What do you mean you need a work visa?

“What do you mean you need a work visa?” After this question, many of my job interviews turned really awkward. Another common question that would follow was, “So, are you here illegally?”

Uh, no.

As an international student at a U.S. college, I always knew in the back of my head that if I wanted to stay and work in this county, I would need my employer to sponsor my work visa. What does that mean? Simply put, you have to submit an application and your employer pretty much pays the country to let you work here. But the truth is that this process is nothing short of a nightmare. It might seem that the complicated part is the visa application, but, in my experience, the challenge came long before the visa process.

I was fortunate to have a good International Student Program at my school. They were always very helpful, and they had all the information we needed to know. If you are going to embark in the adventure that is a work visa, make sure you reach out to someone who is familiar with the process to guide you. If you don’t know anyone (or even if you do), here’s some advice from a person who’s been there.

1. Never do this alone

Some international students are able to find a job before they graduate that comes with a work visa, but this is uncommon. Therefore, applying for OPT (Optional Practical Training) is the first step for many international students who wish to stay in the U.S. after graduation.This is a one-year extension of your student visa (18 months for those in STEM) where you can work in the U.S. without a work visa. Unfortunately, this is not very common. The OPT application process is not too complicated, but having someone guiding you through the process will ensure that you don’t make any mistakes, and it will make your life much easier.

2. Apply for the OPT as soon as you can

I was overwhelmed during the spring semester of my senior year of college, and instead of applying in February when the application period opened, I waited until April. Thankfully, I didn’t have many problems so I got my OPT card on time, but remember that it takes USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) months to process the thousands of applications they receive, so the sooner the better. The process is stressful on its own, but it’s more manageable if you apply right when it opens.

3. Start applying for jobs sooner rather than later

I started applying for jobs around March or April of my senior year, graduated in May, received a job offer in June, and started working in July (the day I received my OPT card), but I really wish I had started earlier than that. You have to keep in mind that you have 60 days from the day of your graduation to start working in a job related to your major, otherwise, you will have to leave the U.S. So the sooner you start applying for jobs, the more likely it will be that you will receive an offer on time. Conduct informational interviews, network, meet with alumni from your school and polish your resume and cover letters over and over again.

4. Be honest in your interviews about your visa status

This is one of the things I am the most proud of. In every single interview I had, I always told my interviewer(s) that I could work for a year with my OPT and after that, I would need to be sponsored to stay in the U.S. Was this an easy conversation? No. Sometimes it was hard, especially when they asked if I was in the country illegally, but overall, everybody appreciated the fact that I was honest. And in return, many of them were honest with me too and told me they could not offer me the job because of my visa status. This was very hard to hear, but if there is one thing I learned from this process, it’s that you need to be resilient. If you know you want to stay and work in the U.S., you need to keep going no matter how frustrating it is. This doesn’t guarantee you will receive a work visa, but you will, at least, know you did everything you could to get one.

5. Start thinking about your work visa sponsorship from the moment you get a job with your OPT

If you get a job offer that includes a future application for a work visa, you are pretty much set, but if you don’t, you will need to find an employer who will be willing to sponsor you for one.

I stayed at my first job for 8 months. They weren’t going to sponsor my work visa, but it was a good place for me to gain experience right after college. From that job, I went to work at the state legislature. They could not sponsor my work visa either, but that was a dream job for me, so I took it for as long as I could. I was then fortunate to find a nonprofit that was willing to help me with my visa a few months after I started working at the Senate, and I have been working there ever since!

This is a very frustrating process for every international student that wants to stay in the U.S. after college. However, being on top of application deadlines and networking with potential employers makes it easier. This doesn’t guarantee that you will get a visa, but you will know you did everything you could. Don’t be scared of the process, just embrace it.

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Please Note: Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.

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