Yes, you can, as long as you do so while on Optional Practical Training (OPT) approved by your school. While you’re in F-1 status, there are two ways that you can work in off-campus jobs: OPT and CPT. (If you don’t know what these are, check out my post from last week.) OPT is the only student work authorization that allows you to start and work for your own business, and can be started after you have been in F-1 status for at least one academic year.
Every F-1 student is granted 12 months of full-time OPT per educational level. This can normally be used in full-time or part-time increments, where two months of part-time OPT = one month of full-time OPT. Students who are working for themselves, however, must work full-time. Students in STEM fields are eligible for an extension of a further 17 months, for a total of 29 months.
While on OPT, a student can found and work for his own company. The rules are fairly simple–you must have any business licenses required by your state, you must be working full-time, and the majority of work you will be doing must be related to your major field of study. If you are able to utilize the 17-month STEM extension, there is one more requirement: you must register your company for the E-Verify program.
When your OPT ends, however, you will no longer be able to work in your business unless you have found an alternative means of work authorization. With this in mind, it’s important to plan ahead to make the best use of your OPT time and to set yourself up to be in the best position possible to transition to a new form of work authorization when your OPT runs out. A few tips:
Don’t apply for OPT if you don’t need it yet. You only need OPT if you intend to “work” for your company. Many preliminary activities necessary to start up a company are not considered “work” under immigration law. This includes things like forming the legal entity (LLC, corporation, etc.), meeting with and presenting to potential funders, leasing office space, negotiating and signing contracts with vendors, clients, funders, etc. If you can accomplish some of these tasks before starting work on the day-today operations of the company, do it, and save your OPT time for later on.
Make sure you will be eligible for cap-gap protection. As you look ahead to the end of your OPT time, keep in mind that one of the options you may want to try is having the company sponsor you for an H1b visa. Because applications must be submitted on April 1 for an October 1 start date, and because you have to wait until after you have completed your degree to apply, most people will have to wait to apply until the April 1 following graduation. If you are still on OPT when you file your application, your OPT will automatically extend until October 1 if you are granted an H1b. If your OPT ends before April 1, however, you will not be able to take advantage of this “cap-gap protection,” and will have to leave the country while your H1b is pending. So when you are deciding when to apply for OPT, try to save enough to take you through the following April 1.
Focus on funding. Depending on your situation there may be a number of options to consider for post-OPT immigration status. H1b sponsorship, E1 or E2 treaty status, or maybe even an EB2 national interest waiver green card. For all of these options, it will be important to be able to prove either that your company is funded enough to pay you and maintain its operations, or that you yourself have money to invest in it. So use your time wisely, before and during OPT, to secure angel funding (to prove that your company can afford to pay you prevailing wage for an H1b, for example) or bootstrap money from friends and family (to prove that you have funds to invest for an E2 treaty investor visa, for example).
If you have any further questions about starting and working for your own business while on an F-1 visa, contact me!