Navigating the waters of the American immigration system can be confusing. For many international students, getting a visa to study in the promise land is just the first step. Getting the authorization to work there and gain some international experience after graduation is a key part of their personal development. Given that it’s such a big factor in their experience abroad, it is a shame that many students do not know more about the immigration or work authorization process before deciding on their tertiary education plans.
So how does it all work? Here’s the path of the typical international student.
You’re accepted! Now what visa do you apply for?
The visa that most students apply for is the F-1 visa. If you are married, your spouse can apply for the F-2 visa. The F-1 visa will allow you to work part-time on campus, work under practical training during and after school, and of course, be a student in the United States.
Other visa types include the J-1 visa for those who are sponsored by the government or a company and the M-1 visa for those attending vocational schools. The most common is the F-1 so the remainder of the article shall talk only about the F-1.
Step 1: The university sends you a document called an I-20 that verifies your acceptance, lists your course of study, duration of study, and the estimated cost.
Step 2: Fill out Form DS-160
Step 3: Make an appointment for an interview at the US embassy
Step 4: Pay the visa fee at the bank specified by the embassy
Step 5: Compile documentation which will include acceptance letter, I-20, passport valid for at least 6 months, proof of financial support such as bank statements and letter of support from your parents or financial aid grants, academic transcripts, any proof that you’re bound to your home country and intend to return, TOEFL scores are helpful.
Step 6: Go to your interview. Answer questions honestly, clearly, and confidently.
Step 7: Get your application approved and go back the next day to pick up your passport complete with visa!
You’re a student! School’s going great but either you want to get an internship or an internship is required for you to graduate. How do you do that legally? Apply for CPT!
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT is a status that authorizes you to work off campus when you are a student. It is really meant for students for whom an internship would be a key part of their academic training.
This is something you can apply for if:
1) You have been at school full-time for one academic year
2) Your internship is clearly in your field of study
3) There is a CPT course you can enroll in for your program
4) You only intend to work part-time (20 hours) when school is in session or full-time during the break
Caveat: You cannot do this if you are in your final quarter/semester at school. It is also not advisable to be on CPT for more than a year since it will prevent you from using your OPT time.
Procedures vary from school to school so check your international student website for instructions. Typically, it is just a matter of signing up for the CPT class, filling out a form for your international center to sign off, and getting your employer to give you a letter proving your employment.
You’re about to graduate and you want to work in the U.S. before going home. How do you stay?
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
You can apply for optional practical training or OPT in order to work legally in the United States post graduation. OPT allows you to work in an area related to your study for up to 12 months. Applying for OPT is a simple process. However, it is very easy to violate your F-1 status under OPT by accident.
How do you apply for OPT? The application is done through the international center of your school and usually just involves filling out a form, picking appropriate start dates. After you get a revised I-20 from your school, you fill out some documentation and request for an employment authorization document from USCIS. A few months later, you get a card authorizing you to work.
Beware that on OPT, you can only be unemployed for 90 days after your official start date. You also need to update the school on your address etc every 6 months.
Normally, OPT is only valid for 12 months. However, if you have a science, technology, engineering, or math degree, there is a possibility that your OPT will be extended for another 17 months.
Obtaining a STEM extension that you have a degree in one of the above fields. Your employer must also be enrolled in the E-verify program (which not a lot of employers are).
Your OPT time is running out! You love your job and you’re not ready to go back to your home country yet.
You will need your employer to apply for a work visa for you. Employers typically hire a lawyer and take care of the whole process.
The only thing that makes the H1-B process complicated is that, there is a quota system. Only 65,000 new H1-B visas are issued each year. An additional 20,000 visas are allocated to foreign nationals who have masters degrees or higher from U.S. institutions. During good economic periods, the quotas have been known to fill up within a day of applications being accepted. In bad times, the quota never fills up. During times when the quota is exceeded, a draw is conducted to determine who will get the visa.
Applications are due on 1st of April and H1-B visas are issued on the 1st of October.
What do you do if your OPT expires before October when your H1-B visa kicks in?
Nothing. The cap gap law allows you to stay in the United States and work in your “immigration limbo period”.
There it is, the typical immigration path of the international student.
*Disclaimer: Always talk to your embassy, US embassy, or immigration lawyer as each person’s circumstance can result in different outcomes.
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