International students with an F-1 visa are required to maintain a full-time schedule in order to maintain their visa status. Students are permitted to work part-time during semesters and full-time during breaks, but US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) imposes strict guidelines and restrictions on qualifying work. It’s imperative that F-1 students understand and follow these guidelines, as accepting an unapproved job could result in a student’s visa being revoked. 

Curricular Practical Training

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is a form of off-campus employment where students receive practical training that’s an integral part of their academic program or the school’s established curriculum. Examples include cooperative education, internships, alternative work/study, and any type of practicum or internship that’s offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school. 

There are seven general rules for CPT:

  • The student must have been enrolled in school full-time for at least one year under a valid F-1 visa (except for graduate students whose program requires CPT)
  • The student must receive a qualifying job offer before he or she submits a CPT authorization request
  • The job offer must be in the student’s field of study or major
  • The job must be authorized by the school’s International Student Office (ISO)
  • The ISO must notify USCIS
  • The CPT must be an integral part of the student’s degree program, or a requirement for a course for which the student receives academic credit
  • The CPT occurs before the student’s program end date listed on Form I-20

When an F-1 student receives authorization for CPT, the authorization only applies to that specific employer and the specified dates. There isn’t a limit on how much full-time or part-time work an F-1 student can complete, but students who complete full-time CPT for more than 12 months are ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), so it’s important to track the dates and hours if you want to participate in OPT. Approved CPT programs can offer salary and wages, and a student may participate in more than one CPT program at once.

Optional Practical Training

F-1 students may work in Optional Practical Training programs during their studies and after completing their degree. Students may apply for OPT as early as 9 months into their full-time program, but they can’t begin OPT until they have been enrolled for at least 12 months and received their Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS. Unlike CPT, a student does not need a job offer to apply for their OPT EAD, and students are free to work anywhere in the United States.

There are five general rules for OPT:

  • The job must be directly related to the student’s major
  • The student must maintain their F-1 visa status
  • Students must apply for OPT before completing their degree, though the OPT can actually take place before or after the program end date
  • Students who have completed more than 12 months of CPT work are ineligible for OPT
  • During their time in the United States, students may complete up to 12 months of full-time OPT

Note that with the latter requirement, part-time work reduces the availability of full-time OPT by half the amount of part-time work. For example, if a student works part time for two months, they can still work full-time for up to 11 months. 

On-Campus Employment

On-campus employment is the easiest to manage within USCIS regulations, as it is generally perceived to have the lightest impact on a student’s ability to maintain a full-time class schedule. Many schools require F-1 students to get permission from the ISO and complete at least 1 – 2 semesters before applying for on-campus jobs, but those rules are determined by the school, not USCIS. 

There are four rules for on-campus employment:

  • The student must maintain a valid F-1 visa 
  • The student cannot work more than 20 hours per week while school is in session
  • The student may work full-time during holidays and semester breaks, as long as the student intends to register for the subsequent academic semester
  • The student may not displace a US resident

Note that unlike CPT and OPT, on-campus jobs don’t need to have anything to do with the student’s major or degree, nor do they need to offer academic credit. As such, on-campus employment is a prime choice for students who need to work for financial support.

International Institutions

Working for an international institution is often an overlooked work opportunity for F-1 students. International organizations that have been approved by the State Department include the World Trade Organization, World Health Organization, African and Asian Development Banks, and the Red Cross. Once a student obtains a job offer and sponsorship from an approved institution, they can apply for an EAD from USCIS. Keep in mind, however, that EAD applications typically take up to 90 days to process, so it’s important to submit your application as early as possible.

There are four general rules that apply when working for international institutions:

  • The internship or employment must be with a recognized international organization on the official State Department list
  • The internship or employment must fall within the normal scope of the organization’s sponsorship and coincide with the student’s field of study
  • The student must maintain a valid F-1 visa for at least one full academic year
  • The student must maintain good academic standing with their grades and attendance

Working for an international institution does not need to apply towards a student’s degree.  Furthermore, any time spent working for an international institution has no effect on how much OPT or CPT an F-1 student may complete in the future.

Severe Economic Hardship

While F-1 students are required to have funding for their studies in place before coming to the United States, the agency understands that unforeseen circumstances can lead to severe economic hardship. Some examples of severe economic hardship include:

  • Change in financial circumstances of a student’s source of support (e.g. a parent who loses a job)
  • Inordinate increases in the cost of living or tuition
  • Medical bills
  • Substantial fluctuations in currency exchange rates and inflation
  • The loss of on-campus employment or financial aid (providing it’s not the student’s fault)

An F-1 student who qualifies for severe economic hardship may work off-campus for up to 20 hours a week during school, and more than 20 hours a week during holidays and breaks. To be eligible, the following rules apply:

  • The student must provide USCIS with evidence of economic hardship based on unexpected circumstances that are beyond the student’s control
  • The student must make a good faith effort to find on-campus employment before applying
  • The ISO must certify that on-campus employment is either unavailable or insufficient to meet the student’s needs
  • The student must maintain a valid F-1 visa for at least one academic year (9 months)
  • The student must maintain good academic standing

 

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