FAQs: Can An F-1 Student Work? Can An F-1 Student Start A Business?

I frequently get asked if an F-1 student can work. It depends. The regulations are strict regarding the ability of F-1 students (and their dependents) to work. According to the USCIS website:

F-1 students may not work off-campus during the first academic year but may accept on-campus employment subject to certain conditions and restrictions. After the first academic year, F-1 students may engage in three types of off-campus employment:

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion)
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)

For…F-1…students any off-campus employment must be related to their area of study and must be authorized prior to starting any work by the Designated School Official (the person authorized to maintain the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)) and USCIS.

Click on this link to the USCIS website that provides a chart of what type of employment an F-1 student can engage in.

F-1 students are allowed to work on campus without the permission of the DSO and are generally allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. Something important to keep in mind is that the on-campus employment must be in a place that provides services to students on campus, such as the school book store or cafeteria, or it can be off campus if it is educationally affiliated with the school.  Click here to find out more about what would be considered on-campus employment. F-1 students should still work with the school DSO to make sure the employment qualifies as on-campus employment.

A common question I get asked is if the F-1 student can start a business in the U.S. This question is a bit more tricky. If the F-1 student opens a business, actively engages in managing the business, works in it, and receives income, it would be considered unauthorized employment and in violation of the F-1 status if he/she did not have the proper authorization to do so.  Immigration law doesn’t explicitly say that F-1 students cannot establish a business, but once the business has been established, the F-1 student must be very careful about his/her involvement in the business.  I have had F-1 students ask if they can “run” their own business without getting paid.  Working for a for-profit business without being paid can’t be volunteering, which means that an F-1 holder cannot do that.  For example, if the job were to be done by someone else for this company, would they do it for free? If not, then it cannot be considered “volunteering.” 

In certain scenarios, an F-1 holder may be able to start his/her own business and work in it. This could be possible if he/she holds CPT or OPT status. However, he/she must be very cautious about the type of business he/she is starting and ensure that it is related to his/her area of study, and it is authorized by the DSO and USCIS prior to starting any type of work.

What about passive income like investing in the stock market? Receiving periodic dividends for investments is generally permissible.   However, becoming a day trader where a person buys and sells stocks multiple times during the day would be considered employment and in violation of a person’s F-1 status.    

If an F-1 student invests in real estate and receives monthly rental income, that could be considered “passive income” and not considered employment in violation of his/her F-1 status. Rental income is considered passive income/passive investment income under tax and immigration regulations. However, there is a caveat to this.  If the F-1 student serves as the property manager and/or he/she has established an LLC where he/she is the sole owner of the LLC, then that is considered receiving active income/employment income in violation of his/her status. In this scenario, a third-party property management company has to be hired to manage the property.

I have also been asked about a scenario where the F-1 student works for a foreign employer while in the U.S. (for example, doing work for a foreign e-commerce company, or online freelance work), doesn’t get paid in U.S. dollars but is receiving income abroad in a foreign bank, the F-1 student is physically in the U.S. and working for this foreign employer, and whether that is considered unauthorized employment.  The short answer is yes, it definitely could be and I would caution anyone that could be in this situation to not do so.  According to the Code of Federal Regulations 8 CFR 274a.1(h), “[t]he term employment means any service or labor performed by an employee for an employer within the United States.” A broad reading of this is that if a person is in the U.S. performing work regardless of where the employer is located in the world, and getting paid (regardless of what type of currency), it is considered employment.

The bottom line is to make sure you have the proper authorization to work in the U.S. while in F-1 status. I do understand that international student tuition is expensive, and some international students face financial hardships that they may not have anticipated. However, engaging in unauthorized work could affect an F-1 holder to obtain future immigration benefits.