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What Graduating Foreign Nationals Need to Know

Graduation caps with yellow tassels thrown in the air.

The month of May brings graduation ceremonies and celebrations across the United States. For many foreign national students, this is both a time to cherish their new degree and to manage their transition from student visa to work permit.

It comes as no surprise that this transition requires close attention in the era of the Trump administration. The administration’s order to enact extreme vetting means that strict adherence to permit protocol is a must.

It also creates a mountain of paperwork and administration for colleges and universities.

The first thing that graduating students need to do is to maintain a relationship with their Designated School Official (DSO).

The DSO is responsible for keeping students’ status in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) current. The DSO can also advise students along the process of acquiring a work permit and must sign off on the choice of employment to ensure the graduate remains in status.

Next, graduating students wishing to remain in the United States to work must apply for a work permit called the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). An EAD card permits the graduate to work for one year.

EAD applicants use their graduation date as a way to gauge when to apply for the card and when they would like it to be effective. For undergraduates, the date of graduation is obvious; it is the day the ceremony takes place. For advanced degree students, the date of graduation can be harder to pinpoint. It could be marked by a thesis defense, an oral exam, or a qualifying exam.

USCIS used to promise a 90-day turnaround on EAD applications. Last January they amended that rule to say that while they would try to process applications within 90 days, that time frame was no longer guaranteed. Without that guideline, processing times could grow to 120 days or more.

The combination of uncertain processing time and a desire to have the card valid for a full year after graduation can make the timing of applications tricky.

Optimally graduates would have their EAD card arrive as close to graduation as possible. Graduates who have not yet applied should get started immediately.

If the graduate receives a job offer before the EAD card arrives, not knowing the arrival time frame can complicate giving a start date to the hiring employer.

Once the card arrives in the mail, the graduate must have employment. Ninety days or more of unemployment renders the EAD card holder out of status and they would have to leave the country.

The EAD card holder’s employment must relate to their field of study. But it could be a volunteer position and it could be part-time, at least 20 hours per week.

Graduates should keep their DSOs apprised of their progress and any employment they want to accept so that the DSOs can ensure that the job is related to the student’s field of study and that their status is current in the SEVIS.

Travel on an EAD card may be more complicated than it was on a student visa. Because the card holder is no longer a student, there is no urgency for an officer at the border to let them back in or for a consular officer to issue the new visa in the first place.

Graduates should check with their DSO to see if it is okay to travel. If the employed graduate does not have a valid visa on their passport, travel for practical training or leisure can be risky. It is important to ensure the travel plans fit with the employer’s plans.

Lastly, if a graduate changes jobs part way through the year, the DSO needs to update their status in SEVIS.

If you are a graduating student who needs help with their EAD, please contact me at 630-262-1435 as soon as possible.