The U.S. government takes working illegally very seriously. This page will help you learn the basics of the work authorization process.
There are limited work opportunities available in the United States for F-1 students. For this reason, before coming to the United States, F-1 students must prove they have the financial ability (e.g., present bank statements) to pay for tuition and living expenses while studying. If you decide that you want to work, the first step is always to talk with your designated school official (DSO).
If your DSO knows you are working without permission, they must report it through SEVIS and your record can be terminated. That means that you will have to leave the United States immediately, and you may not be allowed to return.
Below are the 4 main types of opportunities to work in the United States depending on your visa and program of study.
On-campus employment is work that F-1 students whose status is Active in SEVIS status may apply for. On-campus employment is specific to work that takes place on campus or at an off-campus location that is affiliated with the school. Examples on on-campus employment include working at a university bookstore or cafeteria.
Active F-1 students may apply for on-campus employment up to 30 days before the start of classes. In order to apply, talk to your DSO. If approved, your DSO will provide you with a letter of approval. Take this letter from your DSO and a letter of approval from your employer to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN). All students who wish to work must apply for a Social Security Number.
If you participate in on-campus employment, you may not work more than 20 hours per week when school is in session. If you have additional questions, please visit the F-1 Student On-Campus page on ICE.gov.
Off-campus employment is work that that takes place outside of a school campus. Off-campus employment is only available to F-1 students who have completed at least one full academic year of their program of study, and who have an economic hardship that qualifies for the Department of Homeland Security’s emergent circumstances.
To apply for off-campus employment, you must explain your economic hardship situation and receive approval to work from your DSO. If your DSO determines that the situation applies, he or she will recommend you and give you an updated Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Status.”
Once you have the new Form I-20, you must file a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” with USCIS within 30 days of receiving your recommendation.
If USCIS approves you to work, they will send you a Form I-766, “Employment Authorization Document,” (EAD) with the dates that you may work off-campus.
Please note that you cannot begin to work while the Form I-765 is pending with USCIS. If you are approved, you may work 20 hours per week when school is in session. As with on-campus employment, you must also apply for a SSN. Please see the F-1 Student Off-Campus resource page on ICE.gov for additional information.
Curricular Practical Training
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is an alternative study, internship or other type of required practicum that is offered by a sponsoring employer through your college or university. CPT is only available for F-1 students when it is part of an established curriculum within a school. CPT must relate to your program of study, however, unlike OPT and other work, CPT can be full time and is not restricted by a weekly 20-hour work limit.
In order to qualify for CPT, you must have completed one full academic year of study, unless you are a graduate student whose program requires immediate CPT. To apply for CPT, your DSO needs to authorize it in SEVIS and provide you with a Form I-20 indicating your recommendation for employment.
Please remember that all students who work in the United States must apply for a SSN.
Optional Practical Training
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a form of temporary employment that directly relates to your program of study. You can apply for OPT during your program of study, which is know an pre-completion OPT, or after you finish your program of study, know as post-completion OPT. In order to apply for OPT, F students must request approval from their DSO. A DSO makes this recommendation by endorsing a student’s Form I-20. Then the student must file the Form I-765 with USCIS, if approved, USCIS will issue a Form I-766. You cannot begin to work until you receive your Employment Authorization Document from USCIS.
You can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level, (i.e., you may have 12 months of OPT at the bachelor’s level and another 12 months of OPT at the master’s level.)
International Students and Entrepreneurship
The U.S. government considers starting your own business in the United States, also known as entrepreneurship, as work. Therefore, if you are an F-1 student who plans to start your own business in the United States, you must qualify and apply for OPT.
The OPT, and thus the business, must relate to your program of study and can occur either before (pre-completion OPT) or after the completion of a program of study (post-completion OPT). Please note, F-1 students in English language training programs are not eligible for OPT.
For more information, please speak to your DSO and visit USCIS’ Entrepreneur Visa Guide.