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An F-1 Visa is a visa category issued by the United States to foreign students who wish to pursue academic studies in the country. There are a number of restrictions and opportunities that come with this visa and the student status. As students, there is a lot to navigate through and figure out while living in the States. In June 2022, while we were ideating on the book, we emailed 2,500 people, primarily immigrants on temporary visas, and asked a simple question:
What are the top 3 questions you would like Unshackled to answer?
Within a few days, we got over 300 questions from the community. Surfing through them all, the second most asked question on the F-1 OPT was this:
Can I make money legally on my F-1 visa?
Here’s the good news:
You can make money on your F-1 visa. But how you make it makes all the difference.
There are two types of income generation: “passive” and “active.”
The government is very clear that there are only three ways to make money “actively” when you’re on an F-1 visa.
- On-campus employment: You can work up to 20 hours a week on campus during your semester. For example, Yash worked as an IT Help Desk Associate for $19 per hour in his first semester.
- Off-campus employment: You can work full-time, or up to 40 hours a week, through the CPT program in between semesters. This is what students usually use for their summer internships.
- OPT and STEM OPT: You can work full-time once you graduate.
Now, what about making money passively? First, passive income refers to “money made when you’re sleeping.” It’s the money you make without needing to actually “work.” The most common example of passive income in America is investing in stocks.
Let’s say you invest $10,000 through Robinhood across a few public companies. That’s totally legal on an F-1. A few weeks pass by, and you start to notice something: your stocks are doing really well! You’re seeing great returns. So you start thinking, “Hey, I’m making a lot of money from my investments. Maybe I should take up a course on trading and spend an hour a day monitoring my stocks closely.” Ouch. Now you’ve stepped into the territory of active income without work authorization, which is illegal.
You’re allowed to make money passively, but you need to be mindful of when it creeps up the spectrum to the “Active” side and becomes illegal.
Passive and active income are not two sides of a coin. Rather, they’re two ends of a spectrum.
Infographic: Examples of passive versus active income earning
Spectrum 1: Invest in stocks (Passive); Day Trading (Active); High-frequency Trading (Active)
Spectrum 2: Hire a property manager for your apartment rental (Passive); Manage an Airbnb by talking to guests daily (Active).
Spectrum 3: Hire a company that manages your car rentals (Passive); Managing your car rental through Turo (Active);
Spectrum 4: Writing and maintaining a blog (Passive); Publishing sponsored posts and ads on the blog (Active).
Spectrum 5: Building an app and launching it for free (Passive); Charging a subscription fee to use your app (Active).
Spectrum 6: Posting YouTube videos without monetization (Passive); Turning on monetization or posting videos to support an incorporated company (Active)
Let’s talk more about the last spectrum above:
Making money through content creation.
The idea of making money through content creation and social media only emerged in the last ten years. The term “influencer” didn’t hold meaning five years ago. Yet, the immigration system has not kept up with the changes. When the last comprehensive immigration reform took place in 1990, none of the social media platforms you know and use today existed. The internet was still a pipedream for a large part of the world. There’s no explicit law where the government talks about whether or not you can be an influencer as an immigrant, so the best we can do is refer to the closest available information because the laws were never written with social media in mind.
If you do want to make money through your content, here are two ways in which you can do it legally,
- Make it part of your authorized work: YouTube has become a breeding ground for student content creators who want to share about their life in a new country. While you can publish videos as an international student, the moment you turn on monetization or promote a company through your videos, you’re doing active work without work authorization. But, what if you could make it part of your job? Let’s say you graduated with a degree in graphic design and set up a company on your OPT. Besides helping clients, you also want to teach the world about design through YouTube. You could make this part of your job duties, in which case earning money becomes possible.
- Do the work outside America: The laws of the immigration system have an effect while you are on American soil. Once you leave the country, and especially if you return to your home country, you have more flexibility in what you can do. It’s possible for you to write your book or create your course when you’re outside America and then earn royalties from the work once you return back to the country. But remember that you cannot do any active work on the book, such as updating the draft, once you return.
If there’s one section where a disclaimer is most necessary, it’s this. Earning money on a student visa, while possible, is still a gray area. One wrong step in how you earn can lead to you getting charged with immigration fraud and barred from entering the country forever.
Lawyer Up: Even if you earn passive income legally, the government may still presume that you’re breaking the law. So we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to consult an attorney before earning money on your F-1 visa.
Although there are limitations and restrictions, there are a number of opportunities to make some extra money as a student. Subscribe to our newsletter and stay tuned to https://www.readunshackled.com/ to hear about more immigration stories and get your hands on insightful resources.