What are the work options like for US exchange students?

If you are an international student currently in the United States, maybe you’re thinking to yourself how to get additional income while studying? Is it legal to work or get a job while in the US on a student visa? Let’s find out if this is possible by taking a look at US rules and regulations concerning this, as well as the any restrictions and requirements of the student visa.

Many foreigners studying in the US hold an F-1 visa, which is the official term for a US non-immigrant student visa. The simple answer to the second question posed above is, yes, it is legal to work while on a student visa (F-1) as long as you meet the conditions and guidelines issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

On campus employment

This is the easiest work option for foreign students as it does not require prior USCIS approval. Most institutions require you to coordinate with the International Student department prior to being employed on campus. On campus employment means that the work must be directly for the school, or those which provide direct student services.

The following are rules that have to be met:

  • student must maintain valid status
  • while school is in session, the student can only work up to 20 hours a week
  • during vacation season, the student can work full time as long as he/she plans to register for the following semester
  • the employment must not displace a US citizen

Off campus employment

A student with an F-1 visa is not allowed to work off campus unless there is authorization from the International Student office. This authorization is somewhat difficult to obtain – there must be proof of financial hardship due to unforeseen circumstances. Examples of these are, exchange rate severely devalued, a considerable increase in tuition costs, or medical bills that have to be paid, among others. The student must also show that on campus employment is either not available, or insufficient for him/her to be able to overcome the financial hardship. The student can work 20 hours a week during school session, and full time during breaks if:

  • the student has had an F-1 status for at least 9 months or one school year
  • the student has good academic standing
  • proof of financial hardship is presented
  • proof that on-campus employment is insufficient (or unavailable) is presented

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is a work option provided for foreign students, which is similar to off-campus employment. Students can choose the OPT while they are completing their degree, or even after they graduate. The USCIS governs this area, and a student can only begin working as soon as he/she receives an employment authorization document. Several rules must be followed, such as:

  • employment must be directly related to the student’s major or degree
  • lawful F-1 status
  • OPT is only permitted for a total of 12 months
  • must be full time, if choosing OPT after getting a degree; part-time when school is in session

The common denominator regarding the different work options is maintaining legal student visa status for the entirety of its validity. Any offense against this could lead to being deported and future immigration and visa problems. If there is an area that you wish to clarify regarding your visa status, it is best to consult experts such as green card lawyers, rather than risk doing something illegal and being punished as a result of that decision.