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29 April, 2024

How to Successfully Transition from an F-1 Student Status to An Employment Visa

By Elizabeth Ji, Founder of The Ji Law Firm

Attention, students: Are you starting out or well advanced in your academic process using an F-1 student visa? You are not alone. In 2023, the US Department of State issued 446,000 student visas, marking an increase of 8.5% from the previous year, surpassing pre-COVID levels. Considering the challenge of securing one of these desirable visas, you are also part of a fortunate group. That’s because the overall rejection rate for student visas climbed to 36% in 2023—nearly doubling the percentage for other nonimmigrant visa categories.

As you prepare for graduation or your life’s next chapter, you’re likely considering how you’ll transition into the U.S. workforce. It is commendable—and advisable—to think way ahead. After all, this next phase involves much more than just making a living. It requires understanding and continuing to adhere to U.S. immigration laws to maintain your legal status and proper work eligibility.

Being in this country on a student visa is not only a wonderful privilege, but also a foundational step preparing you for greater vocational opportunities. In service of seizing them sooner rather than later, let’s discuss the importance of leveraging Optional Practical Training (OPT) and STEM extensions as key steps in securing employment visas.

Recently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) streamlined its policy guidance for F and M student visas. This update consolidates various rules, aiming to reduce confusion and enhance transparency for both students and institutions. Key updates include clarifications on maintaining a foreign residence while pursuing opportunities for permanent residency, along with new options for F-1 STEM students to engage with startups during their OPT extensions.

Updated guidance also reinforces that F and M students must maintain a foreign residence and should not intend to abandon their home country permanently. Despite this requirement, the policy allows students to apply for permanent residency in the U.S., likely an option you are interested in exploring. Still, you must remember that as a student, it is required that you demonstrate your intention to return home after your temporary educational stay in the U.S.

For F-1 students in STEM fields, the policy update is particularly significant. It extends OPT for those seeking employment with startup companies. These businesses must adhere to specific requirements. For instance, they must offer detailed training plans, possess good standing with E-Verify, and provide pay comparable to that of similarly situated U.S. workers.

This situation both opens new employment opportunities while requiring vigilance in meeting conditions. For instance, Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows F-1 students to work temporarily in their field of study in the U.S. for up to 12 months, with a possible 36-month extension for those in STEM fields. Even so, applying for OPT involves collaborating with your institution’s international student office and submitting Form I-765 to USCIS. It is critical to apply for OPT during your final semester to prevent any interruption in employment eligibility post-graduation.

Early engagement with potential employers about visa sponsorship options, such as H-1B or O-1, is also paramount due to the requirements and deadlines of these visa processes. My advice? Start your career planning while you’re still on the F-1 visa status by seeking internship opportunities and leveraging Curricular Practical Training (CPT). This approach can help you gain relevant experience while building professional relationships that may prove invaluable. When you find potential employers, also seek to communicate your intentions and plans to ensure alignment and support with your visa transition strategy.

For more assistance, please consider these actionable tips for an even smoother transition:

  • Tip 1: Maintain Legal Status

Always be sure to strictly adhere to all F-1 visa regulations and maintain your status during your studies and any practical training periods.

  • Tip 2: Stay Active with Networking

Be intentional about building and maintaining strong professional relationships throughout your academic and practical training periods. These can lead to job opportunities and potential sponsorship. I cannot emphasize how important this is!

  • Tip 3: Select the Right Employer

Focus on those companies who will open doors for you. When seeking opportunities, pick organizations known for supporting visa applications and that understand or are open to the requirements of the process.

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Are you nearing the completion of your studies and unsure about your post-graduation visa options? Please note this article is designed to provide you with a basic understanding of various options for your workforce integration. For a more detailed approach and a plan tailored to your specific situation, please email me at eji@myjilaw.com. I can offer expert guidance on transitioning from an F-1 visa to an employment visa. With such support, you can confidently approach your next phase post-graduation, securing your professional future.

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