Guide to Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F1 Students

Posted by Frank Gogol

Many students who study on an F-1 visa wonder if they are allowed to work in the US during or after their studies. And, what their options are if they are allowed to work. One of the great options for F-1 students is work permission called Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Check out our video guide “Best time to Start OPT on F1 Visa Student Visa in the USA” to learn more!

Read on to keep learning about OPT for internationals students in the U.S.!

What is OPT for F1 Students?

If you are a postgraduate student or an undergraduate student who has been studying towards your degree for more than nine months, the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service) allows you to get practical training in order to complete your field of study. This means you can be employed in the US, even if you are a non-citizen, without having to obtain any of the other forms of worker permits or another type of visa.

This optional practical training is only available to you if you are a student with an F-1 visa. Read more about OPTs for F1 students.

Pre-Completion OPT

With a pre-completion OPT, you get the right to work even while you are still in school. This right is limited though. While school is still in session, you are only allowed to work part-time (which means 20 hours a week). During breaks, like summer breaks, you can work full-time (up to 40 hours a week). If you have completed all the required coursework for your degree, you can also work full-time.

You are only allowed to work for 12 months under this OPT, and you must be enrolled in school full-time.

The school where you are enrolled at the time you apply for the pre-completion OPT must be certified by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). You can find accredited schools here.

You don’t need to maintain F-1 visa status for the full academic year you have been enrolled to qualify for a pre-completion OPT. If you had any other non-immigrant status during the time you were enrolled, you would still qualify to apply for the pre-completion OPT.

Post-Completion OPT

The post-completion OPT is actually the main purpose of OPT. With post-completion OPT, you have the right to work for 12 months after you completed your degree. All OPT must be completed within 14 months after completing your degree.

If you worked for a pre-completion OPT period, that time will be deducted from the time you are allowed to work under the post-completion OPT. For each new degree you get, you will be able to qualify for a new OPT period. The same goes if you get a higher qualification level in your existing degree.

With post-completion OPT, you may work part-time (20 hours or less) or full-time (40 hours a week).

How to Apply for OPT

The good news is you don’t need an existing job offer to be eligible to apply for OPT.

You can apply for OPT after being enrolled in the qualifying school for nine months, but you can only start working after you have been enrolled for one year.

Follow these 3 easy steps to apply.

Step 1

Ask your Designated School Official at the school where you are enrolled to make a recommendation for the OPT in your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record.

This is done by

  1. Endorsing your Form I-20 (Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) and,
  2. Making the necessary notations in your SEVIS.

Step 2

File a Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorisation) with the USCIS together with the required fee and the supporting documentation listed on the form.

The supporting documents and information required may include (depending on which category you fall in):

  • Details of your degree
  • Financial information
  • Certificate of F-1 status
  • Proof of identity
  • Photographs

The location or address where you file depends on the eligibility category which applies to you. All the necessary information will be on the form, but you can confirm the filing addresses here.

Make sure you fill in all the required fields. Your application will be rejected if you skip one.

Step 3

Wait for your Employment Authorisation Document (EAD). You can only start working once you have received your EAD. Don’t start working before you’ve received this; otherwise, you will be working without authorization (i.e. illegally) which may have serious consequences.

When can I apply for OPT?

To see when you can apply for OPT, compare your situation with the two options below. If you are uncertain what STEM stands for, you can learn more about it further down the article.

I am applying based on a non-STEM degree:

Pre-Completion OPT

  • Apply after your school’s designated official has made the recommendation for OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply after 9 months of study, as long as you don’t start working before your completed a full academic year.

Post-Completion OPT

  • Apply within 30 days of your school’s designated official recommending the OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply for OPT up to 90 days before or within 60 days of the completion of your degree.

I am applying based on a STEM degree:

Pre-Completion OPT

  • Apply after your school’s designated official made the recommendation for OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply after 9 months of study, as long as you don’t start working before your completed a full academic year.

Initial Post-Completion OPT

  • Apply within 30 days of your school’s designated official recommending the OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply after 9 months of study, as long as you don’t start working before your completed a full academic year.

STEM OPT extension

  • Apply within 60 days of your school’s designated official recommending the OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply up to 90 days before your current OPT period and employment authorization expires.

Requirements to Apply for OPT

There are a few general requirements if you want to apply for OPT:

  1. The employment you pursue during your OPT must be directly related to your major at school,
  2. You must at all times maintain a lawful F-1 status, and,
  3. You are not allowed to apply for OPT if you are engaged in 12 months or more  Curricular Practical Training (CPT).

Find out more about the differences between OPT and CPT.

OPT Processing Time

It can take up to 90 days to process your application for OPT. Make sure you apply well in advance of the date you want to start working. This will prevent a conflict in the time periods.

OPT is ending, what can I do?

After a student’s OPT ends, there are a lot of questions about what they can do next, especially if the OPT is ending and there’s no H1B approval yet. Many students find that they don’t want to return to their home country after finishing their studies and fortunately, there are a few options for them to extend their stay in the US.

How long can I stay after OPT ends?

At the end of your OPT, you are given 60 days to stay in the US. During this time, you can apply for one of six options to extend your stay:

  1. Extend your OPT
  2. Enroll in a Day 1 CPR University
  3. Get a Work Visa with an H1B Exemption
  4. Start your own business
  5. Study for a PhD (although this extension doesn’t apply if you’re going for your second master’s degree)
  6. Get married

These options vary greatly so depending on your circumstances: you should decide which option would be more feasible for you and your quest to go from OPT to green card.

If you end up not pursuing one of these six options, you will need to leave the US after those initial 60 days.

STEM OPT Extension

STEM is short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

If you have graduated from a US university or college with a degree in one of these STEM fields, you have the option to apply to extend your OPT period for an extra 24 months. This means you can extend your post-completion OPT period to up to 36 months. Depending on if you did a pre-completion OPT and how long your pre-completion OPT was.

Who is Eligible for OPT STEM Extension

Only specific degrees that are included on the STEM Designated Degree Program List qualify for the OPT STEM extension.

To be eligible to apply for the STEM extension, you must:

  1. Be an F-1 student,
  2. Have a STEM degree,
  3. Have been granted OPT and must currently still be in a valid period of OPT (relating to your STEM degree), and
  4. The school where you are enrolled in, or where you obtained your degree, must be verified by a U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting agency and must be certified by SEVP at the time you submit your application for your STEM extension.

Have you previously obtained a STEM degree?

If you are currently an F-1 student busy with your post-completion OPT based on a non-STEM degree, you might be able to use the previous STEM degree you obtained to apply for the STEM OPT extension. Take note that the practical training you wish to pursue during your STEM OPT-extension period must still be directly related to your STEM degree.

This previous STEM degree must have been obtained from a U.S. institution of higher education. Both your STEM and non-STEM degree must have been obtained from a currently accredited and SEVP-certified institution.

Take note and remember; you can only receive a STEM-OPT extension once. If you already received a STEM OPT-extension for your previous STEM degree, you are not eligible for another one.

Enrolling in another STEM degree or a higher STEM qualification?

If you already received a 24 month STEM OPT-extension based on a STEM degree, but want to pursue another (different) STEM degree, you may qualify for another 24 month STEM OPT-extension period. This is the same if you want to obtain a higher qualification for the degree you already have, e.g., a Masters Degree.

Employer Requirements

To be eligible for a STEM OPT-extension, you must work for an employer who meets all the requirements.

To meet the requirements, your employer must:

  • have a valid Employer Identification Number (this is issued by the Internal Revenue Service for tax purposes).
    • Speaking of taxes, find out more about the F-1 FICA tax refund and how you can maximize yours
    •  
  • be enrolled in E-Verify and remain in good standing.

How to receive OPT STEM Extension

To apply for a STEM OPT-extension, the following documents need to be filed:

  • Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization)  together with:
    • The application fee
    • Employer’s name (as listed in E-Verify)
    • Employer’s E-Verify Company Identification Number or E-Verify Client Company Identification Number.
  • Form I-20  (Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status)
    • This form needs to have been endorsed by your school’s designated official within the last 60 days.
  • A copy of your STEM degree.

What happens if your OPT period expires before you receive your STEM extension?

If you filed your STEM OPT-extension in time, your employment authorization under the OPT period will automatically be extended for 180 days.

Responsibilities After Receiving the STEM OPT-extension

The two most important responsibilities you have after receiving your STEM OPT-extension is to:

  1. Report changes to your personal information to your Designated School Offices within 10 days of the change, and
  2. Report to your Designated School Officers every 6 months to confirm your personal information – even if your information has not changed.

The personal information that is relevant is your:

  • Legal name
  • E-mail address
  • Employer’s name
  • Employer’s address

What happens if I lose my job?

If you lose your job while you are on a post-completion OPT, it’s not the end of the world. You are allowed to be unemployed for the following periods without losing your OPT authorization:

  • Initial post-completion OPT (without STEM extension) – 90 days.
  • STEM OPT-extension – the normal 90 days plus an additional 60 days = total of 150 days.

2 Tips to Help you Navigate Your OPT

Below are a few general notes that will help you navigate all the procedures and requirements of your OPT.

Travel Regulations

If you are an F-1 student and you decide to leave the country temporarily after the completion of your degree but before you received your EAD and got a job, there is a chance you may not be readmitted back into the US.

You can leave the US if you have a job and your EAD, but all your documentation will be needed to be readmitted.

These documents include:

  • Your valid passport
  • Your valid EAD card
  • Your valid F-1 visa
  • All your I-20 documents (make sure page 3 is endorsed for travel by your international student advisor within the past 6 months)
  • A letter of employment (which must include dates of employment and details about your salary)

Read more here: Can Optional Practical Training (OPT) Students Travel abroad?

School Transfers or Changes to Degree

If you have already received your OPT authorization, but you decide to transfer schools or begin studying towards another educational level (like a Masters) your authorization for the OPT employment will be automatically terminated. SEVP will inform the USCIS of the date of termination and USCIS will terminate your EAD.

Once your EAD is terminated, your authorization to engage in OPT will end. Your F-1 status will, however, not be affected by the USCIS terminating your EAD if you still comply with all the requirements to maintain your student status.

The most important tip?

DO NOT WORK ON YOUR TERMINATED EAD. The termination of your EAD means you are not authorized to work in the US anymore. If you work without authorization, there may be serious consequences.

OPT is a great option for F-1 students to work in the US. Make sure you know all the requirements to apply — and apply on time! OPT is another step into your bright future.

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