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:
We'll give a rundown of each type of work below, plus information on whether you need to obtain an actual work permit card from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
STUDENTS FROM COUNTRIES EXPERIENCING HUMANITARIAN OR OTHER CRISES: You might not need to meet all the usual requirements described below. USCIS sometimes makes special provisions, for limited time periods. Talk to your DSO for details.
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 non-student 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.
What about graduate students? These are often offered to grad students in exchange for working as a teaching and/or research assistant. Because a stipend is a form of compensation, it's paid work, in the eyes of the U.S. immigration authorities. Like other employment, accepting and receiving a graduate stipend from the university does not violate your F-1 status if you are performing the work on campus, you are receiving payment directly from the university, and you aren't working more than 20 hours a week while school is in session. If you are receiving a stipend for working off-campus, make sure that the location is educationally affiliated with your school. Your Designated School Official (DSO) will be able to help you with that determination.
Once your studies are over, you must stop working at your on-campus job. You might, however, be able to obtain authorization to stay in the United States and do paid practical training, as described below.
Despite all your plans to be self-supporting, something could go wrong. Perhaps your parent loses a job, the foundation that supplied your scholarship goes bankrupt, you or your family have new medical bills, your country's currency plunges in value, your school tuition rises sky-high, or a natural disaster strikes your city or country.
Luckily, U.S. 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 might be able to obtain permission to work for an off-campus employer.
In fact, your task will be simpler in cases where a major event affected your entire country, such that the U.S. government invokes the Special Student Relief or "SSR" program and temporarily suspends some of the usual rules for all qualified applicants from your country. In that case, you'll still need to submit an application for a work permit, and prove that you yourself are facing hardship, but you won't have to work as hard to show the cause of that hardship.
If you have been in school for less than one year, you are in most cases on your own (unless you're covered under an SSR designation that also lifts this requirement). 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 might 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 might 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 might 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.
In order to apply, you'll need to fill out USCIS Form I-765. For Question 29, your eligibility category will be (c)(3)(iii). This particular application requires an unusual amount of documentation, including:
Ask your DSO for assistance. If applying under the SSR program, your DSO will separately need to certify in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) that you meet all the SSR qualifying requirements. You'll then need to submit your application to USCIS following the instructions on its website.
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 might or might 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 might 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:
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 (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), which you would apply for using USCIS Form I-765. Your eligibility category is (c)(3)(A) if you haven't completed your studies, and (c)(3)(B) if you have.
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 24-month extension of your optional practical training. This is commonly referred to as a STEM extension.
Your school's DSO or career planning office can give you more information and help you prepare the paperwork.
If you obtain an offer of employment with an international organization that qualifies under the "International Organizations Immunities Act," you might be eligible to work. As a practical matter, these organizations are usually only found in Washington, DC.
In most cases, your school's DSO is the best person to go to for more information. If your legal situation gets complex, however, consult an immigration attorney.
Need a lawyer? Start here.