Unlike the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge where work of a non-academic or non-pint-lifting variety is all but outlawed, American universities positively encourage their students to work outside classes.
The love affair with capitalism that has propelled America so far in the world is instilled at an early age, and many of your classmates will have been mowing lawns or working in shops for years. The expense of the American college system, and the stipulations of most financial aid plans, mean that many students need to find paid employment if they are to pay their way through school.
The bad news is that, as an international student, you cannot just walk into any shop with a ‘Help Wanted’ sign, do your shift and pick up a pay cheque.
The good news is that your international visa allows you to work on campus (although not off) after you have applied for a social security card – in itself a lengthy and frustrating process. (NB: Earnings from this work cannot be counted as a source of income for the official finance statements mentioned in the "Applications" section.)
Once you’ve been given a social security number (very similar to a UK National Insurance number), you have the freedom to take whatever university job you can find and earn money for it legally. Most universities have an employment office that helps students to find work in the libraries, laboratories or administration of the college – jobs that are usually set aside just for students.
The real problems start if you want to work off-campus in the US over the summer. Many students aim to do this, and if you are one of them then you need to plan ahead. Getting a job is a cinch in comparison with getting permission to take it.
Some international students choose to do unpaid volunteering jobs or internships as a way round the problem. However, for those who need or want the money, there are other, lengthier routes (aside from the illegal, under-the-counter-cash options).
As an international student you are allowed one year of Optional Practical Training or OPT. This is permission, which has to be applied for, to work anywhere in the US for a maximum of 12 months. You can do anything, from waitressing to investment banking, and this can be for one year-long work assignment or for several different short term stints.
Many students prefer to save up their OPT year for the end of their studies when they can spend a sizeable amount of time in the States. If you are planning to do this, you should be warned that your OPT year has to begin immediately after graduation - not at some distant point down the road. Others choose to use up a couple of months (the year does not have to be taken all at once) every summer. The great thing about OPT is that you have the flexibility to do what you want, when you want.
The official line is that permission for OPT will come through about a month after applying. Do NOT assume that the official line is true. The process takes forever. All applications are shipped to service stations in remote parts of the county where they dawdle indefinitely, finally getting to you after you should have already started work. Consult your international advisor about this, but really try to leave three months to get this permission through. The wheels of bureaucracy grind extremely slowly, when they grind at all.
There is another and much quicker option for some individuals. Curricular Practical Training (or CPT) allows you to find paid work anywhere as long as it is related to the subject you are studying. Best for those interested in sciences, medicine or technology where practical internships are plentiful, it is an option worthy of anyone’s investigation. For the most part, professors are amenable to this and permission is fairly easy to get. CPT has no time limit and does not detract from your OPT allotment - however, if you do more than 12 months of CPT, you probably won't be eligible for OPT.
Occasionally you can enrol in a class for the summer and get work permission that way. This depends very much on the attitudes of your professors and international office. As deadlines and requirements change on an annual basis, the best idea is to make an early appointment with your international advisor.
Inevitably, there is always some way to work through the system and get permission for doing paid work. But it is always an arduous process.