Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a form of temporary work authorization for international students under F-1 visa status (who have just graduated with their degrees or have been studying for over nine months) to work legally in the United States temporarily. The purpose of the OPT is to have the students apply what they have learned in a hands-on, real-world setting. Therefore, the majority of students on F-1 visas will be eligible for optional practical training. This post will explore the OPT eligibility requirements, rules, ways to get approval, and frequently asked questions.
Who is Eligible for OPT?
There are two main types of Optional Practical Training:
- Pre-completion: If you have been a full-time academic student for at least one year at the college, university, seminary, or conservatory that is certified by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program, then you can apply for this type of OPT. USCIS does not require F-1 status for that full year if you have another nonimmigrant status.
- Post-completion: This training is available once you have graduated.
If USCIS approves your pre-completion OPT application, you can work part-time, 20 hours or less per week, during the time school is in session and full time when there is no class in session. However, if USCIS approves post-completion, you can work part-time (20 hours or less per week) or full-time. If you did pre-completion OPT, USCIS subtracts the time you worked from your post-completion authorization. Say, for example, you worked 9 months with pre-completion OPT, then you have a remaining 3 months left you can work post-completion OPT. The exception to this is if you have a degree in one of the STEM fields.
Degrees in STEM Fields OPT Eligibility
There is one significant advantage for international students who graduated from a U.S. college/university with a degree in one of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), and that is the ability to extend the optional practical training time for an extra 24 months in addition to the normal 12 months on OPT.
OPT Requirements for STEM Field Extensions
To be eligible for the 24-month STEM extension, you must have the following OPT requirements:
- Been granted OPT eligibility and be in a valid period of post-completion OPT
- Hold a degree (bachelors, master’s, or doctoral) from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education and certified by the SEVP when you submit your extension application.
- If you are currently an F1 student involved in a post-completion OPT program that is not for a STEM degree, but you earned a STEM degree in the past, you may be able to use that degree to apply for the STEM extension if you have not already received a STEM extension for that degree. The OPT must also be related to the STEM degree. For example, if you are currently involved in an OPT for a doctoral degree in Fine Arts but have a previous master’s degree in engineering, then you could apply for the STEM OPT extension based on the engineering degree (assuming it is from an accredited U.S. college/university) for a program related to that STEM field.
- The employer must meet all the STEM OPT requirements
- Submit Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, up to 90 days before your current OPT employment authorization expires. Within 60 days of the date, your designated school official (DSO) enters the recommendation for OPT into your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record.
Obtaining a STEM Degree in the Future
Should you choose to enroll in higher education for a STEM-related degree in the future and earn the degree, you could be eligible for the 24-month STEM OPT extension. For instance, if you obtain a 24-month STEM OPT extension for your degree in mathematics and you later earn a master’s in Information Technology, you could qualify for an additional 24-month extension based on the IT degree.
Reporting Your STEM OPT
Should you receive the STEM OPT extension, it is your responsibility to report changes for any of the following to your designated school official within ten days:
- Legal name
- Mailing or residential address
- Email address
- Employer’s name or address
USCIS recommends that you touch base with your DSO every six months to ensure none of the information above is outdated.
How STEM OPT Unemployment Works
The Department of Homeland Security permits STEM OPT students an additional 60 days of unemployment during the extension period, in addition to the 90-day maximum unemployment time that students get during the initial post-completion OPT period (total of 150 days). Therefore, if you completed one optional practical training already and later pursued a second one for a different degree, you can receive the aforementioned unemployment period both times. If you exceed the unemployment limit, you start to accrue unlawful presence, which could hinder your future immigration benefits. So at all costs, do not accrue unlawful presence. Speak to a qualified immigration lawyer if you believe you are in jeopardy of this.
How to Apply for OPT
To apply for OPT, you must request your DSO (designated school official) to make a recommendation by endorsing Form I-20, Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, and make a note in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
What is a designated school official?
According to the Department of Homeland Security, a DSO is “A regularly-employed member of the school administration designated by the head of a Student and Exchange Visitor Program-certified school to provide recommendations to F and/or M students enrolled at the school regarding maintenance of nonimmigrant status, and to support timely and complete record-keeping and reporting to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”
After you’ve requested with your DSO, you should file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization with USCIS plus pay the required fees.
OPT Rules for Qualifying
The following are the OPT rules for program and applicants:
- OPT program must relate to your degree or pursued degree
- To be eligible, you must have full-time student status for at minimum one academic year by the start date of your requested OPT and have valid F-1 status.
- Must not have participated in OPT for the same degree previously
- DSO must complete Form I-20 with the recommendation for the OPT program
- You must report any changes to your name, address, email, employer’s name, or address to your DSO within 10 days of the change
- OPT must be used all at once (not broken out) after you have earned your degree. You can use it in increments for pre-completion OPT programs, but this used portion will be deducted from your post-completion OPT.
OPT Frequently Asked Questions
What are the STEM fields that apply?
Here is the complete list of STEM-designated degrees.
Can I break up the 12 months of OPT?
No, you cannot break it out into increments for post-completion OPT. You may use it in shorter blocks for pre-completion OPT, but this used portion will be deducted from your post-completion OPT.
Can I have more than one employer?
You can, but all your employers must register with E-verify (free for employers and available in all states), meet the employer requirements, and fulfill the requirements on Form I-983.
What paperwork do I need to return to the U.S. during post-completion OPT?
You should have the following documents with you:
- Form I-200
- EAD with OPT authorization
- Valid passport
- Current F-1 visa stamp
- A letter detailing the job offer and/or proof of employment with salary information
- Evidence of financial support
Can I change employers while my STEM extension is processing?
Changing employers with your application is processing with USCIS is not advised and can cause additional delays to the entire process, so it is typically not advised.
Is OPT an immigration status?
No, it is not an immigration status classification. Instead, it is temporary work authorization for F-1 students.
Do I have to be a valid F-1 student to apply?
Yes, at the time of your application for an OPT, you must have valid F-1 student status.
Who is not eligible for OPT?
Students who have already participated in 12 months or more of full-time Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) are not eligible for OPT. Part-time CPT will not make you indelible for OPT. If you meet all the other opt requirements and were denied, you may be able to reapply.
Do I need to have a job to apply for an OPT?
You do not need to have a job to apply.
When do I get my Social Security Number?
You can apply for your SSN as part of the OPT application and receive the card after your OPT is approved (about two weeks after receiving the EAD).
How can I check my OPT application status?
You. can check it using the USCIS Case Status Online Tool. Enter your receipt number found on the I-797 Notice of Action, and it will say the status of your application.
Can I work for free while I wait for my EAD to arrive?
No, if you are performing work that is typically paid, you need employment authorization.
Can the OPT program be outside of my field of study?
The program and work must directly correlate or your field of study. So if your degree is in mathematics, you cannot apply for an OPT doing art history work, for example.
What if I have received a request for evidence?
Contact your international student office immediately (or DSO) if you receive a request for evidence.
Can I change the start dates after applying to USCIS?
Unfortunately, if you have already submitted it, you cannot change the start dates of the OPT recommendation. If you have not yet, then ask your school official to amend the recommendation.
How do I cancel my application?
You can request to withdraw the OPT application by contacting your school advisor. However, if USCIS has already approved it, you can’t withdraw the application.
Who can obtain an OPT EAD?
OPT programs are designed for students and those that have just graduated. Only F-1 visa holders and M1 visa holders are eligible to apply for an OPT employment authorization document. Other immigrants are eligible to apply for a regular employment authorization document.
How can I get OPT approval?
A program can approve you by meeting all of the OPT requirements mentioned above. If you are unsure whether you qualify, it is best to consult a qualified immigration professional.
How long does OPT processing take?
USCIS can take anywhere from 3-5 months to process your OPT application. For that reason, leave enough buffer time between when you apply and when you hope to begin working. Doctoral students should apply no later than sixty days past the last day of the month they submit their dissertation.
Can I work at school while I wait for the EAD to process?
After earning your degree, it is illegal to work on or off-campus until you have the employment authorization document in hand.
How soon can I start working after obtaining OPT approval?
Once you receive the OPT Employment Authorization Document from USCIS and the effective date on the document has come, you can begin work with the program.
What happens after I have my Employment Authorization Document (EAD)?
If you’ve received your EAD, that’s great news! Once the start date (located on the card) comes, you can start working with your OPT and then apply for a SSN (if necessary).
Can I travel on my status?
If you would live to travel outside of the country and return on F-1 status, you need to request a travel signature every 6 months.
If I was selected in the H-1B lottery and already have a cap-gap extension, can I apply for the STEM OPT extension?
You can still apply, but the STEM OPT extension automatically goes into effect the day after your existing post-completion OPT EAD expires. It invalidates the cap-gap extension, so the work you do must adhere to the STEM OPT extension criteria.