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Contract work while on F1 and H1B visas after an international degree

Prodigy Finance - October 30, 2019

If you’re hoping to take advantage of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension to your F-1 student visa in the US, you’ll need a job related to your field of study. For many students, this means finding a single full-time employer.

Recent grads considering contract work to make the most of their time in the US, however, will need to pay attention to visa regulations to maintain their status while in the country. Contract work after your US master’s isn’t as straightforward as full-time employment with a single company. 

What is contract work?

In this case, contract work means a series of short-term jobs, with the same or varying employers. In other words, your work is determined according to each contract rather than a single full-time position. 

Can you work on contracts in the US after your master’s?

Yes and no. And, usually, the answer is no.

As many visa classes and extensions require an employer-employee relationship, it’s tough to secure a visa and remain in status while working on contracts.

Although there are exceptions, only the Green Card and the 12-month initial OPT extension of the F-1 student visa allows for contract work.

Those pursuing the additional STEM extension or applying for an H-1B work visa, will only be able to accept contract work through a company with which they can maintain an employer-employee relationship.

Don’t worry; it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Let’s break it down. 

OPT contract work: Can you  work on contracts on the 12-month OPT extension of your F-1 visa?

The 12-month OPT extension of the F-1 visa allows you to work without tying you to a specific employer. As such, you’re able to undertake contract work as long as you meet all other criteria for this visa, including: 

  • All work must relate to your field of study.
  • You’re not unemployed for more than 90 days. Counting begins on the date on your Employment Authorization Document (EAD), and weekend days between periods of employment are included in this total.
  • All changes are reported to your university, the necessary details are logged with US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) and your I-20 form is updated accordingly.

Continually reporting to your school about a work contract and obtaining updated I-20 forms can be tedious, so most grads prefer to obtain employment for the year or long-term contracts.

When it comes to F-1 visa jobs, the F-1 OPT doesn’t specify a maximum number of hours worked in a week, however, it’s possible to overlap contracts to avoid unemployment days. 

OPT contract work: Can you work on contracts on the STEM OPT extension?

Graduates with qualifying STEM degrees who wish to apply for the additional 24 months of employment won’t be able to continue on contract work after the initial 12 months of their OPT.

The STEM extension requires each employer to:

  • Register on the USCIS E-Verify system.
  • Submit the I-983 Training Plan.

The I-983 Training Plan must show:

  • How work relates to the employee’s STEM degree.
  • That compensation meets industry and regional standards.
  • A verifiable employer-employee relationship.

The employer-employee relationship for purposes of the STEM OPT is understood as one where the employer provides training, guidance, supervision and remuneration. Legally, these provisions can’t be undertaken by clients or customers of the employer.

As such, work for a third party is prohibited, except where the employer-employee relationship is verified by USCIS, which is done on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, you can work on projects for your employer’s clients, but you’ll want to pay attention to the distinctions the US government makes about work contracts:

  • If you work at your employer’s place of business under direct supervision by your employer, you are compliant with the terms of your visa.
  • If you work at the place of business of one of your employer’s customers, the USCIS must verify that your training and supervision are not handled by this third party. (If your employer’s client supervises you, then you’re in breach of your visa.)
  • If you’re supervised by a client or customer of your employer, you’re in breach of your visa.

So, while it’s not impossible to undertake contract work on the STEM OPT, it’s exceptionally difficult given the restrictions placed on employers by USCIS. It’s unlikely that international graduates - and their employers - will be able to meet all the criteria to make short-term contract work a reality on the STEM OPT. 

H-1B contract work: Can you work on contracts on your H-1B visa?

No. Not only will you find the same employer-employee relationship standards apply as for the STEM OPT extension of the F-1 visa, but your employer becomes your sponsor for the H-1B and must comply with even stricter criteria. 

But, there are consulting companies (for example BCG and McKinsey) that offer full-time positions with permission from USCIS to consult at client sites. If you’re looking for a job with a consulting firm, be sure to discuss how this will work when finalising your job offer.

In addition, you won’t be able to accept additional contracts outside of your H-1B sponsor work - even if they’re for clients based outside of the US (as this is considered work undertaken while working as a non-immigrant resident in the US).

If you want to work on contracts in the US - your best bet is to wait until you receive a Green Card. If that’s your goal (contract work or otherwise), it’s time to build your credit in the US. 

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Once you find the internal master's degree you want, we can help you with the financing you need to get there. 

Prodigy Finance Ltd is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. 

Post updated for accuracy and freshness on October 30, 2019. Originally published on August 7, 2019.

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