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Can foreign students (F1/J1) work in the USA?

Sunday, November 24, 2013 by

What jobs can foreign students do in the USA

Allowed and Disallowed

Australia, Canada, UK and many other countries, allow foreign students to get almost any normal “student job” while they are studying there.

The USA, on the other hand, pretty much allows just limited practical training related to your field of study. So let’s take a look at what are the rules.

“Work” is divided into 4 basic categories: On Campus vs Off Campus. And Practical Training vs Economic Need.

We hope that this chart makes the options clear:

  1. On Campus
    1. Anything offered by the school is fine
  2. Off Campus
    1. Economic Need (almost impossible)
    2. Practical Training
      1. Curricular Training
      2. Optional Practical Training
        1. Pre-Completion
        2. Post-Completion
        3. Extension
    3. Internship with International Organization
On Campus work

On Campus means that you are basically paid by your university. It doesn’t necessarily refer to physical location. If your school has a big main campus and several other detached locations around town, you are still working “on campus” if it’s your school who’s paying you.

On campus, you can do pretty much anything that your school offers. From any form of practical training, if available, to actual jobs such as Food Service, Bookstore, Night Desk Attendant, Learning Center Tutor, work at Residence Life Office , Help Desk , Campus Life Office, Mail Room, Admission’s Office, Athletics Services, University Advancement, etc.

Off Campus work

First of all, you are not allowed to work off campus during your first year of study. Regardless of the circumstances.

Economic Need

If you expect to be able to get a part-time job at a restaurant, cafe, supermarket, basically anywhere where your American schoolmates will work, you can safely forget it. This is only allowed in documented cases of unforeseen economic hardship, it has to be recommended by your DSO (Designated School Official) to USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) and USCIS must approve your case. So again, if this is what you are after, pick another country.

Practical Training

Practical Training is further subdivided into Curricular Training and Optional Practical Training.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT), as the name suggests, is the kind of training that you must undertake in order to graduate. It is generally organized and approved by your school, so you don’t need to worry about anything.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) on the other hand is, well, optional! Meaning that it is something that you may, but don’t have to, arrange for yourself. It must be directly related to your field of study, certified as such by your DSO and approved by USCIS.

Work Hours

Regardless of the category of “work”, you can only work for the maximum of 20 hours per week when your school is in session, and 40 hours per week when it is not. Check with your DSO for the actual dates. BTW, the number of hours is per individual week, you can’t work 30 hours this week, because you only worked 10 hours last week.

Duration of the training

Curricular Training (CPT) itself is not limited in duration or the number of times taken. However, if you take 12 or more months of full-time Curricular Training, it makes you ineligible for the OPT later! So careful there!

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is limited to 12 months per each level, i.e. Bachelor and Master. It can be taken before the completion of studies or after or both, but the total duration still can’t exceed 12 months per level. If you take it pre-completion, and do it part time, i.e. 20 hours per week or less, only half of the amount is taken from the entire allowed 12 months. So 2 months part-time means that only 1 month will be taken from your 12 months.

Pro Tip: Your OPT must be completed within 14 months of the completion of your studies! So if you spend 2 months finding the job and a month getting it approved, you won’t be able to work the full 12 months! So it’s a good idea to have your training arranged well before you finish your studies and apply for the approval 90 days before the completion of studies. That way you can start the next day after your studies are finished.

OPT Extensions

The post-completion OPT can be extended under two circumstances. The extension lasts 17 months, for the total of 29 (12 + 17). BUT, it is only available ONCE! So while you are allowed 12 months of OPT per level, you can only take the 17 months extension once.

STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) students who work for employer who is a participant in the “E-Verify” program can apply for this extension. And they can continue to work for this employer until the applications has been processed or for 180 days, whichever comes first.

Any student, i.e regardless of the field of study, who works for an employer who has filed an H1B petition (yes, actually filed and it was accepted, not that he kinda thinks that it might be nice if you’d hang around for a bit longer) requesting your H1B employment start on October 1 the following year. BTW, the extension is automatically terminated if the petition is rejected, revoked or denied.

Internship with an International Organization

This is certainly uncommon, to say the least. However, so long as you keep your full-time student status in good standing, which also means that you can’t work more than 20 hours when school is in session, you can actually work for one of approved international organizations and it doesn’t subtract from your OPT duration. Amazing. But it must be an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of State, such as the United Nations, World Bank, etc.

Unpaid Internships and Volunteering

Unpaid internship is still work, so you can’t do that outside the categories described above, it would have to be done under the OTP. But what’s the difference between unpaid internship and volunteering?? Well, volunteering is unpaid work for a charity, rather than a for-profit business. So if you’re studying computer science, and play Santa Claus for children in your local orphanage without being paid, that’s probably fine. As always, to keep out of trouble, check with your DSO.

Final word of caution

The US government is very nervous about foreigners working in the USA. Working illegally may make sense for people who have nothing to lose anyway. But since you paid $30,000 or $50,000 or more for your school, you don’t want to be deported. And besides, you’re probably studying in the USA because you expect a part of your future professional life to be in some way connected with the USA. So you probably don’t want to be barred the US visa in the future either.

Questions? Ask below :-) In English, please.

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