8 Ways That F-1 International Students Can Stay in the United States after Graduation

Apply for Green Card Working in the U.S.

Student in lab prepares to go from F-1 to green card status

Navigating the transition from F-1 student status to another legal status in the U.S. can be complex, but there are numerous pathways available. Whether through employment, further education, or family connections, F-1 graduates have multiple options to remain in the U.S. and pursue their dreams. There are even options to adjust from F-1 visa to green card. Each option has its own set of requirements and processes, so it’s essential to plan ahead and seek guidance from immigration professionals to ensure a smooth transition. With the right strategy, F-1 graduates can successfully extend their stay and build a future in the United States.

Keys to Staying in Status

The F-1 visa enables foreign nationals to temporarily stay in the United States while pursuing an education and remaining in status. USCIS considers you to be in valid F-1 status if you fulfill all of the conditions of your visa. In other words, you must:

  • Attend the school named on the I-20 you used to enter the U.S.
  • Maintain good academic standing
  • Maintain sufficient financial resources to avoid becoming a "public charge"
  • Enroll each semester as a full-time student
  • Work no more than 20 hours per week on-campus while classes are in session
  • Work off-campus only with specific written authorization from International Student and Scholar Services or USCIS
  • Complete the F-1 transfer procedure to change schools within the U.S.
  • Extend your stay in your degree program before the completion date on your I-20
  • Complete the change of level procedure when changing from one educational degree level to another (within 15 days of changing educational degree level)

Staying in status is critical. If you fall out of status, you lose many of the options discussed below. What’s more, F-1 students have 60 days after completion of your program (the program end date on your Form I-20) to leave the United States unless you can find another status.

To remain in the United States after graduation, there are numerous possibilities for international students.


Enroll in Another Degree Program

F-1 students can maintain their status by enrolling in another academic program. This could be a graduate degree, a second bachelor’s degree, or even a vocational program. By continuing their education, students can extend their stay in the U.S. under F-1 status while improving their chances of finding another permanent path to change from F-1 visa to green card.

To maintain F-1 status, students must:

  • Obtain a new Form I-20 from the new institution;
  • Transfer their SEVIS record to the new school; and
  • Ensure continuous full-time enrollment in the new program.

This option is suitable for students who want to further their education and enhance their career prospects. It requires some planning on your part. So, meet with your school’s international student office well before your I-20 expiration date. They can generally help you update your I-20 or DS-2019 to reflect your new school and major. It’s critical that you do not violate your F-1 visa before transitioning.


Take Advantage of Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is one of the most popular and straightforward ways for F-1 students to remain in the U.S. after graduation. OPT allows F-1 students to work in their field of study for up to 12 months. For students with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), there is an opportunity to extend OPT for an additional 24 months, making it a total of 36 months.

To apply for OPT, students must:

OPT is an excellent way to gain practical experience in the U.S. and can serve as a stepping stone to other visa options. If you want to explore OPT as a way to stay in the United States, start with your international student office. They can explain the different options and confirm your eligibility before you submit an application for employment authorization with USCIS.


Use the Cap-Gap Extension

The Cap-Gap extension allows F-1 students on OPT whose employers have filed an H-1B petition to bridge the gap between the end of their OPT and the start of their H-1B status. This extension automatically extends the OPT work authorization until October 1, the start of the fiscal year for H-1B visas.

Eligibility requirements include:

  • An employer must file the H-1B petition while the student's OPT or STEM OPT is still valid; and
  • The student’s OPT must expire between April 1 and October 1.

The Cap-Gap extension helps maintain work authorization and F-1 status during this transition period.


Join the Workforce with a Nonimmigrant Visa

There are a variety of nonimmigrant employment visas available for those who can add value to the U.S. workforce. It’s not a direct path from F-1 visa to green card, but it can put you in a position for an employment-based immigrant visa (green card).

The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa that allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is a popular route for F-1 graduates who secure a job offer from a U.S. employer. However, there are other visa types.

The O-1 visa is for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in fields such as science, education, business, athletics, or the arts. This visa is less common but can be an option for F-1 graduates with significant accomplishments and recognition in their field.

For students from Mexico and Canada, there is a TN visa. TN status allows individuals from these countries to work in the United States in a broad variety of fields, and the visa is much easier to acquire than a comparable H-1B.


Transition from F-1 to an Employment-Based Green Card

Securing an employment-based green card is one of the most promising ways for international students to transition from F-1 status to green card status in the United States. These green cards are categorized into various preference levels, each with specific eligibility criteria and processes. For F-1 graduates, the most suitable categories generally include:

EB-1: People of Extraordinary Ability
The EB-1 category is for priority workers, including individuals with extraordinary abilities (EB-1A), outstanding professors and researchers (EB-1B), and multinational executives and managers (EB-1C). This category often has faster processing times and may not require labor certification.

EB-2: Advanced Degree Holders
The EB-2 category is for professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in their fields, requiring a job offer and labor certification unless applying for a National Interest Waiver (NIW), which allows self-petitioning if the work benefits the U.S. national interest.

EB-3: Skilled Workers, Professionals, or Other Unskilled Workers
The EB-3 category is for skilled workers with at least two years of experience, professionals with a bachelor’s degree, and unskilled workers, all requiring a job offer and labor certification. This category typically has longer wait times due to high demand.

Employment-based green cards provide diverse routes for F-1 graduates to transition to permanent residency based on their qualifications and job offers.


Adjust from F-1 Visa to Green Card through Marriage

It’s quite common for people to meet their future spouses in college, and it’s not any different for international students. For F-1 students in the United States, marriage to a U.S. citizen offers a viable pathway to stay in the country after graduation. This process begins with the couple getting married, which makes the foreign spouse eligible for a permanent residence (green card) through adjustment of status.

For immigration purposes, the foreign national must file an adjustment of status application package. Once successfully filed, the foreign national becomes lawfully present as an adjustment of status applicant (even if they’ve discontinued F-1 activities).

An adjustment of status applicant is also able to apply for employment authorization and advance parole travel authorization while awaiting the adjustment from F-1 visa to green card.


Apply for the Green Card Lottery

Officially known as the Diversity Visa (DV) Program, the green card lottery is a program that provides 55,000 green cards annually to individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. International students may enter this lottery once a year as a strategy to adjust from F-1 visa to green card. Though it’s a highly competitive and random process, there is no cost to apply.


Move from F-1 to Green Card by Way of Asylum

Applying for asylum can be a strategic option for F-1 students to remain in the United States if they fear persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. By filing an asylum application, the student can legally stay in the U.S. while their case is reviewed. If granted asylum, they receive protection and can eventually apply for a green card.

Asylum seekers can apply for work authorization 150 days after submitting their application, allowing them to support themselves while their case is pending. Additionally, asylum status can provide a pathway for family members to join them in the U.S. Given the complexities and potential for lengthy processing times when applying for asylum status, it's crucial for F-1 students to consult with an immigration attorney to assess their eligibility and strengthen their application for the best chance of success.

After graduation at a U.S. college or university, many F-1 visa students must make a pivotal decision about their future. While most graduates are looking at the next chapter in their lives, individuals holding an F-1 visa must determine if they will stay in the United States. There are several paths, through nonimmigrant visas or immigrant visas, that a former student may take to remain in the U.S.

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