Work hard for your money, but only when you’re legally allowed.
Attending school in the USA is super expensive, and even if you’re receiving loans or scholarships you might still want some extra cash to do fun things. Though there are numerous work visas available in general, international students are somewhat limited in options. Unfortunately, M-1 visa holders can only work if the job is part of the official training program, and can’t work for more than 6 months. For F-1 visa holders, however, there are a few ways you can legally earn money.
International students can work on campus without special permission from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). But the types of jobs allowed are pretty specific – though the job doesn’t technically have to be on campus grounds, it must be related to the school or provide direct services to students. So that means that you can work at the cafeteria on campus or for an off-campus bookstore that sells textbooks and supplies to students, but you can’t work as an intern for the company that does landscaping on campus. Students can work up to 20 hours a week during academic terms and can work full time while school is out of session.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT allows F-1 visa holders to work off campus in positions that are related to their curriculum or academic program, but you’re only eligible for CPT after you’ve completed your first academic year. Though you can work part time or full time, you still need to be enrolled in and attending classes.
The amount of time you can work under CPT is theoretically unrestricted, but with the caveat that working full time under CPT for a cumulative period of 12 months or more will disqualify you from receiving Optional Practical Training (aka OPT – see below and it will make more sense). However, if you work part time or full time for less than those 12 months, you’re still eligible for OPT.
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Like CPT, international students must also complete an academic year before being eligible for OPT. OPT provides a total of 12 months of employment in the USA and must be explicitly related to the course of study listed on your visa. For example, if the focus of your studies is finance, the odds are low that you’d be granted OPT authorization for work as a clown.
There are two types of OPT, and they can be used in combination as long as you have permission from your Designated School Official (DSO) to do so. You don’t need an official job offer to apply for OPT, and there’s even a 60-day grace period after it expires where you can stay in the USA to try to extend or change your visa. But talk to your DSO or your school’s international student office when you work on the application (which can take many weeks to be processed) so you can double check that everything is legal.
And here’s a bonus: If you’ve earned a degree in an approved STEM field, you might be eligible to extend your OPT by an additional 24 months with the STEM OPT extension, giving you a total of 36 months of legal work in the USA without needing to change your visa.
Severe Economic Hardship
F-1 students who suffer an unexpected and severe economic hardship are eligible to work for up to 20 hours a week off campus while school is in session and full time during breaks. This exception is only for students who’ve had their visa for a year or more, and conveniently doesn’t affect OPT hours. But you can’t lose money at a poker game and expect to be eligible for this special situation – USCIS determines each case based on their strict standards. Their guidelines are explicit: students must have lost financial support or previous on-campus employment, faced large increases in tuition and living costs or extreme changes in the exchange rate of their home country’s currency, or received extensive medical bills not covered by insurance.