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Can Optional Practical Training (OPT) Students Travel abroad?
As per the F-1 Students Regulatory Board, OPT Students can travel abroad on certain conditions. They require additional documents and paperwork to be able to come back to the US. Though there are certain risks involved, as OIE does not guarantee that the students will be granted admission by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon return to the U.S or that the Consulate will renew their F-1 visa at a consulate abroad.
The decision to travel abroad comes with various risks involved, for an OPT student. As in the past, there have been instances of OPT students facing problems at ports of entry, being denied visas and facing significant visa delays.
OPT Travel: Three Categories
The OPT students can be divided into three categories: Pre-completion OPT Students, Post-completion OPT Students, and Students whose OPT application is pending.
Traveling Abroad as Pre-completion OPT Student
A pre-completion OPT student requires an unexpired passport with visa stamp and a valid I-20 signed for travel. You do not require any additional documents for travel, as you are still enrolled in the OPT program as an F-1 student. You must follow the same procedure for visits abroad and reentry as enrolled F-1 students.
Traveling Abroad as Post-Completion OPT Student
A post-completion OPT student is only allowed to travel abroad on a temporary basis, for less than 5 months. You can reenter the US to continue employment, provided you present all necessary documents to CBP upon reentry.
The documents to be verified are: Passport with valid F1 visa stamp, valid for at least 6 months from the date of reentry; an I-20 containing the OPT recommendation and a travel signature less than 6 months old (to request a new signature, you can fill “Travel Signature Request” e-form in start); an unexpired EAD work permit; and a proof that the student is returning to resume employment (a job offer letter, a pay stub, a letter from student’s supervisor confirming employment, or other documentation showing intent to return to work).
Traveling Abroad while OPT Application is Pending
As per the Student Exchange Visitor Program’s guidance, students whose’ OPT application is pending can also travel abroad. Provided, such students have submitted the OPT application with the USCIS and obtained I-797 receipt notice as proof of submission of their OPT application.
In case a request for more evidence is issued by USCIS, the applicant needs to look into it on an immediate basis. Also, if your OPT application is approved while you are traveling abroad, you will be required to present the EAD upon return. As a student whose OPT application is pending, you need to undertake caution for the risks you are taking.
Things to Keep in Mind While Traveling on OPT
Automatic Visa Revalidation for OPT Students
OPT Students traveling to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean (except Cuba) for less than 30 days are eligible to re-enter the U.S with an expired F-1 visa, provided they qualify for automatic visa revalidation. It’s important to remember that citizens of Syria, Sudan, Iran, and Cuba do not qualify for automatic visa revalidation.
Visa Renewal for Students on Post Completion OPT
Students traveling on OPT with an expired F1 Visa are required to apply for a new F1 visa. Visa renewal for F1 students may attract additional scrutiny as F1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa, therefore applicants are required to provide proof of “binding ties” to their home country.
This may be more difficult than it sounds, as it can be difficult to prove ‘intent’ for the applicant. Also, procedures and requirements for visas can vary between countries and are often subject to change.
Time spent outside US as Unemployment
For a post-completion OPT student, time spent outside US during a period of post-completion OPT counts as unemployment against the 90 day limit, except when he is traveling as part of his or her employment or he or she is employed during a period of leave authorized by his or her employer in the US.
Impact of more than 90 days of Unemployment on Travel
Students who accrue more than 90 days of unemployment while participating in post-completion OPT, are ineligible to reenter the US after this period. Those who have decided to leave US after the accrual of 90 days of unemployment should complete the “Intent to Depart/End I-20 Status” e-form in iStart.
An International Student Advisor shall review the e-form and complete the SEVIS record to stop the accrual of unemployment days and end the student’s SEVIS record. Students are advised to leave the U.S as soon as possible after the SEVIS record is ended. Thereafter, they are ineligible to reenter US and continue using their OPT.
Status Change and Travel
Students who have applied for status change, such as H1 B visa or permanent residency or any other immigration statues, must consult their immigration lawyer before they travel abroad. Also, students on Cap-Gap Extension should not travel between the end of their EAD and beginning of H1B, as they are eligible to return to US with H1 B visa stamp only.
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