Can I work in the United States as an international student?

The short answer is yes! Every international student is allowed to work in the U.S. both during and after their studies, with certain restrictions. In fact, many do so by through a summer internship, a part-time or full-time internship off campus during the school year, or a job post-graduation. In any case, exercising that right requires a little bit of planning and a lot of knowledge about what you can and cannot do and for how long. This blog post intends to give you a head start by presenting you with the different ways to achieve your goal.

Can I work on campus?

Yes. Working on campus is usually the preferred way to earn money while building up a résumé as a college student. International students can get a job, unrelated or not to their field of study, on campus. However, some restrictions apply:

  • You cannot work more than 20 hours per week and must be registered as a full-time student.
  • You may work full-time during university holidays, including winter and summer break.
  • You may or may not be eligible for work-study depending on your school’s policy.
  • You will be required to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN)

Getting an SSN is a very straightforward process. You will need a letter of employment from your future employer. Note that the process may take up to four weeks. Contact your Designated School Official (DSO), who usually focuses on assisting international students, for more assistance.

Can I work off-campus during my studies?

Absolutely! Whether you want to get an internship during the school year or in the summer, you can apply for the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) as an F-1 visa holder. CPT differs from on-campus employment as it requires you to find a job related to your field of study or one that your school deems to be complementary to your curriculum. Here are the main points about CPT:

  • You may work part-time (20 hours per week) or full-time (40 hours per week).
  • It is considered to be a part of your curriculum and, as such, it has to be approved by your DSO.
  • You can only apply to CPT after a full academic year. Under certain circumstances, graduate students can apply for CPT immediately after beginning their program.
  • Working full-time for a year under CPT will make you ineligible for OPT (read more on OPT below).
  • You will be required to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN).

If you wish to do this, you should contact your DSO who will instruct you on the next steps. Once you have a letter of employment, you normally have to explain why this internship fits into your curriculum and get it approved by your department chair.

Keep in mind that using too much of your CPT makes you ineligible for OPT later on. For example, if you plan on doing an internship in the U.S. each summer during a four-year program, you may not use your OPT post-graduation. If your curriculum requires you to do a co-op, you will have to apply for CPT.

Can I work in the U.S. after graduation?

Yes, but it gets trickier. As an F-1 holder, you are eligible to apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) which enables you to work for a maximum period of 12 months, with a possible 24-month extension if you are a STEM major. Like CPT, it has to be related to your field of study. Many students use OPT to stay in the United States and work after college. To get OPT, you will need to contact your DSO during your final year to get approval before applying to Immigration Services.

If you know that you want to start your career in the U.S, you should consider pursuing a STEM field of study during your studies—it will expand your OPT by two years! At some colleges, an Economics major might not be considered as STEM while a Quantitative Economics might be.

And after OPT?

If you wish to continue your career in the U.S. after that, you will have to apply for an H-1B visa, which has to be sponsored by an employer. Unfortunately, to successfully get this visa requires undergoing a difficult and rigorous process that involves a lottery system. The recent success rate over the past few years has been hovering around 35%—a number that doesn’t bring much certainty.

Despite the difficulties, many former international students end up working for years in the U.S., eventually getting their citizenship. According to Crunchbase News analysis from 2018, “half of the most heavily funded unicorns [startups valued at $1 billion or more] had one or more immigrant founders.”

No matter which path you intend to take, a key to keeping your options open is to plan ahead.