Working in the US without authorization has serious consequences, including removal and bars to reentry
By Aparna Davé
With many of the world’s best academic and vocational offerings, the United States attracts hundreds of thousands of international students yearning for good education. These full-time students are given either an F-1 or M-1 visa.
Students who enter the US on an F-1 visa must be enrolled full-time at an accredited college, university, or other academic institution, whereas M-1 visas are for students entering the US to enroll in vocational or non-academic programs. This article focuses primarily on options for international students with F-1 visas.
Read: Months-long OPT work permit delays worry international students in US universities on F-1 visa (February 4, 2021)
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) impose restrictions on F-1 students’ work authorizations, and F-1 students are generally not authorized to engage in regular employment.
However, students may present documentation of hardship to the satisfaction of the USCIS to obtain work authorizatin, with assistance from the Designated School Official (DSO) at the academic institution.
F-1 students are restricted to on-campus work for their first academic year. Students may be permitted to work on campus full-time while school is not in session, during normal summer and winter breaks. When school is in session, work is limited to 20 hours per week.
After completing their first academic year, students may engage in three types of off-campus employment: Curricular practical training (CPT), optional practical training (OPT), and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics optional practical training Extension (STEM OPT).
CPT: It consists of any alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or other type of required practicum offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school. CPT must be an integral part of an established curriculum and is subject to DSO authorization to qualify for employment.
OPT: Eligible students may apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) or after completing their academic studies (post-completion).
However, all periods of pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT. The OPT must be authorized by the USCIS (Form I-765) upon recommendation by the DSO.
Any OPTs during the study program and after graduation are combined to reach that maximum. Students may apply to participate in pre-completion OPT after the lawful enrollment on a full-time basis for one full academic year at a college, university, conservatory, or seminary that has been certified by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll F-1 students.
Read: USCIS relaxes employment eligibility verification process (August 24, 2020)
However, a student obtaining one year or more of full-time CPT may not engage in OPT after completing the school program. Typically, all post-completion OPT must be finished within 14 months of graduation, except for STEM programs.
STEM OPT: A memo by the DHS Secretary, released on Nov 20, 2014, outlining proposed executive action on immigration endorsed by President Barack Obama, including suggested changes to the OPT program.
Furthermore, on March 11, 2016, the DHS published a revised and final ruling allowing students with STEM degrees who meet other specified requirements to apply for a 24-month extension of their post-completion OPT, giving STEM graduates a total of 36 months of OPT.
The 24-month extension replaced the prior 17-month STEM OPT extension available to STEM students. The USCIS finalized the proposed rules on March 11, 2016, and eligible students could then apply for a 24-month STEM OPT extension as of May 10, 2016.
In short, a student can apply for a 24-month STEM OPT extension of the post-completion OPT employment authorization if an F-1 student
is engaged in a STEM degree included on the STEM Designated Degree Program List.
Or is employed by an employer enrolled in and is using E-Verify and has received an initial grant of post-completion OPT employment authorization (EAD) based on a STEM degree.
If a student files the STEM OPT extension application on time and if the OPT period expires while the extension application is pending, USCIS will automatically extend the employment authorization for 180 days.
A post-completion OPT option exists for students on M-1 visas, but it is significantly more restrictive than for F-1 students. Unless otherwise specified, OPT is understood to refer to OPT for F-1 students.
In certain circumstances, F-1 students are eligible to receive a “cap-gap” extension when they have an approved F-1 OPT/STEM OPT or are in their 60-day grace period and have an approved or pending H-1B petition with a start date of Oct 1.
To be eligible for a “cap-gap,” the H-1B petition must be filed before the expiration of the OPT or within the 60-day grace period. A student’s work authorization will continue until Sep 30 if it expires after the H-1B petition filing.
Finally, as a word of caution, working in the United States without authorization has serious consequences, including removal from the country and bars to reentry.
Read: USCIS released revised editions of Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization (September 8, 2022)
Therefore, students must understand the different kinds of employment authorizations available and seek advice from their institution’s DSO on a regular basis.
The United States offers countless educational opportunities and even more career opportunities. There are options for international students looking for this through an F-1 or M-1 visa, but each path must be taken with care.