Attention, current and future F-1 students! Plan ahead when deciding your major area of study.

            A common journey taken by many foreign nationals goes like this: 1) study in the U.S. while in F-1 status; 2) graduate and work pursuant to OPT (optional practical training) work authorization and 3) change from F-1 status to another nonimmigrant classification that provides work authorization (e.g., H-1B).

            Before beginning your student journey in the United States, steps one through three should be carefully considered and mapped out because each step in the journey impacts those that follow. Decisions made early on may broaden or narrow future immigration and employment prospects. Below is a discussion of the three steps in our journey and how they impact future immigration opportunities.

            For all students, it goes without saying that you should choose a major area of study that relates to the profession in which you intend to work. Where F-1 students are concerned, I would amend the prior sentence to state, “You must choose a major area of study that relates to the profession in which you intend to work.” Upon graduating with a bachelor’s or higher degree, F-1 students are eligible for post-completion optional practical training (OPT), which grants 12 months of work authorization in the United States. One of OPT’s requirements is that the OPT employment must be directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Someone that graduates with a degree in accounting and decides they want to pursue a career as a systems analyst will most likely not receive OPT work authorization because a degree in accounting is not directly related to the systems analysts profession.

            F-1 students that earn a bachelor’s or higher in a STEM field may be eligible for a STEM OPT extension. The STEM OPT extension provides an additional 24 months of work authorization, which means that certain F-1 students can receive up to 36 months of work authorization upon graduating (12 months of post-completion OPT plus 24 months of STEM OPT extension). Those interested in benefiting from the STEM OPT extension need to make sure their intended major area of study qualifies them for the STEM OPT extension.

            During the OPT work authorization period, many F-1 students apply to change status to another nonimmigrant classification that provides work authorization. The most common route is the H-1B classification. One of the primary requirements for the H-1B classification is that the H-1B worker must possess a bachelor’s or higher degree in a field that relates to the occupation. A more in depth discussion on this topic can be found here.

            Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for overseeing the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) has recently instructed college and university officials to be more thorough in their review and endorsements of benefits sought by F-1 students, such as OPT work authorization. Also, USCIS is adjudicating applications made by F-1 students for immigration benefits with higher levels of scrutiny than before. As a result, the need to plan ahead when deciding your major area of study and the consequences of failing to do so are greater than ever before.

By: Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor advises employers and individuals on all aspects of U.S. immigration law, with a particular focus on nonimmigrant visas. His practice includes filing petitions and applications for immigration benefits, responding to requests for evidence issued by government agencies, and drafting motions and appeals.