Can H1-B and F1 visa holders earn money online?

There are plenty of students and working professionals who are in the United States on an H1-B or F1 visa respectively. As in our recently concluded survey on DesiPundit, we noticed that many such individuals follows blogs closely and are also bloggers themselves. Chances are that they have chosen to monetize their blog either through Adsense or other advertising channels. The question, asked by Confused early Saturday morning was whether such income earned through blogs was legitimate and allowed under our visa status.

He sent me this link that explored the question of earning money via Adsense while being on a H1-B visa. The post cited well-known immigration attorney Shiela Murthy in the context of the 1099 tax form that you get for your Adsense or other online earnings:

A person on an H1B is not allowed to work on a 1099 at all. One who is on an EAD is allowed to work as an independent contractor if s/he is the I-485 dependent on the EAD and not the principal applicant for the Green Card, to be on the safe side. If the total time working was less than 180 days, there is possible hope to obtain the I-485 in the U.S. Otherwise, it adds complications and will not generally allow the person to obtain an approval of the I-485 from within the U.S. You should consult an immigration attorney to discuss this issue since it could have serious consequences.

So basically, if you are on a H1-B visa, you are authorized to work for only one those employers that sponsor your visa. You cannot be self-employed and earn additional income and doing so will render you out-of-status. Note that the I-485 mentioned above is a preliminary step in your Green Card processing. So what about F1 students? I did some digging around since that would directly affect a lot of students that blog and monetize their blogs. One respondent on an immigration visa forum said the following in response to 1099-related question for F1 visa holders:

An F1 visa does not allow you to take off campus employment anywhere or anytime you want. You can only take employment under specific circumstances, such as through OPT or CPT and there are hardship provisions too. But generally, an F1 student cannot simply go out and find employment. This is illegal. I would encourage you not to do this because it is a violation of your status.

That a student cannot work off-campus [during semesters] is common knowledge but is your blog earnings also off-campus? Well, technically it is since you are getting paid as a consultant by another company e.g. Google, Text Link Ads, Yahoo, etc. You can only earn money outside of your on-campus employment if you earn interest off your investments (movable and/or immovable) or savings. Visible Blog recommends another (risky) way by which you can register a company and hire someone at minimum wages to ‘run’ your blog. Your ‘company’ would earn money and you get a ‘passive’ income. However, as the blog rightly mentions, it is a risk. And you definitely don’t want to do that unless you are earning thousands everyday.

So what do you do? Should you yank off your monetizing avenues off your blog? If you hate any kind of risk then probably that is the best thing to do. However, the bureaucratic mess that the BCIS and IRS are, chances are that they never share information. Better still, if you earn less than $600 [per advertising program], you still have to report it. I’m sure most of us don’t earn that much. But if you do, you might want to either remove that option which I understand can be akin to killing the golden goose.

Finally, if you are earning $600 or less per advertising program, you might slip under the radar but understand that it is a risk and it might only be a problem if you are planning on applying for a Green Card later on. This is not legal advice and I don’t profess any deep knowledge on immigration law so if you know better, please feel free to discuss in the comments.

14 Comments

  1. Was looking for a post of this sort! So do you have ads on your name? (Im sure you earn more than $600 a year)

  2. Piker, I think we have talked about this :) Remember, it is supposed to be $600 PER advertising account and not combined because each company will send you a separate 1099.

  3. But mind you, some advertising programs explicitly state that your website or blog should then be operated from that country.

    Curious? Which advt programs are these? And what is meant by operating a blog from a certain country? Google Adsense is clear in that it says that a foreign blog can be hosted on rented webserver space in the US and still be counted as “foreign” as long as no equipment is being “owned” in US or no salaries being paid. The concept of “operating a blog” from a country is extremely vague…do you not think that?

  4. Hypothetically speaking, if a US citizen or green card holder opens up an account for the H1B/F1 folks and transfers this money into an account in India or whatever their home country is, for a small fee of course, would it be a legal route? :-)

  5. Ron, Adsense states that if you claim that your blog is ‘foreign’ then it should be written and maintained from that country. That’s what I mean by hosting. I don’t think hosting matters.

    Santosh, It can be done but I’m not sure if it would legal. But it could be a problem for the resident/GC holder coz he/she would be expected to file tax returns on that income if it exceeds $600.

  6. Whenever you set up these accounts, all of them allow you to select country etc.

    Straight off the bat, I selected India, and therefore did not need to put in an SSN.

    If you can still do this with an existing account, go ahead and do so, otherwise open a new account with a new ID and get money by paypal.

    That way since your country is “india” there is no tax reporting.

  7. So basically, if you are on a H1-B visa, you are authorized to work for only one employer i.e. the one who sponsors your visa. You cannot be self-employed and earn additional income and doing so will render you out-of-status.

    This is not true. You can hold multiple H1-B visas at the same time and the USCIS does not care about how much time you work at which place as long as you are employed full time by at least one place.

    Do not ask me for links, this was the gist of a discussion I had with an Immigration attorney.

    I am not sure on how this applies to making money using ad-sense, but I just did not want you to misguide your readers.

  8. Even I have problem of the different kind. I started my blog some 15 months ago. I didn’t earn big money for the the first 7-8 months or so. Then I’m in the UAE for 7 months. I’m sure that I’ll earn more the threshold to pay IT in India. As I’m here, I’ve 2 options.
    1. I can disclose how much I earn and pay up IT.
    2. As I’m in the UAE, I can ask my advertisers to send the check to the UAE and not India.

    Else even though the money comes to India, logically speaking I’m not in India. So I don’t pay IT.

    I’m in a fix as what to do. Any comments and suggestions?

  9. Karthik is correct about the multiple H1Bs. We actually know someone who held multiple H1Bs.

  10. I installed adsense but didn’t enter the tax information yet. So my payments are on hold. I plan to keep holding them till I get a green card at which time I will be retiring and will need that money for my heart medication.

  11. Arzan, that works but don’t let Google find out that you run your blog from the U.S. and not India; they may cancel your account.

    Ashwin
    , yup! you may have to report your income and pay income tax in India or can ‘transfer’ your account to the UAE where I assume they don’t have income tax. Transferring an Adsense account between countries actually mean closing down the current account and opening a new one.

    Karthik, I guess I may have mistakenly mentioned ‘one’ employer but basically you can get money from only those employers that sponsor your visa so for Adsense to be a valid or legal avenue of earning for those on H1-B visa, Google has to sponsor your visa. And we know that’s not happening.


    Gawker
    , that’s a good plan. Now only if everyone of us were as patient :)

  12. Adsense states that if you claim that your blog is ‘foreign’ then it should be written and maintained from that country.

    Curious as to where exactly it says this?

    This is the declaration in Google Adsense:

    Publisher represents and warrants that it does not have any employees or equipment located in the United States (“U.S. Activities”) that are involved in any way with the revenue that has been or will be earned by Publisher pursuant to the Google AdSense Online Program. U.S. Activities include, but are not limited to, owning a web server or owning a hosting service in the U.S., or having employees in the U.S. who are involved in either:

    1. setting up Publisher’s web server, hosting service, or website
    2. developing content for Publisher’s website
    3. marketing to create a user base for Publisher’s site
    4. telephone support for Publisher’s site
    5. buying products for Publisher’s site
    6. maintaining Publisher’s site

    Note the word ’employee’. That is the person developing content cannot be in turn paid by the person in the non-US country. That is all. I hope you understand the technical infeasibility of google finding out from where you are posting from (unless you use blogger).In any case, the policy is pretty clear ; I fail to see where the “written and maintained” part comes from.

  13. Ron, hmmm…Probably you’re right! Google must be able to prove that the person ‘running’ the blog is an ’employee’ of the Adsense ‘Publisher’. And I think by employee, it means someone paid to blog for the Publisher. If I understand you correctly, the ‘blogger’ and the ‘publisher’ can be two different people, right?

    I know that it is next to impossible for Google to verify if a blogger is in the U.S. or not. Thanks for the clarification.

  14. Its an interesting conundrum. Legally, H1bees can’t sell on ebay either :) – that would also serve as illegal earnings, especially if you ever make a profit out of what you sold.

    S

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