Getting into a graduate program, and then getting funding and a student visa are, believe it or not, just the beginning of your journey. How will you manage there financially? What are your work options under an F-1 visa? This post explores that.
Deciding to study in the US comes with a lot of pressures and expectations. The investment you are making today will bear fruit in the future, but until then, you have to manage your finances effectively in order to reduce the burden on your future self. The United States presents a few ways for full-time students on an F-1 visa to earn money: by working on-campus while studying, or in the form of a CPT or an OPT. However, these options come with their own restrictions. So, as a student, it is crucial that you understand the restrictions and the opportunities early in your journey, and build a stable foundation for yourself.
In the first year, of course, students can take on-campus jobs. During the school sessions, you will not be permitted to work for more than 20 hours per week. But during the session breaks, you can work for up to 40 hours per week. Typical jobs include tutoring, working as a library assistant, or as a cashier at university stores, and many other such positions.
These jobs are university-specific, so you will need to check with the school's international office or financial aid office or the specific department you want to work for, to understand the application process and available vacancies. You can start working even from the very first days of your course.
These jobs pay the minimum wage, which, depending on the state you are in, starts at between $8 and $12 per hour. So, based on the state you are’re in, you can earn at or above this minimum payment limit. With this income, you should be able to pay for your living expenses to an extent, and if you are frugal, you can even manage to save some money. This is how most international students on an F-1 visa manage usually.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT is given to students during their period of study - to work and gain practical experience in their field of study. It is a job opportunity that is an essential part of the academic curriculum, or a requirement for graduation, and is supposed to be used for academic credit in some cases. The work can be in the form of a paid or unpaid internship, practicum, or cooperative (co-op) education program.
- After entering the USA, most schools allow students to work on CPT after two semesters or nine months (one academic year, i.e., Fall & Spring); therefore, the course length should be at least one year.
- Generally, under CPT, you can work for 20 hours per week when school sessions are underway, and up to 40 hours per week during session breaks.
- If a student works full-time for more than 12 months in their CPT, they will lose their eligibility to work under OPT. So, you need to keep this in check, as you would not like to miss the OPT opportunity.
- The CPT application process involves registering for an internship course, getting an internship with the help of the college's career center or academic advisor, and then filling the CPT application. On approval, you will get a new I-20 mentioning start/end dates and employer-specific details.
- CPT is employer-specific. Before applying for a CPT, you need to have an offer letter. If you need to change the job under CPT, you must go through this CPT application process all over again.
- It takes about 7-10 days for the processing and completion of the CPT application. So, it's advisable to apply 2-3 weeks before the tentative date of joining.
Before moving to the next part, let us understand what STEM and non-STEM courses are.
STEM and non-STEM Courses
STEM courses refer to courses that are related to the streams of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Non-STEM refers to the courses in the domain of Humanities, Arts and Literature and Management.
In the US, STEM courses are considered more important, as there are a good number of jobs being created in this sector. Moreover, these types of jobs are of high potential and thus can create more jobs in the future. So, the work rules are different for these two types of courses, and the rules being more beneficial for STEM courses due to the increased focus from the US government.
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
The OPT gives international students a chance to work temporarily for at least 12 months in their field of study in the United States. You become eligible to apply for the OPT only after completion of an academic year.
A student enrolled in a non-STEM course can work under OPT for 12 months. Whereas a student enrolled in a STEM course can get an OPT extension of 24 months and, in total, can work for 36 months in the US.
How does the OPT differ from the CPT? The major difference is that the CPT is a curriculum requirement and needs to be completed before you graduate. In contrast, the OPT can be done during your studies or after graduating, but is generally done full-time after graduation.
There are two types of OPT:
- This is an opportunity for students to start working even before graduating from college. The duration for which you work under pre-completion OPT gets deducted from your 12 months of total OPT duration. So, suppose you work two months full-time (or four months part-time) under pre-completion OPT, then you can only work for ten months after you graduate.
- Students generally choose this option if they have exhausted a significant portion of their CPT or if they do not have an option to work under CPT.
- This provides students with a chance to work in the US for at least 12 months after graduating from a degree course. It is the most preferred route taken by international students.
- You can apply for it 120 days before the intended start date of employment. There is a grace period of 60 days after graduation to join work, after which you can lose your status in the US if you are not working as indicated.
For working under OPT, you will require approval from the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) and USCIS. ISSS will issue a new I-20 with OPT recommendation, and then USCIS issues an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card. You will have to pay an application fee of $410 to the USCIS. Your employment is only permitted for the duration mentioned in the EAD card. The complete procedure can take anywhere up to 90 days.
If someone wishes to stay further to work, then they will have to apply for an H1B (work visa), which works on a lottery-based system.
Employment Due to Severe Economic Hardship
Students facing economic hardship can look for off-campus employment with special authorization. These eligible students may be experiencing situations such as loss of on-campus employment, high medical expenditure, loss of financial support, or other such unfortunate circumstances.
If you need to obtain this special authorization, you will have to discuss your situation with the ISS (International Student Services) advisor at your university. If granted, you must fill Form I-765 for employment authorization with USCIS.
Eligibility Rules for Off-campus Employment Due to Severe Economic Hardship
- In the US with F1 visa for at least one academic year
- Have good academic standing
- Unavailability of any on-campus employment
- Proof of evidence for economic hardship
Finding the Right Balance
To sum up, when looking for a job in the US, you have to make sure of two main things: adhering to the regulations and balancing your study-work life. If you can achieve these two, you will manage your expenses so much better, and have less to worry about in the future. The opportunities are there; you need to grab them at the right time. And, as they say, "Life is like riding a bicycle - to keep your balance you must keep moving." Stay motivated and keep moving, and you will gain so much.
Follow this space for more posts like this. We hope they will help make your life more comfortable in the US, while solving the pain points that may be holding you back.