Earn While You Learn: The Ultimate Guide to Student Work Visas in the USA

Earn While You Learn: The Ultimate Guide to Student Work Visas in the USA


In her article for HBR, Evelyn Nam discusses the varying work visas available to international students planning to study in the U.S., highlighting the disparities in the U.S. labor market.


Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) provide avenues for gaining work experience during and after studies. The duration of both OPT and CPT depends on the program.

International students can seek employment opportunities during OPT, with potential for sponsorship by an employer for a permanent or temporary work visa.


Temporary visas, such as H, L, O, and E visas, offer temporary work authorization, but require departure from the U.S. upon expiration.

The H-1B visa, allocated through a lottery system, is common but not based on merit. The O visa, reserved for individuals with exceptional abilities, entails a rigorous and costly application process.

Permanent visas, leading to green cards and permanent residency, have stringent requirements and are typically sponsored by companies after successful completion of temporary visas like H-1B.

Toni Xu, an immigration lawyer at Xu Law Group and a founder of, reflected, “I used to believe that mastering my craft would ensure success. However, that’s not necessarily the reality within the U.S. immigration system.”

Arriving in the U.S. from China in 2008 at the age of 17, Xu sought an educational environment less constrictive than her homeland’s. Over the subsequent decade, she diligently pursued bachelor’s, master’s, and JD degrees from Tulane University, aiming to establish herself professionally in the U.S. Despite her perseverance, she faced rejection for a work visa on three occasions.

It wasn’t a question of lacking qualifications or skills for Toni Xu; rather, the challenge lay in the H-1B visa process itself. This visa type operates on a lottery system, where applicants are chosen randomly. “I still felt like I could have done more,” Xu remarked.

For many foreign students, the U.S. labor market holds significant appeal, prompting them to invest in education with hopes of building a life in the country. These students undergo rigorous processes, including proving English proficiency through assessments like the TOEFL, and submitting various documents such as nationality proof, health records, and financial statements to support themselves. This preparation can span months or even years in anticipation of admission.

However, the pivotal factor in securing quality jobs in the U.S. often boils down to immigration status.

While this issue demands systemic solutions at the institutional level, international students can empower themselves by understanding the workings of the U.S. visa system before committing to study abroad. Armed with this knowledge, they can chart a more realistic career trajectory—one that facilitates working in the U.S. post-graduation.

To aid in this endeavor, we’ve compiled a broad overview of obtaining a work visa in the U.S. While not a substitute for legal consultation, it can serve as a starting point for navigating the process.

The U.S. labor market is desired by many foreign students, who invest in their education often with the hope of being able to work and build a life in the country.

To gain work experience during your studies in the U.S., you must obtain temporary employment authorization through either Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT). Both OPT and CPT, as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security, enable employment during and after your academic program. The key distinction lies in timing: CPT must be completed before graduation, whereas OPT can be utilized either before or after graduating, allowing for post-graduation employment within the country.

The duration of OPT is contingent upon your degree program. For STEM degrees, OPT can extend up to three years, while for other disciplines, it typically spans one year. Upon the conclusion of OPT, securing a temporary work visa becomes necessary to remain in the U.S.

There are two crucial considerations:

  1. Any OPT utilized during your academic tenure deducts from the post-graduation OPT period. For instance, engaging in a three-month paid summer internship before your senior year would reduce your OPT eligibility post-graduation to nine months.
  2. It’s possible to apply for both CPT and OPT. However, working full-time on CPT for 12 months during your studies renders you ineligible for OPT. Part-time CPT employment, even exceeding 12 months, does not affect OPT eligibility.

In essence, post-graduation, you have a limited window of one to three years, sometimes less, to secure sponsorship for a work visa. This often entails demonstrating your value to potential employers and proving your worthiness for sponsorship, a process laden with pressure and expectations.

Selection for H-1B is random and is not based on merit: It doesn’t matter what grades you earned, which company you work for, or the salary you’ve been offered.

If you secure an employer willing to support a work visa, there are two main categories of visas enabling foreign students to work full-time upon graduation: temporary and permanent.

Temporary Visas Temporary visas such as H, L, O, and E afford temporary work authorization in the U.S., with a set expiration date requiring departure from the country. Applicants for these visas often include a letter confirming their intention to leave the U.S. upon visa expiration.

E and L visas E visas are designated for treaty traders, investors, and individuals from countries with which the U.S. holds trade treaties. Consequently, this visa type isn’t accessible for prospective workers from nations like China and India.


L visas facilitate internal company transfers, allowing employees from the company’s home country to work in the U.S. on a project basis. If you possess specific skills required by the company and hold detailed knowledge about its operations, a multinational corporation can sponsor this visa to utilize your expertise within its U.S. division.

H visas

Within the realm of H visas, the H-1B visa stands out as the most sought-after among international students in the U.S., allocated through a lottery system. Each April, companies must submit sponsorship applications for foreign workers. Selection for the H-1B visa is entirely random and devoid of merit-based considerations such as academic performance, employer reputation, or offered salary.

Students with only a bachelor’s degree are often perceived to be at a disadvantage in the H-1B lottery, as the quota system tends to favor candidates with master’s degrees or higher qualifications. Securing an H-1B visa is viewed by experts as a blend of hard work and luck.

“Students not only need a willing employer but also a company ready to petition for them. Companies are obligated to pay additional fees for this process,” explained Michael Goldman, an immigration attorney at Michael Z. Goldman Law. “Moreover, success in obtaining the visa ultimately hinges on luck,” he emphasized.

Should you receive sponsorship for an H-1B visa from a company and later desire to change jobs, the new employer must be willing to sponsor your visa. Otherwise, your authorization to work in the U.S. ceases. This underscores the importance of conducting thorough research and assessing a company’s willingness to sponsor your visa before accepting a job offer. “Your ability to stay in the country hinges on your employer’s decisions regarding your employment. It’s essential to consider the potential risks involved,” advised Xu.

O visas

Another visa gaining traction among international students in the U.S. is the O visa, colloquially known as the “genius visa” or “artist visa,” characterized by a rigorous application process. The O-1A visa targets individuals with extraordinary abilities in fields such as business, science, athletics, or education, while the O-1B visa caters to artists.

To qualify for an O visa, applicants must meet stringent criteria demonstrating “extraordinary abilities.” This includes receiving major internationally recognized awards like the Nobel Prize or meeting at least three specified criteria, such as receiving prestigious national or international awards, being published by reputable media outlets, or holding membership in esteemed professional associations in their field. The O-1 visa provides an avenue for foreign workers with exceptional soft skills to enter the U.S. labor market.

According to Michael Wildes, a seasoned immigration lawyer at Wildes & Weinberg PC, the rise of influencer culture has influenced the landscape of O-1 visa petitions. “Many individuals have successfully secured O visas based on their online following and influence,” he noted.

However, pursuing an O visa entails financial investment. “I’ve witnessed cases where petition denials were due to inadequate presentation by the lawyer, not because of insufficient qualifications,” Wildes remarked. On average, retainer fees for immigration attorneys range from $5,000 to $8,000.

Permanent Visas

Permanent visas offer a pathway to obtaining green cards, granting individuals permanent residency in the U.S. These visas, such as the employment-based visas EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4, and EB-5, uphold stringent eligibility standards based on skills, background, and education.

While international students can directly apply for these visas, they face intense competition, with sponsorship typically pursued by companies following the completion of temporary H-1B visas. Toni Xu has witnessed instances of individuals successfully pursuing permanent visas, but she cautions against this route due to its notably higher standards. “The criteria are considerably more stringent,” she advised.

When you understand the different types of visas you may be eligible for and what it takes to compile a strong application, some of the anxiety you may be feeling will lift.

Employers may opt to sponsor foreign workers for a green card via a permanent visa, typically after the worker has obtained an H-1B visa. However, this process is lengthy, spanning up to two to two-and-a-half years. Hence, students must tactfully initiate discussions with employers, ideally during the second year of their H-1B visa tenure. The H-1B visa is valid for three years and can be renewed once, extending the total visa duration to six years. Certain individuals may qualify for a seventh-year extension.

An Uphill Climb — but Not Impossible

Xu highlights a common misconception among her clients: the belief that skills and achievements alone suffice for obtaining a work visa. However, reality often necessitates a combination of luck, financial resources, relationships, or proof of exceptional abilities.

Navigating the intricate legal landscape can exacerbate the stress, anxiety, and self-esteem challenges faced by international students. Moments of feeling inadequate or hopeless are common. However, there’s no quick fix to the broken immigration system, which requires concerted efforts from leaders over time to rectify its complexities and inequities.

Amidst the complexity, remember that you’re not without agency. Educating yourself about visa options and application requirements can provide clarity and alleviate some of the anxiety. Armed with this knowledge, you can make informed decisions about your career path, including selecting supportive partners and advocating for appropriate sponsorship.


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