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Navigating the shift from an F-1 to H-1B visa

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Obtaining an H-1B visa can allow international students to live and work in the U.S. for a longer period following graduation.

Navigating the shift from an F-1 to H-1B visa

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Many students who study in the United States with F-1 visas hope to adjust their status upon graduation from their undergraduate or graduate programs to H-1B visa statuses. 

The F-1 visa program allows eligible international students to study and live in the U.S. while they attend accredited colleges or universities. Unless these students elect to participate in the optional training or OPT program or can secure an H-1B visa, they must typically return to their home countries at the end of their degree programs. 

Obtaining an H-1B visa can allow international students to live and work in the U.S. for a longer period following graduation. Having an H-1B visa status may also provide a way for international students to eventually gain statuses as permanent U.S. residents.

Many F-1 visa holders choose to participate in the OPT program before they apply for an H-1B visa. Participating in the OPT program after they graduate offers F-1 visa holders time to gain experience in their degree fields while they search for employers willing to sponsor them for H-1B visas. 

What is an H-1B visa?

An H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant dual-intent visa for workers in specialty occupations. Three categories of workers may qualify for H-1B visas. The first type of worker is someone in a specialty occupation. These visas require that workers hold at least a bachelor's degree and work in a position that requires the application of theoretical knowledge within a given field of study. These visas are employment-based and require workers to have employers to sponsor them for their visa applications.

The second type of individual who is eligible to apply for an H-1B visa is someone who will be working in a cooperative research program administered by the U.S. Department of Defense. 

The final type of individual who may apply for an H-1B visa is a fashion model who is considered to have distinguished merit in his or her profession. The H-1B visa program is administered by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, and there are annual caps on the number of H-1B visas that are issued.

Regular OPT programs

F-1 visa students can participate in optional practical training programs (OPT) programs after they graduate. These programs allow F-1 visa holders to live and work in the U.S. for 12 months following the end of their degree. Students may engage in pre-completion OPT programs, post-completion OPT programs or both. Pre-completion OPT programs allow students to get internships and practical training in their fields of study while they are working to complete their degrees. Students who want to participate in pre-completion OPT programs must have completed one academic year of their degree programs. Pre-completion OPT participants are allowed to work 20 hours per week while their academic terms are in session and up to 40 hours per week in between terms.

Post-completion OPT programs allow F-1 visa holders to work after they graduate for up to 12 months in their degree field to gain experience. However, the amount of time that students worked in pre-completion OPT programs is subtracted from the amount of time that F-1 students can participate in post-completion OPT. For example, a student who worked for nine months in a pre-completion OPT program will only be allowed to work for an additional three months in a post-completion OPT program.

OPT program participants have the opportunity to gain experience in their degree fields and may begin working after they receive their employment authorization documents. They can also convert to an H-1B visa status if an employer is willing to sponsor their applications as long as the employer's petition is approved by the government.

STEM-OPT programs

F-1 visa holders who graduate with degrees in certain science, technology, engineering, or mathematics programs are eligible to apply for an extension of their OPT programs for up to 24 months. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security publishes an annual list of degree fields considered eligible for the STEM-OPT extension.

Applying for OPT

To apply for an OPT program, you must first ask the designated school official at your college or university for a recommendation that you are allowed to participate in the OPT program. The DSO will endorse your Form I-20 and make a notation in your record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System or SEVIS. You will then need to submit Form I-765 to the USCIS, which is the application for employment authorization.

You must apply for an OPT program within a specific time frame. If you are applying for a pre-completion OPT program, you must typically wait to apply until after your DSO has entered his or her recommendation into the SEVIS system. You are usually allowed to apply for pre-completion OPT within 90 days of when you complete the first year of your academic program.

If you are making your initial application for a post-completion OPT program, you can typicallt apply up to 30 days after your DSO enters the recommendation in the SEVIS system. The application window for the post-completion OPT is no more than 90 days before you graduate with your degree up to 60 days after you do. Once you receive your employment authorization document, you will be allowed to start working in the OPT program.

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Why apply for an H-1B visa?

F-1 college and university students may apply for H-1B visas after they graduate or while they are completing OPT. The H-1B nonimmigrant visa allows employers in the U.S. to hire international workers in specialty fields that require specialized knowledge and a bachelor's degree. There are several reasons why F-1 visa holders might want to apply for an H-1B visa Having an H-1B visa can allow you to enjoy the following benefits:

  • Legally live and work in the U.S. for three to six years
  • Gain more experience in your degree field
  • Travel outside of the U.S. if your H-1B status remains valid
  • Bring your spouse and children to the U.S. with H-4 visas
  • Become eligible to apply for a green card to become a permanent U.S. resident

The H-1B visa can allow you to live and work in the U.S. for much longer after you graduate. It also is a dual-intent nonimmigrant visa, which means that after you work in the U.S. for six years, you will be eligible to apply for a Green Card and become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.

Qualifying for an H-1B visa

You must meet several requirements before you can obtain an H-1B visa. You must find an employer to sponsor you for an H-1B visa and have an offer of a position. The position generally must qualify as a specialty occupation by meeting the following requirements:

  • Requires a Bachelor's degree or higher
  • Bachelor's degree normally required for the position.
  • Common in the industry for similar jobs to require Bachelor's degrees.
  • Knowledge required for the job is complex and specialized to the extent that it is usually associated with a minimum of a bachelor's degree.
  • Job is related to your degree field
  • Employer must submit evidence that it has obtained certification from the U.S. Department of Labor of its Labor Condition Application
  • Employer must pay you the prevailing or actual wage for the position in your area.
  • Available H-1B visa number at the time of the application.

Applying to change your status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa

There are several steps that you must complete to adjust your status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa. You must first find an employer to sponsor your H-1B application. The employer has to demonstrate to the USCIS that you will be paid the prevailing wage for your occupation and that the employer does not have enough U.S. applicants to fill the position.

After you have found a sponsoring employer and received your job offer, the employer must file the petition on your behalf. The petition must be filed on a timely basis. The USCIS has annual caps on the number of H-1B visas that it issues each fiscal year. There is a regular H-1B visa cap of 65,000 visas. However, there is an advanced degree exemption for people who have obtained Master's degrees or higher in their fields. People with advanced degrees are exempt from the annual cap until 20,000 exemptions have been issued. Because of the limited number of H-1B visas, your employer needs to file a petition for you early.

Once you have received a job offer from the sponsoring employer, the employer must file the H-1B petition as a change of status by the deadline. The employer must file Form I-129 and the filing fee of $460. The employer will also have to submit the following types of evidence with the petition to the USCIS:

  • Evidence that you maintained your valid F-1 status and are seeking a change of status
  • Evidence that your job offer qualifies as a specialty occupation
  • Evidence showing that you have the qualifications to perform the job
  • Copies of any professional licenses that you hold for the position
  • Copy of the written employment contract or a summary of the oral employment contract
  • If the position will require you to work in several locations, the itinerary and dates showing when and where you will work
  • A certified Labor Condition Application from the U.S. Department of Labor

After the petition has been filed, the USCIS will process the application. Your employer will receive notification of the date of your biometric services appointment. Once everything has been completed, the USCIS will notify your employer of its decision.

Applying for a cap-gap extension

F-1 visa holders who have filed H-1B visa petitions that are pending or that have been approved may receive a cap-gap extension. This is an extension of the F-1 visa status when your F-1 visa and your work authorization could expire before the start date of your H-1B employment or the approval of your H-1B petition. F-1 visa holders whose visas and work authorizations expire before Oct. 1 and who do not qualify for the cap-gap extension are usually required to leave the US or risk losing their status. After they leave the U.S., they can apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home country to reenter the U.S. with an H-1B visa if their employers' petition is approved.

The F-1 to H-1B application process

The process involved with applying for a change in status from an F-1 to an H-1B visa can take a long time. Because of the annual visa cap and the lengthy processing period, it is a good idea to start your job search early to find a sponsoring employer. You cannot file an H-1B petition on your own; it must be filed by your employer after you have received a job offer.

There is a short application window during which an employer can file a petition for an H-1B visa for the following year. The period starts on April 1 of each year and only lasts for a few days. The Department of Homeland Security also announced a rule that will apply to future years after the end of the fiscal year 2020 requiring employers to register electronically before they can file petitions for H-1B visas.

H-4 visas for spouses and dependent minor children

H-4 visas are available to the spouses and dependent minor children of workers who have been approved for H-1B visas. The worker whose petition for an H-1B visa will need to accompany their family members to the U.S. embassy or consulate to obtain H-4 visas for their children and spouses. An H-4 visa will allow your spouse or children to live with you while you work in the U.S. with your H-1B visa employer. Some spouses and children who have H-4 visa statuses may be eligible to apply for employment authorization documents to work in the U.S. To apply, the spouse or children must file Form I-765 with the USCIS.

The takeaway

The H-1B visa offers skilled workers from around the world the chance to work and live in the U.S. It also benefits American companies that can hire talented individuals with skills that are scarce among the domestic workforce. You can find more information about this particular visa in our ultimate guide to the H-1B visa.

While the process of applying and obtaining the visa may appear daunting, this guide is intended to help simplify the process of starting your new life in the U.S. After you have been approved for your H1-B visa and are preparing to travel to 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. 

How Nova Credit can help you establish credit in the U.S.

Nova Credit creates a global Credit Passport that helps people bring their credit history with them when they move to the U.S. While your credit history won’t be transferred to national bureau databases, creditors and lenders can use your Credit Passport to evaluate your application for a loan, apartment, and other services. 

Nova Credit currently connects to international credit bureaus in Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea and the UK.

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More from Nova Credit:
H-1B visa holders in the United States: An overview

H-1B visa stamping: H-1B visa interview documents and more

How does the “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order affect the H-1B visa?

How to check H-1B visa processing times

All about H-1B Labor Condition Applications

The H-1B extension checklist: What you should bring for H-1B renewals 

How to find out if you've been selected in the 2020 H-1B lottery

How to Find H-1B Sponsors in 2020

H-1B to Green Card process: Everything you need to know about changing your status

The ultimate guide to the H-1B visa 

How to check the status of your H-1B visa application

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