What Do I Need to Know About F1 Visa Holders?

An F1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for individuals who wish to pursue an education in the US.  Every noncitizen who enters the US to attend school (from elementary school to post-graduate college) must apply for an F1 visa.  To obtain an F1 visa, students must be able to show admission to a school approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, official residency in a foreign country and intentions to return home, and sufficient financial support to remain in the US during their studies. 

An F1 visa is generally intended to be an educational visa, and not a work visa.  However, there are several types of work that F1 visa holders can legally perform during their employment.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is authorization for training related to the field of study, and is generally used for internships for academic credit.  The work can be full time or part time, paid or unpaid.  To use CPT to work, F1 visa holders must earn academic credit for any work performed. 

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is the type of work authorization for F1 visa holders with which employers are most familiar.  OPT allows F1 visa holders to work off campus for up to 12 months in a field that is related to their field of study.  F1 visa holders often use OPT to either work part time during their studies (pre-completion OPT is limited to 20 hours per week while school is in session) or after graduation in a field related to their degree (post-completion OPT must be at least 20 hours per week, but has no upper limit.)

OPT authorization is not employer dependent, and employees may switch employers as many times as they choose during the allotted 12 months.  An F1 visa holder who wants to change jobs must secure a job offer and report the job to their college or university.  The F1 visa holder will need a letter from the new employer stating the position and job title, the description of work and responsibilities, and contact information for the supervisor.  The job must relate to the F1 visa holder’s field of study, so if the job title does not make clear the connection, a supervisor should write a letter on company letterhead explaining how the job relates.  The OPT authorization process also takes approximately 120 days, so it is important when hiring to make sure that the F1 visa holder is already OPT authorized at the time of hire. 

Employees in a STEM field may receive the STEM OPT extension, which allows them to work an additional 24 months of OPT.  F1 visa holders on STEM OPT must be paid fair rates for their work.

F1 visa holders may change status directly from F1 to H1B (nonimmigrant visa for specialty workers) by obtaining an appropriate position from an H1B sponsor employer.  A student must have a confirmed job offer with an employer who is willing to pay for and pursue the H1B application.  A bachelor’s degree is a minimum requirement for an H1B visa.  Some F1 visa holders use OPT after graduation to find an employer willing to begin the H1B sponsorship process.

 F1 visa holders are exempt from employment taxes (Social Security and Medicare) for up to five years during their status as a full time student but must pay both federal and state income taxes and file a tax return at the end of the calendar year.  Employers should not withhold FICA, but do withhold applicable federal and state income tax.  Wages paid to F1 visa holders are subject to federal unemployment tax (FUTA) liability, but exempt from state unemployment insurance tax liability in all states except for Washington and Pennsylvania.

Questions about hiring or employing an F1 visa holder?  The expert employment law attorneys at myHRcounsel have the answers you need.