Immigration Options for International Students

Coming to the U.S. to complete your bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree is a great way to expand your horizons and gain a high-quality education. For many foreign students, the experience of living in the U.S. is so enjoyable, they find themselves not wanting to leave once they’ve completed their studies. So how do graduating foreign students go about turning their U.S. degree into a job that allows them to stay? Fortunately, there are several immigration options to choose from.

Before completing the course requirements for their course of study, international students may apply for optional practical training, or OPT. [1] This gives international students authorization to work temporarily in a field directly related to their major area of study. Generally, a student must complete all practical training within a 14-month period following the completion of their studies. However, certain students with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (known as a STEM degree) may be eligible for a 17-month extension beyond this time, thus allowing them a maximum of 29 months in OPT. (Click here for a list of degrees that qualify for the STEM extension).[2] And if a foreign student decides to go back to school after obtaining OPT for a full year based on, say, their Bachelor’s degree, they may be entitled to a full new year in OPT status if they complete a higher degree level, such as a Master’s.

So what happens when the allocated amount of OPT time runs out? Many students with U.S. degrees will qualify for an H-1B Specialty Occupation visa if they can find a U.S. employer who is willing to sponsor them. Because H-1B visas are in high demand with only 65,000 being available each year, students should begin searching for H-1B sponsors well before the filing date on April 1st.

Fortunately, current regulations allow certain students with pending or approved H-1B petitions to remain in F-1 status during the period between the H-1B filings and employment start dates.[3] Thus, even if a student’s OPT status is set to expire in May, they will be authorized to remain in the U.S. until their employment start date (generally October 1st) if their H-1B petition is approved.

Still other options exist for those foreign national students who aren’t interested in H-1B, and for those who struggle to find a sponsoring U.S. employer. Some graduating students chose to take the entrepreneurship route, and decide to obtain a visa through investment such as the E-2 visa or the EB-5 visa. Additionally, there are other employment-based visas that students may qualify for including the TN visa for Mexican and Canadian professionals and the O visa for individuals with extraordinary abilities in certain areas.

In sum, graduating foreign students have several options to consider when deciding what their next step will be. If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about immigration options for foreign students, our attorneys will be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.

[1] 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(A)(3)

[2] 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(ii)(C)

[3] “Extension of Post Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) and F-1 Status for Eligible Students under the H-1B Cap-Gap Regulations” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Last Reviewed/Updated 03/15/2013, available here.


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