Startups: Entrepreneurship for International Students on F-1 Visa

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed immigration attorney and the information in this article is not intended as legal advice. Please consult an immigration attorney for your case.

When I got to the U.S for my PhD I was very much set on launching my own tech startup. In spring 2013 while doing my PhD I launched GuideBuddy (an online marketplace for local travel guides) with 2 of my friends. GuideBuddy did not work out due to slow traction but I soon realized that the lessons I learned from a failed startup were invaluable and could not have been learned in any classroom or job. Also, I decided at that point to focus all my energy on my passion for robotics and autonomous navigation and build something during my PhD that I could commercialize. That vision is now slowly coming to reality…

Can I start my own business on OPT?

To realize my vision I needed to make sure that I could start my own business on an OPT work permit in a legal and transparent manner. So I started doing some research and the first common misconception I realized people had was, “it is not possible to start your own business on OPT”. Wrong! It is completely legal to start your own business on OPT in your own field of study. Here are some clear points written on Univ. of Michigan’s website:

Types of employment allowed during pre- and post- completion OPT

All OPT employment, including post-completion OPT, must be in a job that is related to your degree program.

This employment may include the following (does not apply to students on a STEM extension):

Paid employment

  • Students authorized for post-completion OPT may work part time (at least 20 hours per week) or full time.

Multiple employers

  • Students may work for more than one employer, but all employment must be related to the student’s degree program. Employment during pre-completion OPT cannot exceed the allowed per week cumulative hours.

Short-term multiple employers (performing artists)

  • Students who are musicians and other performing artists may work for multiple short term employers (gigs). The student should maintain a list of all gigs, the dates and duration. If requested by DHS, students must be prepared to provide evidence showing a list of all gigs.

Work for hire

  • Work for hire means that an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship. It is sometimes called “1099 employment” because people who “work for hire” receive Internal Revenue Service Form 1099-MISC – which shows how much money was earned for a particular year – from the contracting company. If requested by DHS, students must be prepared to provide evidence showing the duration of the contract periods and the name and address of the contracting company.

Self-employed business owner

  • Students on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. In this situation, the student must work full time. The student must be able to prove that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program.

Employment through an agency

  • Students on post-completion OPT must be able to provide evidence showing they worked an average of at least 20 hours per week while employed by the agency.

Unpaid employment

  • Students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, where this does not violate any labor laws. The work must be at least 20 hours per week for students on post-completion OPT. These students must be able to provide evidence from the employer that the student worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment.



To continue working for my own startup on OPT I am pretty sure I will have to get the company e-verified in order to get an OPT STEM extension. From the government website, this does not seem to be a complex or difficult process. As of this time, I am conducting more research into how I can continue to grow my business and stay within the US legally. There are several options including filing for an O-1 or H-1B visa. Long-term I am considering applying for a green card through the EB2-NIW route or EB1-EA (more difficult). As I learn more I will keep adding more information to this post 🙂


  1. Madhuri said:

    Hi, so any updates on further research? I wish to start a company …a tech startup.but I am not sure if I am allowed to do that. But I heard opt cant do active business. If I dont work at my tech company who else will? so how do I do that.Please tell thanks

    May 21, 2018
    • sauravagarwal said:

      I started and am running my own company on OPT after completing a PhD on an F-1 Visa (indian passport). I have not had any more research / new info on this. I highly recommend that you consult an immigration attorney directly for your case as each case is different rather than relying on hearsay.

      July 1, 2018
  2. Tee said:


    Could you tell your story about getting a business license ?
    I want to hear from a first-hand experience. There isn’t any one on the Internet telling how to get a license as F1 OPT student. I know it depends case by case. I just want to know your case if you could share like what document and where to apply.

    Thank you.

    October 8, 2018
    • sauravagarwal said:

      By getting a business license do you mean how I incorporated the company and got legal approvals to do business? Checkout they handle legal paperwork for company formation. A Delaware C Corp is a common choice for companies that plan to raise venture funding. Once a company is incorporated in Delaware, it will need to file with the secretary of state of the state where you intend to mainly do business. This is also called establishing an out of state entity. legalzoom, csc global have services for this. Clerky can redirect your to 3rd party websites for out of state entity formation. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and this is not intended to be legal advice.

      October 9, 2018
      • Tuangkamol Thongborisute said:

        Hey Thanks! I read some info on the Internet and get so much confusion. Also heard that Legalzoom is not good actually. They just a document-filling program basically. Did you personally use I’m thinking of hiring a lawyer. But my friend who may become my business partner said he has done it by himself before.

        October 11, 2018
        • sauravagarwal said:

          We used Clerky yes. None of these platforms offer legal advice, only document generation which is what most lawyers charge a lot for.

          November 3, 2018

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