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How to answer: When can you start

interstride logo by Interstride
March 13, 2024

Preparing for job interviews for international students comes with unique challenges. You will need to have some understanding of work authorization options and employer sponsorship to respond accurately to certain questions in job applications and interviews. Let’s explore how to answer the “when can you start” question, focusing specifically on international students and graduates. 

When can you start working?

“When can you start?” This question is standard in job applications and interviews in the US. It may be phrased differently but has the same meaning:

  • Date available
  • Date available to start
  • Earliest start date
  • How soon can you start?
  • Are you available immediately?

Employers ask this question for various reasons, such as evaluating project timelines, budgets, and preparing for job onboarding. While some organizations are looking for immediate hires, asking this question does not necessarily indicate an unwillingness to wait for the ideal candidate.

How to answer “date available to start” on applications and job interviews

For US citizens and lawful permanent residents, responding to this question is based on individual preferences and schedules. However, international students and recent graduates need to consider in their visa status and work authorization options when answering this question. You may be available and eager to start working immediately, but you must verify that your work authorization status is up-to-date before you can begin working. 

1. Consider your specific circumstances

Most recent international graduates who remain in the US for work use Optional Practical Training (OPT), which grants 12 months of work authorization or 36 months for qualifying STEM majors. You can apply for OPT before or after you have secured a job offer, but you must wait until the OPT start date listed on your application to begin working. 

If you plan to work during your studies, it’s recommended to use Curricular Practical Training (CPT) instead of OPT, saving OPT for post-graduation. Keep in mind, if you opt for 12 months of pre-completion OPT (OPT before graduation) and you do not have another visa lined up, you will need to leave the US within 60 days of graduating. A qualifying job offer is required to apply for CPT, and your start date is set with your employer before requesting authorization. 

2. Focus on the timeframe you need before starting

Work with your college’s designated school official (DSO) to set your OPT start date. The OPT start date must be no more than 60 days after your academic program ends. If you apply for OPT before you have a job offer, you can set your OPT start date for any time up to that 60-day cutoff. However, you must find a job and start working within 90 days of your approved OPT start date, or your visa will expire and you must leave the US.

Remember, you can start working on or after your CPT or OPT start date but not before. You must also receive a valid Employment Authorization Document (EAD) before starting work. Depending on current processing times, it can take 90-120 days to receive your EAD for OPT. CPT approval usually only takes about 1-2 weeks.

3. Be honest and confident in your response

It’s very important to answer all job application and interview questions honestly. Dishonesty may result in losing the trust of a potential employer or could lead to a job offer being rescinded after completing the whole interview process. During job interviews, it is crucial to articulate your preferred start date concisely and confidently. It doesn’t look good to employers to be vague or indecisive. Learning and practicing your responses is the best way to prepare.

Date of availability best answers for international students and recent grads

Explore each common scenario and sample answers to “when can you start” for students planning to use OPT for work/ Keep in mind that these answers are intended for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. You can revise them as needed to fit your specific circumstances.

ScenarioSample answer
You have not graduated yet and plan to apply for post-completion OPT“I graduate on __, and I am available to start working on or after ___”
You have graduated, but are still job searching and have not applied for OPT yet“I will need to apply for work authorization which takes approximately 90-120 days for approval. I can begin working after that.”
You have graduated and have already applied for OPT, but are still job searching“I can start working immediately if needed. My preferred start date is ___.”
Interstride Tip! Many international graduates apply for an H-1B visa while on OPT. While the H-1B visa start date for employers subject to the H-1B lottery is October 1st, most international graduates who are already employed will be eligible for the cap-gap extension to cover work authorization status for the period between OPT expiring and October 1st. If your employer is H-1B cap-exempt, then your start date can be set with the employer and included on your H-1B petition.

Date of availability best answers for international students using CPT

These scenarios are based specifically on using CPT for a temporary job or internship while still in college:

ScenarioSample answer
Seeking an internship using CPT“I can start working in 1-2 weeks. I will need to apply for CPT work authorization through my university. My ideal start date would be ___.”
An interviewer asks you if you are available to start immediately“I won’t be able to start immediately, but I can start in 1-2 weeks after I apply for CPT work authorization with my university first. It usually takes 1-2 weeks to get approval.”
Interstride Tip! Curious how to answer interview questions related to immigration status and sponsorship? We have an entire blog dedicated to understanding what sponsorship questions employers can legally ask you and how to best answer them.

Concluding thoughts on how to answer when can you start

It’s vital to answer job application and interview questions as clearly and truthfully as you can. Do your research on work authorization options and allowable start dates before you begin applying for jobs. Don’t be shy about practicing your responses out loud or even doing mock interviews with peers. The more you practice, the more confident you will sound. That will allow you to present your best self to potential employers and ensure a smooth transition from international student to employee in the US.