If you come to the U.S. on an F-1 visa for academic study, you are, as a condition of receiving and keeping the visa, expected to be able to cover your tuition, school expenses, and other living costs.
Nevertheless, there are certain circumstances in which you are allowed to work, in most cases after applying for and receiving an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), also known as a work permit. These include the following:
You are allowed to work on the campus of your school for a maximum of 20 hours per week while school is in session. During school vacations, you can work on campus up to full time. Before starting work, your designated school official (DSO) must certify that the job you plan to accept will not displace non-student U.S. workers. For example, you might be permitted a job in the library, cafeteria, or bookstore, or as a teaching assistant, all of which are positions typically filled by students. But you are less likely to be approved for a job as a janitor or administrative assistant. You may also accept on campus employment – or in some cases, off-campus employment in locations affiliated with the school -- if the job is part of a scholarship or fellowship within your academic program.
If after having been at your school for at least a year, something changes in your personal situation, and your intended source of support while studying goes away, you may apply to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a work permit allowing you to take a job with an off-campus employer. For example, if your parents who were supporting you develop medical problems or lose a job, or the foundation that supplied your scholarship runs into financial trouble, this might be an option for you. However, do not apply for this type of work permit unless you have to, because you might convince USCIS that your situation is so desperate that even a part time job will not allow you to be self-supporting in the United States – in which case your visa could be revoked.
As part of your study program, your school may arrange for a period of what’s called curricular practical training. This means off-campus employment, paid or unpaid, that will help you earn credit or fulfill your graduation requirements. You’ll need to have been studying for at least nine months at the college level or higher. Your DSO will need to approve the plan and advise USCIS.
This type of off-campus work, available to students who have been studying for at least nine months at the college level or above, does not need to be part of your academic program. However, OPT work must be directly related to your major and fit your educational level. The maximum OPT you can do is one year. Your DSO must approve your plan, and then you must apply to USCIS for a work permit.
Talk to your DSO for details, or get help from an immigration attorney. See our section on Student Visas for more on the rules of these types of temporary visas.