Whether you’re looking for a job while studying or you want to pursue a career in the US after you graduate, working in the US as an international student can come with a lot of questions and challenges. Given all of the rules regarding working with your student visa, we wanted to compile a guide to help you find and get a job in the US depending on where you are in your career path. Though we aren’t immigration attorneys and don’t claim to provide legal advice, we can at least get you started and point you in the right direction so that you can begin working on your job skills, and pursuing your desired career path.
Yes, you can work in the US!
Let’s start with the basics. You can work in the US while studying and even after graduation, but there are some parameters around how you can do so legally. There are four ways that international students can work in the U.S. with their F1 visa.
You can work either through:
This allows you to work anywhere on campus or anywhere that’s affiliated with your school educationally, even if it’s off-campus (think: labs, research facilities, etc.). You can do this in your first year at school and apply up to 30 days before your classes start.
This employment type is an option only if you have completed one year at university, and qualify through an economic hardship. This is not the same as CPT (which we’ll explain more about next.)
Curricular practical training (CPT)
This allows students to work off-campus in a position directly related to your degree and curriculum, and is designed to help you achieve an academic objective. You can pursue internships or co-op positions (whether paid or unpaid).
Optional practical training (OPT)
This allows for temporary employment directly related to your chosen major or area of study. You can pursue OPT either during or after your studies for a maximum of 12 cumulative months (or with a one-time extension of 24 months for qualifying STEM degree recipients.)
CPT and OPT are the types of employment that are most important in providing you with skills and experience to help you pursue your career in the US, so let’s dive into the details on each including: more about what they are, their regulations, and how to find jobs that qualify.
Curricular practical training (CPT)
CPT is a great way to get some work experience directly related to your studies and that will help you learn more about practical ways to utilize your degree through a potential career path. In general, you can apply for CPT if you’ve been enrolled full-time in your program for an entire academic year (or two consecutive terms), have F-1 visa status, and any other regulations that your university requires. It’s important to note that CPT is not a regular, ongoing job — it is meant to supplement and complement your academic experience.
CPT includes employment options such as internships, co-ops (i.e. cooperative education that alternates academic study with employment), or other positions tied to your curriculum. Through these positions, you can work either full-time (up to 40 hours per week) or part-time (up to 20 hours per week) earning money and gaining work experience in your field of study.
To apply for CPT, you should first speak with your International Student Office as they will be able to provide you with the most accurate details regarding requirements. From there, you will likely need to: confirm eligibility for CPT, speak with your academic advisor and the department to get more details on internship or co-op requirements, and then find a position. Once you have a position, you’ll need to work with your International Student Office to get the necessary paperwork so they can coordinate to ensure you have everything you need to work legally and in accordance with immigration and your visa under CPT in the US.
Optional practical training (OPT)
OPT is different from CPT, but another great way to work in the US as an international student. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the major difference between OPT and CPT is the time period in which you are eligible for these programs and the type of work allowed in each program. CPT is a program you can only participate in during your studies or before graduation, whereas you can participate in OPT during or after graduation, for up to 12 months. That means you can work in the US even after you complete your studies. However, if you participate in OPT before graduation, that duration is deducted from your 12-month total. For example, if you participate in OPT for three months before you graduate, you can work for up to nine months in OPT in the US. The only exception to this is if you qualify for an extension as an applicable STEM degree recipient.
Similar to CPT though, your OPT position (whether work or volunteer) must be in a field related to your academic degree. You also cannot participate in OPT until you’ve been enrolled for at least one full-academic year, and be physically present in the US.
Your options for OPT are a little broader than with CPT, but only in the sense that you don’t have to tie your work experience directly to your curriculum. Obviously, your OPT position must be a natural extension of your academic degree, and should have a connection to what you studied. For example, if you were an accounting major, it might not be realistic to pursue a career in acting or graphic design. However, you should consult with your designated school official (DSO) and likely your career services center for help determining the sorts of career paths you can pursue in accordance with OPT guidelines. Additionally, you can work multiple jobs while on OPT, but you need to work a minimum of 20 hours combined for all jobs.
To apply for OPT, you will need to work with your DSO at your university. Your DSO will need to recommend the OPT, so you may need to request that recommendation from them. You’ll also need Form I-765, an application for employment authorization with USCIS, the required fee, and any supporting documentation described in the form instructions.
The timing can be really tricky in finding a position after you graduate as you try to find a position that qualifies you for OPT. You’ll want to work with your International Student Services office, DSO, and Career Center to help find a position to reduce any time between graduation and starting your job. You can remain in the US while your OPT is pending (even beyond the expiry of your grace period) but you will lose any time during that waiting period against the 12 months of OPT time. If you do not have a job after you graduate and are applying for some for OPT, you are only allowed 90 days of cumulative unemployment.
How to find a position
If you’re interested in pursuing CPT or OPT, there are a few ways you can find a position. It’s important to plan ahead, especially if you’re looking to pursue OPT, as timing can cause issues in securing employment, given the requirements from employers and you as an employee to adhere to immigration regulations. You have 60 days after you graduate to remain in the US with your F1 visa, so the earlier you can prepare and plan ahead for life post-graduation the better. Make sure to involve your DSO or an advisor from your International Student Office as they will be able to direct you to the best information — and even have experience helping other students like you.
Remember that not every employer in the US offers sponsorship for international students, but that there are still many that do. Consider looking into Fortune 500 companies, as they are more likely to hire and sponsor international students to fulfill a gap that cannot be met only by the local talent pool of the country. Don’t be discouraged, though. Through some of the following methods, you’ll find many opportunities that can help you work in the US and pursue your career goals.
Your school likely has a career center and this will be an incredibly important resource as you start to look for internships, co-ops, volunteer opportunities, and jobs. The administrators at your school’s career center can help you with: drafting a resume, writing a cover letter, discovering networking opportunities or events, and helping to connect you with companies in the school’s network. It’s really a one-stop shop for everything you need as you start navigating the job search. We highly recommend making an appointment with this office early-on in your academic career so you can become familiar with the staff and so they can help you identify potential job opportunities, and career paths. They’ll be able to connect you with alumni or other people within your university network that could also be a resource.
Your school likely hosts many job fairs (virtually right now, but also in-person when safer) as a way to introduce employers with their students. These employer will come to the Zoom call or to campus and set up a “booth” (usually an area designated for the employer’s representative, a table, and some chairs) so they can have conversations with students about what the employer is looking for in terms of hiring for jobs or internships.You can also ask questions about the employer itself and the available positions, so you can get a sense of whether to pursue a position with that company. When you speak with these employers, you can ask about whether they hire international students, or if they’ve hired international students in the past. This can give you an idea of where to look for an internship or job when you’re ready.
Additionally, even if you’re not a graduating senior, you should still attend job fairs for a few reasons. By attending, you can improve your networking skills and practice speaking in a professional setting. You can also get more information about particular job opportunities and what they entail. Also, you’ll feel more confident when you are actually ready to apply for jobs through the fairs, and you’ll know how to have a more successful interaction.
Networking is extremely important, whether or not you’re an international student, and will be important throughout your entire career. Like job fairs, your school – and academic departments – will likely host many networking events. Some networking events will include professionals from local businesses, while others will invite alumni to mix and mingle with students. No matter the exact circumstance, you should participate in as many of these events as you can to practice speaking professionally, and build relationships that can help you find new job opportunities. In networking, you’ll also be able to speak with professionals or alumni about their jobs, and this is a great way to hear more about what other jobs are like, or how they got to the position they currently hold. The more you’re able to network – with professionals, with alumni, and even with older students – the more information you’ll be able to have about what it takes to get a job, and learn about potential job opportunities that can help you work in the US.