When a foreign student with an F-1 visa comes to the U.S. to study, they often have questions about their eligibility to seek work during their stay. Sometimes they are interested in gaining valuable practical experience, while in other cases, financial hardships make working a necessity. As any employer who’s hired a foreign student can attest, it can be a wonderful experience for all involved. Young minds from diverse backgrounds can infuse the workplace with fresh energy, enthusiasm and new ideas.
As an immigration attorney, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is helping people seek a better life through higher education, and get an opportunity to transfer what they’ve learned in a classroom into a professional setting.
But as I tell any employer or foreign student who comes to me for advice, there are certain restrictions placed on foreign visas that limit the types of situations under which a foreign student can work. Unlike employment based visas, like the EB-5 for investors or the EB-3 for skilled workers, you are primarily here to be a student, not a worker, so pay close attention to the restrictions.
The F-1 Visa Work Restrictions
The F1 visa permits qualified foreign students to attend a university, college or other learning institutions such as seminaries and conservatories on a full-time basis. Unlike employment based and immigrant visas, there is no annual cap placed on the number of student visas issued each year. As a result, obtaining an F-1 visa, while still a tedious process, doesn’t come with the same wait time as other visas.
The limitations on foreign students who seek employment during their stay often focus on where and when the student can work. For instance, a foreign student is prohibited from working during the first academic year — typically a period of nine months. Exceptions apply to students who work on campus as well as research students who might be working at an off-site location where the employer is contractually affiliated with the school.
But I tell clients this isn’t always a bad thing. Many on-campus jobs offer great opportunities, especially when the employer is a commercial firm providing services to the campus community.
Wherever a foreign student ends up working during his or her stay in the U.S., when school is in session, the student can only work 20 hours per week. When a student becomes eligible to accept work off campus, usually it must be at a job that’s related directly to the student’s area of study.
Off-Campus Work Waiver
In some cases, the rules governing off-campus work are suspended for students hailing from areas of the world affected by natural or man-made disasters. Particularly when such events create severe economic hardship for the student.
Currently, certain Haitian students with F-1 visas affected by the 2010 earthquake can obtain full-time work off campus, even with a reduced course load.
Syrian students affected by that country’s civil unrest are also eligible to work more hours during the school year than other foreign students. In September, US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it was expanding the pool of students eligible for this exemption to Syrian students who were in the country under F-1 status between April 3, 2012 and September 9, 2016.
At the time of the announcement, Louis Farrell, director of the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) said the goal was to provide some relief to Syrian students affected by years of war.
“We want to ensure that qualifying students from Syria are able to continue their studies without the worry of financial burdens, Farell said. “The changes announced in this notice expand the pool of eligible students.”
How to Hire a Foreign Student
There are two different tracks for hiring students on a foreign visa.
The first is referred to as a curricular training program (CTP). This type of work can be full or part time, but must relate to the student’s area of study. Only full-time students are eligible to apply under this program and an existing offer of employment is required. This offer of work must be demonstrated with a written cooperative agreement or letter from the employer.
Before beginning a job, the student must seek official approval from a Designated School Official (DSO). Sometimes I recommend a student only seek part time work in a CTP situation since full-time work at this level may limit the student’s chances of working in a post graduate training program.
The second type of work program F-1 students can engage in is known as optional practical training (OPT). This type of work must be related to a student’s area of study and can be done after completion of college coursework. In addition to obtaining approval from a designated school official (DSO), the student must also file an Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765). This form is filed through USCIS. Once approval is granted, the student can begin work.
Seeking Legal Counsel
While foreign nationals seeking education and employment in the U.S. are free to apply for work on their own, I always recommend a person consider their options with guidance from an experienced immigration attorney. Filing errors can be time consuming and lead to added frustrations for students struggling to focus on their studies. In some cases, certain types of employment can result in the loss of a student’s visa. With help from a qualified attorney, a student can increase their chances of a successful work-study experience.