When you come to the US on an F-1 visa you have a lot more flexibility to work in the US than you would on a work visa. Although you’re not allowed to work your first year (other than at your school), as an undergrad student you can be authorized to work while you’re in school. You can read more about this here.
By taking advantage of the different ways you can work while on an F-1 visa, you can build a strong resume with real work experience and increase your chances of having a company fall in love with you and be willing to go through the post-OPT process with you.
Find your champions. Whenever you’re ready to begin your job search, reach out to all of your contacts and take them out to lunch/coffer or just connect via phone call. From your peers to your school’s career advisors to past internship supervisors or mentors. Connect with the people that have supported you and let them know you’re looking for a job. Never underestimate the power of your network.
Start early. I will say this again. You can legally work in the US while you are in school under Circular Practical Training (“CPT”). Yes, there are several restrictions and it is always at the discretion of your advisor but it is the best way to start building real life experience outside of internships. If you’re graduating in a semester or two and don’t have a full course load, why not try to find a part-time (or even full-time) job in your preferred industry? One catch with CPT – the job must be in a field related to your major.
You are legally allowed to work in the US (with restrictions). Many companies are hesitant to hire foreigners due to the cost and burden of sponsoring internationals. One benefit of getting your job while on CPT instead of waiting for OPT is that the length of your work authorization increases. You get whatever time you use your CPT for (please note that there are restrictions for how long you can be on CPT for!) PLUS your one year of OPT (or more than that if you’re a STEM major). You can learn more about OPT here. So, although yes you will eventually need sponsorship from your work, if you let your potential employer know that you can legally work in the US for the next 1+ year, most companies would be okay with that – especially for entry level positions were most people don’t stay in them much longer than a year anyway.
Have a plan. Before you take a job while on CPT or OPT, make sure you think about the long-term. There are many companies that do not sponsor visas – it’s just one of their corporate rules. There are small companies that have been through the sponsorship process with many employees and are comfortable dealing with immigration. There are mid-size companies that would not be able to afford going through the sponsorship process with you. You need to asses all those variables with your potential employer to make sure you don’t “waste” 1+ years in a company that will not help you stay in the US. This doesn’t mean that the job you take while on CPT or OPT is the job that will sponsor you to stay in the US, though. The work experience you gain there might be exactly what you need to make you a strong candidate for another employer that will be able to sponsor you post-OPT. You have to think about that too.
Stay positive. Finding a job as an international student is tough. We are immediately seen as an inconvenience due to the visa issue rather than as an asset due to our cultural diversity or languages we speak. Don’t let this get to you, though. Stay positive and find a crew of international students going through the same thing so you can all support each other.
Think about all your options. You don’t have to stay in the US after your OPT expires. You can leave the US with the most amazing experiences and the best resume from that badass job you had for a year or so. Do not discredit other options just because they don’t fit your plan. Everything happens for a reason and your story will turn out the way it’s supposed to. You can learn more about your options here.