F1 Visa Work Options: An Immigration Lawyer’s Thoughts

F1 Visa Work Options: An Introduction

Many international students in the U.S. ask the same important questions: Can someone on an F1 visa work? Is there such a thing as an F1 visa work permit?  Is there such a thing as F1 visa work authorization?  The short answer is that an internationals student on an F1 visa can work in the limited circumstances described here.  If you’re looking for longer-term options for F1 students to remain in the U.S., or how to go from an F1 to an H1B, we can help you there too.  In this article we discuss a host of F1 visa work options, including work done off campus, on campus, freelance, owning a business, investing in stocks, and volunteer work.



Does an F1 visa allow you to work?

Can a student on an F1 visa work? Yes, but most of the time you will need express authorization from immigration officials or from your school.  In other words, the general rule is you need prior consent to work on an F1 visa. Thus, a word of caution: an F1 student that works without permission can lose his or her F1 visa status.

But let’s begin with the exception to the rule – when a student on an F1 visa may work without official approval.

Can an F1 student work on campus?

Yes. Working on campus is the F1 visa work option that has the fewest restrictions.  This is because on-campus work does not require advance permission from government immigration officials.

There are, however, restrictions on F1 students’ on campus work options.  Some may be imposed by the school you attend. For example, many colleges require that its International Student Office approve on-campus F1 visa employment. For this reason, it’s important to always check with the International Student Office before you look for work on campus.

Even if the International Student Office says you can work on-campus, keep in mind that USCIS has certain rules that you have to follow even if you don’t need its explicit approval.

  • You must maintain valid F1 visa status. This means: follow all the requirements of your F1 status and commit no violations. (Note, your F1 status is different from your F1 visa. Your F1 visa is in your passport; it is what you presented to enter the U.S. Your F1 status is what allows you to stay.  Keeping your F1 status requires that you enroll in classes and not commit violations after your last entry. It’s possible to
    have an expired F1 visa but be in valid F1 status.)
  • You can only work 20 hours a week while classes are in session and up to 40 hours a week during breaks or when school isn’t in session.
  • The F1 visa on-campus work cannot take a job away from a U.S. worker.

The types of on-campus jobs also vary quite a bit. It may include administrative roles, food service, tutoring or even working with athletic teams. Again, before you apply to work anywhere on-campus, contact your International Student Office for more information.

Can an F1 student work off campus?

An F1 student can work off-campus in certain circumstances. There are two main options, both of which require prior approval by immigration. The first is Curricular Practical Training, or CPT for short. The second is Optional Practical Training, or OPT for short.  There is a third, less common, way to work off campus with an F1 visa, by showing that if you cannot work you’ll suffer extreme economic hardship.  We will address that option last.

Here are the two most common ways international students on F1 visas work in the U.S, CPT and OPT. Let’s take a look at each one:

What is F1 CPT?

CPT stands for Curricular Practical Training.  CPT allows international students on F1 visas to work off-campus when it’s required by their degree programs. For example, if your degree requires that you do an internship off-campus then CPT is most appropriate.

Often times, you have to enroll in a class for CPT. The exact procedure depends on your university and the associated academic program. The thing to remember is that CPT must be required for your degree or academic credit and you can get paid for the work.

Here’s how immigration rules break down the CPT requirements:

1. You must have been in valid F1 visa status as a full-time student for a one year prior to CPT. (There’s an exception for graduate students when a program requires CPT to start immediately.)
2. A course must require that you work a CPT job to get academic credit, or your degree program must require it.
3. You must have a job offer that qualifies you for CPT.
4. The CPT job offer must be in your field of study.

What is F1 OPT?

OPT stands for Optional Practical Training.  It is an F1 visa work option, that allows an international student to work off campus.

How do you apply for OPT?

To work an OPT job, the school must first recommend to USCIS (immigration officials) that you receive permission to work in the U.S.   The school makes its recommendation on Form I-20 and sends it to immigration with a Form I-765. The Form I-765 is a request for a work authorization document or work permit. If USCIS approves your work permit then you will get a card in the mail and can use it to work off-campus under OPT.

Note: You are not eligible for OPT if you have received authorization for 12 months of full-time CPT, or if you have already completed OPT at the same degree level.

What are the types of OPT?

There are two types of OPT, Pre-Completion OPT (before you graduate)  and Post-Completion OPT (after you graduate). Pre- and Post-Completion OPT share some common requirements. So no matter which one you do, you must comply with the following:

1. OPT work must be “directly related” to your academic major.
2. You must be in valid F1 visa status to apply for OPT.
3. You must apply for OPT before completion of all work towards a degree.

As for the differences between the two, Pre-Completion OPT is more restrictive. If you are still in school, then you’re only allowed to work 20 hours per week. When school is not in session then you can work up to 40 hours per week.

This is different than Post-Completion OPT, which allows up 40 hours per week of employment for up to 12 months. Note: if you’re in an academic program related to Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) then you can get a 24-month extension past the initial 12 months of work authorization. You should check with your International Student Office to confirm whether you qualify for a 24 month STEM extension.

What is “Severe Economic Hardship” for F1 Students?

You may be able to work on your F1 visa if you can demonstrate “Severe Economic Hardship.” This requires showing immigration that you need a work permit based on financial hardship that is through no fault of your own. Some common examples are:

  1. You lose your financial aid unexpectedly through no fault of your own.
  2. Loss in value of the currency from your country.
  3. Unexpected hardship such as an illness that results in large medical expenses.

Some examples of things that are not considered severe economic hardship for F1 visa work
permission are:

  1. Your financial sponsor retires or have increased expenses
  2. Loss of financial aid due to your own actions
  3. Loss of scholarship because time granted the scholarship has expired
  4. An increase in your school’s tuition.

Can F1 students make passive income?

The short answer is that a student on an F1 visa can have passive income. Note, this is different than if a student on an F1 visa works. In other words, passive income is money you make without actively engaging in something or being employed by a U.S. company.

But be careful. If you do earn passive income on an F1 visa, immigration may still call this “work.” If this happens then you could be in violation of your F1 visa status. Always check with your International Student Office before taking part in anything in which you make money.

To help understand the concept better, let’s review some specific examples of passive income for F1 international students.

Can F1 Students Own a Business?

Surprisingly, if you’re on an F1 visa then you’re allowed to start a business. However, you cannot actively run your business. What does this mean? It means that you can’t do anything considered taking part in the day-to-day operations. To avoid issues, an F1 student can own a business by hiring someone to manage its operations.

But be careful. Even if you don’t run the business, official tax documents could tell a different story. As an F1 visa business owner, you will need to file taxes with the U.S. government. The taxes must list the business income as passive income to avoid immigration issues. This is because immigration officials sometimes request tax returns to make sure that students on F1 visas haven’t worked. So if your tax documents list the money earned as though you’re an employee of your own business then you could risk losing your F1 visa status.

Bottom line, starting your own business on an F1 visa can be very risky. You should consult an experienced immigration attorney, your International Student Office and a tax accountant before you do so.

Can F1 Students Trade Stocks?

An international student on an F1 visa is allowed to invest in the stock market. Thus, F1 students can invest in stocks and day-trade. There is no specific law against this, and it’s considered passive income.

But be careful. Immigration could see it differently depending how the income is listed on your tax filings. If the tax filings imply that it’s not passive income then you as the student on the F1 visa could lose your status. In other words, immigration could think that you  were self-employed and worked without permission.  Trading stocks cannot appear to be a business or a job.

For that reason, a good rule-of-thumb is to make sure that your day-trading is a “hobby.” The U.S. Department of Labor defines a “hobby” as something you spend less than 500 hours doing in one year. If you want to day-trade on an F1 visa then it should be listed on your tax returns as a “hobby” assuming that you spent less than 500 hours doing it. There’s still a risk, however. If you’re studying something like finance or business, Immigration could still call it “work” because it’s so closely related to your degree of study.

It’s, therefore, a good idea to consult an experienced immigration attorney and a tax accountant before start day-trading.

Can F1 Students Do Freelance Work?

Working freelance on an F1 visa is strictly prohibited, unless you have OPT or CPT. Freelance work or contract work is considered a form of employment by immigration authorities.

Can F1 Students Make Money Through Social Media?

F1 visa work options don’t typically include self-employment. Monetization of a YouTube channel, Instagram page or other social media profile while on an F1 visa could be considered self-employment. Such actions could be a violation of your international student status and result in problems now or in the future.

In addition, paying royalties to these social media platforms while you make money from your profile could be considered employment and a violation of your F1 visa.

Bottom line, earning money while on a F1 visa without government permission is a gray area. Students are advised to be cautious when engaging in this type of activity.

Can A Student on an F1 Visa Volunteer?

Volunteering by an international student on an F1 visa is permitted and encouraged by immigration! But remember that a student on an F1 visa cannot receive any form of income from the volunteering.

You also can’t volunteer if the position is one that the company would have otherwise hired someone for the position.

For some great examples of volunteer work that F1 students can do without issue, read more here.

Before you begin volunteering on your F1 visa, ask yourself the following questions about the opportunity:

  • Are the services performed for civic, charitable or humanitarian purposes?
  • Will  the services performed be entirely voluntary, with no direct or indirect pressure by the employer, with no promise of advancement and no penalty for not volunteering?
  • Are the activities predominately for the individual’s own benefit?
  • Does the individual impair the employment opportunities of others by performing work that would otherwise be performed by regular, paid employees?
  • Does the volunteer provide services that are the same as services provided by a paid employee?
  • Is there no expectation of compensation either now or in the future for these
  • Do the activities take place during the individual’s regular working hours or
    scheduled overtime hours?
  • Is the volunteer time insubstantial in relation to the individual’s regular hours?

Other options for F1 Students

If you are looking for immigration options over a longer period, be sure to consider two big ones:

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