Working in the U.S.

As international students on F-1 and J-1 student visas , you need to be aware of the various restrictions surrounding work/employment in the U.S.  “Work” does not necessarily have to be paid and depends on many factors.  Do not assume just because you are not being paid that work authorization is not necessary. In general, while you are located in the U.S., any paid work that you do, including remote work for a U.S. or non-U.S. employer, freelancing, side hustles, and any other paid opportunities require you to obtain employment authorization before the work begins. In addition, some types of unpaid opportunities will also require employment authorization.  The only work that does not require authorization is on-campus work at Harvard.

Please see below for more information about on-campus work, types of work authorization available for off-campus work, and grey areas within the definition of employment such as entrepreneurship, unpaid internships, and more. 

It is important that you review this information carefully and reach out to your HIO advisor with any questions before starting anything that could resemble work from the U.S. Failure to obtain work authorization before starting work is a violation of your student visa status. Violating your student visa status could negatively impact future visa applications or applications for future immigration benefits. Keep in mind that U.S. Embassies and Consulates will have access to your social media and digital footprint during future visa applications and may question or deny a future visa application if you appeared to have worked from the U.S. without employment authorization.

On-Campus Employment

Work on the Harvard campus is permissible as soon as students are in F-1 or J-1 status in the U.S., though no sooner than 30 days prior to the start of classes. Acceptable employment includes: work required by a scholarship, assistantship or fellowship, work in the libraries, computer centers, administrative offices, and work performed on Harvard's premises for an outside contractor or firm as long as the employer provides direct services to students (for example, work for a food service company at Harvard).  Please note that working for a US or non-US entity from your dorm, or library, is not considered on-campus employment simply because you are doing the work from the Harvard campus.

Employment is limited to 20 hours per week while school is in session, but may be full-time during Harvard's vacation periods.

J-1 students are required to  report their on-campus employment to the HIO once every year. Students with visa sponsorship from an external organization, such as Fulbright or AMIDEAST, should contact their visa sponsor before accepting any on campus work for guidance. 

Social Security Numbers

If you do not already have a U.S. Social Security Number (SSN), you will need to apply for one upon accepting employment on campus. A Social Security Number is a tax identification number that will be needed by your employer for payroll and taxation purposes. Please see Social Security Numbers for instructions.

On-Campus Employment at an Off-Campus Location for F-1 Students

USCIS has expanded the definition of on-campus employment to include jobs with employers that are educationally affiliated with Harvard University, provided that the job is associated with Harvard's curriculum or related to contractually-funded research projects and provided that the job is an integral part of students' academic programs (for example, research work at one of Harvard's affiliated hospitals may be acceptable for students in the sciences). Employment is limited to 20 hours per week while school is in session, but may be full-time during Harvard's vacation periods. Final permission is granted by the student's HIO advisor. 

Types of Off-Campus Work Authorization

Off-campus work requires U.S. work authorization. To review the options for work authorization, please see below:

F-1 Visa:

There are several types of work authorization that F-1 students may qualify for, depending on their program of study, type of work, and the type of degree program they are enrolled in. Please note that F-1 students are not eligible to work off-campus during their first year in F-1 status.

F-1 Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

  • For internships and employment opportunities that are an integral part of an established curriculum. Eligibility for CPT and timing on when CPT can be used varies by degree program. Can only be used prior to graduation. 

F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT)

  • Students are eligible for 12 months of OPT per degree level earned in the U.S. Students must spend a full academic year in F-1 status before qualifying for OPT. May be used before or after graduation, or a combination of both.

F-1 STEM OPT Extension

  • A 24 month extension of post-graduation OPT for students in particular STEM-eligible degree programs. 

F-1 Employment with an International Organization

  • Work authorization for students with an official job offer from a recognized international organization. May be used for work up until graduation. 

J-1 Visa:

J-1 students may apply for J-1 Academic Training work authorization for employment opportunities taking place during the course of study, or post-graduation.

Entrepreneurial Activities

U.S. immigration regulations do not clearly define employment and never contemplated the new era of entrepreneurs, influencers and social media. In a time where it seems many students are interested in launching a new business endeavor, international students must beware and tread very carefully.  Generally speaking, international students can start brainstorming ideas, developing a business plan, registering the company, etc. for a start up without needing to apply for work authorization, but they will reach a certain point in planning when work authorization may become necessary. 

Students working on a start up, either through one of Harvard’s incubators or on their own, are encouraged to reach out to their HIO Advisor to discuss their plans. It may also be necessary for international students to speak with and retain a U.S. immigration attorney to navigate this complicated process.

The HIO hosted an informational session focused on entrepreneurship with immigration attorney Mary E. Walsh, a partner at Iandoli Desai & Cronin, P.C. which is a firm specializing in U.S. immigration law. This session is an educational resource, and addresses questions such as: What should non-immigrant students and academics know about launching a business at various stages of their immigration journey?  What activities count as U.S. employment? What options exist for work authorization both in the short-term and longer-term alternatives?

You may view a recording of this session here and the session presentation slides here  

Working Remotely for Employers Outside the U.S.

The U.S. government considers any work done while on U.S. soil to be work that requires U.S. work authorization. International students must obtain U.S. work authorization in order to work remotely from the U.S. for a non-U.S. employer. 

International students may travel outside of the U.S. over official school breaks and conduct work from their home countries or a country where they have work authorization without needing to apply for U.S. work authorization.

Unpaid Internships and Volunteering 

Unpaid Internships

Whether or not you need work authorization for an unpaid internship is considered on a case-by-case basis. Interntional students who receive an offer for an unpaid internship should be in touch with their HIO Advisor for guidance. 

If you are receiving any type of compensation, including stipends, honoraria, stock options, or reimbursements, or the prospective position does not meet the unpaid internship criteria, you must obtain U.S. work permission if eligible. In addition, you cannot offer to volunteer for a position which is normally a paid position, or for which you will be paid later, due to work authorization constraints. We advise that you obtain and keep written documentation when engaging in unpaid internships, in case you are ever required to provide it in the future.

After you have completed your program, you must apply for F-1 post-completion OPT or J-1 Academic Training authorization for both paid and/or unpaid positions if you wish to remain in the US to work


Volunteering allows you to get involved with the local community, network, utilize skills and learn new ones. The U.S. Department of Labor defines volunteering as donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is civic, charitable, or humanitarian in nature. You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in legitimate volunteer activities, so long as you are not receiving payment or any type of compensation. We advise that you obtain and keep written documentation when getting involved in volunteer activities in case you are ever required to provide it in the future.