There are a number of potential options for International students on an F-1 student visa to gain work experience that is directly related to their field of study.
On-campus employment is permitted once classes have started provided it is on the school’s premises or at an off-campus location that is educationally affiliated with the school. Examples of on-campus employment on the school’s premises include working at a bookstore or cafeteria as long as the work provides services for students. Employment at an educationally affiliated off-campus location would include working at a research lab. Such employment must be an integral part of the student’s educational program and is limited to a maximum of 20 hours a week while school is in session.
In general, students are typically allowed to work off-campus on a part-time basis for no more than 20 hours a week after completing a full academic year. Full-time employment is permitted during holidays or school vacation.
Severe economic Hardship
Based on certain unforeseen circumstances a student may apply for off-campus employment based on severe economic hardship, such as the loss of financial aid or on-campus employment through no fault of the student, large increases in tuition or living costs or unexpected large medical bills that are not covered by insurance.
In order to be eligible a student will need to obtain the recommendation from his Designated School Official (DSO) and meet the following criteria:
- must be in good standing for one full academic year and is carrying a full course of study;
- demonstrate that the employment will not interfere with that full course of study; and
- demonstrate that the employment is necessary to avoid severe economic hardship due to unforeseen circumstances beyond the student’s control and that on-campus employment is unavailable or insufficient to meet your financial needs.
To apply for off-campus employment based on severe economic hardship an applicant needs to complete and submit I-765 to USCIS. If approved, Employment authorization is granted in 1-year increments.
International students who have been lawfully enrolled on a full- time basis for one full academic year are eligible for practical training. There are two types of practical training:
Curricular Practical Training
Curricular practical training commonly referred to as CPT is defined as an alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship that is offered by employers through cooperative agreements with the school. A request for CPT must be made to your DSO and requires an I-20 with the DSO endorsement. It is not necessary to submit I-765 to USCIS.
Day 1 CPT
Day 1 CPT has become a popular option for many, usually out of desperation and the need to continue working when other options have bene exhausted. The regulations state that the exception to the one academic year requirement is for students enrolled in studies that require immediate participation in CPT. However, this is only offered by a few Universities and is viewed by USCIS as unlawful. For a further discussion on Day 1 CPT and the problems which it may cause please refer to one of my previous articles:
Optional Practical Training
Optional practical training is also known as OPT allows international students to obtain temporary employment directly related to their major area of study. OPT can be completed either before or after the completion of their studies, although most students wait to do OPT until after they have finished their degree. The reason for this is that students are only allowed a total of 12 months of OPT in total and most prefer to wait until they are done with their studies.
Students become eligible for a further 12 months of OPT when they switch to a higher degree. Therefore, if you study for a Bachelor’s degree you are entitled to 12 months of OPT. If you then study for a Master’s degree you become eligible for a further 12 months of OPT.
To apply for OPT an applicant needs to complete and submit I-765 to USCIS. This can be submitted up to 90 days prior to the program end date but must be submitted no later than 60 days after the program end date. It must also be submitted within 30 days after the DSO enters the recommendation for OPT into the SEVIS record.
OPT while school is in session is limited to 20 hours a week. After completion of studies, OPT can be full-time but must be completed within 14 months.
Transferring to another school or studying at another education level automatically terminates OPT.
24- month extension
Students completing a degree that falls under the realm of Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics are entitled to a 24-month extension their OPT. This is more commonly known as STEM OPT. Therefore, an individual who obtains a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s in computer science can have 36 months of OPT at each level, so a total of 72 months of employment authorization.
STEM OPT has additional requirements which include the following:
- Employer must be e-verified and must be in good standing;
- Employer must provide training in accordance with the training plan specified on Form I-983, which include identifying goals for the STEM OPT training opportunity, including specific knowledge, skills or techniques that will be imparted to the student together with an explanation as to how these goals will be achieved. This includes having a performance evaluation process and describing in detail how the student will be supervised;
- Student must get the Form I-983 signed by his/her employer before obtaining DSO recommendation for 24- month extension in SEVIS; and
- Employer must offer the same terms and conditions including duties, hours, compensation applicable to similarly situated U.S. workers.
To apply for STEM OPT an applicant needs to complete and submit I-765 to USCIS. This can be submitted up to 90 days before the expiration of the student’s OPT, but must be filed prior to the expiration of the OPT. If Form I-765 is filed after the OPT expires USCIS will deny the application. Furthermore, the STEM OPT request must be filed within 60 days after the DSO enters the recommendation for OPT into the SEVIS record. A timely filed request will automatically extend work authorization for up to 180 days.
Periods of unemployment during post-completion OPT
Students on OPT may not accrue an aggregate of more than 90 days of unemployment. Students on STEM OPT cannot accrue an aggregate of more than 150 days of unemployment during the total OPT period. This includes the initial 12- months OPT and 24- month STEM OPT.
Reporting requirements while on OPT/STEM OPT
A student on OPT is required to report changes such as a change of name, address or interruptions in employment to their DSO for the duration of the OPT.
Students on STEM OPT have the following additional reporting requirements:
- Within 10 days of the change a student must report to their DSO a change in their legal name, residential or mailing address, employer’s name or address and/or loss of employment;
- The student must report any material changes to the training plan to their DSO;
- Every 6 months a student must complete a validation report, confirming that all of their information in the SEVIS record is accurate; and
- A student must submit to their DSO an annual self-evaluation describing their training process.
Transitioning from CPT/OPT/STEM OPT to H-1B
For many students who have received Employment authorization either as CPT/OPT or STEM OPT the next logical step in their immigration journey is to transition to an H-1B. This involves going through the H-1B lottery and if selected allows an individual to obtain work authorization for up to 6 years and in some circumstances, even longer. The benefit of being in H-1B status is that it allows for dual intent. This means that a person can have a short- term intention to remain in the U.S. but a long-term desire to remain in the U.S. This provides much greater flexibility in applying for a green card, particularly when traveling outside of the U.S. For more details regarding H-1B please see the articles below:
For general information about H-1Bs see:
For FAQs on H-1Bs see:
Cap-gap extension is a product of the regulations and effectively bridges the gap between the end of the F-1 status and the start of the H-1B status. This allows the student to remain in the U.S. and in certain circumstances continue to work.
Students on F-1, who have a valid work authorization (OPT or STEM OPT) and who submit a new H-1B petition to USCIS and request a change of status, will have their F-1 status extended as well as their work authorization until October 1. Please note that the cap-gap does not apply to anyone on CPT.
For example, a student with a valid OPT until July 1, 2020, who has been selected in the lottery and timely submits an H-1B petition will have his/her F-1 status and OPT extended until October 1, 2020.
If their H-1B is adjudicated favorably and the request for change of status is approved, it will switch over from F-1 to H-1B on October 1, 2020. A rejection, denial, revocation, or withdrawal of the H-1B automatically ends the cap-gap and the student will have the 60- day grace period to depart the U.S., switch to another status or re-enroll in another course.
However, a student whose OPT or STEM OPT has expired and is within the 60- day grace period, can submit an H-1B petition, but this will only extend their F-1 status until October 1. The employment authorization which has already expired is not extended.
Cap-gap extension is automatic for students and you, therefore, do not need to file anything with USCIS. In order to show proof of the extension of your OPT or STEM OPT you can obtain an updated I-20 from your DSO showing an extension of OPT/STEM OPT.
If you have any questions regarding your F-1 status or any of the employment options discussed above, please contact our Senior Immigration Attorney Chris Prescott at firstname.lastname@example.org