First, let's give this article some context by laying out all the VISA options for international students. We'll end by giving you the best hassle-free green card path that you can pursue after your studies in the USA.
The United States immigration law generally has four (4) categories of visas for foreign students and exchange visitors:
F-1 visa for full-time students at an academic institution such as a college, university, or high school, or who are enrolled in a language training program. F-1 students may work on-campus for 20 hours a week. Spouses and children of F-1 students and exchange visitors can enter the country by obtaining an F-2 visa, however, F-2 visa holders are not eligible to work. F-2 visa holders that want to study must change to an F-1 visa by either applying for this change within the USA (usually takes longer), or re-appearing at an embassy outside the USA. The latter is faster and arguably the better means of changing F2 to F1 visas but it has its inherent risks.
M-1 visa for full-time students at a vocational or other nonacademic institution. Spouses and children of M-1 students and exchange visitors can enter the country by obtaining an M-2 visa. Again, M-2 visa holders are not eligible to work.
F-3 or M-3 visa for nationals of Canada and Mexico who commute to the United States for full- or part-time study at an academic (F-3) or vocational (M-3) institution.
J-1 visa for participants in an educational or cultural exchange program. This visa category includes college and university students as well as physicians, summer work-travel visitors, visiting professors, research and short-term scholars, teachers, and au pairs. Spouses and children of scholars under this category can enter the US with a J-2 visa. Interestingly, J-2 visa holders are eligible to study or work in the United States without obtaining their own student or work visa. While this is an outstanding offer, the tradeoff is that these type of visas often come with a condition that the visa holder must return to their home country at least for 2 years (in many cases) upon the expiration of their visa or the completion of their program. This make the J-1 more complicated than other forms of student visas when it comes to planning your long-term stay in the US.
Upon graduation, all students holding an F-1 visa can be authorized for employment for up to 12 months under the Optical Training (OPT) program. Students with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) are eligible for an OPT extension of up to 24 additional months, making this a maximum of 3 years of "work permit" for STEM international students. Non-STEM students only get 12 months before the risk falling out of legal status. J-1 students in many cases, get up to 30 days only.
If your long term interest is to continue your career and professional development in the USA after your studies, try to avoid institutions or programs that would only give you a J-1 visa. While you may not know the visa you may get at the beginning of your application process, it may be a question worth asking a current student or beneficiary of the scholarship you are applying for. You may also find out from the international student office of the institution as they are mostly in charge of processing official admission documents. The F-1 visa is the best form of student visa for long term stay.
To learn how to sponsor yourself for permanent residency in the USA as a student, check out the resources page on Bestman Academy to learn strategies related to grad school and the green card processes.