Frustrated with regulations, UW international students turn to illegal work

An international student who asked for his identity to be concealed works illegally as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Edmonds. (Photo by Yue Ching Yeung)
An international student who asked for his identity to be concealed works illegally as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Edmonds. (Photo by Yue Ching Yeung)

We’ve all heard the stories of determined American students who work during college to support themselves and help pay for their education.

But for the growing numbers of international students at the University of Washington, the tenuous balance between a job and school is more complicated.

That’s because international students aren’t allowed to work jobs outside of campus while here on a student visa. If you factor in tuition and living expenses, an international student entering UW Autumn Quarter 2014 has to pay $49,356 for a year of full time study — but they’re not allowed to work for minimum wage at the Subway down the street.

Many of the thousands of new international students enrolled at UW in recent years are turning to illegal work off campus to make ends meet, or just to make some extra cash.

Anthony Song, a UW international student who asked that his real name not be used for fear of losing his job or visa, admitted that he does undocumented work at a bubble tea shop near campus, where his job is mainly to prepare beverages.

“I need money,” Song said. “Workers who have no documents get lower than the minimum wage, but it is totally fine because we don’t have to pay taxes.”

Song specified that he gets paid about $8 per hour, and that he’s paid under the table in cash by his employer to avoid getting caught.

With this job, Song was able to buy a car, pay for insurance, gas, license fee and everything associated with the car, without having to ask for extra help from his parents, who are already footing the bill for his education. He says that he’s not afraid of getting caught for working under the table because it’s so common.

“American cops do nothing besides sitting in the car and eating donuts,” Song joked.

Rosanne Kwan, who also asked that her name be changed, was not so casual about the pitfalls of undocumented work.

In the four years I’ve known her, she’s always been busy working in and out of school. She is a recent graduate who is now working legally under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) policy allowed as part of the F-1 visa.

But when she was a student, she worked illegally in an ice cream shop and a Korean restaurant — and in these situations, she says she often experienced the unfairness and hardship associated with undocumented work.

“Usually employers would lower our wages,” Kwan said. “My previous restaurant employer owed me more than $1,000 salary and he just ran away and never paid me.”

As an international student, it became difficult to file a complaint because of its potential impact on her immigration status.

“I [thought] I would be kicked out of the U.S. if I got caught,” Kwan said.

International students work under the table at a number of the restaurants on University Way, near the UW campus. (Photo from Flickr by Atomic Taco)
International students work under the table at a number of the restaurants on University Way, near the UW campus. (Photo from Flickr by Atomic Taco)

Of course, there’s logic to the rules prohibiting international students from working off campus. Competition is fierce for jobs that will hire young people, and many citizens and others with permission to work are already having a hard time finding positions. In January 2014, the unemployment rate for college aged Americans was 11.9 percent – well over the rates for older age brackets.

Of the 6,788 international students enrolled at UW in Autumn of 2013, 95 percent were here on an F-1 visa, which grants students a five-year-period of residency to obtain their degrees, but does not allow them to work legally. The only exceptions are for on-campus jobs worked up to 20 hours a week and paid internships in some circumstances.

International students are not eligible to apply for most types of financial aid, adding to the economic hardship, and competition for these on-campus jobs is fierce.

Ru-Jun Cui, a recent graduate from UW, was lucky enough to get a position in the Husky Union Building (HUB) for three quarters during her time as a student. She was able to pick up 19 hours a week for one quarter. But in subsequent quarters she was only able to get 12 hours of work a week. Making less than $10 an hour, she used her salary for rent, but she says the money wasn’t nearly enough to cover her other expenses.

“I wish I was allowed to work off campus,” Cui said.

Working for little pay or benefit is just the surface of the financial problems international students encounter. Many students come to study in the U.S. in hopes of staying here. But if they can’t find a job within 90 days of graduation, they have to leave the country. If they are lucky enough to get one, they can only stay for a year unless their employers apply for a working visa for them.

“Most employers do not want to pay for work sponsorship and do not want to train someone who will leave in a near future,” Kwan said. “Therefore, we have lots and lots of boundaries in terms of what and where we can work.”

She says she feels a need to speak up for the 819,643 other international students in the country who might be afraid to share their stories.

“I think international students should be allowed to work as long as they pay their taxes,” Kwan said. “I think this is a more fair system as we pay so much more tuition than your local citizens.”

She points to countries like Australia and England, where international students are allowed to work part time outside school, as long as they remain a full-time student. In England, international students in college are allowed to work off campus without special documents for a maximum 20 hours.

International students are valued for the diversity and culture they bring to campuses like UW, and for the top tuition dollars they pay in a time of slim higher education budgets. This past academic year, international students nationwide contributed 313,000 jobs and contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy, according to the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers. That’s a 6.2 percent increase in job support and creation and an almost 10 percent increase in dollars contributed to the economy from the previous academic year.

“Just make it legal,” Song agrees, “We are doing jobs that Americans won’t do. People don’t pay tips in a bubble tea shop. They could set a lower minimum wage, or even no limit.”


  1. Great article that highlights the situation by the forgotten int’l student community. They don’t have the outspoken political voice that the illegal immigrant community may have. I use the word ‘illegal’ to differentiate those who came legally and those who waited in line and paid for legal visas.

    Let us also not forget that unlike illegal immigrants, they are not entitled to in-state tuition, or even out-of-state tuition, free healthcare, food stamps, public housing assistance, and many other benefits that illegal immigrants can get. If you look at state benefit websites, the rules usually stipulate that anyone can apply regardless of immigration status, except if you an int’l student on an F-1 visa.

  2. Great, so US kids are seeing tuition rates rise sky high because of F1 visas and now the people here on F1 are taking their jobs even before they graduate. Please explain again what this nation actually does for its OWN people?

    1. As an international student, i PAy ~$3200 just for 1 semester 12 units in a freaking community college, where as your resident can go for free, and even get free money for just being in class. F1 visa students are the people who support mostly the financial of the Colleges, not your resident, who can ask for financial aids. You people pay little to nothing for tuition in colleges.

        1. Shane, ifyou’tr seriously so unhappy and feel you are “a slave” feel free to LEAVE and study in Europe – did anyone hold a gun to your head and make you suffer this horrible injustice called the US higher education system? Geez, some people have the nerve, and the oozing entitlement is disgusting.

          1. Everyone deserves a right to Succeed, Work, live on this Earth wherever they please. You didn’t make it, you are not the only one, so it would be nice if everyone was treated equally than not. We all should be cooperating with each other not going against.

            Why am I explaining this to a mere citizen of a country which has violated pretty much every civil right.

  3. @Mash:

    If you really think that foreigners pay the same amount as your precious kids do—and so single-handedly raise the cost of local tuition fees—think again. A typical American family of say, three children, probably has lower college tuition fees combined than any one of those international students. When I was still a full-time international student, I had to pay at least four times the amount my American classmates did for the same course load—whether it was a community college or a state university—,and that's not including stuff like Financial Aid, and local scholarships and grants that only local students could apply for.

    If anything, the reason why you can still afford to send your kids to school is because people like us—who are unable to even work legally—are carrying much of the burden for YOU. That's right; you want to know what your country does for its own people? It takes money from people in other countries so you can have a safe suburban life, with kids in an affordable college, while you sit at your computer table and complain ignorantly about how these foreigners are taking the jobs that truthfully, you or your kids don't want anyway.

  4. Those cops on the street are mainly handling traffic or social works. I am different, I am the type of cop who will track you down and depot you. Do you really think that we don’t know your real doing in those bubble tea shop ? Let me guess, Oasis bubble tea ? I am sorry to disappoint you but your name is already on the list along with hundreds more. Don’t take it personalty, i am just doing my job. And by the way, “American cops do nothing besides sitting in the car and eating donuts.” Let find out if that’s truth shall we ?

    1. I’m surprised that an American police force would accept an illiterate who can’t even construct complete sentences in our lingua franca. Has our boys in blue become so desperate for recruits that they accept anyone at this point?

  5. This is a great article. I face the same problems here in Oregon. There are even jobs here on my campus that employs students with financial work-study award only. This rule sucks, seriously. I am currently paying $4000 per quarter. I don’t care if they send me back to my country or jail me when they find me working off campus. I’ll keep working to support my education and achieve the best.

    Thanks for speaking for us Rebecca. God bless you!

  6. OK to all those international students complaining – you knew what the terms and conditions were to your F1 visa. If you knew finances would be tight why not study in Sweden or Holland where it is much cheaper? It’s irresponsible to place yourself in a situation that you know will be tough for you and then complain. If you are so unhappy with how the F1 study visa program works you can always transfer to a cheaper country and study there, then you won’t have to worry about finances.

  7. someone tell me why congress has made it illegal to work for international students , is that harm society or us economy or it just a policy that has no reasons ? please am waiting answer .

  8. Lol! i am going through the same situation right now. Being an international student and worrying if I’ll be able to pay the tution for my next semester. I wish that we had that 20 hrs per week limit that Australia and UK have. It’s so stressful.

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