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What is the F1 Grace Period of Allowance for OPT Extension?
Navigating the intricate web of U.S. immigration policies can be a daunting task for international students. Aspiring students and fresh graduates often find themselves overwhelmed by the myriad of regulations, especially those related to the F-1 visa. Among these rules are the “grace periods” — intervals that allow students some flexibility with their stay in the U.S. surrounding their academic and training ventures.
This blog will simplify these grace periods, shedding light on the essential windows of time every F-1 visa holder should be aware of. From entering the country to transitioning to a working visa, this guide will walk you through the ins and outs of the F-1 visa’s grace periods.
What is the OPT Program?
Students from abroad who aspire to study in the U.S. must first secure an F-1 visa after being accepted by a recognized educational institution. This F-1 visa offers a unique benefit: the ability to engage in the OPT program. Through OPT, these students can gain work experience in fields directly aligned with their course of study.
The flexibility of the OPT program allows students to work either before completing their degree (pre-completion OPT) or after they graduate (post-completion OPT). However, there’s a catch: students can only participate for a combined total of 12 months. For instance, if a student uses up all 12 months during their studies under pre-completion OPT, they won’t have any remaining OPT time post-graduation.
It’s also worth noting that students can’t jump straight into pre-completion OPT. They must first complete a full year of academic studies, which covers both the fall and spring semesters but excludes the summer break.
STEM OPT Extension Overview
International students who graduate with specific qualifications in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) can take advantage of an extended post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) period. Here’s a dive into the essentials:
Are You Eligible for the STEM Extension?
If you’re a STEM graduate, you’re in luck! You can add up to 24 more months to your post-completion OPT. Want to know if your degree qualifies? Some of the popular degrees that make the cut are:
Engineering and Technology
- Aeronautical/Aerospace Engineering
- Architectural and Building Sciences
- Computer and Information Science
- Information Technology
- Robotics Technology
- Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects
- Animal Sciences
- Environmental Science
- Food Science
- Horticultural Science
- Medical Science
- Military Applied Sciences
- Veterinary Science
Mathematics and Statistics
- Business Statistics
Health and Medicine
Research and Strategy
- Educational Evaluation and Research
- Strategic Intelligence
Humanities and Social Sciences
- Urban Forestry
Check out the full list here to see if you’re eligible.
Applications must be submitted while students are still in their post-completion OPT programs. Students can submit their applications for STEM OPT extensions no sooner than 90 days before their EADs expire. If their EADs have already expired, they cannot apply for the extension and will be required to leave the U.S. following the end of their grace periods.
Navigating the Post-Training Grace Period
Once you’ve wrapped up your training, you’re not immediately expected to pack your bags. The U.S. government understands that life decisions take time. This is why F-1 visa holders get a “grace period.” It’s a window where you can figure out your next steps, be it heading back home or transitioning to another visa type.
When Should You Apply for the Extension?
Timing is everything. While you’re still in your post-completion OPT phase, it’s essential to mark your calendar. Ideally, you should kickstart your STEM OPT extension application no earlier than 90 days before your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) expires. Missed the deadline and your EAD has already expired? Unfortunately, this means you’ve missed the boat on the extension. But remember, you still have the grace period to plan your departure or next steps.
Options Post-STEM OPT Extension Denial
In the event of a STEM OPT extension denial:
- Depart the U.S. within the 60-day grace period.
- Transfer your SEVIS record to a new institution.
- Pursue further studies.
- Transition to another visa category.
Ensure you comply with all visa stipulations to avoid overstays or potential bans from future U.S. re-entry.
Once You’ve Been Approved
Upon approval of your 24-Month STEM OPT, the USCIS will grant you an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). It’s essential to submit a scanned copy of this card to the International Center through the M-Passport portal.
This extension period is essentially a continuation of your F-1 status. It’s crucial to cease employment as the expiration date on your EAD card approaches. However, a grace period of 60 days allows you to stay in the U.S. beyond this date.
For some, there’s a silver lining. Under specific circumstances, some students may be eligible for further extensions of their OPT and F-1 status.
Your STEM OPT is not just about employment; it’s about gaining relevant experience. Therefore, it’s essential to ensure that your job aligns with your field of study:
- E-Verify Employers – It’s necessary to choose employers who are enrolled in the USCIS’s E-Verify program, which ensures employment eligibility.
- Work Hours & Training – Ensure you’re clocking in a minimum of 20 hours per week. Moreover, your employer should provide you with formal training to enhance your practical knowledge.
- Form I-983 Collaboration – Work in tandem with your employer to complete the Form I-983. This form validates the direct relationship between your job and your STEM degree.
It’s worth noting that flexibility exists within the system. For instance, your initial OPT employer doesn’t necessarily have to be your STEM OPT employer.
Reporting is an integral part of the STEM OPT journey:
- Address Updates – It’s mandatory to keep your U.S. address and contact details updated on Wolverine Access. Any changes should be promptly reported, ideally within 10 days.
- Documenting Employment Shifts – If you’re considering switching jobs, ensure that all transitions are duly reported via the M-Passport portal.
- Scheduled Reporting – Key milestones during your STEM OPT require you to report specific details. These milestones are at the 6, 12, 18, and 24-month marks.
What If You Want To End Your OPT Early?
Life is full of twists and turns. If you find yourself wanting to or needing to conclude your OPT ahead of time, it’s paramount to inform the International Center via the M-Passport portal about your decision. Failing to report your early OPT conclusion might leave you with unexpected health insurance bills, so it’s crucial to stay on top of this.
Grace Periods for F-1 Visa Holders
The U.S. extends grace periods to F-1 students, allowing them additional time to stay in the country before and after their academic and training programs.
Before Commencing Studies
Although you can be granted an F-1 visa up to 120 days prior to your program’s start, you’re only permitted to enter the U.S. 30 days before it begins. This 30-day interval allows you to get acclimated before diving into your studies.
Post-Study Grace Period
After completing your academic requirements, a 60-day grace period is provided. During this time, you can:
- Depart the U.S.
- Seek post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) and work authorization.
- Transfer to another academic program or pursue further studies.
For those who secure post-completion OPT, another 60-day grace period is available post-OPT, offering a window to either transition to further studies, make preparations for leaving the U.S., or apply for a change to another visa status.
Should you wish to change your status, ensure your application reaches USCIS within your grace period to avoid complications. Students who need to withdraw from their academic programs might get a 15-day grace period to arrange their return home.
Grace Period for OPT Applicants
F-1 students can apply for OPT within 90 days before graduation and up to 60 days afterward. If denied during this window, the post-study 60-day grace period can be used to reapply. If your OPT application gets declined post-grace period, you won’t receive an additional 60 days and must promptly exit the U.S.
STEM OPT Extension
F-1 students in post-completion OPT with qualifying STEM degrees can seek a 24-month STEM OPT extension. During the application process, both F-1 visa status and employment authorization extend for up to 180 days until a USCIS decision is made. If your application is denied within this time, a 60-day grace period follows, allowing for departure or another adjustment of visa status.
Transitioning to H1-B Visas
Many on OPT or the STEM OPT extension consider adjusting their status to the H-1B visa. This dual-intent visa permits holders to work in the U.S. for their sponsoring employers for up to six years (initially three years, renewable once). After this, they can pursue permanent residency. Acquiring an H-1B visa involves having an employer sponsor and apply on your behalf, given the annual 65,000 visa cap.
The Cap-Gap Extension
To address the potential lapse between OPT expiry in early June and the October 1 start date for approved H-1B visas, the U.S. provides a cap-gap extension. This grace period begins when OPT expires and continues until the H-1B employment start date. Should the H-1B application be denied, students receive 10 more days of employment authorization and a subsequent 60-day grace period to depart or adjust status. Post October 1, the cap-gap extension concludes, leaving students with no further grace period if H-1B applications are denied.
How to Apply for Pre-Completion OPT
If you’re an F-1 student eager to gain work experience before completing your degree, pre-completion OPT is an excellent opportunity. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to apply:
1. Timing is Crucial
You can start your pre-completion OPT application process up to 90 days before concluding your first year of full-time academic studies. Mark your calendar to ensure you don’t miss this window!
2. Consult Your Designated School Official (DSO)
Begin by seeking guidance from the DSO at your academic institution. They’ll assess your records to confirm your F-1 visa compliance. Once everything checks out, they’ll provide a recommendation for your OPT participation.
3. SEVIS Record Update
Your DSO will then log the recommendation into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This step ensures your student record reflects your desire to participate in the OPT program. As a result, your Form I-20 will be updated and endorsed.
4. Official Work Authorization
With your updated Form I-20 in hand, move to the next step: obtaining official work authorization. To do this, submit Form I-765 along with the necessary fees to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
5. Await Employment Authorization
Patience is vital at this stage. Before starting any work under the pre-completion OPT, wait for your employment authorization from the USCIS. It’s essential to ensure you’re legally permitted to work before diving into your job.
How to Apply for Post Completion OPT
If you’re nearing the end of your studies and considering extending your practical training, here’s how to apply for post-completion OPT:
1. Be Mindful of the Timing
You can start your post-completion OPT application 90 days before graduation. However, if you’ve missed that window, you can still apply, but it should be no later than 60 days after you graduate. Keep in mind that any hours you’ve clocked under pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the total 12-month allowance.
2. Consult with Your DSO
The next step is to meet with the Designated School Official (DSO) at your institution. They’ll provide guidance and, if all is in order, will furnish a recommendation for your post-completion OPT.
3. SEVIS Update and Form Endorsement
Following the DSO’s recommendation, they will then update your SEVIS record, an essential step for the process. Consequently, your Form I-20 will be endorsed to reflect your intent for post-completion OPT.
4. Seek Official Employment Authorization
Armed with an updated Form I-20, you’re now ready to apply for the necessary work permissions. Submit Form I-765, along with the required fees, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
5. Wait Before You Work
Once you’ve submitted your application, it’s a waiting game. You must hold off on starting any job until the USCIS provides you with the Employment Authorization Document (EAD). Only with this in hand are you legally permitted to begin your post-completion OPT work.
The journey of an international student in the U.S. is filled with excitement, learning, and numerous opportunities. However, it’s essential to stay informed and adhere to the regulations that govern your stay, ensuring a smooth and hassle-free experience. By understanding and utilizing the grace periods associated with the F-1 visa and the OPT program, students can make informed decisions about their future, whether that involves further studies, work, or transitioning to another visa status. Always consult with your DSO or an immigration attorney when in doubt and remember: knowledge is power, and in this context, it’s also the key to a seamless U.S. academic and professional journey.
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F1 OPT Grace Period FAQ
Below, you will find some frequently asked questions about F1 OPT grace periods and their answers.
What is the grace period for F-1 students after their studies?
After completing their academic programs, F-1 students are given a 60-day grace period. During this time, they can depart the U.S., seek post-completion OPT and work authorization, transfer to another academic program, or pursue further studies.
Can I work during the grace period after my studies?
No, you are not authorized to work during the 60-day grace period after completing your studies. This grace period is to allow you to prepare for departure, transfer to another academic program, or transition to another visa status.
What happens if my OPT application is denied after my 60-day post-study grace period?
If your OPT application is declined after the post-study 60-day grace period, you won’t receive an additional 60 days. You should make arrangements to promptly exit the U.S.
How long is the grace period after completing OPT?
After completing your post-completion OPT, you are given another 60-day grace period. This allows time for transitioning to further studies, making preparations for leaving the U.S., or applying for a change to another visa status.
Can I apply for a STEM OPT extension during my post-OPT grace period?
No. Applications for the STEM OPT extension must be submitted while you are still in your post-completion OPT period and before your current OPT employment authorization expires.
What happens if my STEM OPT extension is denied?
If your STEM OPT extension is denied, you will typically be given a 60-day grace period from the date of denial to depart the U.S., transfer your SEVIS record to a new institution, pursue further studies, or transition to another visa category.
Are there grace periods associated with the cap-gap extension?
Yes, if your H-1B application is denied after your OPT has expired but before October 1 (the H-1B start date), you receive 10 more days of employment authorization, followed by a 60-day grace period to depart or adjust status.
I had to withdraw from my academic program. Do I have a grace period?
Yes, students who need to withdraw from their academic programs might receive a 15-day grace period to arrange their return home.
Can I re-enter the U.S. during the grace period after completing my studies?
No, once you depart the U.S. during the 60-day grace period after completing your studies, you cannot re-enter with your current F-1 visa as a student.
Can I change my status during the post-OPT grace period?
Yes, if you wish to change your status (e.g., from F-1 to H-1B), ensure that your application reaches USCIS within the post-OPT 60-day grace period to avoid complications.