The regulations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provide for five categories of employment benefits for students in F-1 status:
- On-Campus employment
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT) employment
- Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment
- Employment authorized due to Severe Economic Hardship
- Employment with an International Organization
Definition of “Employment”
Employment is any work performed or services provided in exchange for money, tuition, books, supplies, room and board, or any other benefit or compensation. Only if you will receive absolutely no benefit or compensation of any kind at any time is an activity considered by the USCIS to be “unpaid volunteering.” Based on input from immigration attorneys, ISSS also cautions F-1 students about “volunteering” in a position which would normally be paid; “volunteering” should be restricted to true volunteer activities, for example with social service organizations, religious organizations, non-profit groups, etc. Unauthorized employment is a serious violation of student status. Consult our information page on Volunteering to see if your situation could be violating any U.S. laws. Please contact ISSS if you ever have any questions or any doubt about whether you are authorized to accept an offer of employment.
You may work part-time (up to 20 hours per week) during the fall and spring semesters and full-time (up to 40 hours per week) during official University breaks (winter break, spring break, Thanksgiving break, and in the summer) if your I-20 is valid and you are in good academic standing. You must also be enrolled full-time or authorized to be enrolled part-time in the fall and spring; enrollment is not required during winter break or summer session, but you must not have graduated and must be eligible to and intend to enroll for the following semester.
- Students Transferring from U.S. School to Another- Federal regulations allow on-campus employment only at the school whose I-20 is covering you: “In the case of a transfer in SEVIS, the student may only engage in on-campus work at the school having jurisdiction over the student’s SEVIS record.” [8 CFR 214.2(f)(9)(i)]
If you have been enrolled full-time for at least one full academic year (or are in a course of study requiring an internship at the beginning of your program) you may request ISSS authorization for employment in an internship or cooperative education program that is “integral to the established curriculum” of your academic department. Required internships must be clearly identified and described in the course catalogue or similar publication. Curricular practical training may be authorized on either a full-time (employment over 20 hours per week) or a part-time basis. Students who have been authorized for one year or more of full-time CPT are no longer eligible for OPT.
Many students at the University of Iowa choose to take advantage of OPT following graduation or, in some cases, while engaged in thesis or dissertation research.
Although full-time or part-time OPT authorization is also available during the summer and over winter break (and on a part-time basis during the regular academic year) before a student has completed all required coursework, it is rarely sought due to the lengthy time required for USCIS issuance of the required Employment Authorization Document (EAD) as well as the fact that most students are eligible for CPT authorization during these times instead.
If applying for OPT, please be prepared to plan ahead for the fact that it may take the USCIS approximately three months to issue your OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
In some cases, certain students may later be eligible to extend their OPT for an additional 17 months.
Should you suffer economic hardship due to “unforeseen financial circumstances beyond your control” after you have been in F-1 status at the University of Iowa for one academic year, you can apply to the USCIS for authorization to work off-campus (or on-campus for more than 20 hours) in any job you can find (i.e., even one unrelated to your studies). Examples of unforeseen circumstances include "loss of financial aid or on-campus employment without fault on the part of the student, substantial fluctuations in the value of currency or exchange rate, inordinate increases in tuition and/or living costs, unexpected changes in the financial condition of the student's source of support, medical bills, or other substantial and unexpected expenses."
Please note that the USCIS application fee for Severe Economic Hardship costs a few hundred dollars, and it may take the USCIS more than three months to approve the application.
Employment with an International Organization
This is an extremely rare situation. If you are offered employment with an international organization, as defined by the International Organization Act, you may apply to the USCIS for employment authorization. Please consult an ISSS advisor if this applies to you.