Many college students in the US are interested in freelancing to gain valuable work experience while in school and make extra money with no long-term commitment. However, international students are subject to work authorization requirements that affect their ability to freelance. Keep reading to learn how to freelance legally on an F-1 student visa.
What is freelance work?
In the US, freelancing is considered a type of self-employment. A freelancer works for themselves rather than for an employer. They provide services or products through specific projects for multiple companies and/or clients. Projects can be one-time or ongoing. A freelancer may have their own business but this is not necessary. Independent contractors are similar to freelancers in the US but contractors usually take on longer projects.
There are both remote and in-person freelance jobs. For example, if you are an MBA student, you may want to consult for local startups in person. If you are a design student, you may want to take on a web design project remotely for a client in the US. Because freelance work is often remote, freelancers may also have clients outside the US.
Is freelancing on F-1 visas allowed?
International students cannot freelance while they are in the US without additional work authorization. This includes remote freelance work, working with a non-US company, and one-time projects no matter how short. International students on F-1 visas are only authorized to work on campus unless they get additional work authorization.
There are two work authorization options for international students – Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). CPT cannot be used for freelance work because it must be tied to a specific employer. OPT may be able to be used for freelance work after the first year of school. No off-campus work authorization will be granted during your first academic year.
Pros and cons of freelancing as an international student
During school, you can freelance part-time (up to 20 hours a week) for up to 12 months using pre-completion OPT. However, this is not recommended because if you use all your allotted OPT during your studies, you cannot use OPT after graduation. Without an employer-sponsored job already lined up to get another visa, you will have to leave the US within 60 days of your academic program ending.
Post-completion OPT can be used for freelancing, and you can work full-time up to 40 hours a week in total. These restrictions apply to any international student physically in the US whether you are freelancing for a US company or a company based in another country.
Pros of working freelance as a student or recent alum:
- Gain job experience
- Earn income while in college
- Make professional connections that could lead to a full-time job in your desired field after graduation
Cons of using OPT for freelancing:
- Cannot be used during your first year of study
- Limited to 20 hours per week during school
- Limited to 12 months total
- Using pre-completion OPT makes you ineligible for post-completion OPT
How to freelance on OPT
According to USCIS, self-employment is allowed on OPT, which means freelancing is allowed. You do not need to have a job offer to apply for OPT. International students can even freelance for multiple different companies or clients as long as their total hours do not exceed the OPT limit. Apply through your college and start the application process up to 90 days before your first academic year ends. You will also need to submit the required paperwork directly to USCIS.
When using OPT for self-employment or freelancing, it’s important to take the right steps to avoid risking your visa status. The penalty for working illegally in the US is severe. You may lose your student visa, not be able to get another visa in the future, and be banned from re-entry to the US for three or ten years. To ensure legality while freelancing on OPT, all work must be related to your academic major. Keep detailed records of all work including:
- The job offer
- The client’s name
- The start and end date
- The hours worked
International students often ask, “Can I do freelance work on OPT?” While it is possible, we recommend saving OPT until after graduation if possible. Consider other options for gaining work experience such as an on-campus job or an internship through the CPT program. This allows you to use OPT after graduation and stay in the US longer. You can work full-time on post-completion OPT as opposed to only part-time with pre-completion.
If you have a qualifying STEM major, you can also extend post-completion OPT for up to 24 more months. However, you cannot freelance on the STEM OPT extension, so use your year of doing freelance work on OPT after graduation to secure an eligible job. Contact your school’s international student services office for support navigating your work authorization options before and after graduation.