The United States has long been a magnet for international students seeking world class education and a pathway to diverse career opportunities. Among the various visa options available, the F1 student visa and transition to H1-B Employment Visa, despite its limitations, remains a popular choice for students aiming to pursue their academic and professional aspirations in the USA. In recent years, the EB-5 Visa has emerged as an increasingly popular option also, due to its straightforward path to permanent residency, flexibility and family inclusions.

Understanding the F1 Visa

The F1 visa is a non-immigrant student visa that allows foreign nationals to enter the United States for the sole purpose of pursuing a full-time academic program at an accredited institution. This visa is the most popular way for foreign students to enter the US for higher studies.

One facet of the F1 visa is the opportunity to engage in Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows students to gain practical work experience related to their field of study for up to 12 months after completing their academic program. For STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) students, this period can be extended by 24 months. However, STEM status is not automatically granted, and requires students to apply through their designated school official (DSO). It is crucial to bear in mind that STEM status is temporary and comes with limitations on the duration of part-time enrolment.

The OPT is often seen as an advantage for students, as it means they can seamlessly start to work in the U.S. after studying without having to worry about securing a separate visa under employer sponsorship. Since the employer does not need to do sponsorship paperwork as they would on an H1-B or L-1 visa, students may find it easy to find a position on OPT status. However, as the OPT has an expiry date, some see this as a short-term solution to a longer term issue of needing a valid working visa to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Employers may also struggle to keep someone employed once their OPT expires.

Restrictions for F-1 Visa

While the F-1 visa opens doors to educational opportunities, certain restrictions accompany this visa. Firstly, F-1 Visa holders must maintain full-time enrolment status throughout their academic program (with very little flexibility) in order to ensure compliance with the student visa regulations. Working off-campus without proper authorization is strictly prohibited, though limited on-campus employment is sometimes allowed.

Additionally, F-1 Visa holders face restrictions on the duration of their stay in the U.S., as they are typically granted until the completion of their academic program, with the short-term OPT being the only available route to remain in the U.S. post-graduation. Traveling outside the U.S. may also require obtaining a valid travel signature from the designated school official. Students on the F-1 Visa must comply with these restrictions at all times to maintain legal status in the United States.

These restrictions often make it difficult for foreign students to obtain crucial work experience during their education along with their U.S. peers. Oftentimes, internships (both during the school year or in the summers) at large companies are not possible due to employment restrictions on the F-1 visa. This type of work experience is an important CV builder that strengthens students’ position when looking for a job post-graduation.

Are H1-B Employment Visas a viable option?

The H-1B visa allows immigrants to work in high-skilled job positions. It is the visa that the vast majority of international graduates will apply for in order to remain in the United States post-OPT. To obtain an H-1B visa, students must overcome two major difficulties: the first is finding an employer willing to invest the capital required to sponsor them, and the second is being lucky enough to be selected via the H-1B lottery system.

This means that even in the event that a student is fortunate enough to find an employer who is ready to sponsor them, they still face an uncertain route to obtaining a visa. Due to the extremely high demand of H-1B visas, the category has become oversaturated; therefore to ensure fair selection, H-1B visas are now allocated through a lottery system. Companies must first submit an application to sponsor foreign workers or newly graduated international students, at which point they will enter the application pool. However, the annual H-1B quota of 85,000 is often filled immediately in April of each year, while hundreds of thousands of applicants wait in the pool.

One of the key difficulties with this process is that selection is completely random and not based on merit; the talent and skills of the applicant are not taken into account during the selection process, nor is the size of the company committed to sponsoring the student or the salary offered. The draw is based on pure luck, hence the name.

To illustrate the slim probability of being selected for an H-1B visa, during the 2024 pre-registration period, USCIS received more than 780,000 H-1B pre-registrations for the 85,000 quota. In the scenario that a student is fortunate enough to find an employer who will sponsor them and is also selected in the H1-B lottery, it is important to be mindful that, like the F-1 student visa, this category comes with its own set of limitations. Due to the visa being explicitly tied to an employer, if one were to lose their job, they have just 60 days to find another position, after which they must leave the country.

Due to economic factors, the tech industry has faced mass layoffs in the United States over the past two years, meaning many foreign workers under H-1B visas have had to leave the country that they’ve called home for many years.

Many H1-B holders also find it difficult to experience true career growth while on this visa as vertical growth may mean the individual has to apply for a new visa with a new job title. Finally, the backlog for some nationalities to move from H1-B to green card has become increasingly long, sometimes stretching to 20+ years. With no light at the end of the tunnel, these issues illuminate the uncertainty that can come from living and working under a H1-B visa.

Why is the EB-5 Investor Program a secure option?

Since 2022, the EB-5 Program has become increasingly popular for F-1 international students. Many parents are looking at the EB-5 Program as an avenue to ensure their children can rightfully live and work in the U.S. without the restrictions/uncertainty that surrounds other Visa Programs.

Under the EB-5 Program, applicants have the opportunity to invest a refundable amount of $800,000 into an EB-5 approved project, and in return gain residency and eventually a Green Card in the USA. This program is seen to offer a straightforward and certain path to the U.S. Green Card when compared to other options.

The EB-5 application can include the investor, the investor’s spouse, and any children they have under the age of 21. In the event that a child is over 21 years old (or if a parent is only considering the program for the benefit of their child who is a U.S. student), the child can be made a primary applicant, having the funds for the investment gifted from a parent. This strategy is being used by many families across the GCC who already have a child studying in the US on an F-1 visa or who may be on post-graduation OPT.

More and more families are applying for an EB-5 Visa when their child has graduated from a U.S. university and failed to secure an H1-B visa — an option that becomes less and less viable each year, as allotted slots do not grow while application numbers continue to increase exponentially.

Should I wait to graduate from University before investing in an EB-5 Green Card?

It can be tempting to wait until a student graduates from university to find out if they want to stay in the United States or if they are drawn through the H1-B lottery, a notably more affordable option; at which point they will have a clearer indication on whether they will have enhanced employment opportunities. However, statistics show that the majority of international students wish to remain in the U.S. after completing four years or more of study.

Many students find that after four years of studying and networking in the U.S., they have a vast array of career building opportunities in front of them post-graduation, with only visa status standing in their way. It is of great benefit to international students and their families to learn how the U.S. immigration system works before the child starts their studies in the United States, or graduates from a U.S. program. Having this knowledge ahead of time allows them to make more informed decisions about their future.

With this knowledge, students and their families can map a realistic career path more easily and accurately. The EB-5 Program allows families to unlock more benefits than any other, and the earlier they choose to start the application process (usually before the child goes to the U.S. for their studies) the higher the chances of the student having a smooth transition to their career in the U.S. In addition, application for a green card well in advance will ensure it doesn’t impact the student’s career in any way, even if there are delays in the process.

Options for international students

The landscape of student visas in the U.S. is vast and dynamic, offering international students diverse opportunities to pursue both their academic and professional goals. The F1 visa, and its subsequent transition to H1-B, remain popular choices despite their limitations. The EB-5 Visa continues to grow in popularity due to the relatively low investment sum (a refundable investment of $800,000 in parts) and clear path to approval, citizenship and the right to legally work in the U.S. for the applicant’s entire family.

Begin your journey toward international studies

Step Global is a Dubai based leading immigration advisory firm in the MENA region, with over 13 years of experience in the industry. They are the single point of contact between all parties involved to ensure the most optimal chance of approval for your application for migration. Because of this, they hold one of the highest track records of approvals in the region. Due to the vast experience and expertise of Step Global’s award winning legal team, they have helped countless students achieve their goal of overseas study & work in the USA.

At the centre of Step Global’s policies sits the understanding that by handling their clients’ applications, they have a responsibility to not only their future, but the future of their family too. The experienced immigration team will always provide exceptional standards of service and trustworthy advice, whether you are seeking educational opportunities for your children, a better quality of life, global access, more security and stability, access to better healthcare or simply enjoying endless freedom.