In 1993, I came to the United States on an Exchange Abroad Program (EAP) as an F-1 student from the University of Sydney, Australia. Originally from Malaysia and after ten years in Australia, I arrived in the United States to complete my senior year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and like so many before and after me, I fell in love with America. My love affair with the United States continued with another three years as an F-1 student completing law school at the Boston University School of Law. Back then, we didn’t have the resources that F-1 students have now, but after practicing immigration law for over 14 years, these are some of the things that I wish I’d known when I was an F-1 student.
1. You can actually work in the United States during school and after graduation!
There are several possibilities that may allow an F-1 student to work during school and after graduation – make sure you check in with your International Students and Scholars Office on campus for more information!
Curricular Practical Training – some students may be eligible for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) which allows them to accept internships and work during the school year and during vacation.
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary “unrestricted” employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. F-1 students are usually eligible for 12 months of OPT. USCIS issues an F-1 student an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) as part of OPT.
- Pre-Completion OPT: An F-1 student may be authorized to participate in pre-completion OPT after he or she has been enrolled for one full academic year. The pre-completion OPT must be directly related to the student’s major area of study. Students authorized to participate in pre-completion OPT can only work part-time while school is in session. They may work full time when school is not in session. However, any pre-completion OPT time will “eat” into an F-1 student’s post-completion OPT. F-1 students should check with their International Students and Scholars Office on campus for more information about pre-completion OPT.
- Post-completion OPT: Most students “save” their 12 months of OPT to be used post-completion OPT after graduation.
- STEM OPT: F-1 students with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) who are employed by businesses enrolled in the E-Verify program may extend OPT by 17 months, for a maximum of 29 months.
2. Make sure you apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Even if you are planning to leave the United States after graduation, or if you have your “dream job” offer lined up in your home country or elsewhere, you should always apply for OPT in case circumstances change. In my experience, students are often offered another job opportunity or their existing job offer falls through just before leaving the United States. By applying for OPT, you keep your options open.
Did you know that a job offer is not required to apply for OPT? F-1 students simply complete the forms and submit the required documents with the government filing fee to USCIS. So, don’t miss out on that last minute opportunity by neglecting to apply for OPT. The filing fee is only $380 – it is money well-worth spent to keep your options open.
Make sure you apply in a timely fashion: F-1 students may apply for OPT up to 90 days before their academic programs end and no later than 60 days after graduation.
Since USCIS takes about 2 to 3 months to issue the EAD, don’t leave until the last minute to apply. You cannot start working until you have the actual Employment Authorization Document (EAD) in hand.
3. Avoid the 90 day unemployment provision
During OPT, F-1 status is dependent upon employment. F-1 students on regular OPT (12 months) may not accrue more than an aggregate 90 days of unemployment. F-1 students who have an approved 17-month OPT period are entitled to an additional 30 days of unemployment, for a total of 120 days over their entire OPT period. Students who exceed the period of unemployment are considered to have violated their status.
You can avoid accruing any days towards the unemployment provision by volunteering for at least 20 hours a week in your field of study – if you do this, you never have to count any “unemployment” days. Get out there and conduct research for a professor or volunteer at a non-profit or intern at a start-up – just make sure it is for at least 20 hours per week and related to your field of study.
4. Use your OPT to find an Employer to Sponsor you for an H-1B or other visa
OPT is almost like a gift to an F-1 student because it’s 12 months of unrestricted employment. It spoils you because all nonimmigrant visas are employer specific and once you transition to another visa, you will be tied to the employer that sponsors you. Once your OPT starts, make sure you use it as stepping stone to find an employer that is willing to sponsor you for an H-1B or another visa.
5. File an H-1B as soon as possible!
With only 85,000 H-1B visas per fiscal year, getting an H-1B can be very competitive. All F-1 students need to be pro-active about the timing and planning their transition from OPT to the next visa. The H-1B is the most commonly used visa by F-1 students. With the limited number of visas and the strong demand for H-1Bs every year, it is not strategically wise to “hold” out for the dream job offer and H-1B sponsor. If you have a job offer and your company is willing to sponsor you for an H-1B, do it! Why? Once you get that first H-1B, you have been counted towards the H-1B cap. You can change jobs and transfer your H-1B as many times as you like (although it does require filing another H-1B petition with USCIS each time) without worrying about the cap again.
6. Resist the temptation to cut corners!
Every year I speak to students who feel like their backs are against the wall and feel pressured to file an H-1B and to cut corners while doing so. Employers who file H-1Bs are bound by very strict rules, such as the requirement for an employer to pay the prevailing wage for an occupation. These rules are in place to ensure that U.S. employers don’t undercut U.S. wages and working conditions. Many students and employers are tempted to circumvent some of these rules by fudging job titles so that a lower prevailing wage is assigned. Another terrible idea is to state that the job is part-time when it is really a full-time job. Why is it a bad idea to fudge your hours or to call yourself something else so that you can file an H-1B application and get the job? USCIS has a fraud and investigative division, called FDNS, which conducts about 25,000 unannounced worksite visits each year to verify that the H-1B worker is indeed working in the specified position and is being paid the prevailing wage for the occupation. These unannounced site visits are random and are typically conducted once an H-1B or H-1B extension or H-1B transfer has been approved. You don’t want to go to jail, do you?
7. It’s not just about the H-1B – there are other options!
The H-1B visa may not be the right visa for you. While it is the most commonly used visa for professionals, there are plenty of other options. Investors and entrepreneurs may qualify for E-1trade and E-2 investor visas; graphic designers, VFX artists, animators, architects, athletes, artists, entertainers, filmmakers and musicians may qualify for O-1 and P-1 visas; scientists and researchers may similarly qualify for O-1 visas; Interns and trainees may qualify for J-1 visas; multinational executives and manages may qualify for L-1 visas.
Or perhaps you are worried about the limited number of H-1Bs because of the quota? Five lucky countries have free-trade agreements with the United States that provides alternatives to the H-1B visa for professional workers. The “Lucky 5” countries are Australia, Canada, Mexico, Singapore and Chile.
Another option to consider – apply for jobs at cap-exempt organizations. Certain institutions are not subject to the H-1B quotas, so it may mean applying for a job at one of these cap-exempt organizations, which include institutions of higher education, institutions which are affiliated with institutions of higher education and non-profit research institutions. Cap-exempt organizations can file an H-1B any time of the year with no numerical limitations.
8. Think outside the box – network like there’s no tomorrow!
It’s a tough job market out there. It’s challenging to find a job, let alone find an employer who is willing to sponsor you for a visa. Yes, you can and should use your school’s Career Center, on-campus job fairs and alumni connections to find a job. You should also be using social networking sites such as LinkedIn. But as a foreign student, you should take advantage of your own network – call your local embassy or consulate in the city where you are studying. Many foreign embassies in the United States have all sorts of functions – cocktail parties, networking events – many of which are sponsored by the embassy itself or the local Chamber of Commerce. For example, the European Chamber of Commerce puts on many events that are comprised of members from the French, British, German, Italian, Austrian chambers of commerce. You may find a foreign owned company with a U.S. presence that may jump at the chance of hiring someone who speaks the native language but is U.S. educated!
9. There is a green card lottery – no kidding!
The Diversity Lottery program, run by the State Department, issues 50,000 green cards each year. The application period typically starts in October and ends during the first week of November. The application is free and must be completed online. The minimum requirements are a high school diploma, or two years of work experience (within the past five years) in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience to perform. Eligibility is based on country of birth (not country of citizenship).
Individuals born in the following countries are not allowed to participate: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.
BUT: Persons born in Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR and Taiwan are eligible to participate.
WAIT! If you are born in one of these listed countries that are not eligible to participate, but you are married and your spouse is from an eligible country, you can also participate in DV lottery by “cross-charging” to your spouse’s country of birth!
You should apply for lottery every year – you can’t rely on it, but you never know what might happen!
10. Use your resources
Take advantage of all of the resources that are out there. Stay in contact with your Office of International Students and Scholars – every campus has one. Attend their workshops and seminars; use their attorney networks, but here’s a few words of advice from someone who has been there and heard just about everything. Be careful – the U.S. system makes it incredibly difficult to live and work in the United States. So, anything that sounds too good to be true, is usually too good to be true. Also, here are some tips:
- Be careful about calling the USCIS Customer Service Center – it’s staffed by contractors – you can call ten times and get ten different answers.
- Don’t spend hours surfing the web, scouring for answers from different chat groups, etc. There is so much erroneous information out there – you will drive yourself mad from the conflicting information.
- Random strangers and friends of friends love to share their experience or what they have heard from others with you. Remember – everyone’s situation is different; what may apply to one person may not apply to you; but more importantly, by the time the information is shared with you, it may have been passed down so many times that the information is not accurate.
So, what should you do? Instead of driving yourself nuts over all of the conflicting information out there, contact a reputable attorney. Most immigration attorneys don’t charge for initial consultations. If you don’t know any, contact your school to see if it has an attorney referral list. Check in with your friends to see if they have had a positive experience with an attorney and can refer you to someone. A good attorney can usually answer most of your questions quickly, saving you from all of the chaos and confusion.