Optional Practical Training (OPT) for F-1 Students Explained

Updated on April 11, 2024

Hey there, international students studying in the U.S. on an F-1 visa! Are you interested in gaining some hands-on work experience in your field of study? Well, that’s where Optional Practical Training (OPT) comes in. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about OPT, including eligibility requirements, types of OPT, the application process, and tips for success.

30 Second Recap:

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a work authorization program that allows F-1 students to gain practical experience in their field of study for up to 12 months. Eligibility requirements include being enrolled in a full-time academic program for at least one academic year and maintaining valid F-1 status. There are two types of OPT: pre-completion and post-completion. STEM students may be eligible for a 24-month extension. The application process involves receiving a recommendation from your DSO, filing Form I-765, and waiting for your EAD. While on OPT, it’s important to maintain your F-1 status by working only in jobs related to your field of study and reporting any changes to your DSO.

What is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a work authorization program that allows F-1 students to gain practical experience in their field of study for up to 12 months. OPT can be completed either during or after the completion of your academic program.

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.

Eligibility Requirements for OPT

To be eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that allows F-1 visa students to gain practical work experience in their field of study in the United States, there are specific criteria that must be met. These requirements are designed to ensure that students are in good standing with their academic and immigration statuses, and that the work experience gained through OPT is directly related to their area of study. Here’s a detailed look at the eligibility requirements for OPT:

1. Enrollment at an SEVP-Certified School

First and foremost, you must be enrolled full-time in an academic program at a school certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). This certification ensures that the institution follows certain standards and regulations set by the U.S. government for hosting international students. The SEVP certification is a guarantee that the institution is equipped to provide the necessary support and reporting for students on an F-1 visa. To find out if a school is SEVP-certified, you can use the resource provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: SEVP-certified school search.

2. One Academic Year of Enrollment

Eligibility for OPT also hinges on having been enrolled full-time for at least one academic year in the program in which you are currently studying. This requirement is in place to ensure that students have a solid foundation in their field of study before embarking on practical training. It reflects the principle that OPT is an extension of a student’s academic experience, allowing them to apply what they’ve learned in a real-world context.

3. Maintaining Valid F-1 Status

Throughout your stay in the U.S., maintaining valid F-1 visa status is crucial. This means sticking to the full course of study requirements, limiting on-campus employment to 20 hours per week during the academic term (with the possibility for full-time work during breaks), and following proper procedures for any changes in your educational or personal situation. Maintaining your F-1 status is a testament to your commitment to your academic pursuits and compliance with U.S. immigration laws.

4. Limitations on Full-time CPT

Finally, if you’ve participated in Curricular Practical Training (CPT), you must not have completed more than 12 months of full-time CPT to be eligible for OPT. This stipulation is designed to ensure that the practical experience gained through CPT doesn’t supplant the academic objectives of your stay in the U.S. It’s a balance that allows for practical experience while keeping the focus on academic achievement.

Types of OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is an invaluable program for F-1 visa students, offering a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in their field of study within the United States. OPT is divided into two distinct types: pre-completion and post-completion, each tailored to different stages of a student’s academic journey. Understanding the nuances and guidelines of each type is crucial for making the most out of the OPT experience.

Pre-completion OPT

Pre-completion OPT is designed for students who are actively enrolled in their academic programs and wish to gain practical work experience before graduating. Here are the key features of pre-completion OPT:

  • Part-time Work During Academic Terms: While school is in session, you’re allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. This limitation is in place to ensure that your primary focus remains on your studies, while still gaining relevant work experience in your field.
  • Full-time Work During Breaks: During official school breaks, like summer or winter vacations, you have the option to work full-time. This allows for more intensive practical training periods when academic commitments are on hold.

The flexibility of pre-completion OPT makes it an attractive option for students looking to supplement their education with practical experience without waiting until graduation.

Post-completion OPT

Post-completion OPT, on the other hand, is aimed at students who have completed their academic programs. It allows for a more immersive work experience in the field of study. Here’s what sets post-completion OPT apart:

  • Full-time Employment: Upon completing your degree, you can engage in full-time employment for up to 12 months. This period is an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired during your studies in a real-world setting.
  • Extension for STEM Graduates: Students who have earned degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) fields may be eligible for a 24-month extension beyond the initial 12 months of post-completion OPT, offering a longer duration to gain valuable experience in high-demand fields.

STEM OPT Extension

The 24-month STEM OPT extension significantly enhances the Optional Practical Training (OPT) period for graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) fields, allowing for an extended duration of practical training in the United States. This extension is particularly valuable for STEM graduates seeking to deepen their industry experience and contribute to the U.S. workforce in their specialized fields. Here’s a closer look at the eligibility criteria for this extension:

1. Completion of a Degree in an Eligible STEM Field

The foundation of eligibility for the STEM OPT extension is the completion of a degree from an accredited institution in a field recognized as part of the STEM disciplines. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security maintains a list of eligible STEM fields, which includes a wide range of disciplines. This requirement ensures that the extension is granted to individuals whose expertise aligns with areas of significant demand and innovation within the U.S. economy.

2. Employment by a Company in the E-Verify Program

To qualify for the STEM OPT extension, your employer must be enrolled and actively participating in the E-Verify program. E-Verify is an Internet-based system operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration. It allows enrolled employers to verify the employment eligibility of their employees. This requirement helps ensure that STEM OPT students are employed in legitimate and verifiable positions that contribute to their field of study.

3. No Previous STEM OPT Extension

Eligibility for the STEM OPT extension is limited to once per degree level. This means you cannot have previously received a STEM OPT extension for the same degree level. However, it’s worth noting that if you advance to a higher degree level and earn another eligible STEM degree, you may qualify for another 24-month extension based on the new degree. This rule is designed to prevent indefinite extensions and encourage progress in educational attainment.

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.

The OPT Application Process

Applying for Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a critical 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 preparation and timely action to ensure compliance with all requirements set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Here’s a step-by-step guide to navigate the OPT application process:

1. Request a Recommendation for OPT from Your DSO

Your journey begins by requesting an OPT recommendation from your school’s Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO plays a crucial role in advising and guiding F-1 students on immigration matters, including OPT. They will review your eligibility for OPT and provide the necessary endorsement if you meet all the criteria.

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

Following the DSO’s recommendation, you will receive an updated Form I-20 that includes the OPT endorsement. This new Form I-20 is a pivotal document in your OPT application, as it officially signifies your school’s support for your OPT request. Ensure all information on the Form I-20 is accurate before proceeding to the next step.

3. File Form I-765 with USCIS

The next crucial step involves filing Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization) with USCIS. This form is used to request an employment authorization document (EAD), which is required to legally work in the U.S. under OPT. Completing Form I-765 accurately and providing all necessary supporting documents is essential for a successful application.

4. Pay the Required Application Fee

Along with your Form I-765, you will need to submit the required application fee. This fee covers the processing of your application by USCIS. Ensure that you check the latest fee amount on the USCIS website, as fees can change. Payment instructions are provided with the form, and it’s important to follow these instructions carefully to avoid delays.

5. Wait for Your EAD to Be Processed and Mailed

After submitting your application and fee, the final step is to wait for USCIS to process your application and mail your Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The EAD is proof of your legal authorization to work in the United States during your OPT period. Processing times can vary, so it’s advisable to apply for OPT as early as allowed to avoid gaps in your ability to work.

Finding a Job During OPT

Securing employment during your Optional Practical Training (OPT) period is a crucial step in leveraging this opportunity to gain valuable work experience in your field of study in the United States. Once you’ve received your Employment Authorization Document (EAD), you’re legally eligible to start working. However, finding the right job requires strategy, persistence, and making use of available resources. Here are some practical tips to help you find a job during OPT:

1. Start Your Job Search Early

Begin your job search well before you receive your EAD. This approach gives you a head start, allowing you to research potential employers, understand the job market, and tailor your resume and cover letters accordingly. Early preparation can significantly reduce the time you spend unemployed after obtaining your EAD.

2. Utilize Your School’s Career Services and Attend Job Fairs

Many educational institutions offer career services to students, including resume reviews, career counseling, and job placement assistance. Take advantage of these services to refine your job application materials and strategy. Additionally, attending job fairs hosted by your school or in your community can provide direct access to employers interested in hiring students and recent graduates.

3. Network with Professionals in Your Field Through Online Platforms Like LinkedIn

Networking is a powerful tool in the job search process. Platforms like LinkedIn allow you to connect with professionals in your field, join industry-specific groups, and engage in discussions. Networking can lead to job leads, mentorship opportunities, and valuable insights into your field. Remember to keep your LinkedIn profile updated and reflective of your skills, experiences, and career objectives.

To comply with OPT requirements, ensure that the jobs you apply for are directly related to your major area of study. This not only satisfies the conditions of your OPT but also contributes to your professional development and career trajectory. Tailor your applications to highlight how your education and skills make you a strong candidate for positions that align with your field of study.

Additional Tips

  • Prepare for Interviews: Research common interview questions in your field, and practice your responses. Consider conducting informational interviews with professionals in your desired industry to gain insights and advice.
  • Stay Informed About Visa Regulations: Understand the limitations and requirements of your F-1 visa status during OPT, including the rules regarding periods of unemployment.
  • Document Your Job Search Activity: Keeping a record of your job search efforts can be helpful if you need to demonstrate compliance with OPT employment requirements to your Designated School Official (DSO) or immigration authorities.

By following these tips and remaining persistent in your job search, you can maximize the benefits of your OPT period, gaining practical experience that complements your academic background and advances your career.

Maintaining Your F-1 Status During OPT

Maintaining your F-1 status while participating in Optional Practical Training (OPT) is essential for ensuring your stay in the United States remains legal and compliant with the conditions of your visa. OPT provides a unique opportunity for hands-on work experience in your field of study, but it also comes with specific responsibilities that you must adhere to. Here’s a closer look at what maintaining your F-1 status entails during OPT:

The primary condition of OPT is that any employment you undertake must be directly related to your major area of study. This ensures that the practical training serves as an extension of your academic program, enhancing your knowledge and skills in your chosen field. It’s crucial to evaluate potential job opportunities carefully to ensure they align with your studies.

2. Adhere to Unemployment Limits

During regular OPT, you’re allowed a maximum of 90 days of unemployment, while the STEM OPT extension permits up to 150 days. Exceeding these limits can jeopardize your F-1 status. Proactively searching for employment, keeping track of your unemployment days, and considering volunteer positions or internships in your field (if permitted) can help you stay within these boundaries.

3. Report Changes to Your DSO

Any changes in your employment status or personal information (such as a change of address) must be reported to your Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO will update your record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) accordingly. Prompt reporting helps ensure your records are accurate and up-to-date, reflecting your compliance with OPT requirements.

4. Maintain a Valid Passport and I-94 Record

Your passport must be valid at all times during your stay in the U.S. Additionally, your I-94 record, which tracks your arrivals and departures, should be kept up to date. The I-94 is an important document that provides proof of your legal entry and temporary visitor status in the U.S. Regularly check your I-94 record online for accuracy, especially after any travel outside the U.S.

Final Thoughts

Optional Practical Training (OPT) presents a valuable opportunity for F-1 students to gain practical work experience in their field of study. By understanding the eligibility requirements, different types of OPT, and the application process, you can make the most of this opportunity. Remember that finding the right job during OPT requires strategy and persistence, and maintaining your F-1 status is crucial throughout this period. With careful planning and adherence to the guidelines, you can leverage OPT to enhance your academic journey and advance your career in the United States.

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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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