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THE USA: Visa Guides

Visa conditions for working while studying in the US

Our breakdown of working options for international students studying in the USA

Smiling American worker

When studying abroad in the US, you might want to undertake part-time work to offset some of your living costs, or complete some work experience within your field. Whilst America has some of the world’s strictest immigration laws, students with some visa types will be allowed to work part-time beneath certain circumstances. However, where you may be awarded a small income, it will be nowhere near enough to cover your complete living costs or tuition fees, so you’ll need the finances to support yourself for the entire duration of your study programme before you leave. Let our breakdown of your working options as an international student in the US lay out what you can and can’t do.


Can I work while studying in the US?

Whether you’re allowed to work in the US whilst completing your studies will depend on the type of student visa you have. As a non-US national, you will have one of three visa types: an F-1 visa, an M-1 visa, or a J-1 visa. In some circumstances, F-1 and J-1 visa students are able to work on-campus for a maximum of 20 hours per week during academic term, and up to 40 hours per week during term breaks.

 M-1 visa students are NOT allowed to accept either on or off-campus employment for the entire duration of their study programme.


F-1 Visa

Students enrolled in full-time study programmes at a US University or College will need an F-1 student visa.  

F-1 visa students will NOT be able to accept any type of off-campus employment during the first year of their study abroad programme. After your first year, you’re able to complete up to 20 hours of part-time work during academic semester, and up to 40 days in break periods.

In special circumstances of financial hardship, the US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS ) may grant F-1 students a Work Permit in their first year that enables them to work off-campus. To apply for a Work Permit, you’ll need to prove you were unable to find employment on-campus, and will need to pay an application fee of US$ 380. This permit can take up to 90 days to process and is valid for one year.

There are two types of on-campus employment available to F-1 students. Students may work for a commercial firm which has a contract with the host university, i.e. at an on-campus bookstore, café or store, or with an educational body that is directly affiliated with the university. For example, a student might work as a research assistant with a professor, or undertake employment that is part of a scholarship, fellowship or Doctorate study programme.

During their first year of study, USCIS may also grant F-1 students permission to complete Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) programmes up to a year in duration, without more than 90 days of unemployment within that period. After the completion of your first academic year at a US institution, you will be able to accept a position in either a CPT or OPT programme without explicit immigration permission.

Learn more about applying for a Work Permit


Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

CPT programmes provide employment as part of your study programme’s curriculum, or any type of employment that is explicitly approved and sponsored by your host institution. There are two types of CPT training: in Academic Programme CPT, students MUST undertake practical work experience directly related to their field in order to meet requirements of their study programme, whereas work experience in Non-Required CPT may be completed to meet credit requirements of a study programme, but is not compulsory.

Students completing CPT must retain a full-time credit load to maintain their visa status.

Learn more about CPT programmes


Optional Practical Training (OPT)

F-1 visa students may complete a year of temporary employment that is directly related to their major field of study. You may apply for a year of OPT at each study level, i.e. a student may complete a year of OPT whilst completing their Bachelors studies, and another whilst completing Masters. Students can apply for OPT either before (pre-completion) or after (post-completion) the completion of their study programme.

You may complete up to 20 hours per week of OPT during academic semester, and up to 40 hours per week during term holidays.

If you are completing study within a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) field then you are eligible to extend the length of your OPT programme from a year to 17 months.

Learn more about OPT programmes

Learn more about STEM-OPT programmes


M-1 Visa

An M-1 visa is for students completing Vocational programmes in the US. M-1 students are NOT permitted to work whilst they study at an American institution.

However, you will be able to accept a position that is considered practical training related to your field of study for up to six months after you finish your study programme. M-1 students may also be eligible to complete OPT programmes that vary in length depending on how long your study programme is: for every four months of M-1 study, a student is allowed one month of OPT. This means that a programme one year in duration would entitle you to about three months of OPT. You should check your eligibility for an OPT programme with your host institution. 


J-1 Visa

A J-1 Vvsa is for students completing work or study-based exchange visitor programs. There are certain circumstances within which J-1 students are able to work.

Students may work up to 20 hours per week during academic semester and full-time during term breaks ONLY if they are of good academic standing and have a full course load.  J-1 students may ONLY work on-campus, and solely in positions that are part of a scholarship, fellowship or assistantship academic programme, i.e. as a research assistant.

As with F-1 visa conditions, in cases of economic hardship a student may be awarded a Work Permit to work off-campus.

Undergraduate, Graduate and Doctorate students are also eligible for practical training programmes upon graduation up to 18 or 36 months in duration. Students may apply for these programmes without approval from USCIS, needing only an approval letter from an exchange officer at their host institution, a valid passport and completed DS-2019 immigration form.


Internships and Work Experience

F-1 and J-1 students are able to work in volunteer positions for up to 20 hours a week during academic term, and accept unpaid internships under certain circumstances:

  • The internship must be similar to training which would be given in an educational environment i.e. by your host university
  • The experience must be for the benefit of the intern, rather than the employer: i.e. the employer must not take advantage of the intern as ‘free labour’, and rather focus on providing them with education and training
  • Your role as an intern must not displace that of a paid employee
  • The internship does not necessarily lead to a job
  • The internship MUST be unpaid, unless F-1 students are completing CPT or OPT and have work authorization to do so, or J-1 students are being sponsored to complete Academic Training
  • The internship MUST be directly related to your major field of study


Specific details and work authorization application procedures (if applicable), will be confirmed by your employer once you’ve been accepted into their programme.   

M-1 students are NOT permitted to undertake unpaid work positions not explicitly part of their study training programme.

Learn more about Academic Training for J-1 visa students


How can I find work?

As most visa restrictions require students to undertake either on-campus or programme-specific work, students should first seek out employment options with their host institution. Even if there are no jobs vacant, or your visa doesn’t allow you to accept the positions available, student services will be able to help you apply for training programmes and point you in the right direction in finding internships and work experience in accordance with your visa requirements.

You can still search externally for volunteer or internship placements within your major field of study, but will often need to liaise with your university for approval at some point in the application procedure. All universities have different faculties with separate websites and careers services, and students are strongly urged to take advantage of all the campus-based resources that will be at their disposal.

F-1 students who have completed their first year of study at their host university are able to search for jobs using any external search website or agency, just as local students might.   


Now that you’ve got your head around your working rights as a student in the USA, why not browse courses in the USA now and start planning your study abroad adventure?



Useful Links

'What are STEM fields?'

'Applying for a US student visa'


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About Author

Smiling American worker

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.


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