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Work Authorization (EAD) for OPT Explained

Updated on April 11, 2024

Hey there, international students on an F-1 visa! If you’re looking to gain some valuable work experience in your field of study, you might be eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT). In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into the details of OPT status, including eligibility requirements, types of OPT, maintaining your status, and what to do after your OPT ends.

30 Second Recap:

The Employment Authorization Document (EAD) is a crucial document for F-1 students seeking to work under Optional Practical Training (OPT). To obtain an OPT EAD, you must meet eligibility requirements, apply through your DSO, and file Form I-765 with USCIS. Processing times can vary, but once you receive your EAD, you can begin working in a job related to your field of study. STEM students may be eligible for a 24-month extension of their OPT EAD. Remember to maintain your F-1 status while working with your OPT EAD.

Types of OPT Status

Optional Practical Training (OPT) provides F-1 visa students with the opportunity to gain practical experience in their field of study in the United States, either before or after completing their academic programs. OPT is divided into two distinct categories, each designed to accommodate the student’s schedule and academic commitments: pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT. Understanding the differences between these two types of OPT is crucial for planning your practical training effectively and making informed decisions about your work and study in the U.S.

1. Pre-completion OPT

Pre-completion OPT allows students to engage in practical training while they are still enrolled in their academic programs. This option is tailored for those who wish to gain work experience in their field of study before graduating. Here are the key features of pre-completion OPT:

  • Part-time Work During Academic Terms: Students are permitted to work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session. This restriction is designed to ensure that employment doesn’t interfere with the student’s primary focus on their studies.
  • Full-time Work During Breaks: During official school breaks, such as summer vacation, students can work full-time. This flexibility allows for more intensive work experiences when academic obligations are paused.

Pre-completion OPT is a valuable option for students looking to integrate work experience with their academic curriculum, providing a practical dimension to their education.

2. Post-completion OPT

Post-completion OPT is intended for students who have completed their academic programs and are looking to gain full-time practical work experience in their field of study. This type of OPT serves as a bridge between student life and professional employment. Here are the essentials of post-completion OPT:

  • Full-time Employment: After graduating, students can work full-time, up to 40 hours per week or more, for up to 12 months. This period allows graduates to apply their academic knowledge in a professional setting, enhancing their skills and marketability in the job market.
  • Eligibility for STEM Extension: Graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) fields may be eligible for a 24-month extension beyond the standard 12 months of post-completion OPT, offering an extended opportunity for work experience in specialized fields.

Applying for OPT Status

Applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT) status is a key step for F-1 visa students looking to gain practical work experience in their field of study in the United States. The process requires careful attention to detail and adherence to the guidelines set by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the application process for OPT status:

1. Request a Recommendation for OPT from Your DSO

The first step involves consulting with your Designated School Official (DSO), who will assess your eligibility for OPT based on your academic standing and compliance with F-1 visa regulations. The DSO’s recommendation is crucial as it formally initiates your application for OPT.

2. Receive a New Form I-20 with the OPT Recommendation

After your DSO endorses your OPT application, you will be issued a new Form I-20 that includes the recommendation for OPT. This document is essential for your OPT application, as it demonstrates your school’s support for your intent to engage in practical training.

3. File Form I-765 with USCIS

The core of the OPT application process is filing Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization) with USCIS. This form requests an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) that allows you to work legally in the U.S. in your field of study. Ensure all information provided is accurate and complete to avoid any processing delays.

4. Pay the Required Application Fee

Alongside Form I-765, you must submit the required application fee, which covers the processing of your employment authorization request. The fee amount is subject to change, so it’s important to verify the current cost on the USCIS website and follow the specified payment instructions.

5. Wait for Your EAD to Be Processed

After submitting your application, supporting documents, and fee, the final step is to wait for USCIS to process your request and mail your Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The EAD is proof of your legal authorization to work in the United States under OPT. Processing times can vary, so applying early is advisable to ensure you can start your OPT as planned.

Need help with your F-1 visa?

Embarking on your academic journey in the U.S. with an F-1 visa can be exciting yet overwhelming due to the rigorous application requirements. If you’re feeling lost among the myriad of eligibility requirements, necessary documents, and the comprehensive application process, Stilt is here to assist. Our team of F-1 visa specialists is dedicated to simplifying the complexity, helping you understand and navigate each step with confidence.

Maintaining OPT Status

Maintaining your status while on Optional Practical Training (OPT) is essential for ensuring your stay in the United States remains legal and compliant with your F-1 visa conditions. OPT provides a unique opportunity to apply your academic knowledge in a practical work setting, but it comes with specific responsibilities that must be strictly adhered to. Here’s a breakdown of the crucial steps to maintain your status during OPT:

Your employment under OPT must be directly related to your major area of study. This requirement ensures that the practical experience gained during OPT is an extension of your academic learning, contributing meaningfully to your professional development. Carefully evaluate job opportunities to ensure they align with your field of study and meet the OPT program’s objectives.

2. Adhere to Unemployment Limits

The OPT program allows for a specific number of unemployment days—90 days for regular OPT and 150 days for the STEM OPT extension. It’s crucial to find employment within these limits to maintain your F-1 status. Exceeding these unemployment periods could lead to a loss of status, so proactive job searching and possibly considering volunteer opportunities or internships in your field (if permissible) can help minimize unemployment days.

3. Report Changes to Your DSO

Any changes in your employment situation or personal information (such as a change in address) should be promptly reported to your Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO will update your SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) record accordingly. Timely reporting helps ensure your information is accurate and up-to-date, reflecting your compliance with OPT requirements and maintaining your F-1 status.

4. Maintain a Valid Passport and I-94 Record

Keeping your passport valid at all times during your stay is essential. Additionally, your I-94 record, which tracks your entries and exits from the U.S., should be current. The I-94 is a critical document as it provides proof of your legal entry and temporary visitor status in the U.S. Regular checks and updates of your I-94 status, especially after any international travel, are necessary to ensure compliance.

Need help with your F-1 visa?

Embarking on your academic journey in the U.S. with an F-1 visa can be exciting yet overwhelming due to the rigorous application requirements. If you’re feeling lost among the myriad of eligibility requirements, necessary documents, and the comprehensive application process, Stilt is here to assist. Our team of F-1 visa specialists is dedicated to simplifying the complexity, helping you understand and navigate each step with confidence.

Final Thoughts

Securing and maintaining your Optional Practical Training (OPT) status is a pivotal step in your journey as an F-1 student in the United States. It offers an invaluable opportunity to apply your academic knowledge in a practical work setting, enhancing your skills and your future career prospects. Remember, the process requires careful attention to detail, from the application stage to maintaining your status. With the right preparation and understanding of the process, you can make the most of this opportunity to gain experience and contribute to your field of study.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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