Working while on an F-1 Student Visa

For the vast majority of people looking to come study in the US, unless you have plenty of money to spare or a full-ride scholarship locked-in, the foremost question is: will I be able to study and work at the same time, possibly paying for my tuition and upkeep?

Unlike some of the other popular worldwide destinations for most College-bound students from Africa and beyond, like the UK or Australia, in the US one is only allowed to legally work for 20 hours per week, on campus. The pay rate varies by classification (graduate v. undergraduate), job position and state, but generally falls between minimum wage ($5.15/hr) and $12/hr, not considering the outliers.

With living expenses at about a  $400/month minimum even in areas with a lower cost of living, clearly on these wages one is barely breaking even let alone considering tuition requirements which tee off at $6000/semester for state universities, only way is up from there. Living and studying in the West and East coasts is generally more costly than the Midwest and Southern states.

So what options are available to raise funds and possibly get relevant and supremely valuable work experience while in school?

Some end up taking on odd jobs off campus, and while in some cases this action is fueled by  genuine dire financial circumstances, it’s nevertheless not legal, a huge gamble with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and it’s mostly a slippery slope from then onward.

What most students don’t know is that the F-1 Visa has provisions that allow one to work off-campus while in school by obtaining Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization. CPT allows one to work full-time for any employer relevant to your field of study from which you can secure an internship (usually 3 months) or a co-op (usually at least 6 months). This authorization is given at the discretion of a Designated School Official (DSO) at the school’s International Students Office and is annotated in the I-20 form.

A few caveats with CPT: the fact that it’s granted at the discretion of the DSO means that they solely decide whether or not to approve (USCIS is not directly involved and does not have to issue an Employment Authorization Document – the EAD card), and how many hours to grant you, for instance some schools would let you work the full 40 hours during the Fall/Spring semesters, while others will only let you work 20 hours per week. During the summer, majority let you work full-time. Also, obtaining CPT approval can be a tricky affair because practical training has to be an integral part of the curriculum one is enrolled in – it either has to be a required component, or one has to convince the DSO that it is integral (perhaps with the help of your advisor), for instance if there’s a co-op or internship class in the program and pursuing this is strongly encouraged. This can be a tough sell sometimes, but it is not impossible. Just be prepared to push the envelope.

The benefits of approval can be immensely rewarding. Theoretically, one can work for an unlimited number of semesters, except that if you work for more than one calendar year then you will forfeit your Optional Practical Training (OPT) provisions. OPT, if approved by the USCIS, allows one to work for 12 months after graduation, and up to 29 months for graduates of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. Wages vary a good deal but could start at $15/hour and reach up to $30/hour for higher end technology and financial firms.

If you work for a company for say 2 or 3 years on CPT, then surely during that time one should be angling for a full-time position which would allow you to transition to a H-1b work visa upon graduation. So losing OPT in that case may not be such a bad thing. Otherwise, if things fall through one could always leave for their home country after the 60-day grace period post-graduation or enroll in school afresh, upon which CPT and OPT will become available once again if the matriculation is at a higher level of study e.g. from bachelors to masters.

The legal working provisions of CPT are generally not communicated to students by DSOs and this leads some to explore job opportunities through other avenues that could later lead to larger problems with one’s legal status in the country.

If you are a current or would-be student looking to engage in meaningful work experience, CPT would be a recommended route to explore.