How to Make Money as an International Student
Updated: Mar 21
Update August 4, 2020
As students are searching for programs around the world for study abroad experiences, I went back into this blog for some updates to share about making money while studying in the USA.
This week I want to talk about making money and having realistic expectations. International students starting the process of finding a school in the USA often think they can work while studying abroad to:
Pay for school tuition and fees
Make extra money to travel or use personally.
You can definitely accomplish a little bit of both of these, but usually not enough to cover all of your expenses while abroad. Let’s take a look at the limitations as well as the possibilities of earning money as an international student in the USA.
Other blogs you might be interested in reading later:
If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend checking out the article “Basic Rules of the F1 Visa” before diving into this article. It explains a lot about staying in compliance with your visa and what you can and can’t do. One of the biggest shocks to international students that I run into is that they think they can study in the USA on an F1 visa and also get a full time job to help pay for living costs.
Unfortunately, it’s explicitly prohibited to work off campus as an international student in the USA. Huge bummer, I know! Unless you are working "under the table" (idiom for the day anyone? – "under the table" means getting paid in cash and not being part of an official business payroll) then you can’t work off campus. And technically working under the table is still illegal and can implicate both the business owner and you if someone finds out.
Since the government is in charge of tax compliance (IRS) as well as immigration (ICE), they can cross reference all kinds of records to see if you’ve been on a business payroll. The biggest negative implication of this is if you want to stay in the USA and work after university, get a permanent job, eventually apply for residency or citizenship, etc. Working off campus could affect you being able to legally stay in the USA later in life. It's not all negative though, and there are still several ways you can earn money while studying in the USA.
Options to Make Money While Studying in the USA:
Get an on campus job (*tip - look for stipend positions!)
Apply for part time CPT/OPT while in school
Work full time upon completing your program with OPT
Extend OPT to get more work experience
The first option is to find a job on campus. But here’s where it gets tricky. Both private and public universities are given something called Federal Work Study. Think of federal work study as a pile of money that each institution has to hire student workers. Institutions can decide what departments and offices around campus get some of this pile and get to hire students to work for them. Domestic students who are going to that institution may or may not be granted Federal Work Study based off of their financial situation. The biggest thing to note here – international students cannot apply for jobs on campus that use Federal Work Study. All universities have career services or departments that can advise students which jobs they can apply for.
The good news is that universities often set aside separate budgets for students who are either international or do not qualify for federal work study. These are piles of money that they can give to any department who needs extra student workers. These are the jobs that you can apply for as an international student! I recommend asking the department (IT, the library, cafeteria, etc) if they can hire international students before you go through the time applying for these jobs. The other good news is that you can work full time when school is not in session, meaning that during winter and summer break, you could work up to 40 hours per week.
The tip in the list above said to look for stipend positions. While international students can only work so many hours per week, they can often "stack" or add a second on campus job if it is a stipend position. For example, you might get a job working a maximum of 10 hours per week as a tutor, but you could get a second job working as a student ambassador that pays $3,000 USD per semester. In this way, you can get around having a limited number of hours for one job.
Examples of on campus jobs international students are often great for:
(*Most universities have positions similar to these)
Student Ambassadors - giving new American or international students tours of campus
International Mentor Program - helping new international students acclimate to life in the USA
IT Support - helping students with technology issues
Language tutors - helping the American students struggling to learn their second language that you're already fluent in!
RAs - living in a dorm and supervising students living in one floor or building (this is a great position that often offers free housing!)
Universities that offer a lot of support for international students are excellent at finding ways to help international students with jobs.
The other options for international students include off campus employment opportunities. These are CPT, pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT. CPT, or curricular practical training, is when international students can earn money working off campus in a field that is directly related to their degree. You have to file paperwork through SEVIS with your DSO (designated school official) on campus. In addition, you can apply for pre-completion OPT, or optical practical training, during your time of study as well. Note there are time limits on both of these and you cannot work for more than one year or 364 days.
One of the benefits of studying in the USA is that every time you finish a degree, you get up to one year of post-completion OPT as well. This means that you can find a job (directly related to your field of study), and you are able to legally reside in the USA for up to one year working full time. Smart students that want to earn money while in the USA will complete a two year associate’s degree, complete a year of OPT, then go back and finish their bachelors degree, then work for another year of OPT, and so on until they have reached the highest level of education they want to obtain in the USA. Now, there are even certain degree types that can qualify for OPT extensions, which is additional work time in the USA.
Remember that CPT and OPT both require SEVIS approval, and you can’t just start working your job without obtaining this approval through your international student services office. CPT and OPT can be complicated processes if you are doing it for the first time, so keep an eye out for a separate blog on these processes coming soon.
Let’s recap, shall we?
When studying on an F1 student visa, your ways to earn money are:
Working on campus
Applying for CPT
Applying for pre-completion OPT
Staying after you finish your degree and applying for post-completion OPT
Applying for an OPT extension
Savvy internationals may or may not work under the table for cash doing things like tutoring other students, teaching a second language to someone, or all kinds of other things (but you didn’t hear that from me). So while you can definitely earn some money while you are studying in the USA, it’s unrealistic to think you can earn enough to pay for your tuition and living expenses. You may very well earn enough to go out with your friends on the weekend or pay for your books each year though! If you are wanting to learn more about paying for school, I'll be publishing a blog soon on this.
Again, here are some other blogs you might be interested in reading later:
Until next time!