After years of pre-exam all-nighters, ready meals and essays, you’ve finally received your qualification from a US institution. Whilst immigration laws in the US are infamously tight, as a qualified graduate there are options for you to remain in the country and work once you’ve finished your studies. Your options will fall broadly between two categories: a temporary work visa (that may be extended to permanent residency in some cases), or enrolment in a training programme. Let our breakdown of each process help you sort out your plans to start post-study life in the US.
Depending on which student visa you’re on, the amount of time you’ll be allowed to remain in the US after the completion of your studies (called a ‘grace period’) will differ. F-1 students will have a grace period of 60 days, whilst M-1 and J-1 students will have 30. Before your student visa expires you will either need to apply for and secure a work visa, or enrol in a training programme. Otherwise, you will need to leave the US and re-apply for a visa from your home country.
Whilst there are many different types of work visas, if you are an international student who doesn’t want to complete a training programme, you’ll need to apply for a temporary visa that is sponsored by an employer. If you’d like to remain in the states permanently, you will need to apply for a Green Card whilst on this visa.
In some standout cases where your employer offers you a permanent position, you may be able to apply for a Green Card directly. However, as a graduate typically yet to embark on your professional career, this is an incredibly unlikely scenario. If you'd like to stay in the States permanently you should be sure to double check exactly what your employer is willing to offer you when you receive your offer: how permanent does your position seem, and is there much scope for progression (could you be eligible for a Green Card later whilst still in this position?).
You can check all the specific details, eligibility criteria and application procedures for each visa type and sub-type on the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. It’s also a good idea to approach your host university at least a few months before you’re set to graduate and ask for advice about your options, and how best you should proceed in securing employment.
The administrative processes tied to getting a US visa can be quite meticulous and cumbersome. Whilst there are a few different types of temporary work visas, you will be unlikely to be eligible for them as an international student. Still, you can pursue the details of all temporary US work visas on the US Bureau of Consular Affairs website.
If you’d like to remain in the US to work but don’t want to complete a training programme, you will need to first be offered a job by a US employer who will then nominate you for a H-1B visa. This visa allows you to remain in the US for up to three years, but may be extended to a maximum of six years.
This visa is for graduates with a speciality occupation who hold a higher education degree (or equivalent). You will NOT be able to apply for this visa yourself: your employer will have to agree to sponsor you, and will be required to complete the application process on your behalf.
First, your employer will need to complete paperwork that decrees there is no US citizen who is as or more qualified than you for the job, and meet wage requirements as set by the Department of Labour (DOL). Wage verification may take up to 60 days.
Your employer must then file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) with DOL that confirms they will meet the conditions of the visa whilst you are working for them. This may take up to a week. After the LCA has been certified, your employer will then apply to USCIS, and will be notified when the petition has been approved. Your employer may start applying for the H1-B six months before the commencement date of your employment. 65,000 H1-B visas are available each fiscal year, with an additional 20,000 reserved for graduates who have a degree from a US institution.
Whilst it is an extra burden for employers to complete this process on your behalf, there are still many companies that accept foreign employees. The University of Pennsylvania has a comprehensive list of employers who are known to hire international graduates, as well as thorough career and job-hunting advice for prospective graduates wanting to stay on. The university’s career services office also has a video that follows the post-study paths of international Penn graduates.
You will also have the opportunity to apply for a Green Card whilst on a H1-B visa, which will enable you to stay in the US permanently. This is a separate and thorough application process that you should think carefully about, and be sure to leave yourself enough time to tackle before your H-1B visa expires. If you do not receive a Green Card before your visa expires, you will need to live outside of the US for at least a year before you’ll be able to re-apply for a H visa, and begin the process again.
As an F-1 student you will be able to complete up to a year of temporary employment that is directly related to your major field of study. You will be allotted one year of OPT training per study level completed: i.e. at Bachelors level you will receive one year, and at Masters you will be allowed another. If you wish to remain in the US after you graduate you can apply for OPT after (post-completion) you’ve completed your studies. Only F-1 visa students are eligible for OPT.
You will need to have the Designated School Official (DSO) at your host university put you forward for OPT. A DSO is someone who has been nominated to assist and manage the status of overseas students. All universities that accept international students are bound by law to have at least one DSO. To be put forward, in most cases you will need to complete some sort of certification process with your university, including filling out and submitting an OPT I-20 request form to the international services office.
You will be able to download this form from your host’s website or get a hard copy from its international office. Your university will then send your request to Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and if you are successful then a new I-20 immigration form will be generated for you.
After you’ve collected your new I-20, you will need to download and complete a number of other forms and include them with relevant supporting documents in your complete OPT application. For example, The University of Michigan provides details of these forms and further application specifics on their international centre website.
Students in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) may be eligible to extend the length of their OPT programme from a year to 24 months (STEM-OPT). The application process for a STEM-OPT extension is separate, and is outlined in detail on the New York University immigration services webpage.