Visa after graduation in the US: How to stay in the USA

If you are studying in the US, you may have ambitions to stay in the country on a longer-term basis. But with an F-1 student visa, you are only allowed to be in the US while you are studying and until you complete your course. This means if you want to remain in the US after your graduate, you will need to secure new immigration status before your current visa expires.

Changes in US immigration policy and ongoing challenges due to the pandemic are making it tougher to secure a visa, but it’s not impossible. If you can provide enough solid evidence that you meet the eligibility criteria for your chosen visa and you work to the relevant deadlines, opportunities still exist to continue your life in the US.

Your immigration options will depend on what it is you plan to do after you’ve finished your studies. You may be looking to continue with studying, or to find a job or to start up a business.

It’s best to start thinking of your future plans well in advance of your graduation. Changing your visa status from within the US can take several months, in addition to the time needed to set your plans in motion, such as finding employment or applying for further study. You’ll also need to be sure you meet the general grounds for admissibility, for example you haven’t committed a crime or breached the terms of your visa.

In this guide, we consider some of the visa options that could be open to you to stay in the US after you graduate.

Continue your studies in the US

It is possible to apply to undertake additional education or graduate degrees after your F-1 visa undergraduate studies. To do this, you will need to update your I-20 or DS-2019 to reflect your transition to a new school and major ahead of your current F-1 visa expiring.

Sponsorship by a US employer

H-1B visa for specialist skilled roles

The H1-B route is available in certain specialty skill occupations and requires you to have a bachelor’s degree. To apply, you’ll need to have secured a job offer in a role that meets the H-1B requirements – covering criteria such as skill and salary levels – with an employer who is authorized to sponsor you.

The H-1B has an annual limit and there are also really strict deadlines. Applications are only accepted from the start of April each year, and the window closes as soon as the quota has been filled. This makes it a challenging and unreliable route. Current figures suggest applicants have around a 1 in 3 chance of getting selected.

L-1 visa for intra-company transfers

The L-1 visa enables existing employees of a multinational company to relocate to a US branch on a temporary basis.

Importantly – as an F-1 visa holder, you will need to leave the US to be eligible for this route, and have been working for the company for at least 12 months before you can apply to transfer back to the US.

You’ll also need to make a really strong case as to why you are critical to carrying out this role over a US resident worker. This includes evidencing you hold an executive or managerial level position.

The good news is if you fall into the L1A manager category, you may be eligible for a Multinational Manager Green Card.

O-1 visa for extraordinary ability

This is an exceptionally niche visa, open to those at the top of their field on a global scale.

You’ll need to demonstrate extraordinary ability, status and position within the field of either the arts, science, movies, education, business or athletics. If you can provide evidence of endorsement from suitably credible and authoritative representatives in your area – the O-1 could be an option.

Starting up or investing in a US business

E-2 visa

If you’re entrepreneurial-minded and can come up with the capital to put into your business, the E-2 visa offers better odds of success than most other routes.

You’ll need to be national of a Treaty country and have invested, or be actively in the process of investing, a “substantial amount” of capital in a bona fide enterprise in the US. This means you’ll be taking on a serious financial risk – with no guarantees of securing the visa.

Doing your research and putting a solid business case together can improve your odds significantly.

EB-5 program

Under the EB-5 program, you’ll need to invest at least $500,000 in US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) qualified investments that create at least 10 US jobs.

Investments can be made directly or through regional centers and include a wide variety of options including real estate, businesses and restaurants among others.

Employment schemes for international graduates

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is a popular route for F-1 visa holders. It’s a program that allows temporary employment authorization directly related to your major area of study for a total of up to 12 months during your studies or after your course has finished.

To qualify for the program, you must have been studying in the US for one full academic year or have received your degree.

F-1 visa OPT work permits are generally handled through your university international student office. You don’t need to wait for a job offer to apply.

In many cases, employers use the OPT program as a recruitment route, and are open to offering sponsorship under the H-1B visa to OPT participants for longer term positions.

24 Month STEM OPT F1 visa extension

The science, technology, engineering or math OPT extension allows students with certain STEM degrees to apply for a 2-year F-1 visa extension to the OPT program post-course completion, increasing the maximum OPT period to 3 years. Places are limited under the STEM extension scheme and USCIS must receive the STEM OPT extension application no later than the end of the original OPT period.

Personal relationship basis

Marriage Green Card

If you’re marrying a US citizen, a marriage-based Green Card is always an option, provided you meet the remaining criteria. You’ll need to prove the relationship is real and there’s no marriage fraud. Gladly, there are no limits or waiting periods for spousal Green Cards.

You can apply for citizenship after three years of your spousal Green Card, again providing you meet the other eligibility criteria.

Family-based Green Card

If you are related to a US citizen, they may be able to sponsor you for a Green Card application. The family member must be classed as an immediate relative, which means being either a spouse, child over 21, parent or sibling. The relationship must be evidenced thoroughly through the petitioning process, using Form I-130.

Avoid overstaying

Whichever route you opt for, whether you’re extending your visa or changing your status, you’ll need to have filed the relevant USCIS application before your current visa expires. USCIS does allow F-1 students to stay unemployed for up to 90 days past their program end date, but there is no further grace period beyond this date and you will be required to leave the US to avoid breaching the immigration rules.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.