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.

Why Skilled Immigrants Are Leaving The U.S.

Vivek Wadhwa of Businessweek notes a fact that many have already suspected – many highly skilled immigrants are leaving the US in large numbers to return to their home countries  for a better life and be close to family.

Why should Americans care?

Because immigrants are critical to the country’s long-term economic health. Despite the fact that they constitute only 12% of the U.S. population, immigrants have started 52% of Silicon Valley’s technology companies and contributed to more than 25% of our global patents. They make up 24% of the U.S. science and engineering workforce holding bachelor’s degrees and 47% of science and engineering workers who have PhDs. Immigrants have co-founded firms such as Google (GOOG), Intel (INTC), eBay (EBAY), and Yahoo! (YHOO).

I think this is one of those issues that’s always going to have an argument on both sides of the same coin – protectionism versus comprehensive immigration reform. Continue reading

24: Redemption, in South Africa

There are a few films and shows that, to me, are worth watching. The Godfather is one, the Bourne trilogy is another and then there’s 24.

Naturally I was a bit distraught last year, the aficionado that I am, with the Writer’s strike occurring right about the time Season 7 was about to premier. So the inevitable happened and the Season was postponed to commence on January 11, 2009.


Not one to disappoint, Fox announced a two-hour film shot in June and to run in late November to serve as a preamble to the next Season. I think they also did it to make peace with some unhappy campers 🙂 . The locations featured are in Los Angeles, CA and a fictional African nation, Sangala. The latter was actually shot in Cape Town, South Africa at the Okavango School.

This does make for good entertainment. I’ll refrain from giving away the storyline, only to say it serves mostly as a way to put things back in context for viewers of previous seasons (after such a long hiatus) and also to amp the hype for the premier, which I think it does well.

Watch 24: Redemption on (the really cool) Hulu. If you’re not in the US, see how you can use a proxy server to view current US TV shows and movies from Hulu. Enjoy!


Unfortunately, 24:Redemption is now expired on Hulu, but you can probably download the torrent from Pirate Bay. Yar!