An often-asked question by prospective foreign students is whether they are authorized to work in the United States during their stay. In order to address this, we must first generally review the different classes of international students.
There are three different visas for three distinct groups of international students: F-1 (Academic Students), M-1 (Vocational Students) and J-1 (Exchange Visitor). All three types of students can work in the United States, although there are a number of restrictions and limitations.
(1) F-1 Students
F-1 Students are full-time students at accredited academic institutions that result in a degree, diploma or certificate. F-1 Students are not permitted to work off-campus during their first academic year, but may do so in one of three ways afterwards. They may engage in Curricular Practical Training (CPT), Optional Practical Training (OPT) or an Optional Practical Training Extension in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Regardless of the type of employment, it must be related to the student's area of study and it has to be authorized by both the school official (Designated School Official or "DSO") who maintains the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and USCIS.
CPT: Curricular Practical Training is a type of employment authorization available to F-1 Students who have been in the USA for at one academic year, usually at least nine months. In order to be eligible, a student must receive permission from his/her school's International Student Office or its equivalent, and obtain a signed cooperative agreement from the employer. Additionally, the student will need to secure an I-20 that reflects USCIS's approval of said employment.
OPT: Before completing one's degree, and after one full academic year, an F-1 student may take part in a pre-completion OPT. This employment must be related to the student's area of study and it can only be part-time during the academic year. After completion of studies, an F-1 Student may take part in post-completion OPT, which can be full time. A student may only have up to 12 months of OPT per academic level (ie: College and then a Master's/Doctorate). If a student has already had 12 months of full-time CPT, then he or she will not be eligible for OPT. During the academic year, employment through OPT cannot exceed 20 hours per week. To obtain OPT, a student must file Form I-20 and Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. After Form I-765 is approved, USCIS will send the student Form I-766, which needs to be submitted as well.
STEM: Usually, OPT can only go on for twelve months before it expires. However, under some circumstances, it can be extended for an additional 17 additional months. This happens when the student's degree is a STEM one, which means that it involves Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. To obtain a STEM extension, the following prerequisites will need to be met: (1) the employer must use the E-Verify program; (2) A new Form I-20 must be submitted, as well as a new Form I-765 with the appropriate filing fee; and (3) the student must have already have started his or her OPT. While the application is being processed, the student can continue to work on an expired OPT for up to 180 days.
(2) J-1 Students
J-1 Students are exchange visitors who have come for cultural exchange, or to obtain training in fields such as medicine or business. All J-1 Students must be sponsored, either by a business or a government program. J-1 Students usually can work only for their sponsors. However, in some situations, a J-1 holder can work for an employer who is not his/her sponsor. For this to happen, the work has to be closely related to the research, cannot last for more than sixth months, and the student must have the written consent of his/her sponsor. In addition to this, a J-1 Student must be in good academic standing and the work cannot exceed twenty hours per week (with the exception being during school break).
After graduation, a J-1 Student can also take part in a Practical Training Program. This allows the student to receive 18 months of training for baccalaureates, or 36 months for doctoral students. This does not require approval from the Department of State or USCIS, but it does require an approval letter from an exchange program officer, as well as the filing of Forms IAP-66 and I-94.
(3) M-1 Students
M-1 Students are those who are enrolled in vocational/nonacademic programs, with the exception of language training programs. Unlike F-1 Students, an M-1 Student can only take part in practical training after his/her program is completed. Like an F-1 Student, this OPT can give an M-1 student work authorization. However, an M-1 Student can only receive one month of work authorization for every four months of study. Furthermore, an M-1 Student has to file Form I-765 and I-539.
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