Can I Work While I’m Studying in the U.S.?

The short answer is YES!  I’m a strong believer in experiential education and always encourage international students to take advantage of the various employment opportunities available to them on and off-campus.
Besides the obvious perk of putting extra dollars in your wallet, there are many other benefits to working outside of the classroom. While you may be comfortable with your ability to speak and write in English in an academic or social setting, learning to communicate effectively in a professional setting can be invaluable. You get to network with a group of professionals in your field of study and in the future, you could be offered a full-time position here or back in your country (if it’s a multinational company.)

First things first, the social security number.

The Social Security Number (SSN):
A social security number (SSN) is required for everyone who works in the United States, even non-immigrants. However, a social security card is not a work permit and you must apply for off-campus work authorization separately.   For more information about when and how to apply for your SSN, please visit the U.S. Social Security Administration website.   

On-Campus vs. Off-Campus Employment:
On-campus employment is work that takes place either at your school or at an off-campus location that is educationally affiliated with your school. This work could even be for an on-campus commercial business, like a bookstore or cafeteria, as long as the work directly provides services for students.  You can work up to 20 hours a week during the academic year and up to 40 hours a week during the summer and vacation periods.  Do note that these jobs can sometimes be hard to obtain and the institution is required to give first consideration to a qualified U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.  You may want to start looking in places where your skills and experience are highly valued:  in your International Student Office or as a teaching assistant for a foreign language department.
You do not need to apply for on-campus work authorization from your International Advisor, but you do need to notify them if you are hired so that they can provide you with the letter that you will need to present in order to get your Social Security Number.
For more information about on-campus employment regulations, visit the ICE Website.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
CPT is a type of off-campus work authorization for F-1 visa holding international students who wish to gain professional experience related to their field of study.

There are three kinds of CPT:

  • Required Internships  (those mandated by your academic program for your degree)
  • Required Coop programs
  • Elective Internships or Employment (**not possible at all schools**)


  • You must be in valid F-1 immigration status for at least one academic year before applying.  Graduate students whose degree curriculum requires immediate participation in an off campus work experience may be able to work before the academic year is completed if this requirement is clearly stated in the published program description.
  • You must be enrolled in a full-time course load and be in good academic standing while working and CPT employment cannot delay completion of your academic program.
  • You must secure a job offer related to your field of study. Per the regulation the work must be “an integral part of an established curriculum.”   
  • You must obtain CPT authorization before beginning employment.
  • While school is in session, your employment is limited to part-time (20 hrs/week or fewer).    There are a couple of exceptions to this rule:  In some cases, a graduate student who has finished his or her coursework can be eligible for full-time employment during the academic year as long as the employment is integral to his or her degree program.  
  • In the summer months or vacation periods, you can work full-time (up to 40 hours a week) provided you will be continuing your academic program the next term.
  • You must apply for authorization for each term of work (ie., fall, spring and summer terms) and must stop working at the end date on your employment authorization form.  

Most schools will require that you fill out a form and get permission from your academic advisor to determine your eligibility for this authorization. In addition, some schools will require that you present an offer letter from your employer outlining the work you will be doing and the specific dates of employment.  There is no fee to apply and applications can usually be approved within one-five days.

Once authorization is granted, your International Advisor will print you a new Form I-20 and on page three of the form, the employer’s information (name of business, address, dates of employment) will be noted.   The I-20 is shown to the employer as evidence of work authorization.

There is no limit to the amount of CPT a student is eligible to do.  However, if 12 months or more of full-time CPT is used, a student forfeits eligibility for the post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. Accrual of part-time CPT does not affect eligibility for OPT.  (More on the OPT program next week…)

Unpaid or Volunteer Work:  
If a paycheck is not important to you and you still would like the experience of working while in the US, consider volunteering with an organization that does work in your field of study.  The USCIS regulations are very fuzzy about unpaid/volunteer work and you do not want to risk a status violation so I always advise students to treat unpaid / volunteer work in the same way as paid employment.  (This does not apply to a one shot experience – for example, working at a Food Bank on a holiday or doing a service day with Habitat for Humanity. In those cases, authorization is not required.) Be sure to speak to your specific school about their policy on this topic.

In general F-1 students who have been in the U.S. for five years or less are exempt from social security taxes (also known as F.I.C.A. tax). You should be sure to bring this to the attention of your employer because many employers are not familiar with this provision of the tax laws. Students in F-1 status are subject to all other taxes that may apply, including federal, state and local. For more information, consult with a tax professional and/or Publication 519 of the Internal Revenue Service.  

** Please note that USCIS regulations are subject to change and you should always check with the International Student Advisor at your school for the latest information and requirements. **

Next Week: Can I stay and work in the U.S. after I graduate?   Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 visa holders