Studying in the U.S. as a foreign student can be expensive. Even with family support and perhaps a scholarship, you could face costs that you either need or want to pay for on your own. That's when it helps to take advantage of the possibilities (narrow though they are) to accept employment in the U.S. while on an F-1 visa. But you also need to know the limitations, so as not to violate the rules and risk and end to your student status.
Strict rules regulate F-1 students' place of employment, hours per week, and in some cases, type of employment. Simply committing an "employment violation" automatically throws you out of lawful F-1 status. Once you are out of status, you will need to file an application for reinstatement to get back into proper F-1 status—or else face possibly accruing unlawful presence in the United States.
Worse yet, if the employment violation rises to the level of so-called unauthorized or illegal employment, reinstatement to F-1 status will not be an option for you and you will face serious immigration repercussions, as described below.
Because the consequences of a simple F-1 employment violation differ so drastically from unauthorized or illegal employment, it is important to understand the subtle differences.
F-1 students are for the most part authorized to work only on their school's campus. In fact, your ability to work on-campus is "incident to status," meaning that as long as you are maintaining proper F-1 status (by attending classes full time and making good progress toward the completion of your degree), you have general authorization to work on campus.
For work anywhere else, you will need to seek special work permission from either your Designated Student Officer (DSO) or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The regulations also limit the number of hours you can work—20 hours per week during the school term and 40 hours per week during holiday breaks and vacations. (See 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(9)).
The 60-day grace period at the end of your permitted stay as an F-1 student is meant to be used for getting ready to leave, enjoying a last few days touring the United States, and that's it. No working and no studying are allowed at this time. To do either would be considered a violation of your visa status.
And make sure you're counting those 60 days correctly. The grace period doesn't start the day of your graduation ceremony, but earlier, on the day you complete your final degree requirement (probably shown as the "complete studies no later than" date on your SEVIS Form I-20). For students at some colleges, this is a difference of many days.
Any deviation from the strict F-1 employment rules described above is an employment violation. In addition to unauthorized employment as discussed below, there are two types of violations of "authorized" employment that can negatively affect your F-1 status.
The fact that your job site is located on your school's premises does not necessarily mean that the job qualifies as legitimate on-campus employment for immigration purposes. There are normally two types of authorized on-campus employment:
The first type of on-campus employment, being directly employed by the university, is straightforward and easy to understand. For example, this employment typically includes working as a teaching or research assistant or in the school's cafeteria, library, or within a university department or administrative office.
The second type of employment, working on the school's premises for a commercial firm, gets more complicated. Commercial firms are common on university campuses because the school finds it cheaper to outsource service units such as the cafeteria and the bookstore rather than operate them directly. However, commercial firms must meet various special rules before they are considered legitimate on-campus employers.
In order for a job with a commercial employer to be considered on-campus employment for immigration purposes, the services it provides must be in the direct service of students. The regulation states that "[e]mployment with on-site commercial firms, such as a construction company building a school building, which do not provide direct student services is not deemed on-campus employment . . . ." (8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)(9)(i)).
Before accepting any job located on campus, speak with your DSO, especially if your paycheck comes from any entity other than your school. The DSO can help you make sure that your employment is with a legitimate on-campus employer according to the F-1 regulations.
If you make a mistake and work with a company located on your school's campus that does not provide service directly to students, then you have committed an employment violation and are automatically thrown out of good F-1 status.
Even when your place of employment is considered on-campus for immigration purposes, you are still limited as to the number of hours you may work. That's 20 hours per week during the school term and 40 hours per week during holiday breaks and vacations.
American students are not limited to part-time employment during the school term, so your university might not be aware of your special F-1 hourly limitations. It is your obligation to make sure that you don't work more than 20 hours per week. If you work even 15 minutes over the 20 hour per week limit, you have violated your F-1 student status.
How do authorities find out that you worked over 20 hours per week? The payroll office at your school keeps close tabs on the working hours of each employee. The payroll office communicates directly with your DSO to inform him or her that you have worked over your 20-hour limit.
If you violate your status by committing either type of authorized-employment violation; whether working at an illegitimate on-campus location or working over your weekly limit; you are required to apply for reinstatement to lawful F-1 status.
Until you are reinstated, you must discontinue all work immediately but may (and should) continue to attend school. While you are waiting for reinstatement, you are not eligible to apply for any other F-1 benefit such as a Form 1-20 extension or either CPT or OPT work authorization.
Your DSO will help you with your reinstatement application. You are eligible to apply for reinstatement only within five months of the event that resulted in your employment violation. So if you think you might have violated your F-1 status, see your DSO as soon as possible. If you do not apply for reinstatement within five months of the event, or if USCIS denies your reinstatement application, consult an immigration attorney to inquire about your options.
Although applying for reinstatement isn't pleasant, it is a privilege not enjoyed by people who engage in unauthorized employment, described next.
It can be tempting for students to try to earn extra cash by picking up additional work "under the table" or without authorization. Working for cash as a gas station attendant, a waitress, a cook or a dishwasher are popular ways to do so.
However, working without one of the types of authorization described above can get you into trouble. As the immigration regulations state, "Any unauthorized employment by a nonimmigrant constitutes a failure to maintain status . . . . " (See 8 C.F.R. § 214.1(e)).
If you are working off-campus without special permission from your DSO (for CPT) or USCIS (for OPT or severe economic hardship), then you are engaging in unauthorized or illegal employment. If you begin working without authorization and later receive authorization, the time you worked without permission is still considered illegal employment. Even working without permission on the campus of a university you previously attended is unauthorized employment.
What happens if you disregard the rules described above? Accepting illegal employment can directly hinder your ability to legally live, work, or visit the United States now and in the future. A proven incident of unauthorized employment will make you ineligible for reinstatement to lawful F-1 status.
Another issue is that, as soon as you engage in illegal employment, you may be found to be unlawfully present in the United States. Accrual of more than 180 days of unlawful presence will subject you to a three-year bar on reentry (if you leave the U.S.) and one year of unlawful presence will subject you to a ten-year bar on reentering the United States. (See Consequences of Unlawful Presence in the U.S.—Three- and Ten-Year Time Bars.) If you find yourself in this situation, consult an immigration attorney immediately.