For centuries, the United States has lured young talent from all over the world in the pursuit of higher education. Many who come for the world-renowned education end up staying in the United States after graduation and successfully contributing their skills and talents to the American workforce.
As an international student, you have an advantage in pursuing citizenship compared to other non-natives, because you have already been given access to enter legally for your education. When you graduate, you have several options for transferring your F-1 visa status into legal residency.
On your F-1 visa, you can only stay in the United States for 60 days after your graduation date, so it’s in your best interests to start planning for your course of action well before you graduate. In this article, we’ll explain seven options to extend your stay in the United States after you graduate.
An international student’s path to employment-based citizenship
When you decide to stay in the United States, you have a few paths you can take to remain in the country. Keep in mind that no matter which way you choose, becoming a permanent US legal resident can take many years. But, in the meantime, you can improve your chances by working in the US while you pursue citizenship.
Here are three common employment-related ways to help extend your stay.
Optional practical training (OPT)
Optional practical training is a program for undergraduate and graduate students on F-1 visas. OPT allows these students to stay and work in the United States for 12 months. To be eligible for this program, students must have either received their degree or have been studying in the US for one full academic year.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students or graduates may receive a 24-month extension of stay. However, this extended program only has a certain number of spots available. For more information on the OPT STEM extension, visit the USCIS website.
If you decide to take the OPT route after graduation, there are a few considerations you must keep in mind:
- Your employment must be related to your field of study.
- You need to submit work authorization forms to USCIS to be deemed eligible for the program. Visit the USCIS website for more information.
- If you are accepted into the program while you are still a student, you are only allowed to work up to 20 hours a week while school is in session.
When performing a job search for OPT jobs, it may be helpful to reach out to the international student counselor at your university for guidance. Websites such as OPT Nation may provide useful job leads as well. Try searching for a contract position that only requires an employee for a certain number of months. Employers often look for candidates who will stay at their company for the long term—contract positions are unique as the company is only looking to fill a position for a limited amount of time.
While the OPT may only allow you to stay in the US for a year after your graduation, your employer may choose to petition for H-1B status for you. After graduation, you can apply for H-1B visa status or a green card instead of starting with OPT. However, OPT can help you create invaluable connections in your industry that can help you with sponsorship down the line. OPT provides a minimal amount of risk for employers and helps you build up your résumé while proving your work ethic to future employers.
H-1B visa (non-immigrant visa)
An international student can transfer their F-1 student visa status to an H-1B status with the help of a sponsoring US employer. The H-1B status allows the graduate student to live and work in the United States for up to six years. To be eligible for this type of visa, you must prove to USCIS that you are uniquely qualified for the position in the company because of your field of study.
In your fifth consecutive year of employment at the same company, your employer can file for employment-based permanent residency. This will extend your H-1B visa past the six-year limitation. If you change jobs within the six-year period, you will need to apply for an H-1B visa again.
To learn more about the different types of H-1B visas, and how to apply for a job that will sponsor your H-1B visa, read our article: How To Land A Job That Will Sponsor Your H-1B Visa.
Obtaining a green card is the ultimate goal for any non-native living in the United States. International students have the upper hand in receiving green card status because they have already spent an extended amount of time living in the United States legally.
While an H-1B visa will only allow you to stay in the US for a limited number of years, a green card is your key to permanent residency. As a green card holder, you can work anywhere in the US, receive financial benefits, and live in the US indefinitely.
Because green card status is in high demand, it is also more difficult to obtain and usually takes many years. But it is not impossible. In the best-case scenario, while on another visa, you have proved to your US employer that you an invaluable member of their company, and as a result they sponsor your green card petition. However, green card sponsorships are not limited to employment-based petitions—you can also “self-petition” for a green card. To learn more, visit the Green Card Eligibility page on the USCIS website.
An international student’s path to non-employment-based citizenship
Immediate family sponsorship
If you have an immediate family member who is a US citizen, they can sponsor you for green card status. To sponsor you, your family member must be a spouse, child over 21, parent, or sibling. You will need to prove your relationship through Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. You can learn more about this on the Family of US Citizens page on the USCIS website.
You can apply for a visa or permanent residency for yourself through a spouse or fiancé. Marrying a US citizen will not automatically grant you US citizenship—you have to go through the process to prove that the marriage is valid and real.
If you have been granted asylum in the United States and have been living in the US for at least one year, you can apply for green card status. At the time of your green card application, you may be required to prove that you are still an asylee under the original circumstances you were granted asylum for.
To continue to prove your asylee status, it is in your best interests to not travel outside the US, including to your home country, for an extended amount of time before receiving legal permanent residency.
If you are an international student who has attended a university in the United States for over two years, at the time of this article’s publication, you may be eligible to serve in the US military in specialized positions, like as an interpreter or in medical-related fields, without a green card. However, only citizens and green card holders can receive security clearances and higher ranking positions.
While serving in the US military isn’t a clear path to green card status, it can provide you with an accelerated path to citizenship, because you will be eligible to skip the five years of required residency in the United States. However, it is important to note that the military cannot assist you in your path to citizenship, and you should be aware that this option may not be available in the near future.
Preparing for your future before you graduate
Walking across the stage and receiving your diploma doesn’t have to mean the end of your time in the United States. But don’t wait until a few months before graduation to start making plans for your extended stay. As an F-1 student, there are lots of ways you can start preparing early. For example, you are allowed to take unpaid internships while studying, and this work experience can help you land a job after graduation.
This could also work in your benefit by helping you become well-versed in the visa requirements and processes for potential employers, so you can help them through the process if they’re unfamiliar with the requirements or allowances for visa holders.
You could also work on your interview skills and polish your résumémake sure your accomplishments and skills stand out, because this will encourage employers to make the extra effort to invest in you. To help you in your job search, here are a few helpful articles:
- What To Expect At An American Job Interview
- How To Land A Job That Will Sponsor Your H-1B Visa
- Ace The Job Interview (Even If You’re Not Fluent In English)
As always, we’re here to help you start a new chapter of your life in the United States. Please contact us today if you need help obtaining permanent residency and continuing to build your new and rewarding life as an American citizen.