Work Visas 101 for International Students

by Genevieve Carlton
• 4 min read
TheBestSchools.org

Student visas bring 1.1 million international students to the U.S. for college. But what can they do after graduation?

Over one million international students enrolled at U.S. colleges in 2020. When international students graduate, they can remain in the U.S. for a short time with their F-1 visas. Grads who plan to stay in the U.S. for longer need to apply for a work visa.

The application process can feel complicated, and policies constantly change. But by planning ahead and understanding the rules, international graduates can work in the U.S. and apply for permanent residency.

Optional Practical Training

International students at four-year colleges and universities traditionally hold a F-1 visa. F-1 visa-holders can apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) status after graduation.

OPT authorizes graduates to work temporarily in an area directly related to their degree. This includes one year of employment authorization while in school or after earning a degree.

After 12 months of OPT, graduates with a STEM degree can apply for a 24-month extension. This policy provides added flexibility for professionals working in science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

Seniors must meet with their designated school official to apply for OPT and can apply up to 90 days before receiving their degrees. They must submit their applications within 60 days of earning their degrees.

Graduate students receive an additional year of OPT eligibility. So, for example, an international student could earn a bachelor's degree, work for one year under their OPT eligibility, enroll in a master's program, and work for another year with OPT status.

Once F-1 visa-holders reach the end of their OPT eligibility, they must apply for a work visa. An H-1B is the most common work visa for F-1 visa-holders.

U.S. Work Visas

The U.S. offers several visas for international workers. International students should carefully review visa categories to determine which visa best fits their circumstances.

The H-2A visa program covers seasonal agriculture workers, while the H-1C visa is for registered nurses who work in shortage areas. However, most college graduates apply for an H-1B visa.

The H-1B visa applies to college-educated professionals in specialty occupations. What counts as a specialty occupation? Qualifying jobs must require the "theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge" and a bachelor's degree or higher as the minimum education requirement.

F-1 visa-holders automatically meet the requirements for a specialty occupation, which include a U.S. bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.

Applying for an H-1B Visa

As with other work visas, an employer must sponsor non-U.S. citizens for an H-1B visa. Employers must file a labor condition application with the Department of Labor and submit a petition for a nonimmigrant worker.

While some work visas take several months to issue, the DOL aims for a seven-day turnaround time for H-1B visas. Still, the entire process can take a substantial amount of time.

Once the DOL approves the employer's petition, the worker will receive their H-1B visa.

However, the law limits the number of foreign workers who can hold H-1B visas. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues 65,000 H-1B visas annually, plus 20,000 additional visas for foreign workers with graduate degrees from U.S. universities.

Some employers are exempt from the H-1B visa cap. Universities, nonprofit research organizations, and government research organizations can all hire foreign workers even after USCIS hits the limit.

Understanding H-1B Visas

An H-1B visa does come with restrictions. The visa allows workers to hold a particular job with one employer. If the visa-holder changes employers, their new employer must apply for another H-1B visa. Even changing job titles or responsibilities at the same employer can require a new petition.

If an H-1B visa-holder loses their job, they must find another employer to sponsor their visa or leave the country.

Workers on an H-1B visa have some legal protections. Employers must pay foreign workers the same salary as their U.S. citizen coworkers. They cannot make visa applicants pay for the employer-sponsored visa petition and they cannot withhold the foreign worker's passport for any reason.

Foreign workers can hold an H-1B visa for up to six years. While in the U.S. on a work visa, they can apply for permanent residency. They can also bring a spouse and dependents to the U.S. on H-4 visas. However, H-4 visa-holders cannot work in the U.S.

Changes to Work Visa Rules

The status of foreign workers on visas can quickly change. During the Trump administration, for example, the number of denied H-1B petitions rose from 6% under Obama to a high of 24% in 2018.

Similarly, the Trump administration implemented a rule in Jan. 2021 that would have set H-1B visa-holder salaries significantly higher than prevailing wages. The policy would decrease the likelihood of employers sponsoring H-1B visas. However, in June 2021, a federal judge vacated the rule.

Policies around work visas continue to evolve. International students should work closely with international student services at their college and their employers to find the right path forward. Always consult an immigration attorney for specific advice.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Narisara Nami, belterz | Getty Images

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