Prospective international students often tell us that a major goal they have when studying abroad is getting some work experience. One motive behind this goal could be to offset some of the (oftentimes hefty) costs of studying abroad. Another is the extra weight your accumulated work experience adds to your resume by the time you graduate. Yet others want to create pathways for permanent residency in their study abroad country of choice. Whatever your reasons, we bet that work opportunities for international students in the USA are something on our US-bound students’ radars. So, what opportunities do you have to work and study as an international student in the USA?
Job Opportunities for International Students in the USA
Can you work and study in the USA as an international student? Technically, the answer is yes, but we have to highlight - and underline, italicise, and bold - the caveats. The USA has strict rules in place about who, where, when, why, and how you can work as an international student. As an F-1 student visa holder, you have to comply with these conditions to continue living and studying in the States. Let’s break down what you need to know about work opportunities for international students in the USA!
Working On-Campus in the USA as an International Student
As an F-1 visa holder, you can only work on-campus as an international student during your first year of study. You’re eligible for jobs that contribute to the overall running of the university or any of its affiliated locations. A couple of job options to consider on-campus include:
- Library assistant
- Barista/server/cashier at campus cafes
- Teaching assistant
- Research assistant
- Bookstore clerk
- Student ambassador
- Administrative worker
At a glance, you might think only working on campus limits your options for student jobs in the USA for foreign students. But consider for a second all the different departments and units working in tandem to run a university. Aside from each university faculty and its departments, there are plenty of other administrative offices and facilities operating every day to make the best atmosphere for students to learn, research, and succeed.
So, don’t miss out on the valuable opportunities you might find to work on your home turf at your university! Whether you’re volunteering to pick up other new international students at the airport, showing new arrivals around their residence halls, or running the reception desk for your faculty’s program director, a myriad of experiences and opportunities await you on your doorstep. Graduate jobs for international students in the USA can even include working as a research assistant and teaching classes yourself! This experience is excellent if you’re planning to pursue your own research and enter teaching yourself.
How to find and apply for these posts might be your next question. Contacting your Designated School Official (DSO) may be a great place to start. Your DSO is someone involved in your study abroad journey from Day 1. They’re the ones who authorise your application to study in the USA and sign off on the Form I-20 that you can’t enter or study in the USA without. They also play a crucial role in helping you take advantage of all the opportunities you have thanks to your F-1 visa. Your DSO will be able to explain how your university specifically operates for on-campus jobs and advise you on where to begin!
There are a few exceptions to the on-campus-only rule for international students. You may get an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to work off-campus if you are:
- In severe financial need because of unforeseen circumstances affecting your ability to support yourself in the USA, such as:
- Unforeseen medical bills
- Exchange rate instability affecting your country’s currency
- Revocation of student award or on-campus employment due to no fault of yours
- Unforeseen and considerable increase in tuition fees and living costs
- Unforeseen changes to your financial support sources
- Subject to special student relief under emergent circumstances
- Recipients of an internship offer from an international organisation that is in the US and falls under the International Organization Immunity Act
Conditions for Working On-Campus
As an international student, you can work up to 20 hours (or less) every week while your classes are ongoing. During the holiday breaks, you can work up to 40 hours each week!
Working Off-Campus as an International Student
After your first year, you may be eligible to work off-campus too! There are two off-campus options you may be able to pursue:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT is training that is a compulsory component of the program you enrolled in! When opting for CPT, the training you apply for needs to be specific to the field you’re studying in. For example, if you’re studying Art History, you’ll likely secure training at a museum or gallery than at a PR firm or bank.
To be able to participate in CPT, you must:
- Be a full-time student enrolling in a program at least one academic year long
- Not be studying an English as a second language (ESL) program
- Have already applied to and secured an internship before requesting CPT authorisation
How to apply for CPT
- Look into your college or university’s procedures for CPT authorisation. Follow these procedures and then request CPT authorisation from your DSO. Remember, you need to already have an employment offer lined up before you can get CPT authorisation
- The DSO will overview whether or not you’re eligible for the CPT
- If you are eligible, the DSO will authorise CPT for you through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)
- Your DSO will print out and sign your updated Form I-20 with CPT authorisation
A couple of things to keep in mind:
- You will need a separate authorisation, for a specified period, for each employer
- You can hold more than one CPT authorisation simultaneously
- Your CPT period must end before the program end date on your Form I-20
- If you take part in a full year of CPT, you can no longer apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- You can’t begin working until you get the CPT authorisation
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
If you’re enrolling in a program without CPT as a curriculum requirement, you can opt for the OPT (pun intended). If you pursue this pathway, you may be able to work while studying, stay in the USA after finishing your program to work, or both! It depends on how you budget your time working as well as what you’re studying. Like the CPT, the OPT must also directly relate to what you are studying. Here’s what you need to know about OPT work opportunities for international students in the USA!
You are eligible to work while you study through pre-completion OPT as long as you are a full-time student enrolled for at least one academic year.
If you pursue this route, you can continue staying in the USA to work for up to 12 months after completing your program! We say “up to” 12 months and not 12 months specifically because the period for your post-completion OPT depends on whether you undertook any CPT or OPT while studying.
- If you undertook CPT for a full year, you can’t pursue OPT opportunities
- If you participated in pre-completion OPT, your post-completion OPT authorisation will last for 12 months minus the duration of your pre-completion OPT. So if, for example, you took on OPT for three months while studying, your post-completion OPT will be valid for nine months
Post-Completion OPT for STEM Students
You may get to enjoy an extension of two years (24 months) for your post-completion OPT if you studied in STEM. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) students can pursue extended OPT if they hold a degree in these fields!
To qualify for this extension, you also need to:
- Be working for employers who enrol with e-Verify. This is a system that lets employers in the USA evaluate the eligibility of their employees to work in the States
- Secure the initial post-completion OPT authorisation before requesting the extension
Work Hours for OPT
With OPT authorisation, you can work both part-time (20 hours each week) or full-time.
How to Apply for OPT
To apply for the OPT, here’s what you need to do:
- Request that your DSO recommend the OPT for you (through SEVIS)
- Fill up and file your Application for Employment Authorisation (Form I-765) along with:
- The required fee of USD 410
- Additional fees for biometrics (if applicable)
- Supporting documentation, including:
- Proof that you’re a full-time student enrolled at a SEVP-approved higher education institution in the USA
- All of your SEVIS numbers
- Proof of previous CPT or OPT authorisations and the study levels at which you undertook them
- A copy of your Form I-20, endorsed by your DSO before you file the Form I-765
- A copy of your Nonimmigrant Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94) or your passport/other travel documents
- Two passport-sized photographs
- A copy of any previous Employment Authorisation Document (if any)
- If you don’t hold an EAD, you must submit a government-issued ID
Timeline to Apply for the OPT
|Pre-Completion OPT||Post-Completion OPT||Post-Completion OPT Extension (for STEM students)|
Once the USCIS approves your Form I-765 and issues your Employment Authorisation Document (EAD), you can then apply for work
How Can A Student Get a Job in the USA?
Now that we’ve covered the work opportunities for international students in the USA, what about actually finding and securing a job? Here are some tips to keep in mind as you explore your options for both CPT and OPT.
1. Research the Right Organisations for You
Any company and role you want to work in must align with the field you’re studying. Another good place to start is researching companies with a track record of hiring international students. While your university will not secure internships and work placements for you, career services and other international student support services could direct you towards companies with job opportunities for international students in the USA. Your connections on campus can also nudge you in the right direction, so don’t be afraid to ask around!
Your research shouldn’t end with the company’s international student hiring history either. Getting to know the organisation’s values, background, initiatives, and so on adds a lot of weight to your application. You’re able to make a more informed decision about whether this organisation is the right fit for you. After all, you want to be able to see yourself working at the places you’re applying to!
Plus, knowing more about the organisation helps you create a more persuasive application as well. Prospective employers can tell apart which applicants took the time to research their organisations and put in the thought and effort into applying to be a part of its team compared to those who don’t.
2. Build Your Professional Network
Expanding your connections is one of the most promising ways of coming across work opportunities for students in the USA. Your lecturers, peers, guest speakers, friends, colleagues at on-campus jobs, can all introduce you to excellent off-campus opportunities. Creating the right connections may even mean someone in your field can put in a good word for you to help you cinch a position for an internship.
If you have already worked with an employer before for CPT or pre-completion OPT, they may be willing to continue working with you after you graduate. Getting work experience while studying helps you develop your professional network and may create additional opportunities and contacts you can follow up on to find the perfect job!
3. Put Together the Right Documents to Apply in the US
Did you know that the word “resume” does not refer to the same type of document depending on where you are? In the UK, for instance, the term “CV” is much more common for both academic and professional qualifications. In the USA, however, CVs and resumes are quite different. A CV is a very comprehensive and detailed overview of your academic and professional history. A resume, on the other hand, is a reverse-chronological document you tailor depending on the purpose of your application. This means you’d list your most relevant and recent experience first, instead of listing a complete timeline of your qualifications. Your resume would typically be a single page long - at most, two - listing the experiences suited to the organisation and role you’re applying for. Hiring managers should be able to tell at a glance that your qualifications make you a good match for their organisation.
Since the documents you might need to submit for a typical job application may be different from what you’re used to, it’s important to get some pointers and practice applying for work in a US context. Career support services at your school can guide you on writing US-style resumes and cover letters! The professional advice helps you create, structure, and optimise your application for success.
Tailoring Your Resume and Cover Letter
A key thing to note for this application is making sure you’re honest about the information you’re providing. You might not feel confident that your current experience or qualifications are strong enough to help you secure a job. But white lies or exaggeration will generally work against you rather than in your favour. Employers may ask you to elaborate on the information you include in your resume and cover letter. They might follow up with the organisations you list as part of your academic and professional experience. If you’re caught in a lie, that’s an instant rejection and certainly not worth the risk.
We discussed this next tip earlier, but it’s vital enough to repeat. Be sure to research the organisations you’re planning to apply to thoroughly. You’ll be able to write the most effective resumes and cover letters when you can draw a compelling connection between the organisation and yourself as a candidate. Hiring managers read dozens of standard application letters all the time. You don’t want to have yours tossed into a pile of barely-glanced-at applications. When writing your cover letter and mapping out your resume, spotlight your voice, identity, aspirations, ambitions, experience, why you feel like you’re the right fit for this organisation, how your values and goals and those of the company align. Employers notice the effort and thought you put in when you do.
4. Prepare for Interviews
Sending in your cover letters and resumes is one phase of the application process. If you clear this stage, the next step is an interview with your potential employer! You don’t want to walk into this meeting unprepared. If anything, how you conduct yourself during your interview could be what gives you the edge over the other applicants. Make sure you dress professionally and behave respectfully and politely.
It also helps to look into the types of interview questions to expect and practice answering them! Our biggest tip is to avoid responding with answers that you think the company wants to hear. Prospective employers in the USA will be on the lookout for independent, critical, and creative thinkers. Generic and textbook answers to their questions won’t say much about you, but thoughtful answers where you display your motivations, work ethic, personality, worldview, etc. do.
Getting Used to the US Work Culture
As an international student, you might find that the work culture in the USA takes you aback at times. In the States, academic and professional settings usually embrace an individualistic culture. This means that independent thinkers who can confidently speak their mind, voice their opinions, and describe their accomplishments - put themselves out there, so to speak - will stand out to hiring managers. If you’ve grown up in a part of the world with a more collectivistic culture, it may be a bit uncomfortable at first for you to fully own the spotlight and put yourself and your accomplishments centre stage. But don’t worry - as long as you aren’t coming across as arrogant or boastful, employers will value your ability to confidently discuss your accomplishments, ambitions, and aspirations.
Again, a good starting point is enlisting the help of your college’s career support services. They help students develop the soft skills they need to put their best foot forward when entering the workforce. They can help you mull over different interview questions and develop the best ways to answer them. Your careers counsellor can help you put your existing experience, goals, and work ethic into perspective to answer interview questions in a compelling way.
5. Work on Your Language and Communication Skills
Communication skills - both written and spoken - are among the most valuable soft skills in demand by employers today. A great communicator doesn’t just speak and write well but also grasps, processes, analyses, evaluates, and relays information well. And possessing these soft skills makes you a great addition to any workplace. After all, every field requires effective communicators!
As an international student you likely already took an English proficiency test to study in the USA. Improving your ability in the language is an ongoing process even after you arrive in the country. If you’re not fully confident in your English fluency, learning and practising language skills can enhance both your academic and professional experience! Prospective employers will already get an idea of how comfortable you are in the English language through your cover letter, resume, and interview. And this can play a big part in their final hiring decision! So, it’s completely worth your while to build up your ability in the language throughout your time studying in the USA! Not only will this help you excel in your studies - which in turn also contributes to your appeal as a candidate for any job - it also creates opportunities for you professionally.
Getting part-time work isn’t as easy in the USA as it may be in some other countries. But that doesn’t mean work opportunities for international students in the USA don’t exist. Understanding the particulars of your rights to work under your F-1 visa helps you better prepare and plan your work experience as a student. Whether this experience is a necessary part of your curriculum or an experience you seek out yourself, it’s not an opportunity you want to miss. After all, the USA is one of the biggest economic engines in the world. Leading companies and organisations across hundreds of industries in the USA are continuously changing the landscape of the global work environment. And the experience you get working in the USA makes you an excellent addition to this 21st-century workforce.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can I work in the USA as an international student?
The answer, technically, is “yes”, but you need to remember that certain conditions apply. As an F-1 visa holder, you’ll be able to work on-campus during your first year. Unless for specific extenuating circumstances, you won’t be able to work off-campus until after completing your first academic year in the USA.
After this first year, you may be able to participate in Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both forms of training must relate to your field of study. CPT is training that is a compulsory component of your curriculum, meaning you need to undertake this training to complete your program. On the other hand, OPT is, as the name suggests, optional training that you can choose to undertake alongside or after your studies.
What is the difference between CPT and OPT?
CPT is a part of your curriculum, meaning that working off-campus with an external body is a requirement of completing your program. If your program does not include CPT, you can still get some work experience while you study through OPT. You may be able to work while studying (pre-completion OPT) or after completing your program (post-completion OPT).
For CPT, you need to have a job offer secured before you can apply for CPT authorisation. For the OPT, on the other hand, your Designated School Official (DSO) must first recommend you for OPT authorisation. You also need to wait until you receive an Employment Authorisation Document (EAD) before you can start applying for work.
Note that whether you undertake CPT or pre-completion OPT affects whether or not you qualify for post-completion OPT. If you complete a full year of CPT, you no longer qualify for OPT. If you take on pre-completion OPT, your post-completion OPT length will be 12 months minus the amount of time you worked while studying. So if for instance, you worked for nine months for pre-completion OPT, your post-completion OPT authorisation would be for three months.
You may be able to secure a longer post-completion OPT if you are a STEM student. For degree holders within specific STEM fields, you can qualify for an OPT extension of 24 months!