International student in the U.S. on an F-1 visa do indeed have the opportunity to obtain an H-1B visa for temporary specialty work after they graduate. The H-1B visa requires employer sponsorship, and the F-1 student must otherwise be eligible for this visa category.
The general requirements for H-1B status are that the so-called "beneficiary" (in this case, the F-1 student) is or will be employed in a professional position and that the employer will be paying the beneficiary the prevailing wage. A professional position is one that requires, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in the field of specialization. The prevailing wage is an amount that has been determined by the Department of Labor and is based primarily on the job duties and the experience level required by the job.
Employer-sponsored visas, like the H-1B, require a petition to be made to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by the employer. The employer is therefore responsible for completing the process and securing the proper supporting documents from the beneficiary.
See Improving Your Chances of Getting an H-1B Visa for some tips.
F-1 students who wish to be sponsored for H-1B status after graduation should first apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT is a form of work authorization that is available for all F-1 students who have maintained their status while enrolled in school. OPT is not employer-specific -- that is, you can switch employers if you have been authorized for OPT. This allows the student flexibility in pursuing employment related to their degree program without the fear of immediately falling out of status if a position does not work out.
OPT is an important first step after graduation for several reasons. First, many students may not have a job lined up when they complete their studies. Even if they do, the employer may not be ready to sponsor the student for an H-1B visa until he or she has been working for them for a certain period of time.
Second, the number of H-1B visas granted each year is capped. Currently, only 65,000 H-1B visas are issued to private employers in total each fiscal year. The fiscal year for USCIS begins on October 1 of each year, and ends September 30. Unless the employer is not subject to this cap, students may not be able to start employment in H-1B status until the following October 1 if there are no H-1 B visas available at the time they are hired. Having OPT will allow the student to work until this date.
A third advantage to applying for OPT is that it allows students to maximize their period of authorized employment in the United States. H-1B status is granted in increments of up to three years, for a maximum period of six years. Students can be granted OPT for up to 12 months after they complete their studies. Starting employment with OPT can therefore allow students to do a total of up to seven years of authorized work in the United States.
Some students can further maximize this time if they are eligible for a 17-month extension of their OPT. OPT extensions are available to students who received their degree in the field of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. These fields are grouped together and referred to as “STEM.” The U.S. Department of State maintains a STEM-designated degree program list that students can reference if they are not sure that they qualify. Students should also check with their Designated School Official (DSO) about additional requirements for the OPT extension before they apply. If students are eligible for the OPT extension, they should strongly consider taking advantage of the additional 17 months before pursuing H-1B status.
F-1 students should remember that they are still in F-1 status when they are working on OPT. They will still need to report to their DSO and maintain F-1 status until an employer successfully petitions to change their status to H-1B.
To learn more, see our section on Student Visas.