F-1 Visa Roadmap

The F-1 visa is available to foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to enroll as a full-time student in an academic program at an accredited college or other academic institution. The program must lead to a degree, diploma, or certificate, and the school must be certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), which manages the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). SEVIS maintains records on all schools, students, and their dependents.

Foreign students who are studying in the U.S. have certain opportunities to gain practical experience while in valid F-1 status. CPT (Curricular Practical Training) and OPT (Optional Practical Training) allow students to work before graduation (CPT; pre-completion OPT) and after graduation (post-completion OPT; STEM OPT extension; CPT during a Master’s Program). OPT employment has its own distinct rules and requirements to ensure the student’s compliance with F-1 status. Nonetheless, it can be a great opportunity to position oneself for further employment options or even entrepreneurship.

F-1 Requirements

To be eligible for an F-1 visa, the applicant must meet the following requirements:

  • Full-time enrollment in an academic program at a school approved by USCIS (SEVP-certified)
  • Proficiency in English or enrollment in courses leading to English proficiency
  • Sufficient funds to cover school and living expenses during the entire proposed course of study
  • A residence abroad which the applicant has no intention of giving up

Documentation

Applicants for an F-1 student visa must provide:

  • Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. The form is generated by SEVIS and issued by the school to the applicant.
  • Copies of academic transcripts, standardized test scores, certificates and diplomas from previously attended institutions
  • Proof of financial means, such as bank statements or income tax documents
  • A passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the intended period of stay in the U.S.
  • A printout of the barcode page of Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application
  • Proof of payment of the machine-readable visa (MRV) fee and of the I-901 SEVIS fee
  • Any other documentation listed by the U.S. consulate abroad where you are applying for your F-1 visa

Applicants for F-1 status who are already physically present in the U.S., but in a different valid nonimmigrant status, may have the option to apply for F-1 status by filing Form I‑539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status, with USCIS after obtaining Form I‑20 and paying the I-901 SEVIS fee.

Admission

Initial entry may be permitted as soon as 30 days before the program start date. Admission is usually granted for the duration of the applicant’s student status, including any permitted periods of post-graduation employment. Upon completion of studies or post-graduation employment, the applicant is given a 60-day grace period to prepare for departure from the U.S. or to apply for another academic program or a different nonimmigrant status.

Family

The F-1 student’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 are eligible to apply for F-2 status to accompany or join the F-1 student in the U.S. Children in F-2 status may attend school full-time from kindergarten through 12th grade. The F-2 spouse and any F-2 child beyond the 12th grade may attend a SEVP-certified school, but only part-time. If the F-2 spouse or child wishes to enroll full-time in a post-secondary academic program, he or she must qualify and apply for their own F-1 student visa. Spouses and children in F-2 status are not permitted to work while in the U.S.

Employment Options while in F-1 Status

During their first academic year, F-1 students may not work off-campus. However, they may accept on-campus employment under certain conditions and restrictions.

After their first academic year, F-1 students may earn hands-on work experience in their field by engaging in two types of off-campus employment:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practical Training (pre-completion OPT)

After completion of their studies, F-1 students may engage in off-campus employment through:

  • Optional Practical Training (post-completion OPT)
  • STEM Optional Practical Training Extension (STEM OPT Extension)

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Internships, fellowships, practicums, or alternate work/study courses may qualify as CPT if they directly relate to the F-1 student’s major area of study, are offered by a sponsoring employer in collaboration with the student’s school, and are an integral part of an existing curriculum. CPT may be paid or unpaid, part-time or full-time, with one or more employers, but it must be authorized in advance by the Designated School Official (DSO). It is important to note that 12 months of full-time CPT will render a student ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT) after graduation, whereas a student who only engages in part-time CPT or in less than 365 days of full-time CPT remains fully eligible for the 12 months of post-completion OPT.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Like CPT, OPT is meant to give F-1 students real-world work experience that is directly related to their field of study. OPT can be performed before or immediately after completion of studies and does not require a job offer. Pre-completion OPT is limited to 20 hours per week when school is in session but may be full-time during annual school breaks. Post-completion OPT may be part-time or full-time. Both pre- and post-completion OPT require not only prior authorization by the DSO, but the student must also timely file and be approved for a work permit with USCIS by filing Form I-765.

OPT is granted for a maximum of 12 months. Any amount of OPT time used pre-completion counts toward the overall time limit and cannot be claimed post-completion. However, a student in valid F-1 status can apply for a new 12 months of full-time OPT every time he or she reaches a higher educational level. This means that an F-1 student can first apply for 12 months OPT after completion of a bachelor’s degree, another 12 months after completion of a master’s degree, and then an additional 12 months after completing a doctoral degree. During each 12-month OPT period, a student may not be unemployed for more than 90 days.

STEM Optional Practical Training Extension (STEM OPT Extension)

F-1 students who majored in one of the government-approved STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and have already been granted 12 months of post-completion OPT are eligible for an additional 24 months of work authorization. The requirements for a STEM OPT extension are as follows:

  • The F-1 student must be in a period of active post-completion OPT after earning a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in a STEM-eligible field.
  • The student and the prospective employer must complete a detailed training plan and submit it to the DSO who then recommends the extension through SEVIS and issues a Form I-20 annotated with the recommendation.
  • The employer must be enrolled in E-Verify and have the resources to provide the F-1 student with the described training.
  • The student must then timely file Form I-765 and be approved for a work permit with USCIS.
  • STEM OPT employment must be directly related to the student’s field of study, it must be for at least 20 hours per week, and it must be fully paid. The student cannot accumulate more than 150 days of unemployment over the 36 months consisting of initial OPT and STEM OPT extension.
  • The employer must provide at least 20 hours of training per week.
  • The student’s salary must be commensurate with the salary paid in the industry for similar entry-level jobs post-graduation.
  • The student must submit a self-evaluation to the DSO after 12 months and again at the completion of the training period. The employer must sign off on these evaluations.

Notably, an F-1 student participating in 12 months of post-completion OPT based on a non-STEM degree may use a prior eligible STEM degree to apply for a STEM OPT extension, as long as the STEM degree was earned within the past 10 years from a U.S. school that is currently accredited and SEVP-certified.

Also, if the F-1 student enrolls in a new program after completing the first STEM OPT extension period and earns another qualifying STEM degree at a higher level, they not only qualify for another 12 months of post-completion OPT but also can apply for an additional 24-month STEM OPT extension. However, each student is limited to two 24-month STEM OPT extensions over the course of their academic career.

Strategies/Options

Automatic Extension of USCIS Work Permit – Students applying for a 24-month STEM OPT extension must apply for a new work permit by filing another Form I-765 with USCIS before their current post-completion OPT ends. If filed timely, the OPT authorization to work is automatically extended for up to 180 days while the new I-765 application for STEM OPT employment authorization is being adjudicated.

Cap-Gap Relief – Another automatic extension is granted to those F-1 students whose prospective employer has filed on their behalf a cap-subject H-1B petition with an October 1 start date that is filed as a request for change of status (rather than a request for consular processing). This provision allows a student who is approaching the end of their valid F-1 OPT or OPT STEM status when the H-1B petition is filed to continue OPT employment until September 30 if the H-1B petition is approved. However, if the H-1B petition is rejected, denied, revoked, or withdrawn, or if the change of status request is denied or withdrawn – even if the H-1B petition is approved for consular processing – this automatic extension ends.

For example, since H-1B petitions are filed in the first days of April for an October 1 start date, a student whose OPT was set to expire on April 30, but whose cap-subject H-1B petition was filed before April 30 as a request for change of status and subsequently approved, would be allowed to continue working with their OPT work permit until September 30.

Students who are in valid F-1 status (including the 60-day grace period) when the H-1B change of status petition is filed, but whose OPT has already expired, still benefit from the cap-gap relief since it will allow them (and any F-2 dependents with a timely filed I-539 for change of status to H-4) to legally remain (but not work) in the U.S. until the H-1B petition is rejected, approved, or denied. In addition, the 60-day grace period still applies to those students whose H-1B was not selected in the lottery or selected and subsequently denied.

Strategies for Student Entrepreneurs – Many activities associated with starting a business do not constitute employment and therefore should not jeopardize a student’s F-1 status. Some examples of permissible activities are incorporating a company, conducting market research, holding or attending meetings with potential investors or business partners, and raising funds. In addition, pre- and post-completion OPT permits self-employment for F-1 students who have started their own business provided it relates to their field of study. For student entrepreneurs entering their OPT STEM extension, which requires a formal employer-employee relationship and strict fulfillment of training and reporting obligations, solutions do exist but must be carefully tailored to ensure compliance with immigration laws.

Legal and policy sources:

 Immigration policies and regulations are complex and frequently subject to change. The information contained in this roadmap is intended to provide you with a general overview and may not address your particular circumstances and needs. Serotte Law will assist you with the application and documentation process and answer any questions you may have about the F-1 visa. Request a consultation or give us a call at 888-875-8110

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