F-1 International Student Employment Issues
When should I apply for an OPT? Can I work off-campus? If my H-1B job starts in October but my OPT card expires before that, will I be out of status? What is CPT? International Students often want to work while at school. Though there is a financial support requirement that should be met prior to the F-1 issuance, whether it’s through personal funds, scholarship, or grant, working still helps F-1 students shoulder the expenses involved in studying and living in the United States.
International students can work on-campus from the moment they begin school. This includes work performed in school premises or at an off-campus location affiliated with the school. While currently enrolled, international students can only work for 20 hours a week. Talk to the designated school official (DSO) as s/he would have the specific procedures, forms, and contact people you would need to avail of on-campus employment. You can have as many jobs as you want as long as the cumulative work hours per week do not exceed 20 hours. When I was an F-1 student in college, I was able to take advantage of this by maximizing the 20-hour limit, taking jobs as a tutor, teaching assistant, food server, and dish washer.
You can also work off-campus by applying for a work permit with the Immigration Service and showing severe economic hardship. The standard is specifically severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond the student’s control. The student has to submit Form I-765, its required documentation, plus proof relating to the severe economic hardship standard. This is still subject to the 20-hour limit when school is in session.
Students can also work off-campus through Curricular Practical Training (CPT), defined as alternate work / study program, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship. This can be either part-time (not more than 20 hours a week) or full-time (over 20 hours a week). If you’ve been on full-time CPT for at least one year, you won’t be eligible for post-completion training. Again, the DSO in each school has their own specific requirements. When I was an F-1 law student in Illinois, I also did the CPT. I remember needing a job offer letter from my employer, a letter from one of my law professors stating that my CPT job is essential to my legal training and that I would get course credit for that. The DSO then signed my I-20, put my employer’s name and the date of my employment, and stamped it with “Curricular Practical Training." These are more or less what you should also expect from your school as part of the DSO’s requirements.
Optional Practice Training (OPT) is available to students after their course of study. You maintain F-1 status with an OPT, and you can work at a job related to your degree. This is limited to 12 months unless you have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM), where you can obtain one additional 17-month period if the employer is enrolled in E-verify. The F-1 student should request the OPT before the completion of her degree. Around 90 days prior to graduation is recommended if the student wants to work soon. But anytime within 60 days of the program completion date is fine as it gives the student more time. The international student cannot begin employment until the start date on the employment authorization card.
The F-1 student should first ask for an OPT recommendation from the DSO. The DSO will stamp the I-20 with this recommendation. The F-1 student submits form I-765, the I-20 with the OPT stamp, and other supporting documents to the immigration service. She will then get an employment authorization card, with the OPT designation, valid for a year. The OPT is also automatically extended for those who timely filed a Change of Status from F-1 to H-1B. The most common situation is having an OPT card expire sometime around May to August of a particular year (one year from graduation / end of program). H-1B employment always starts on October 1. So there is this 2- to 4-month gap. When this happens, as long as the change of status is filed before the expiration of the OPT, status is automatically extended up to October 1.
Students must also be aware of the implications of working illegally. If an F-1 student is caught working illegally while on F-1, meaning there is no CPT, OPT, or severe economic hardship EAD card for the particular off-campus employment, the student would be in violation of their status and subject to deportation. This is such a harsh consequence but this is the law. Students caught working illegally will be issued a Notice to Appear and would have to go to Immigration Court to fight their case. Because of the violation of their F-1 status, they won’t even be eligible to change to an H-1B or other visa.