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Step-by-step guide to getting your work authorisation in the US

Prodigy Finance - July 17, 2019

Step-by-step guide to getting your work authorisation in the US

Now that you’ve been accepted to (or perhaps you’re already in the middle of) a master’s degree programme in the US, it’s time to start thinking about your post-grad future.

The skills you’ll learn and job you’ll accept are only parts of the big picture. If you’re hoping to get your career off the ground in the US - and possibly remain there for your working life, you’ll need a visa with work authorisation. In fact, over the years, you’ll need a few.

And this is what you’ll need to do to get them.


Who: F-1 visa holders wishing to work in the US.

When: During or after study in the US.

How long: 12 months

OPT STEM extension

Who: OPT visa holders with an eligible STEM degree

When: After completing OPT time

How long: 24 months


Who: Specialised workers

When: At any point, usually post-degree

How long: 3 years  with possible extension

Getting your F-1 OPT visa

Most international graduates will begin their working life in the US with an OPT visa. While it doesn’t confer a lot of time, it’s available to most master’s grads, with few exceptions, as long as their employment directly relates to their field of study.  

You’re eligible to apply for the OPT once you’ve completed (or are soon to complete) a full academic year of study in the US. And, while you can use some of your 12 months of OPT work privileges while you’re still studying, it’s worth noting that this time is deducted from the total 12 months granted by this visa class.

How to apply for your F-1 OPT visa

Before you can submit your application for OPT, your school needs to register your intent - and their approval - with USCIS through their SEVIS system. To begin the process, you’ll need to contact the international student office at your university. 

The main factor for maintaining OPT status is continued employment related to your field of study. However, you don’t need to have a position lined up before application. 

Securing the OPT STEM extension

The standard OPT allows for 12 months of work privileges in the US. If you graduated with a qualifying STEM degree, you could be eligible for an additional 24 months of OPT work (for a total of 36 months). 

Tip: Be sure to check that your degree is STEM-eligible. Many, but not all MS degrees qualify. 

How to apply for your STEM OPT visa

As with the standard OPT extension, your school is a key player in securing the STEM OPT extension. You’ll need to request a change in your I-20 form from them and they’ll need to register intent with USCIS on your behalf.

The application process and timings for the STEM extension are currently the same as for the standard OPT.

However, there is one significant change which is critical to note before beginning the process for your STEM extension: you must have a job offer with corresponding dates of employment and your potential employer must complete and adhere to sections of the Training Plan found in form I-983.

Remember that your school is the best source of information regarding the application process and current processing times for the STEM OPT. Start looking for answers to any questions you may have at the international office of your university.

How do you get an H-1B visa for work in the US?

The H-1B work visa for the US is very different to the OPT extensions of the F-1 visa. Key differences include:

  • You must have a sponsor (the company you’ll be working for) who applies on your behalf. Your H-1B visa ties you to this company and you’ll need to apply for a new H-1B visa if you change jobs. Companies that sponsor H-1B visas tend to be established companies that have significant resources to invest the legal and financial resources to sponsor talent. Check out this quick guide to companies that sponsor H-1B visas.
  • Your sponsor applies for the H-1B visa on your behalf. They are also responsible for paying the application fees.
  • The sponsor must also prove there’s a shortage of qualified US applicants for the position.
  • H1-B visas are awarded via a lottery system and there is a quota on the number of visas issued. Just because you qualify and your sponsor has submitted the paperwork properly doesn’t mean you’ll get an H-1B visa; there have been significantly more applications in recent years than the number of visas permitted.

You may get several more years of work experience in the US with an H-1B visa, but there are certainly more hoops to jump through to get it. Fortunately, once you’ve found a sponsoring company, you won’t need to worry about completing and submitting applications. But, it’s still worth your time to understand the application process so you can assist your future employer where needed, 

How to apply for an H-1B visa

Getting a job offer with a US company willing to sponsor you is the first step. Once that’s in order, your company will need to:

  1. Submit a Labor Conditions Approval (LCA) which outlines the conditions of the position including location of work and salary. Your employer must show that you’ll earn at least as much as a US worker in the same position would earn.
  2. Wait for approval of the LCA. Usually, this waiting period lasts between 1 and 2 weeks.
  3. Submit the I-129 form with supporting documents and information related to your professional and academic background. Application fees will also need to be paid at this time.
  4. Wait some more. During this time, you should investigate all your options for building credit in the US, so you can hit the ground running.
  5. If selected in the lottery (or if there is no lottery), you and your sponsor will receive notification to complete the visa petition process through a visa interview, though you or your company may be asked to submit additional information first.

After each step is complete and your visa has been granted, you’ll need to go get that stamp in your passport and get organised for your life in the US - a big part of which is getting your finances in order and building your credit in the US. 

Want to build your credit while working on any of these visas?

Refinancing help you build credit in the US - and it can also save you thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars on the total cost of your loan. Applying is simple, fast and you’ll see how much you can save instantly after completing the Prodigy Finance obligation-free application. 

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