How to Work as an F-1 International Student with and without USCIS Approval

Students need work to pay billsNeed work to make ends meet?

When I first came to the U.S as an F-1 International Student, the I-20 and Financial Aid letter were constantly in my backpack (just in case). After the length of time and hassle I had to go through Consular Processing, I could not even think of applying for anything else but concentrate on my studies, the fact that the school was Harvard Law made the decision easier. Inevitably the cost of living in your college city is mostly unaffordable for foreign students and obtaining work to subsidize your school costs may be necessary. Ordinarily, in order for a non-immigrant to work legally in the U.S – a work permit or Employment Authorization Document (EAD) must be obtained from the USCIS, however there are a few exceptions where International Students may engage in both on-campus and off-campus employment without explicit USCIS authorization.

On-campus employment is quite straight forward. As an international student, the respective Designated School Official (DSO) should, scratch that – MUST be one of your best friends. This fellow must be on your side and if it appears they are not, do something about it! The DSO will coordinate such on-campus employment and their recommendations are all one needs both to update your SEVIS Record and I-20 and by extension, not to get in trouble with DHS or USCIS.  The tricky part is lawfully working off-campus under the CPT and OPT options.

What is Curricular Practical Training or CPT?

From its name, one can guess that this type of employment MUST be related to your area of study – as a student this is a boon. It is also common for foreign students to seek admission in schools that offer alternate work/study courses as part of their regular curriculum where the student is required to take academic courses for 1 term and work for the next term. As long as the student is ENROLLED in such a work/study education program, they may engage in off-campus employment without explicit USCIS work permit. Of course, such a student wouldn’t start working willy-nilly without consultation with their respective Designated School Official (DSO) because CPT employment has to be indicated on the student’s SEVIS Record. Luckily, that is all that has to be done, no USCIS applications required or regulations. The only issues come with the duration of this type of employment as it is specific to the student’s curriculum, exceeding the limits may result in denial of Optional Practical Training (OPT).

(Note: As a rule working unlawfully terminates your SEVIS Record and renders such an International Student out of status because they violated their F1 Visa Conditions).

This brings us to Optional Practical Training or OPT:

OPT is the Holy Grail of all international students with an F1 Visa because it allows you to stay and work anywhere within the U.S for 12 months immediately after completing your course of study.  Since such an applicant is still under the auspices of an F1 student visa, any work thereof must not exceed 12 month as it is implied that you are still not intending to migrate. The employer is also not supposed to employ you permanently.

At MLG, we help Students Change Status

At MLG, we help Students Change Status

With the help a licensed immigration attorney, there are several hoops and traps you may skip, for example, if such a student applies for an H1B Visa (subject of another article) they may stay and eventually qualify for a green card. Alternatively, even if initially H1B visa is not granted despite Student being eligible, an extension of the OPT and work authorization may be granted. Furthermore, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) graduates  may statutorily extend OPT for 17 months.

As is wont to happen, several issues may arise due to lack of knowledge by students, unauthorized off-campus employments, falling out-of-status due to reduced study load, running out of financial resources or money for tuition, changed circumstances, sickness, incarceration of student and many more than would require the student to either apply for reinstatement of status with Form I-539 or receipt of a new I-20 that requires a quick exit and entry of the U.S. All these issues may be resolved with the right help. Unfortunately seeking legal counsel is usually the last resort for most students and some approached the Musinguzi Law Group  after royally screwing their chances with the help of notarios whom we discussed in this advisory paragraph. Most were favorably resolved, some unfortunately not but one thing is for sure, it cost much more for those who wait.

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