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There are many opportunities for international students to engage in meaningful, practical work experiences in the U.S. These experiences, typically in the form of internships and job opportunities, enable students to apply what they have learned in their programs to real organizations, and gain valuable experience in different career fields and industries.
There are different types of employment authorization which international students may be eligible to use, in order to engage in these practical experiences. Generally, unpaid work and internships are allowed in F-1 and J-1 student statuses and do not require any additional authorization. However, it is recommended that international students consult with their university’s international office to confirm any guidance they may have on how to avoid unfair or unlawful unpaid work arrangements.
Opportunities in which any type of work is performed or services are provided in exchange for money, tuition, fees, books, supplies, lodging, or for any other benefit, would be considered employment for the purposes of immigration law. Before engaging in any type of employment, international students need to first ensure that they have authorization to do so. This authorization may be an automatic benefit of their status, authorized by their school’s international office, or authorized by USCIS (United States Citizenship & Immigration Services).
There are various forms of employment authorization that may be available to international students. A few of the most commonly-used forms of authorization are detailed below.
International students in F-1 and J-1 student status are generally permitted to work on-campus at their sponsoring school (the school that issued their I-20) throughout the duration of their program. F-1 and J-1 students can work up to 20 hours per week on-campus while classes are in-session, and more than 20 hours per week during official school breaks and vacation quarters.
On-campus work does not have to be related to the student’s area of study, but could certainly be used to gain experience in one’s field, build one’s professional skill set, or explore other interests through various types of student employment opportunities that may be available on-campus.
F-1 students may be eligible to participate in practical training programs that are an integral part of an established curriculum, and are directly related to the student's major area of study. This type of authorized employment is called curricular practical training, or CPT. CPT can be used for internships, practicums or other short-term positions that are required for the completion of their degree, required for a particular course, or a part of a co-operative education program that their university has with an employer or set of employers.
Because CPT is not an automatic benefit of F-1 status (like on-campus work), students must apply for CPT through their university’s international office. The types of degree requirements, course requirements and co-operative educational programs vary widely across universities and the specific programs within each university. Therefore, students will first need to confirm that their specific program has a CPT-eligible element (practical experience tied to a degree requirement, course requirement or co-operative education), then apply for the CPT authorization per specific guidance given by their university’s international office.
While CPT details, availability, and application process may vary by university, here are a few standard features of CPT:
In order to be eligible for CPT, students must:
Have a valid F-1 Status.
Be full-time enrolled for one academic year before the work is performed.
Be enrolled in a degree program at an accredited, SEVP-certified U.S. institution of higher education.
Have a specific job offer that meets the school’s requirements for the relevant course, degree, or co-operative opportunity.
CPT can only be used during one’s academic program (before the end date on one’s I-20).
CPT is authorized by the university’s international office, for a specific time period and for a specific employer.
There is no limit to how many times an eligible student can engage in either part-time (less than 20 hours per week) or full-time (more than 20 hours per week) CPT. However, students who have used a total of 12 months or more of full-time CPT become ineligible for OPT (another type of employment authorization discussed further below) at the same degree level. Part-time CPT does not impact OPT eligibility.
F-1 students may also be eligible to participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT), which is temporary employment for practical training that is directly related to the student's major area of study. OPT can be used during as well as after one’s program (before and/or after the program end date on one’s I-20). F-1 students are eligible to apply for an aggregate total of up to 12 months of full-time OPT, per degree level. OPT is recommended by the university’s international office but is reviewed and approved by USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), and may generally take up to 3-4 months to be processed.
Here are a few more key facts about OPT:
In order to be eligible for OPT, students must:
Have a valid F-1 Status.
Be full-time enrolled for one academic year before the work is performed.
Be enrolled in a degree program accredited, SEVP-certified U.S. institution of higher education.
Plan to engage in work that is directly related to their area of study (however, a job offer is not required to apply for OPT).
Not have used 12 months or more of full-time CPT.
Not have used 12 months of full-time OPT at the same degree level, nor have used any OPT at a higher degree level.
Pre-completion OPT (OPT used before the end date on one’s I-20) can be part-time (less than 20 hours per week) or full-time (more than 20 hours per week). Post-completion OPT (OPT used before the end date on one’s I-20) can only be full-time.
When a student is ready to apply for OPT, they can contact their university’s international office for further guidance on the process and application materials.
F-1 students working on OPT who have STEM majors (within the fields of science, technology, engineering and math) may also be eligible to apply for a 24-month extension of OPT, called the OPT STEM Extension. The process of applying for the STEM extension is very similar to that of OPT, but the STEM extension application has additional requirements (such as a required training plan - called the I-983 - from the employer, and additional requirements regarding the employer). Students interested in applying for the STEM extension should contact their sponsoring school to confirm their eligibility and obtain further guidance on the application process. They can also refer to U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement website to have learn about STEM fields- https://www.ice.gov/ .
Campus career centers are key resources for international students who may face unique concerns during the US job and internship search. Career development professionals bring subject matter expertise for all students on topics like developing job search strategies, writing strong resumes and cover letters, and networking and interviewing effectively. For international students seeking US employment, a focus on US business norms and employment processes adds further value. In addition, career centers can offer students opportunities to develop English-language conversational skills and networking techniques, which can lead to greater confidence and articulation during interviews and employer interactions.
There is no standard formation on how a career center operates on a U.S. campus. However, some adopt a number of best practices to support international students, including:
Early outreach and education. Preparing U.S.-style resumes and application materials should be part of early career education. International students often bring adaptability, multilingual skills, and experience interacting with diverse populations - all strengths highly valued in the workplace. Career centers help students describe their experience or education in ways that provide context for US employers, as well as emphasizing the advantages of being an international student.
Training on Networking and Building Professional Relationships - An understanding of US cultural norms, along with skill in conversational English, are important for successful networking. Career Centers often partner with other resources to provide education and opportunities for international students to build proficiency and practice within a variety of forums, and also connect students to upperclassmen and alumni who can share lessons learned from similar experiences.
Preparing students and employers for experiential opportunities - Career centers can have dual roles of educating students about US employment processes, while also educating employers about misconceptions surrounding international student work authorization. Students should receive basic training on topics ranging from inappropriate interview questions to understanding their work authorization options. Resources like MyVisaJobs.com can help students to research employers who have hired international candidates.
CPT and OPT provide excellent opportunities for international students to gain valuable work experience in the US. In addition to applying theoretical principles that they have learned and receiving on-the-job training, students can truly maximize the benefits of these two temporary work authorizations.
Employers will often use this time to evaluate performance and decide whether to offer full-time employment on a longer-term basis. Therefore, this phase is key for international students to display their talent. In addition, they can learn first-hand about corporate culture and business etiquette, while also developing valuable networking contacts. Students are advised to attend all corporate events and professional development opportunities to which they are invited. They can also take advantage of any opportunities to volunteer for additional projects, which can expand their professional portfolio while also introducing them to more colleagues and potential hiring managers.
Work done under CPT and OPT authorizations is considered practical training, meaning students should not be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help. This period is also a great time for students to explore different roles and employer types that most appeal to them. Since OPT is tied to the student, as opposed to the employer, it provides an easy opportunity to switch jobs and find the position and company culture that best fits an individual.
Some important reference websites to learn about regulations while working on a student visa are EducationUSA- http://educationusa.state.gov/, U.S. Department of State- Bureau of Consular Affairs https://travel.state.gov , and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) http://bit.ly/USCISforstudents.
Amima Diagne is the Assistant Director for Student Services in the Office of International Affairs at The University of Chicago. Her current role enables her to apply her background in psychology, professional experiences in marketing, diversity programs and mentorship, and passion for education towards enriching the experiences of international students at the University of Chicago. Amima has a BA in Psychology from the University of Chicago and a MA in Industrial & Organizational Psychology from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Emily Backe worked in HR for over 17 years before moving into university career services. In her current role as Director of Career Development for the Financial Mathematics Program at The University of Chicago, she uses her HR experience to advise students on all parts of the job search process. Emily completed her BA at Valparaiso University and holds an MS in HR Management from Roosevelt University and the SPHR certification.
Zafeena Suresh, EducationUSA Senior Adviser: EducationUSA is a U.S. Department of State network of over 425 international student advising centers in more than 175 countries. The network promotes U.S. higher education to students around the world by offering accurate, comprehensive, and current information about opportunities to study at accredited postsecondary institutions in the United States. Find details of your closest EducationUSA center here-- https://educationusa.state.gov/find-advising-center.
USIEF's EducationUSA Advising Services (EAS) provide accurate, comprehensive and current information to students who are interested in pursuing higher education and scholarships in the U.S. We do not endorse or rank any college or university but guide students in their pursuit of a U.S. degree.
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