How to legally work in the US as a student

Somebody asked me how to gain work authorization in the US as a student. I have lived here for 11 years on student (F-1) and working (H1-B) visas. Here is the quick summary I sent back about what I have learned:


During your time as a student on an F-1 visa, you can work 20 hours a week but it has to be on-campus. The best sort of job is a research assistantship or teaching assistantship, since the college will often also pay your tuition.

As far as working off-campus: the easiest thing is to apply for one-year CPT (Curricular Practical Training) during your degree, and/or one-year OPT (Optional Practical Training) after graduation. If you are doing a STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), then you can apply for a 17-month extension once your 12-month OPT is finished. CPT and OPT give you an actual EAD (Employment Authorization Document - a card) which gives you employment authorization, so now you can work more than 20 hours a week and you can work off-campus. You can even work multiple jobs, one or more of which can be self-employment.

After OPT, the easiest thing to do is get an H1B to work at a specific company. (Or marry a US citizen.) Generally a company will sponsor you for two 3-year H1B visas before sponsoring you for a green card. You can't apply for a green card directly from an F-1 visa, it is a "non-immigrant intent" visa. You can apply directly from an H1B, it is a "dual-intent visa".

Another option is to apply for an O-1 visa ("alien of extraordinary abilities") if you have some major award or accomplishment that is equivalent to national recognition in the US. However an O-1 has non-immigrant intent. If you ever want a green card, the better option is an EB-1 visa, which is dual-intent. You can then apply for a green card on the National Interest Waiver program, which allows extraordinary aliens to get fast-tracked to a green card if you can prove that it is in the United States' interest to do so. The NIW qualification can be proved by a string of high-profile publications in top journals, among other things.

There's also the green card "diversity lottery", which you should apply for every single year, since it doesn't actually count against you as an attempt to gain citizenship when they ask you at the border if you have ever sought citizenship on your F-1 "non-immigrant intent" visa (you don't have to declare dv lottery attempts): https://www.dvlottery.state.gov/ (Beware of all other sites than this one, some sites will charge you $10 to apply, this one is free and is the official site.) Applications open later in the year. Your chances at getting a diversity lottery green card range from quite high to vanishingly small depending on what country you are from.

There is also a startup founder visa that has been proposed, and the bill is, going through the system right now. You have to employ a certain number of Americans, and bring in a certain amount of funding within the first 1-2 year period for the visa to get renewed.

Here is info on the startup visa act. Everybody should consider supporting this.


The last link also talks about the possibility of working on an EB visas. Notably, EB-5 is a category for people investing a lot of money in the US. This can get you in the door if you can afford it.


Update: JBQ posted the following comments on my G+ post that links to this blog post:

Chances are, if you'd qualify for an O-1, you'd also be EB1 in the green card process and that'd probably be a very easy path.

Also, there's no benefit in waiting to apply for a green card when starting a new H-1B job. It just delays the priority date and therefore the waiting time.

Finally, the total experience doesn't matter when converting an H-1B to a green card, what matters is the experience when getting hired. Switching companies can be beneficial, as there can be enough experience to move from EB3 to EB2, while keeping the priority date. It's best to do that with more than a year left before the 6-year line, and it's best to do that with a priority date far enough in the past.

IIRC there are no specific requirements to apply for a green card.

As it was for me, the process starts with a certification by DOLETA that there are no citizens or residents to fill the job (similar to an H-1B, but a bit more thorough). Applying for this also sets the priority date.

Once that's done (a few weeks), the next step is to apply for the visa petition (proving that the employee is qualified and that the employer can pay them). That's also similar to an H-1B. That can take a few months IIRC. This is the I-140. Don't wait long as the labor certification is only valid for a limited period.

Once that's done, the next step is to wait for an available visa. There are 3 waiting lists per country of citizenship, based on the skill level. The waiting lists are shorter for the categories with the highest skills. Each list is represented by a cutoff date, and if your priority date is earlier than the cutoff date for the category you're in you're eligible for the next step.

Finally, once a spot is available, applying for an I-485 adjustment of status turns the H-1B into a green card. That also takes a few months IIRC.