Dear Sophie: What are the student visa process and work visa process for grads? What are my options?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”


Dear Sophie,

I’m in India. I’m interested in applying to American universities next year to study computer science and artificial intelligence and eventually work in the U.S. Would you please explain both the visa process for students and for professionals who want to stay in the U.S. to work after graduating? Is there anything I can do to plan ahead?

— Spirited Student

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn

Dear Spirited,

Thanks for reaching out to me with your questions! I commend you for thinking ahead! Before I dive into your questions, let me first give you a little context about student visas.

Student visas

There are three main types of visas for students: 

  • The F-1 student visa
    • for full-time students enrolled at an American college or university or an English language program in the U.S. the program must lead to a degree or diploma and be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitors Program (SEVP) of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
  • The J-1 educational and cultural exchange visa
    • available to full-time college or university students who need practical training that is not available in their home country to complete their academic program
  • The M-1 student visa
    • for students who are attending a technical, vocational or non-academic school

Based on your plans to get a degree in computer science from an American university, you will probably be eligible for an F-1 visa as long as the university is approved by SEVP. Reference this list of SEVP-certified schools or you can search for a school on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s school search map.

The F-1 allows for part-time on-campus employment (less than 20 hours per week) or up to one year of OPT. Under OPT, you can work part-time while you’re getting your degree or full-time work once you’ve graduated. Most students choose to complete their degree program and then work full-time for one year under OPT. Students who graduate with a STEM degree, such as computer science are eligible to continue working for another two years under STEM OPT!

The F-1 visa process

Before you can apply for an F-1 visa, you must be accepted into a SEVP-certified school. Once you’re accepted, the Designated School Official (DSO) will provide you with a Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status), which lists your program start date. You will need to bring the I-20 signed by you and your DSO with you to your F-1 visa interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in India and keep it with you during your time on an F-1. 

Once you receive your Form I-20, you will need to

  • pay the I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee
  • fill out Form DS-160, the online nonimmigrant application
  • pay the F-1 visa fee
  • schedule a visa interview

Keep in mind that you will need to provide evidence that you

  • can pay tuition and living expenses
  • have health insurance
  • have English language proficiency

Although sometimes people might one day end up desiring to live and work permanently in the U.S. after graduation, individuals with the intent to immigrate to the U.S. are not eligible for F-1s.  This is very important: F-1s are available only to people who demonstrate that they intend to stay in the U.S. temporarily to get a degree and receive training and who thereafter intend to depart the U.S.  This is called “nonimmigrant intent.” As a nonimmigrant visa, the F-1 is a temporary visa and you cannot have “immigrant intent” (the intention of staying permanently). 

An F-1 visa can be issued up to 120 days in advance of your school start date, and you can enter the U.S. up to 30 days before your start date. 

Work visas and beyond

Both jobs and work visas will require an employer sponsor, so consider focusing on building up your expertise and experiences, distinguishing yourself while you’re a student. This will put you in a stronger position when you make your next move! It’s never too early to start making connections with people and seeking advice, which can lead to opportunities down the road. 

F-1 OPT and STEM OPT will enable you to get an Employment Authorization Document (work permit) to work in your field for up to three years. That means your employer might have have three or four chances to enter you in the annual H-1B lottery or sponsor you for another nonimmigrant work visa. The H-1B is a “dual-intent” status, so it’s compatible with the nonimmigrant intent required for F-1.

Worth noting, the electronic registration process for the H-1B lottery was implemented in 2020, which made the process far less costly and time-consuming. As a result, the number of registrants in the lottery has dramatically increased, which means the chances of being selected in the lottery dropped to about 23% in 2022 from about 32% in 2019.

As a backup plan, many of our clients consider what’s called a cap-exempt H-1B. Did you know that some employers are exempt from the H-1B lottery process?! They are! Potential cap-exempt employers may be:

  • universities
  • nonprofits associated with universities
  • nonprofit and government research institutions

If you can get a part-time position with one of these cap-exempt employers, then a private employer can apply for a concurrent cap-exempt H-1B! Open Avenues Foundation is one of the programs my clients use. This nonprofit foundation partner with colleges and universities to create H-1B positions for international professionals in the STEM and business fields. These positions lead students in five hours of project work a week that are tied to the professional’s private employer. Pretty cool!

Alternatively, many employers pursue O-1A extraordinary ability visas for their employees. For the O-1A, individuals must meet at least three of eight criteria that demonstrate extraordinary achievements that have led to national or international recognition. Take a look at this previous Dear Sophie column in which I discuss how to meet each of the O-1A criteria.

Another great resource for you to check out is my recent chat with Robert Adams, a cross-cultural trainer and consultant who helps international students and professionals succeed in America. Some of the topics and interviews he posts to his Chai and Coaching YouTube channel may interest you, including why student visas get refused, international students talking about their biggest regrets after their first year at an American university, and American companies that sponsor OPT (Optional Practical Training) and H-1B visas.

There are options! Choose the path that makes the most sense to you, and work with an attorney if you have any further questions!

— Sophie

Have a question for Sophie? Ask it here. We reserve the right to edit your submission for clarity and/or space.

The information provided in “Dear Sophie” is general information and not legal advice. For more information on the limitations of “Dear Sophie,” please view our full disclaimer. You can contact Sophie directly at Alcorn Immigration Law.

Sophie’s podcast, Immigration Law for Tech Startups, is available on all major platforms. If you’d like to be a guest, she’s accepting applications!