U.S. immigration law defines an immigrant visa as a document which allows a foreign national to enter into the U.S., and eventually apply for lawful permanent residency. Lawful permanent residents are generally granted the same rights as natural-born American citizens, such as the right to work in the country and the right to pursue citizenship.

Immigrant visas can be thought of as three broad categories. In general, a person seeking an immigrant visa must find another person or organization who will petition them to relocate to the U.S. Because of this, immigrant visas are generally categorized according to the applicant’s relationship to their petitioner.

An example of this would be the following immigrant visa categories:

  • Family-Based: This includes immediate relatives, close family members, fiancés, and other people who are willing to help the applicant receive their visa;
  • Employment-Based: Employers may act as a petitioner in order to petition a worker to relocate permanently to the U.S; and
  • Special Immigrants: An example of special immigrants as employees would be religious workers, or applicants who are from selected countries.

Immigrant visas are characterized by the applicant’s general intent to relocate permanently to the United States. With other types of nonimmigrant visas, the applicant only intends to stay temporarily, such as student visas or temporary work visas. As such, an applicant for nonimmigrant status must show that they do not intend to stay or live permanently in the United States.

Some immigrants may be permitted to enter the United States without going through the regular visa application procedures. This is referred to as a visa waiver. Some examples of criteria for obtaining a visa waiver include:

  • The recipient’s stay must amount to ninety days or less;
  • The immigrant must be a citizen of a visa waiver country;
  • All recipients must possess a valid passport;
  • Immigrants must provide a round trip ticket with their return date; and
  • Recipients must fill out forms from the Bureau of Citizenship, as well as from Immigration Services.

In order to obtain any kind of visa, you must first schedule an appointment for an interview at a U.S Embassy or Consulate of your country. While this appointment may take place at any U.S Embassy or Consulate, it is best to schedule an appointment in the country of your permanent stay.

What Are Student Visas?

A student visa is a type of nonimmigrant visa. The two main nonimmigrant visa categories cover nonimmigrant workers, and nonimmigrant exchange students, which are the largest number of non-immigrant visas that are issued each year.

Generally speaking, nonimmigrant exchange students must be petitioned by a sponsor who will assist them in obtaining their temporary visa. For students, their sponsor will generally be the educational institution that is providing their educational experience, such as the college that they are attending.

More specifically, a student visa (or, F-1 visa) is issued to those who are coming to the United States temporarily in order to pursue their studies. This pursuit may take place at an established:

  • Elementary school;
  • High school;
  • College;
  • University;
  • Seminary;
  • Conservatory; and/or
  • Language school.

To reiterate, student visas are temporary in nature, and grant the student nonimmigrant status. Each year, over 500,000 people come to the United States on F-1 student visas. While the number of distributed visas can be limited on a visa-by-visa basis, the number of students who can receive the F-1 student visas is generally unlimited.

F-1 visas are most commonly intended for students who are seeking to attend universities, colleges, or high schools. Students who are seeking a visa in order to attend vocational programs generally require an M-1 visa instead.

Can I Work In The U.S. Under An F1 or J1 Visa?

If you are in the United States on an F1 or J1 student visa, it is possible to work, but only under certain limited circumstances. As was previously discussed, the F-1 visa is required for foreign students to study in the U.S. Under the F-1 visa, students may be employed under certain circumstances.

An example of this would be how students will be allowed to remain in the U.S. for the duration of their studies, plus one year of authorized Optional Practical Training (or, OPT). This is training in their area of study. Additionally, students may stay another sixty days in order to prepare to leave the U.S., or transfer to another school in order to continue pursuing their studies.

The J-1 visa allows entry for those involved in cultural exchange programs, and is also known as one of the exchange visitor visas. They are available for participants in programs that are sponsored by schools, businesses, and other U.S. State Department authorized institutions.

Any international student who has an F1 or J1 visa may work up to 20 hours per week on the campus of their school while it is in session. They may work 40 hours per week if the school is on a break. Although employment cannot displace American workers, proof of non-displacement is not generally required. However, if a job is traditionally held by U.S. workers as opposed to students at the school, proof may be required.

The only requirements in order to secure on-campus employment are:

  • That you are in good academic standing with the school; and
  • That you are a full-time student at the school you are working for.

Can I Work Off-Campus With An F1 or J1 Visa?

As of 1994, off-campus work is generally prohibited for F1 or J1 visa holders. However, there are three notable exceptions to this rule:

  • Hardship: An F1 or J1 visa holder may apply for off-campus work based on a sudden economic hardship, as long as they have:
    • maintained their full-time status;
    • remained in the US for at least 9 months, and
    • been a victim of an unforeseen financial situation that has created hardship.

Examples of such emergencies include the sudden devaluation of their home currency, medical expenses, or the sudden financial loss of their sponsor.

  • Curricular Practical Training: This includes training programs or paid internships that are directly associated with the student’s academic studies. In order to qualify for curricular practical training programs:
    • The programs must be part of the regular course of your study;
    • You must receive academic credit for your participation in the program; and
    • You must have been in the U.S. for 9 months, unless you are a graduate student.
  • Post-Grad Practical Training: This is work that is intended to provide practical experience that complements the academic course of study. What this means is that as long as your job is related to your studies, and you have finished your academic course, you can work anywhere in the U.S. for up to 12 months. You can work up to 18 months if you are a J1 visa holder.
    • However, any work that is done during curricular practical training will count against this 12/18 month period, such as that your remaining time to work after the completion of your course is discounted by the time of your previous work. Additionally, students must have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before employment may legally begin.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With Working Under A Student Visa?

If you wish to pursue work under a student visa, you should consult with an immigration attorney.

An experienced immigration attorney will be familiar with all of the various types of student visas, and whether you can apply for a work permit. Your lawyer will help you understand your legal rights and options, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.