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International Students: US Employment Options After Graduation

Education Planning H1-B F-1

Whether you are just beginning your education at a United States institution of higher learning or you’ve yet to decide, knowing your employment options in advance will help determine how long you can stay in the United States after graduation.

Employers sometimes find that hiring international students is costly and time-consuming so the easier you can make the process for them, the greater your chances of securing a job after graduation. Some employers, especially smaller firms, are often uneducated about the process which is more reason for you to understand your options.

This can be a stressful and confusing process to maneuver. However, when you know the rules and understand the timelines, it can be easier for both you, your school and your potential employer.

It’s also important to understand that there are fees and documentation associated with US employment options after graduation. Immigration services, your school, and even your future employer will set deadlines that you must meet to qualify for employment. A colossal mistake students make is underestimating how long the process takes and not preparing themselves if they do not secure a job within the required time period.

NOTE: This guide  is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to nor does it serve as legal advice.

Who Can Assist You

Start with your Designated School Official (DSO) and the college Career Center. Schools that welcome international students are required to have staff who are trained to meet the needs of nonimmigrant students. Don’t stop there. Connect with resources outside of campus to discover unadvertised job openings. Career fairs, employer open houses, and alumni can be fantastic resources for job leads. Internships, externships, curricular or occupational practical training are great ways to get your foot in the door for employment after graduation.

If your goal is to gain employment in the United States after graduation, it’s essential to know how employment during active school enrollment can better position you for success.

What Is Curricular Practical Training (CPT)?

Curricular practical training (CPT) is program specific training, only available to F-1 nonimmigrant students, that is completed via an internship or practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through agreements with a post-secondary educational institution. It must be a required part of the training curriculum, and the student must receive credit for CPT.

Students who complete CPT will have an established relationship with an employer before graduation which may make the process of obtaining employment post-graduation much easier.

CPT Eligibility Requirements


Generally, you must be enrolled for one full academic year which can include time spent in other programs of study as long as there were no breaks between programs. The only exception is for graduate students whose programs require immediate participation in CPT. For example, Harrisburg University states that CPT is an integral part of their Master of Science degree programs. These students may begin CPT during their first semester of the program once approvals have been granted.

Why CPT May Work For You

Students may work as few or as many hours as needed under CPT. Hours are usually determined by the prior agreement between the employer and the institution and any OPT training limitations. Compensation for work performed under CPT is unrestricted and is not a factor when determining eligibility for CPT.

As with all nonimmigrant statuses, F-1 nonimmigrant students must maintain status while completing CPT. This means that the student must remain enrolled in a full course of study. Schools often consider a full-time internship as full-time enrollment, but students should confirm ahead of time. Since this training designation is tied to curriculum requirements, Department of Homeland Security adjudication is not required, and an Employment Authorization Document is not needed.

Additional CPT Considerations

Limitations

Interested in Optional Practical Training (OPT) down the line? Be careful. Students who complete 12 months of full-time (40+ hours per week) CPT are then ineligible for OPT at the same educational level. For example, an undergraduate student who completes full-time CPT will not be able to complete OPT at the undergraduate level.

Revised Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (Form I-20)

You cannot begin work until the Designated School Official (DSO) has updated your Form I-20. You should receive a revised Form I-20 signed by the DSO which you must retain for your records.

The updated form will contain:

•  Employer’s name

•  Employer's location

•  Dates of work authorization

•  Employment status (full time or part time)

Sample Listing of Colleges With CPT

Goldey-Beacom College

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology

Stratford University

Sullivan University

Virginia International University

What Is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

Optional practical training (OPT) is another type of practical training available to F-1 nonimmigrant students. Training must be directly related to the student’s major. For example, you cannot be a graphic design major and work as a journalist. F-1 nonimmigrant students may apply for either pre-completion OPT or post-completion OPT. Some students may be eligible for a 17-month extension of post-completion OPT (a.k.a. the STEM Extension).

Pre-completion: Prior to a program of study completion or graduation.

Post-completion: After program of study completion or graduation.

Have you completed all coursework, excluding a thesis or equivalent? Prior to a regulatory change in 2008, you would need to apply for pre-completion OPT and roll it into post-completion OPT. Updated rules do not allow students to choose between pre or post-completion OPT.

Does the above scenario describe your current circumstances? If you apply for pre-completion OPT, you can work full time, are not subject to unemployment provisions, and may receive a program extension. However, you cannot apply for the STEM Extension from a period of pre-completion OPT and are ineligible for the Cap-Gap Extension of OPT which we will explain shortly. (See section below: What Is An H-1B Working Visa?)

If instead, you apply for post-completion OPT, you:

  • can work full time;
  • may apply for the Cap-Gap Extension; and
  • may apply for the STEM Extension, if eligible.

Unfortunately, you will be subject to unemployment provisions and are unable to receive an extension of your program.

Students interested in post-completion OPT must submit the Application for Employment Authorization (I-765) before the 60 day grace period following the end of their program.  

OPT Eligibility Requirements

Similar to CPT requirements, F-1 nonimmigrant students must be enrolled full time for a full academic year before becoming eligible for OPT.

Why OPT May Work For You

F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) differs from Curricular Practical Training (CPT) in significant ways:

 Optional Practical Training:

•  is not necessarily part of the educational program;

•  requires Department of Homeland Security adjudication;

•  allows students to participate in a total of 12 months of OPT at each education level; and

•  allows for a 17-month extension of post-completion OPT for eligible students.

F-1 nonimmigrant students may apply for pre-completion OPT as early as 90 days before completion of a full academic year. The full academic year may include study in other programs as long as there were no breaks between programs.

Additional OPT Considerations

  • Part-time work counts toward the maximum 12 months but only at one-half the rate of full-time employment.
  • Optional Practical Training does not count as part of the required full-time course load.
  • Per week work limitations apply:
    • You cannot exceed 20 hours per week when classes are in session.
    • You can work more than 20 per week when classes are not in session.
  • Your Designated School Official does not need confirmation of a job offer before authorizing OPT.
  • Unemployment Provisions:
    • No more than 90 aggregate days of unemployment during post-completion OPT and 120 days of unemployment if granted the 17-month extension.
  • Students who fail to submit the Application for Employment Authorization (I-765) before the 60-day end of program grace period will have their application denied by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS).
  • Training under this designation must be completed within 14 months of the program end date, and you may only work for 12 of the 14 months. The extra two months act as a buffer for administrative processing.
  • Students cannot begin work without an approved Employment Authorization Document.

The F-1 student has ultimate responsibility for ensuring all documentation is submitted timely to the USCIS Service Center via mail or by E-Filing. Students must work closely with the institution’s Designated School Official to ensure the following documentation is either mailed or submitted using E-Filing:

  • An updated and signed Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status)
  • A completed Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization)
  • The USCIS adjudication fee
  • Any necessary supporting documentation

OPT Approvals and Denials

The adjudication process should not take longer than 90 days. If it does, students should immediately contact USCIS regarding the status of the application.

If the application is approved, the student may stay for the duration of the post-completion OPT plus 60 days. USCIS notifies the student of its decision and confirms the dates of approval for OPT.

An Employment Authorization Document allows a student to work full-time or part-time:

  • Caps at 20 hours a week when classes are in session
  • More than 20 hours a week when classes are not in session
  • More than 20 hours a week during post-completion OPT

If an application for work authorization is still pending approval after the 60-day end of program grace period, the student must be prepared to leave the United States in case the request is denied.

USCIS notifies you if the application is denied. You cannot work without an approved Employment Authorization Document.

What Is A STEM OPT Extension?

STEM OPT Extension is a 17-month extension for F-1 nonimmigrant students currently on a post-completion OPT. The key qualifier is that this type of OPT is only available for students who have earned a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in a science, technology, engineering, or math field included in the list of designated STEM degrees.

STEM OPT Extension Eligibility Requirements

You must:

  • already be on an approved period of post-completion OPT.
  • have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher in a field listed on the STEM Designated Degree Program List.
  • have a job or job offer from an E-Verify employer.  Such employers are registered and in good standing with the Department of Homeland Security E-Verify system.

Why STEM OPT Extension May Work For You

As long as you are otherwise eligible, this OPT requires that you work at least 20 hours per week which ensures at least a baseline set of earnings.

Additional STEM OPT Extension Considerations

You will have to report to your Designated School official any changes related to your employment such as: 

  • Employer name
  • Employer address
  • Job title or position
  • Supervisor name and contact information
  • Employment start-date
  • Employment end-date

Even if there are no changes, you must report to your Designated School Official every six months.

The F-1 student has ultimate responsibility for the timely submission of all documentation to the USCIS Service Center before the end of the post-completion OPT. Applications received after the post-completion OPT will be denied so students must work closely with the institution’s Designated School Official to ensure the following documentation is either mailed or submitted using E-Filing in advance of the deadline:

  • An updated and signed Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status)
  • A completed Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization which includes employer’s E-Verify information)
  • The USCIS adjudication fee
  • Any additional supporting documentation

You can mail the application to the USCIS Service Center or use E-Filing up to 120 days before the requested start date of employment.

Due to potential lengthy processing times, students may continue working for up to 180 days or the date of the decision, whichever is earlier.

STEM OPT Extension Approvals and Denials

If the application is approved, the student may stay for the duration of the STEM Extension plus 60 days. USCIS confirms the dates of approval for OPT.

If an application for work authorization is still pending approval after the 60 day grace period, you must be prepared to leave the United States in case the request is denied.

USCIS notifies you if the application is denied. You cannot work without an approved Employment Authorization Document.

What Is An H-1B Working Visa?

The H-1B nonimmigrant status is an employer-initiated status that allows you to remain employed at a company for up to three years. There is a fiscal year limit to the number of H-1B Visas that are granted by the USCIS, so there are no guarantees of employment. F-1 nonimmigrant students may be eligible for an H-1B Visa if they hold technical expertise in a specialized field.

Once your post-completion OPT expires, the employer may hire you if they file an H-1B petition on your behalf. Timelines can be tricky and must be followed to prevent unnecessary delays in continued employment.  While the petition is pending, you will need to work with your Designated School Official to ensure they have updated your record to show you are pending a decision regarding the start of the H-1B status. During this period, an Automatic Cap-Gap Extension OPT should be reflected on an updated Form 1-20 to show the extension of the OPT. The Automatic Cap Gap Extension is an automatic extension of the F-1 nonimmigrant status and/or post-completion OPT employment which ensures you maintain legal status with USCIS.

Why You Need A Social Security Number

You will need to obtain a Social Security number before starting work. Social Security Cards are available at no cost to the applicant. An in-person application at a local Social Security Administration (SSA) office is needed. Complete Form SS-5 (Application for a Social Security Card) and submit it along with the following documents:

  • Revised Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status -updated and endorsed for practical training)
  • Valid Passport
  • I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record) card; or, a copy of your F-1 admission stamp in your passport and a printout of your electronic I-94 information

SSA does not accept photocopies of documents or receipts showing that you applied for a document. Required documents must either be the original version or copies certified by the issuing agency.

You Got The Job - Now What?

Ensure that you meet all requirements to maintain your updated or new nonimmigrant status. Remember that the OPT designations are incidental to your status. That is, they are only granted with the understanding that you must meet the original requirements of your F-1 nonimmigrant status. 

If you were granted an H-1B Visa, congratulations! Be sure to comply with all nonimmigrant status requirements and work with your employer to obtain possible extensions.

What To Do If You Don't Find Work

You must be prepared to return to your country of origin if the Employment Authorization Document is denied.

Final Thoughts

Students must have a plan and work closely with the Designated School Official and potential employer to obtain the best possible outcome as they pursue employment in the United States after graduation. Just as the process to obtain the initial student visa required the completion of various forms, the payment of required fees, and the meeting of strict deadlines, the path to securing employment after graduation follows a similar trajectory. We encourage you to keep all documentation in a safe place and remember to keep abreast of any changes to reporting requirements for international students.


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