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Foreign Students and Lawful Employment

F1 M1 J1 Student Visa

Foreign students studying in America have the same difficulties as their U.S. counterparts. Living and going to school is expensive, and scholarships may not provide enough for basic living expenses, as well as other costs.

However, the laws regarding foreign students and employment while attending school are very strict and tightly enforced, and students and their potential employers need to pay careful attention to what they can and cannot do before offering or accepting a job.

Who is a Foreign Student?

An F-1 visa is granted to a non-immigrant student who will be studying in the United States for a specific period and may include up to a year of training after completion of the degree or program. A J-1 visa is granted to students who need practical training not available in their home country; and an M-1 visa is granted for students attending vocational or non-academic schools in the U.S.

The F-1 visa program requires the student to maintain a full course load and maintain “good academic standing” according to the requirements of their institution. Depending on the school, certain grade-point averages and semester or quarter units will be required to keep an F-1 visa.

Work Restrictions – On Campus Employment

Because of these requirements, the easiest employment for a foreign student to obtain and keep will be an on-campus job. As any student knows, going to school full time is hard enough, and adding travel time and work hours on top of that can make study hours impossible. On-campus jobs are the best and easiest under these conditions.

There are other requirements a foreign student must meet for an on-campus job.

  • It can be no more than 20 hours per week when classes are in session.
  • It can be up to 40 hours per week during holidays and vacation if the student intends to register for the next semester.
  • The employment may not take a job away from a U.S. citizen or resident. In other words, a foreign student will be given last priority for any available position.
  • Depending on the institution, no student may work in any capacity during their first semester. Often this is the case for all first-year students.


U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) has laid out these definitions for what constitutes “on-campus employment”: work performed at the school, such as work related to a grant or scholarship; work done for an on-campus commercial agency, such as the bookstore or cafeteria; employment with an off-campus school affiliated company, such as an off-campus teaching program, research program, or other related educational program.

Work Restrictions - Optional Practical Training

Optional practical training (OPT) allows the student to work off-campus during and after completing a degree, but not until after being enrolled for at least a year. This employment, unlike on-campus work, requires USCIS approval, and experts recommend applying as soon as possible, because of the time taken for USCIS to review the documents.

OPT is essentially work-study and must be “directly related” to the student’s major, as any work-study program must be. The student is strongly advised to work closely with their student counselor and with the International Student Office (ISO) to ensure compliance.

The specific requirements for OPT also include:

  • Maintaining the F-1 status.
  • Applying before completion of the degree.
  • Prior to the degree, the student may only work 20 hours per week while school is in session.
  • Following completion of the degree, OPT work must be full-time.
  • All OPT must be completed within 14 months of completion of the degree.


Work Requirements – Curricular Practical Training

Curricular practical training (CPT) is off-campus employment like OPT, in which the student may work in an off-campus employment sanctioned by the institution, if such employment is required for the degree or if academic credit is awarded for the work.

CPT must be approved by USCIS and the school, and the student must maintain their F-1 status during employment.

Unlike OPT, the student may only work at the location and for the period specified, and too many hours of CPT employment will disqualify a student for OPT later.

The regulations for CPT are complex, and the student is encouraged to work very closely with ISO and their guidance counselor when applying for CPT employment and approval.

Economic Hardship

Sometimes things happen that are beyond a student’s control, and they need extra assistance. In cases like this, a student can apply to work under the economic hardship provision, which lets the student work off-campus even if it is not school-related.

Beyond maintaining their F-1 status, the student will need to prove:

  • Evidence of unforeseen economic hardship, based on loss of financial aid on campus, unexpected fluctuations in the currency exchange rate, medical bills or other expenses, or other economic issues beyond the student’s control;
  • Evidence that on-campus employment is unavailable and insufficient;
  • Evidence that they have made a good-faith effort to locate on-campus employment and been unsuccessful.


Applying for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) can take up to twelve weeks, and the student cannot work off-campus until their request is processed. This seems to negate the “economic hardship” portion of the provision, but if it is granted, the student may work anywhere in the United States.

A Word About Internships

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) strictly regulates student internships, for several reasons. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires fair pay for work, and the DOL has begun to crack down hard on employers using student or other unpaid workers for free labor under the pretense of volunteering or internships.

For foreign students, taking on an unpaid job also comes with the risk of deportation. If the job lacks proper work authorization or is determined later it should have been paid employment, the student will have violated the F-1 visa requirements. This can lead to deportation. For these reasons, not only the student, but the potential employer and guidance counselor need to be very cautious when looking at unpaid work.

The standard for volunteer or unpaid work is not whether the student is paid, but whether or not it meets the requirements under the FLSA for an unpaid internship. An unpaid job must:

  1. 1. Be similar to that which would be available in a vocational school;
  2. 2. Be for the benefit of the trainee or intern;
  3. 3. Not displace regular workers; and be carried out under close supervision;
  4. 4. Not immediately benefit the employer;
  5. 5. Not necessarily guarantee employment at the end of the internship or training;
  6. 6. Be understood by all parties that there is to be no payment.


The DOL will provide letters of guidance to employers offering foreign students internships or volunteer positions. The general opinion is that, when in doubt, a student should request a work authorization.

F-1 visa students can and should be encouraged to seek employment during their time in America; but they should seek guidance during every step of the process. If their visa is canceled or they are deported, returning to America could be difficult or impossible later. A little planning saves a great deal of heartache later.

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