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How to Succeed at Your Job

This may be your first official job. Even if you have past experience, you may find that working in the United States is different. The following tips can help you succeed and enjoy your time at work.

Know What’s Expected of You

Full-time employment is a big responsibility. If you have a positive outlook and willingness to be part of a team, the experience can be truly rewarding. The right attitude can make going to work something you look forward to every day, and will help you form friendships with your co-workers.

Employers notice employees who enjoy their work, especially if you interact with your supervisor and co-workers. They’ll recognize your effort and respond with respect and trust.

Every workplace is different. While most are relaxed and informal, we expect CIEE employers to always be professional. Here are some simple ways to do well at your job:

  • Always be on time
  • Be cooperative and pleasant to everyone
  • Do your best at every task that’s given to you
  • Dress appropriately. Some jobs require you to wear a uniform

Your employer also is required to treat you well. You should not tolerate unreasonable demands or inappropriate behavior. Report any incidents to CIEE immediately.

Employers have the right to request that you take a drug test. You may be tested before starting work or at any time during your employment, and a positive test means loss of your job and the end of your program. You may also be tested if you are involved in an accident.

Your First Day

When you arrive at your job, feel free to ask questions if you’re unsure of anything. Your first day includes completing paperwork and an orientation. You will meet with your supervisor or someone from Human Resources. Bring these documents with you:

  • Passport and J-1 visa
  • DS-2019 form
  • I-94 form - Click here to obtain the I-94 form
  • Proof of application for your Social Security number. Your employer may not know that you can start work and get paid before your Social Security number is issued. If you need advice, call CIEE at 1-888-268-6245.

There are a few more forms to fill out. Your employer will help you with the following paperwork:

Form I-9

This form confirms your employment eligibility. The form asks for your Social Security number. Your employer can fill that in later, once you get your number. Make sure to give your employer the number once you have it.

Federal Form W-4

Your employer automatically sets aside (deducts) money for federal taxes from your paycheck. This form tells the employer how much to deduct, so that you do not under or overpay.

Follow these instructions to fill out the federal form W-4

Important: As non-resident alien, the standard instructions on the form do not apply to you.

  • Personal Allowances worksheet: Ignore this section.
  • Box 1: Enter your personal information including your U.S. address.
  • Box 2: Enter your Social Security number (SSN). If you have not been issued a Social Security number but have applied for one, write, “Applied For.” Give your employer your SSN once you receive it.
  • Box 3: Check or fill in withholding as “single,” regardless of actual marital status.
  • Box 4: Leave blank.
  • Box 5: Enter “1.” There are no exceptions to this.
  • Box 6: Write “NR” to indicate Non-Resident Alien status.
  • Box 7: Leave blank. Non-Resident Aliens cannot claim “Exempt.”
  • Boxes 8 – 10: Leave blank.
  • Sign and date the form.
State Form W-4

Most U.S. states require tax to be deducted from your paycheck for state taxes. The state tax form looks different from the federal form, but asks for the same information.

Getting Paid

You will probably be paid weekly or every other week, by check or direct deposit into your bank account. You will get a salary statement, pay stub, or pay slip, which will show the hours you worked, how much you were paid, and the taxes and other deductions taken out of your paycheck. Depending on your agreement with your employer, you might also have uniform, housing, union membership dues, or other work-related items deducted from your salary.

Read more about your paycheck, wages, and taxes

Make Sure it is Corect

When you receive your first paycheck, read it carefully to make sure there are no errors. You do not have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes as a Work & Travel USA student. If these were deducted or if you have other questions, talk with your employer.

Minimum Wage

There is a minimum wage that employers in the United States are required to pay. Positions like food servers that receive tips can legally pay you less than minimum wage. Your tip income makes up the difference, and you will have to report it on your taxes. You should keep a record of how much you make in tips.


You may have opportunities to work additional hours. As a new employee, it is smart to accept these overtime hours when possible. It makes a good impression and pays well – usually one-and-a-half times more than the normal rate for extra hours. Ask your employer for company overtime policies.

Tax Withholding

Like all other members of the American workforce, you must pay U.S. income tax. Most employers pay your taxes directly to the government for you by taking the money out of your paycheck. Approximately 10-15 percent of your salary will be withheld for federal income tax. Some states and cities also charge income tax, approximately 5-8 percent. Some of this money may be refunded to you at the end of the year when you report your taxes.

Which Taxes Do You Pay?

As a foreign student working on a J-1 Visa, you are required to pay some, but not all, taxes that U.S. citizens pay.

You must pay:

  • Federal income tax
  • State income tax
  • Local or city income tax

You do not pay:

  • Social Security & Medicare tax (FICA)
  • Federal unemployment tax (FUTA)

Dealing with Issues in the Workplace

CIEE works with America’s best seasonal employers. However, sometimes problems may come up at work. Often these are the result of simple misunderstandings. An employer may not notice your good work, or treat you in a way that you do not feel is fair. Try to handle the situation by talking with your supervisor calmly, professionally, and constructively. If you feel you need additional support, CIEE is here to help you.

Some issues are very important and you should call CIEE immediately at 1-888-268-6245 if any of these happen:

Sexual Harassment & Racial Discrimination

These are very serious matters in the United States and there are laws here to protect workers.

Layoffs & Firings

You could be laid off for any number of reasons. For example, if business is slow, your employer may not need as many workers. Getting fired usually means the company is unhappy with your performance. Talk to your employer if you have any questions or contact CIEE to talk about any issues before they become serious problems.

Leaving Your Job

If you are having issues at work, you should attempt to resolve the issues with your employer. If you decide that you still want to leave your job, you must contact CIEE first. If you quit or change your job without first receiving approval from CIEE, you risk withdrawal from the CIEE Work & Travel USA program. Additionally, any new job must be approved by CIEE before you do anything.

Before you decide to leave, know that it can be difficult to find a new job. You have 30 days to find a new employer and report your job to CIEE, or your program will end and you will have to return home. Make sure to keep CIEE informed of your search and any change of address. Read more about getting a new job.

Handling your departure from your job in the right way ensures that you receive your final paycheck promptly and makes it more likely that your employer will give you a recommendation letter. It is customary in the United States to give a written two-week notice to your current employer to help them plan for your replacement.

Employers, especially those involved with summer or winter tourism, rely on you to work until the agreed-upon end date. Leaving your job early causes problems for your employer and may jeopardize opportunities for future Work & Travel USA students. You should never simply quit your job. If problems persist after you have spoken with your supervisor, or you need advice on how to speak with your employer, contact CIEE.

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