U.S. Employment Regulations for International Students

Dreama Johnson

This post is targeted towards students in a F-1 or J-1 visa status. However, other foreign nationals or those with newly acquired American citizenship or permanent resident status may find some of the information included to be both relevant and useful.


As an international student, you may have the opportunity to gain experience on Grounds and, in some cases, off Grounds. Before you begin seeking employment, it is extremely important that you connect with the International Studies Office (ISO) to ensure that you are aware of all applicable restrictions, requirements and deadlines. If you are unsure if an opportunity you are pursuing constitutes as employment, visit the ISO for more information. There are many types of training that allow certain international students to gain experience: Optional Practical Training (OPT), Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Academic Training. It is important as you begin to pursue these opportunities that you plan ahead. Some approvals to work can take anywhere from 30-120 days. In preparation for your meeting with the ISO, review their webpage on student visa statuses: issp.virginia.edu.


If you plan to conduct a job search in the U.S., you need to make sure you understand not only the process for securing a work visa but also the challenges of securing work permission in the U.S. Below are a the most common work visas pursued by international students and employers.


Some F-1 and J-1 visa holders may be eligible to change their status in the U.S. and acquire H-1B status. In order to qualify for H-1B visa status, you must first have a job offer with an employer who is willing to file an H-1B petition on your behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). H-1B visa status is reserved for individuals in "specialty occupations" which are jobs requiring at least a Bachelor’s degree. An attorney is usually hired by the employer, in order to file the H-1B petition on your behalf. Every fiscal year, the U.S. government allows approximately 65,000 new foreign nationals from around the world to gain H-1B status in the U.S. This limit on new H-1B holders is known as the “H-1B cap.” There are separate 20,000 H-1B visas available for foreign nationals who earn at least a Master’s degree from a U.S. institution as well. Some employers are exempt from the H-1B cap, such as institutions of higher education and non-profit research organizations associated with those institutions.  In recent years, the H-1B cap has been reached with more than double the allotted number of petitions filed.  Because over half of those who apply for the H-1B visa do not receive it, many U.S. employers are hesitant to hire international applicants. For current information about the number of petitions received and deadlines, visit uscis.gov. 


Citizens of Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, and Australia can often find opportunities in these classifications. If you will work in a specific occupation and you are from Canada or Mexico, you may qualify for TN status. Citizens of Singapore and Chile are given an allotment of H-1B numbers that is separate from other foreign nationals and has never been exhausted. Australians who qualify for H-1B status also qualify for E-3 status and this quota has also never been exhausted.


If you are a permanent resident, you are eligible to work in the United States without restriction. The application process to become a permanent resident is time-consuming and complicated. If you believe you are eligible to apply for permanent residence, contact an immigration attorney for a consultation.