F1 students may not work off campus during their first year of school in the U.S. They may work on campus for a limited number of hours. The F1 student must be enrolled full time and can only work 20 hours per week.
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After the first year, an F1 student may work off campus, as long as the work is in their general field of study. Such work must also be authorized by the school prior to the commencement of work.
One work program for F1 students is Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows a student immigrant to obtain training in their field of study. A student is allowed 12 months of OPT per degree program. The OPT involves obtaining approval both from the international student office at the student's school and from USCIS. An actual OPT work authorization card is issued upon approval. OPT can serve as a bridge between a student's F1 visa and an employment visa.
Another program that allows F1 students to obtain experience in their field of study is CPT - Curricular Practical Training. CPT is off campus employment or an internship for credit. CPT may be part time while school is in session and full time during breaks. CPT does not count against the OPT 12 month rule unless a student engages in CPT full time.
Work by spouses or children of F1 students is not permitted, under any circumstances. An F2 family member may change status to F1 and would then be able to work as described above.