The F-1 visa allows an individual to come to the U.S. in order to attend an academic program as a full-time student.

A student is issued Form I-20 by the sponsoring school, and applies for the F-1 visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad. It is also possible to change to F-1 status from another non-immigrant status by filing a change of status application with USCIS. F-1 students are allowed to remain in the U.S. for the time period required to finish their educational program, as evidenced by Form I-20. F-1 students will be issued an I-94 card upon entry to the U.S. with the annotation “D/S,” meaning duration of status of the academic program as reflected on the Form I-20. Dependents of F-1 students may obtain F-2 status, which allows the dependent to accompany the F-1 student to the U.S., but which does not provide work authorization for the dependent.

While the primary purpose of the F-1 visa is to study in the U.S., F-1 students may be entitled to work authorization. Enrolled F-1 students, as well as recently graduated foreign students, may be eligible to engage in “practical training” in their field of study. There are two types of Practical Training:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is issued to students who are currently enrolled on a full-time basis at an approved educational institution to obtain work experience in their field of study. This is defined as an alternative work/study, internship, cooperative education, or any other type of required internship or practicum that is offered by sponsoring employers through cooperative agreements with the school. The student usually receives academic credit for this training. CPT is granted by the designated school official at the educational institution and the student’s Form I-20 is endorsed with the employer’s name and address and the dates and number of hours per week that the student is eligible to work. A student authorized for CPT must present an original Form I-20 indicating CPT approval to an intended employer before employment may lawfully commence. Students may work for the full authorized period of CPT, however, should they work more than 12 months of full-time CPT, the student will no longer be eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is granted to students who wish to gain practical work experience in their field of study. OPT is granted for a maximum of 12 months throughout the student’s academic career and may be undertaken during school vacations, during the school year (up to 20 hours per week), or after completion of the course of study. Post graduation OPT must be completed within 14 months of graduation. For OPT authorization, the student must obtain a recommendation on Form I-20 from the designated school official and submit an Application For Employment Authorization, Form I-765 to USCIS. The F-1 OPT employment cannot begin until the EAD card is issued by USCIS. (Upon approval, USCIS will mail this card directly to the applicant.)

As OPT is not employer specific, a student may change employers while working on OPT. However, the student must report any employment changes to the school, including the name and address of the employer, and any interruption in employment during the period of OPT. The regulations specifically limit the periods of unemployment during the OPT period.

USCIS also permits an additional 17 month extension of OPT for students with a degree in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field. This is limited to OPT employers who are participating in the E-Verify program for the worksite where the student is working. If eligible, a student must obtain an updated Form I-20 evidencing his or her eligibility for the additional 17 month period and an application for an extended EAD card must be filed with the USCIS prior to the expiration of the current EAD card.

A student who is the beneficiary of a pending or approved cap-subject H-1B change of status petition is also accorded an additional period of employment authorization to cover the period of time when the EAD expires and when the H-1B petition will become effective. Known as “cap gap,” this employment authorization does not require the student to obtain a new EAD, but the student must report to his or her school the eligibility for cap gap and provide the school with evidence of the pending or approved H-1B petition. A student relying on “cap gap” employment authorization should not depart the U.S., even for a brief vacation, during the cap gap period. Doing so invalidates the work authorization from the “cap gap” rule, and the student may be unable to return to the U.S. until his or her H-1B petition becomes effective.