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How Can International College Students Make Money In The U.S.?

Updated on August 31, 2021 10:38 am
Students presenting their countries with flags

Many international college students in the United States look for part-time jobs while pursuing their education. It can be highly beneficial to students both economically and professionally.

The cost of education in the U.S. is very high, students work to cover part of their fees and living expenses. It is a great way to gain work experience in the field of their study, build a solid resume, and gain important skills that will immensely help when they start applying for jobs in the future.

Such benefits encourage both American and international students to apply for jobs during college.

The good news is that there are several on-campus and off-campus jobs for international students albeit within the terms of their visas (more on this later). 

Let's understand visa requirements for international students.

To study in the U.S. as a full-time student, international applicants must obtain a student visa. Most foreign students in the U.S. need an F-1 visa or an M-visa.

More on the F-1 visa process.

Before applying for a visa, applicants are required to be accepted for enrollment in a US university. Only then can they apply for a visa and once the visa is approved they can travel to the U.S. to study.

F-1 Student Visa

The F-1 visa is needed to study at US universities, colleges, high schools, elementary schools, language training programs, or other academic institutions. The school or institution must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to enroll F-1 students. An F-1 visa is also needed when the course of study is above 18 hours per week.

M Student Visa

The M-visa is required to study in vocational or non-academic programs or training at US universities.

Both the F-1 and M visas can be issued up to 120 days before the start date of a course of study and students can enter within 30 days from the start date on the I-20 form.

(I-20 form is a certificate of eligibility for nonimmigrant student status issued by a Student and Exchange Visitors Program or SEVP-certified school that acts as proof of enrollment to a full-time study program. It also states that there is sufficient financial support for the entire duration of the study program.)

Making Money In The U.S. As An International Student

For international students, working in the U.S. comes with certain restrictions. There are two types of jobs available: on-campus and off-campus. F-1 visa students are not allowed to work off-campus during the first academic year but can apply for on-campus jobs under certain conditions.

Students should know that there might not be a specific hiring cell for student jobs. They will have to visit individual offices or departments and ask for information or visit the career services of their university. Networking can be an effective tool to know about job opportunities. Societies and Clubs can be a great place to meet other students that may share information on student jobs. Online portals like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, Craigslist, can help them find jobs.

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On-Campus Jobs

As the name suggests, on-campus jobs are jobs available inside the campus, or at an off-campus location but affiliated with the university/college. Such jobs may include working as a teaching or research assistant, language tutor, campus tour guide, student ambassador, IT support, or in the university bookstore, cafeteria, or on-location commercial centers that provide on-campus services.


Rules For On-Campus Employment With Student Visa

  • Must maintain valid F-1 visa status
  • Not allowed to work off-campus
  • Can work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session
  • Can work full-time on campus (~40 hours per week) on-campus during holidays and vacation periods if enrolled for the following semester

Points To Consider For On-Campus Employment

One important tip while looking for on-campus jobs is that students should apply for jobs where they can gain valuable skills such as communication skills, computer skills, or the ones that will eventually lead them to a better job. For example, working as a grader can be a stepping stone to become a teaching assistant.

Another great tip is to look for a stipend position. For instance, posts such as Research Assistant (RA) or Graduate Student Instructor (GSI), or Student Ambassador are generally given a stipend and other perks.

There is a limit to the number of hours one can work at a job (maybe a maximum of 7 hours per week as a tutor). Students can have a second job (say $2500 per semester as a RA) to increase their earnings.

The students will be required to pay tax on earnings from on-campus jobs. Students may be exempted if the student is filing returns and paying tax in their home country and their home country has a tax agreement with the U.S. to avoid double taxation.

International Student Work-Study Programs

International students are not eligible for Federal Work-Study programs. The work-study program can be considered as a sum of money that an institution has to give employment to students who need financial assistance to help cover educational expenses.

Institutions have the liberty to decide the allocation of the funds to departments or offices around campus that need employees. A percentage of the students' earnings comes from the federal/state funds and the rest is paid by the student's employer.

The good news is that universities can have separate funds for international students and students who are not eligible for federal work-study. Most importantly, they should speak to their designated school official (DSO) if they are interested in applying for such jobs.

DSO is an authorized person that maintains the Student and Exchange Visitor Information (SEVIS).

Off-Campus Jobs

Off-campus jobs are available outside the campus of the university. It is only available to F-1 students who have completed at least 1 full academic year of their course of study or on a case-by-case basis of the students such as severe economic hardship that meets the criteria for the Department of Homeland Security's emergent circumstances. M-1 students may take up practical training only after the completion of their courses.

The off-campus employment must be directly related to the student's field of study and must be authorized by their DSO and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

Types Of Off-Campus Jobs

There are 3 types of off-campus jobs for F-1 students:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT): Pre-Completion or Post Completion
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)- Optional Practical Training Extension

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

CPT temporarily employs international students with an F-1 visa in the area related to their study. CPT employment is an integral part of the established course curriculum that enables students to work in a paid or unpaid internship or cooperative (co-op) education program. Students can gain practical experience in their major through CPT.

CPT can be part-time (20 hours or less per week) or full-time (20 hours or more per week) and must be completed before graduation (before the course end date on the Form I-20).

CPT must be authorized by the DSO in SEVIS before the student can begin work. Students will have to secure the position before CPT can be authorized. There can be more than one CPT authorization at the same time. Working full-time for 12 months in CPT eliminates a student's eligibility for OPT.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is temporary employment for F-1 students for up to 12 months in the related field of their study. International students with F-1 visas who have completed 1 academic year can apply for OPT.

OPT needs DSO approval and students can begin employment only after the student receives the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS (can take up to 3 months). Students can apply for OPT EAD even before securing a job offer.

Students are allowed to complete the OPT before the completion of their studies (pre-completion) and/or after completion of their studies (post-completion).

USCIS will deduct the period of pre-completion OPT from the post-completion OPT authorization period. (For example: If pre-completion OPT was for 10 months, only 2 months is available for post-completion OPT).

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Pre-completion OPT

  • Must be enrolled on a full-time basis for 1 full academic year
  • May work part-time (20 hours or less per week) while school is in session
  • May work full time (20 hours or more per week) during holidays and vacations if they are enrolled for the semester after the break

Post-Completion OPT

  • Must complete the entire course
  • May work part-time or full-time 
  • Post-completion OPT applications must be submitted to USCIS before the completion of studies
  • Should be completed within 14 months after graduating

STEM-OPT Extension

Students with degrees in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, can apply for a 24-month extension for their post-completion OPT employment authorization. The STEM degree should be from a school/university that is accredited by a U.S. Department of Education, and is recognized by the SEVP.

Eligibility For STEM OPT Extension

  • F-1 student with a STEM degree (bachelor's, master's, or doctoral) included on the STEM Designated Degree Program List
  • Have been granted OPT and are currently employed in post-completion OPT
  • Are employed by companies enrolled in and using the E-Verify program

Students mustn't break the rules and avoid working illegally or "under the table"- getting paid in cash and not being part of an official payroll. There can be serious implications for the students and even the business owner.

The U.S. government is in charge of taxation and immigration and can scan records to check the history of employment. Working off-campus as international students when there are restrictions can jeopardize their plans to legally work and stay in the U.S. after their studies. Students should be mindful of rules and regulations governing F1 students.

In conclusion, while it seems far-fetched for students to make money that is enough to cover full tuition fees and living expenses, one may earn well enough to buy books, to spend on travel, or to go out with friends and other personal expenditures. Most importantly, students gain work experience and skills through their employment. They get to build a solid resume, expand their professional network, learn to manage time, and work on different projects. They can get recommendation letters and references for future education and employment.

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