off-campus work available to F-1 students. Unlike curricular practical training, it doesn’t need to be a specific part of your school’s academic offerings. It does, however, need to be related to your studies. Working at a coffee shop while you’re in a nursing program isn’t going to satisfy USCIS. The training must be directly related to your major and in accordance with your educational level. Unlike curricular practical training however, you do need a work permit card (“employment authorization document,” or EAD).
Optional practical training is open only to students who have completed one academic year at the college level or above. The maximum you can do is one year of full-time optional practical training. Part-time employment is allowed only before you complete your program and is deducted from your one-year maximum at one-half the rate. This means that if you worked part time for six months before completing your program, you could do nine months of optional practical training after you complete your program. Optional practical training is not available to elementary or secondary school students or to students who are in school for the purpose of studying the English language.
You can change employers during your period of practical training, so long as the new employer also provides work that is related to your studies.
You can do your optional practical training while school is in session (for 20 hours a week or less); during vacations; after completing your degree requirements; or after graduating or finishing all your requirements, as long as this training period is completed within 14 months of graduation.
The work can be full-time or part-time before you complete your program. It must be full-time after you complete your program. Don’t use up your practical training too soon, however. If you do one or more years of full-time practical training (curricular or optional) during your studies, you’ll lose your eligibility to do more practical training once your studies are completed. That means you’ll lose a valuable right to spend some post-study time in the United States. You can avoid this problem by doing less than one year of full-time curricular practical training, or making sure that your curricular practical training is part-time, not full-time.
If you completed a degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering and math), you are eligible for a 17-month extension of your optional practical training. This is commonly referred to as a STEM extension.
**IMPORTANT NOTE** -- This 17-month extension has been challenged in federal court. In August of 2015, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the DHS did not follow required procedures when it created the extension. The court vacated (canceled) the DHS regulation -- but, so as to minimize the effect on applicants, post-dated the "vacatur" by six months, which gives DHS until February 12, 2016 to resubmit the rule with appropriate notice and opportunity for public comment. Until that date, applicants will still be able to utilize the existing 17-month extension rule.
Once you have completed the maximum time permitted for optional practical training, you will only be permitted more time if you begin a new academic program for a higher degree level. However, if you go home for a “significant” amount of time (at least five months) and then come back and do a different study program, you may be able to do more practical training.
For information on how to apply for your OPT work permit, see “How to Apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) Work Permit.”
International Organization Internships
If you obtain an offer of employment with an international organization that qualifies under the “International Organizations Immunities Act,” you may be eligible to work. As a practical matter, these organizations are usually only found in Washington, DC.
Ask your school’s DSO or career planning office for more information. For information on how to apply for this type of work permit, see “F-1 Students: How to Apply for an International Organization Internship Work Permit.”