For some of you, this article will not be relevant. Many international students will return home for the summer to spend time with family, or because the American portion of their education is complete. But that may not the case with everyone. There are some students who will be spending their summer in America, and like other teens across the country, this perhaps raises two questions: 1) What are we going to do to spend the time, and 2) how will we afford it?

Luckily (or maybe not), the answer to both questions is the same: get a job. For American teenagers, this can be difficult. Even before the economic downturn, summer employment for youths was in a decline, and since the crash it has plummeted. It is even harder for international students studying in America, who may face some restrictions. Let’s take a look at whether employment is even legally viable for you, and then go into options on how you can get some petty cash for the summer, and gain valuable working skills.

Summer job

The typical summer job- with its bright uniforms and food-oriented workday- most likely won’t be an option for many international students. But you can have something much better.
Image from Flickr user Mark Dekovich

Are You Eligible to Work?

This is the most important consideration. For a variety of reasons, international students aren’t immediately eligible to obtain most forms of employment. Visas are very strictly regulated, and student visas are different than work permits. It’s hard to say that this doesn’t make sense, as it makes it easier to keep track of people and to make sure that you are fulfilling your terms of the agreement (after all, a visa is in some ways the product of a negotiation where the terms have already been agreed upon).

The first hurdle is your immigration status, which you presumably already know (we’ve covered what kind of papers you would need).  You are certainly either a J-1 or an F-1.

  1. J-1 Status: If a student is J-1, most of the funding for their education comes from outside themselves or their families: from an official institution. This could be from the school they are going to attend, their own government, or the institution they are attending now.

  2. F-1 Status: This applies to you if most of your funding comes from a personal source, such as your family. The major difference in these statuses involve student employment, and the length of time they can stay and work after the educational period is over. For younger students, however, this won’t matter as much as getting the appropriate paperwork done on the front end.

If you are classified as J-1, you are not eligible for any employment, unless it is strictly part of your education program (for example, you might be a lab assistant, but this applies more for higher education than middle or high school). So, J-1 students may not apply for or accept any work.

If you are F-1, you are eligible for on-campus work for the first academic year, and then are able to get off-campus work following that. However, you won’t be able to obtain just any job: it has to be related to your studies, and fall under one of three categories.

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
  • Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion)
  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)

Finding work

Legally, an international student won’t be able to walk into a Pizza Hut and ask for a job, though let’s be honest: if that is one of your life’s great tragedies, you’re doing OK. However, it makes it more difficult to simply find work. For this, you will want to coordinate with the international office at your school. Ideally, they will be able to help you find employment in your field. After all, it is to their benefit that their students are happy and able to get by over the summer. This is something on which you shouldn’t wait until the last minute. Jobs like this generally have to be arranged in advance, so please contact your advisor as soon as you know you are going to be staying the summer.

Social Security

In order to work in the U.S., you have to pay taxes, and to do that, you will need a Social Security card. These aren’t just for citizens, even though most Americans generally assume that is the case. F-1, M-1, and J-1 students can all obtain Social Security cards. It is important to do so as quickly as possible if you plan to work, or you could very well find yourself stuck in bureaucratic delays.

Limitations and Opportunities

Clearly, you don’t have many options for employment. You might not be able to spend the summer flipping burgers, painting houses, or entering data in a windowless basement office, like so many teenagers. If you are going to be employed, you are legally required to do so in a way that will further your studies, enrich your future job prospects, and potentially provide a source of education and keep you interested. So while you might be denied the traditional summer job, and while finding employment may be more difficult for you, if you do get work, you will be far better off than most of your peers. And if you need to, you can flip burgers in your free time. Just to see what it’s like.


The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.