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A Guide to Post-Study Work Visas in the USA

A Guide to Post-Study Work Visas in the USA

The US is a popular place for international students to study, live, and work. However, navigating the country's complicated visa regime can be daunting. We break it down into 8 steps and walk through the numerous visa options for students and recent graduates.
A Guide to Post-Study Work Visas in the USA

A Guide to Post-Study Work Visas in the United States

The United States is one of the most popular study destinations for international students. This is not without good reason. Besides being the home of renowned institutions such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, the United States has a thriving job market. Whether you want to work in finance, technology, or health, the United States provides exceptional avenues to hone and advance your professional skills. Companies such as Google, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer all have a big presence in the U.S. and they regularly recruit new graduates to work for them.

While it takes some effort, it is relatively common for international students who pursue their studies in the United States to stay on after graduation and gain some work experience. Some people even stay long enough and become permanent residents and eventually American citizens. While the United States generally encourages international students to return to their home countries after graduation, American industries are always keen to hire people who have unique skills that are not possessed by many. 

If you are an African student wondering how to navigate the work environment in the USA once you complete your studies, keep reading to find out all the steps involved. 

Step 1 – Acquire the Appropriate Student Visa

Your journey to the United States cannot begin until you have secured a student visa. This is usually done through the American embassy or consulate in your country. There are three types of student visas: 

  • F-1 Visa
  • M-1 Visa
  • J-1 Visa

An F-1 visa is the most common type of student visa that the American embassy issues to foreign students. To be granted this visa, you must have gained admission at an accredited university or college. The institute you gain admission to needs to be certified in the U.S. by the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP). Students with an F-1 visa are generally allowed to work during their studies for up to 20 hours per week. During holidays, they are also free to pursue paid internships that are supported via the OPT and CPT programs. 

The M-1 visa is meant for students who want to pursue vocational or technical studies in the United States. As an M-1 visa holder, you are generally not allowed to pursue work during the period of your studies. In addition, you are expected to immediately return to your home country once you conclude your studies.

The J-1 visa targets individuals who want to come to the United States to participate in work or study exchange programs that are often supported by private organizations such as the Mastercard Foundation. People who get issued J-1 visas usually receive training in the U.S. that they would otherwise not have been able to receive in their home countries. 

Step 2 – Understand the Difference Between CPT and OPT 

Once you have acquired the appropriate student visa and successfully traveled to the United States for your studies, the next step is understanding the difference between Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). For you to make the most of your time in the United States, you need to understand what these programs mean for you as an international student. 

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) gives international students a chance to participate in jobs or internships that are critical to their degree program. Generally, students receive a credit for the internship experience they pursue under the CPT program. You can only apply for CPT when you have an internship or job offer – not before. This application is made to the international student’s office in your university and it takes about two weeks to process. While there is no maximum limit to the amount of time you can do CPT, if you are utilizing it for a full-time role, it must not exceed 12 months, otherwise you will not be eligible for OPT once you graduate. It is important to keep in mind that CPT can only be used when you are a student. 

Unlike CPT, students do not need to have secured jobs or internships to apply for OPT. This program is regulated by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and it takes much longer for one to be granted approval. If you are planning to apply for OPT, you need to file your application at least three months in advance. Most universities in the United States facilitate OPT for international students who are on an F-1 visa, which means students can use this program either to pursue jobs and internships during holidays or immediately after they graduate. OPT allows foreign students to work for 12 months with the option of 24 months extension if these students have degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) majors. 

Step 3 – Secure Employment in Your Field of Study

If you want to use your OPT successfully as an international student, you need to secure a job in the United States. Under the terms of the OPT program, you are only allowed to seek employment in an area related to your studies. That means if you majored in engineering, you need to find a job in the engineering field – not in health or finance. To secure a job in the United States, you can use the resources that are available in your university. Some of these resources include the career center, the alumni network, and professional platforms such as LinkedIn and Indeed. Universities in the United States tend to have particularly strong alumni networks and these can come in very handy when you are looking for jobs. 

Step 4 – File Your OPT Application 

You can file your OPT application while looking for full-time or internship positions. Because it takes some time to get your OPT application approved, it is advisable to embark on the process as early as possible. The first step in filing your OPT application involves meeting with the designated school official (DSO) at your university. This is usually someone in the international students’ office who ensures that international students have a smooth time while navigating the study and work environment in the United States. Once you meet with the DSO, you will inform her or him of your plans to pursue either an internship or a full-time role in the United States. The DSO will then formally recommend the OPT, endorse the I-20 form, and make the required updates in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). 

Once the DSO has made the necessary update, you can proceed to file form I-765 which is basically an application for employment authorization. As you apply for your OPT, you will need to indicate the dates you will potentially start your job or internship. You will also need to provide relevant documents such as copies of your passport photo, your I-20 form, your I-94 records that show travel and arrival dates, and a fee of around 410 dollars. You can find detailed information on the USCIS website here. Once you receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD), you can legally begin working in the United States. 

Step 5 – Undertake Internship or Full-time Role

With your OPT approved and a job secured, you are now eligible to proceed with gaining some valuable work experience. Whether you are pursuing an internship or a full-time role, it is important for you to work hard and learn as much as you can. This is because the more valuable your skills are, the easier it will be for you to secure more permanent roles in the United States. 

Step 6 – Apply for OPT Extension if Applicable

Students who have pursued STEM majors usually have the option of extending their OPT for 24 months. To apply for an extension, you will need to follow the same procedure that you followed when you were applying for your OPT during the first time. STEM majors are able to work for a total of 36 months under the OPT program. If you are not a STEM major, you can only work for a maximum of 12 months before you are legally obligated to transition to another form of authorization that will allow you to continue living and working in the United States. If you are not able to change your legal status, you are, by law, required to depart the United States for your home country or a third country. 

Step 7 – Acquiring a H1B Work Visa

One of the most common routes for students who want to continue staying in the United States after the expiration of their OPT is seeking the H1B visa. The H1B visa caters for people with advanced education and specialized training. To qualify for this visa, your employer must file it for you to fill a position that cannot otherwise be filled with American workers. The process of filing for an H1B visa is quite complex: first, your employer will have to petition for a slot with the USCIS. If the petition is accepted, the H1B visa candidate will have to file a separate application, attend an interview at the nearest embassy or consulate, pay the required fee and submit the necessary paperwork. It is important to keep in mind that the H1B visa runs by a lottery system– every year, the USCIS grants only 65,000 regular H1B visas and 20,000 H1B visas for people with master’s degrees or higher. To learn more about the H1B process, visit this resource

The H1B visa is popular because it allows its holders to bring in spouses and children who are under 21 and also because it is a dual-intent visa. This means that once it expires after  the initial 3 years allowed and an additional 3 years of extension, the holder can apply for change of status to a Green Card– a document that allows someone to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. 

Step 8 – Obtaining the Green Card

If you wish to continue living and working in the United States after the expiration of your H1B visa, the most common option is to seek a permanent residency. This process is usually known as obtaining the Green Card. Just like the H1B visa, the process of obtaining a Green Card is quite complex. First, your employer will need to make a petition for you indicating your desire to become a permanent resident of the United States. Once the petition is approved, you need to adjust your status by filing form I-485. You will typically do this if you are physically present in the United States –if you are abroad, you will need to visit your local consulate and submit the required documentation and attend an interview. 

Once you are are successful in this step, you will be granted a Green Card that will allow you to enjoy most of the rights and privileges that American citizens enjoy. If you wish, you can apply to become a United States citizen at least five years after you have been granted your Green Card, and of those, you will need to have been present in the country for at least two and half years. To learn more about this process, check out this resource.

Persistence Required

Although the process of navigating the post-study work environment seems daunting, it is good to keep in mind that there are numerous resources available to help you along the way. The office of international students in your chosen university will be especially helpful in guiding you through the necessary steps to obtain the legal right to work in the United States. If you are ever in doubt about any aspect of this princess, you can always contact them at any point in your journey. 

If you enjoyed this guide, check out our other guides on scholarships, recommendation letters, and post-study work visas in Canada and the United Kingdom

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