How can I stay and work in the US after graduating?

live in the us
Many international students have gone on to work in the US after their studies. Source: Patrick McDermott/AFP

It’s no secret that the US is one of the most popular countries in the world for international students. Over the past 20 years, the country has seen a major uptick in international student enrolment, reaching a high of more than one million students in the 2018-19 year. The pandemic has caused a dip in this figure, falling to 914,095 international students in 2020-21, but even then, many still highly regard a US education. 

Much of the appeal to live in the US has to do with the multitude of opportunities on offer. From hosting the world’s biggest tech giants to producing much of the entertainment we consume today, the American Dream is a concept that still attracts many to its shores. 

In this, it’s no wonder that international students who migrate to the US for university often seek out ways to remain in the country after they graduate. The classic — and most common — route for this is to partake in Optional Practical Training (OPT). 

Work and live in the US after your studies: OPT route

Through OPT, international students on an F-1 visa can work in the US for 12 months without being sponsored by an employer. STEM students are given an advantage on this front, being granted 24 months instead of the usual 12. The only catch? Being limited to jobs that are directly related to their field of study.

This is a major draw for international students, as it takes the pressure off having to find a job straight out of graduation, and it’s proven to act as a bridge for international students to live in the US long-term. STEM graduates, for example, often stay in the US long after their university years are completed, with some even going as far as to obtain permanent residency. 

How, then, can international students live in the US long-term after their OPT periods are over? Here are four pathways you can consider.

There are a number of options available to international students looking to work in the US. Source: Mario Tama/AFP

Four ways to stay in the US after graduating

H-1B Visa: Specialty Occupations

The H-1B visa is the most common work visa that US employers use to hire foreign workers. It’s a nonimmigrant visa — meaning that it’s issued on a temporary basis — and is specifically geared towards skilled individuals who show promise in their fields. 

Most H-1B visas are issued to STEM or related graduates. However, you may also be considered for an H-1B visa if you are working in a role “relating to a Department of Defense (DOD) cooperative research and development project”, or if you are a fashion model of “distinguished merit or ability”, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website

You can’t apply for an H-1B yourself — your employer has to file it for you. If you’re successful, you’ll be permitted to live in the US for three years, with the possibility of extending to six. What’s more, it can potentially lead to a green card — find out how here

E-1/E-2 Visa: Treaty Trader and Investor

The E-1 and E-2 visas are two pathways that require you to be a national of a country that the US “maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation with”. This already limits the pool of eligible applicants, as only a select few countries are included in this category. 

If your country is included, you can consider the E-1 or E-2 visa as an alternative route to staying in the US after your studies. Both are nonimmigrant visas. 

The E-1 visa is for “Treaty Traders” who can move to the US to carry out trade activities. Here, you have to show that the volume of trade you carry out is sufficient to justify your presence in the US, and that at least 50% of your exports/imports must be from the US. 

Under the E-1, you’ll only be able to work in the activity your visa was issued for — meaning that you can’t partake in any side employment. You may be able to find a loophole, however, if your employer has a parent company bridging across a variety of different fields. 

By contrast, the E-2 visa is for “Treaty Investors”, or rather: people who have or are actively investing a large sum of money in an enterprise. 

You might think that buying property or stocks and bonds will get you to qualify for this visa, but this is far from the truth. You must prove that you have to be in the US to manage the operations of your business. 

Most students don’t go down this route — understandably, as you’d be at the beginning stages of your career. However, this is a great option to consider if you plan to work elsewhere and eventually make your way back to the US. 

The E-1/E-2 visas can be a great option for graduates who plan to eventually make their way back to the US. Source: Don Emmert/AFP

L-1 Visa: Intracompany Transferee

The L-1 visa is for you if you’re an employee in a company that has an office in the US, but are currently working from an office in another country. Through this visa, an employer from your company’s American branch can file an application for you to be brought over for the purposes of working in the US on a temporary basis. 

To qualify, you must at least be at an executive or managerial level, or a specialised knowledge worker. On top of that, you have to be employed by your sponsoring company for at least one continuous year out of the past three years.

On top of that, USCIS notes that you should be working “for a qualifying organisation abroad for one continuous year within the three years immediately preceding his or her admission to the US”.

You can also qualify for an L-1 visa if your company hopes to establish an office in the US and wants to send you over for this purpose. Again, your employer will have to file an application on your behalf. 

Green Card: Permanent Resident

If you want to live in the US long-term, your natural course of action should be to work towards a green card. With this, you’ll count as a lawful permanent resident in the US and have the right to legally live, work, and travel freely in the country. 

The great news? All of the visa types mentioned above can count towards a green card application. The bad news, though, is that a green card is notoriously difficult to obtain, especially because there’s a limited cap on how many are issued each year. 

Still, it’s extremely rewarding if you manage to get one for yourself. For a step-by-step guide on getting a green card as a graduate, read this