Every year, over one million international students attend colleges and universities in the United States. Nearly a quarter of F1 student visa holders engage in Optional Practical Training (OPT program), which allows international graduates to gain U.S. work experience in their field of study. This guide explains the F1 student visa as well as OPT program eligibility and key benefits.
What is an F1 visa?
An F1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa that allows international students to enter the U.S. to pursue and complete full-time studies at a university, college, conservatory, seminary or other educational institution.
To receive an F1 visa, the applicant typically has to be admitted to and enrolled in an educational program that leads to a diploma, degree or certificate. The school must also be approved by the federal government to accept F1 international students.
How do international students get F1 visas?
International students can pursue several visa options in order if they wish to study in the U.S. The majority, however, choose to obtain an F1 visa.
To secure an F1 visa, students must apply to a school approved by the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). Once admitted and enrolled in the school’s educational program, you must pay the Student Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee of $350.
At this stage, the school you attend will provide you with Form I-20 to present to the consular officer during your F1 visa interview. The Form I-20 acts as a certificate of your eligibility for an F1 nonimmigrant visa. If your husband, wife or children wish to accompany you to the U.S. during your studies, they will also be required to present their own Form I-20s. They are not, however, required to enroll in SEVIS.
After you receive your Form I-20, apply for your visa by completing and submitting Form DS-160, an Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, on the U.S. State Department’s Electronic Application Center. After you’ve filled out DS-160, print it and bring it to your visa interview. You’ll also have to pay a visa application fee of $160 and keep the receipt as proof of payment.
After securing the necessary forms and paying the visa application fee,schedule an interview with a U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country. It’s best to do this early since the waiting time for appointments tend to vary based on visa category, season, and country. You can usually expect the visa to be issued up to 120 days before the start date of your degree program. However, you won’t be allowed to enter the U.S. with your F1 visa until 30 days before your study program starts.
During the F1 visa interview, you’ll need to bring several documents:
A valid passport
Complete Form DS-160
Receipt of payment for the application fee
A passport photograph
Complete Form I-20
You may also be asked to bring additional documents to prove your eligibility for an F1 visa, such as:
In some cases, results of standardized tests will also be requested, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, GMAT or others.
Finally, you’ll have to bring documentary proof of your intent to return to your home country following the completion of the degree program as well as proof that you have the financial means to support yourself during your study in the U.S. Examples of proof of the latter include deeds to property, evidence of memberships in community organizations, and similar evidence to show your ties to your home country and your intent to return once you complete your studies.
The consular officer is typically the one responsible for approving or denying your F1 visa application. Upon approval, you may be required to pay a visa issuance fee depending on your home country and to provide your fingerprints. The consular officer will also request your passport for visa stamping and inform you when you may pick it up or can expect it in the mail.
It’s usually best not to make travel plans until you’ve received your F1 visa. Applicants who have had their applications denied still have a chance to file for a waiver of ineligibility to receive an F1 visa.
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Employment on an F1 visa
F1 visa holders who are studying in the U.S. are generally not allowed to work during their first academic year of study. Following the completion of your first year, however, you may seek employment in accordance with two limitations on your employment options. These limitations state that you must either take up a job at the school you’re studying or at an off-campus location affiliated with your school’s curriculum.
Possible jobs you may find at your school could be for businesses like the cafeteria or bookstore, which are likely to have existing contracts with your university. If you decide to apply for student job at a business that has a contract with your school and is associated with your school’s curriculum, it is considered to be on-campus work. For example, you could work at a university-affiliated research lab.
When seeking on-campus employment, however, the job must entail the provision of services to other students. Jobs that don’t directly meet this criteria may not qualify as on-campus work.F1 students are limited to working a maximum of 20 hours per week during the academic term. Outside of a term, they can work up to 40 hours per week.
As a working F1 visa student, you are normally required to report to your DSO and the Social Security Administration (SSA). The DSO will then provide the SSA with certification letters so you can receive a Social Security Number.
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What is the OPT program?
F1 visa students have the option to participate in an OPT program that provides temporary employment in an area directly related to their studies. Students eligible for this program may apply to participate in a pre-completion OPT that lasts up to 12 months before completing their academic program and up to 12 months of post-completion OPT after completing their program.
Any period that was spent during the pre-completion OPT will be subtracted from the available period for post-completion OPT. Put simply, you are allowed to participate in OPT programs for 12 months altogether. Fo example, if you held an internship for eight months prior to completing your program, you’ll have four months to participate in a post-completion program.
Types of OPT
Below is a break down of the differences between pre-completion and post-completion OPT.
You can usually start applying for pre-completion OPT as soon as you’re enrolled full-time for one academic year. You also meet the requirement if you had a different nonimmigrant status during a part of your academic year but changed your status to an F1 visa holder.
Once approved for pre-completion OPT, you may start working for a maximum of 20 hours each week during an academic term. Outside of a term, you’re free to work for up to 40 hours per week in your OPT program.
In a post-completion OPT program, you have the option of working either in a part-time or full-time position at your discretion. However, whatever period you spent to work in a pre-completion program will be deducted from the 12 months you’re allowed to work during your post-completion OPT.
STEM OPT extension
If you graduated with a degree in certain types of science, technology, engineering, or math fields, you may apply for a two-year extension of your post-completion OPT period, if you qualify.
F1 students who may be eligible for the STEM-OPT extension include those who graduated with a degree that is listed on the STEM-designated degree program list. Applicants are typically required to work for employers who use E-Verify and have received authorization for an initial post-completion OPT based on STEM degrees.
How to apply for OPT
To apply for OPT, ask your DSO to make a recommendation as an endorsement on your Form I-20 and to enter your information in SEVIS. Afterwards, file Form I-765 with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and pay the accompanying filing fee of $410. All supporting documents should be included.
When to apply
For STEM students, you may have to wait until you complete one full academic program before you can apply for pre-completion OPT. After your DSO recommends you for OPT and has your information entered into your SEVIS record, you will have to submit your application for OPT within 30 days. You will have the opportunity to apply for OPT up to 90 days before you complete your first academic year, but you will have to wait until the completion of your first year before starting your OPT employment. Applications that are submitted 60 days after the end of the academic program are usually not accepted.
For STEM OPT extensions, students are normally required to send their applications within 60 days after the DSO enters the recommendation into SEVIS. Moreover, only applications that are submitted 90 days before the expiration of the student’s current OPT employment period will be considered.
Lasty, you won’t be able to start work until Form I-765 is approved and you’ve received your employment authorization document, or EAD. If you’ve sent your application for STEM OPT extension on time and your current employment period expires, you’re automatically granted 180 days of extension. This period will automatically end once USCIS reaches a decision on your application for extension.
Cap-gap extension of OPT for pending H-1B visa petitions
Some OPT participants may wish to change their F1 visa status to H-1B, another common nonimmigrant visa status that lets you work for a sponsoring employer. Once approved, you may work for that employer for three to six years in the U.S. After a six-year period working on your H-1B visa, you’ll have the opportunity to apply for a Green Card, which lets you live and work in the country permanently.
Due to the high number of applications for H-1B visa, there’s a cap on the number of visas issued each year. After you find a U.S. employer who’s willing to sponsor you, they must then petition for the visa on your behalf. The waiting period may take a while, so it’s usually a good idea to search for an employer early on so you can start your application process sooner.
F1 visa holders with pending or approved applications for H-1B visa will usually have their F1 status extended until the start date of their H-1B employment. For you to be eligible for the cap-gap extension, your employer should file an H-1B petition during the application period and have it submitted during your OPT authorization period or within 60 days before it ends. You can learn more H-1B visa in our ultimate guide.
Both the F1 visa and OPT program offer tremendous opportunities to international students to study, learn and obtain practical, hands-on training as well as a pathway to future employment. As you prepare for life in the U.S., consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment.
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