Many foreign international students on F-1 visas want to work during their studies. They want to have a job experience while they are in the U.S or are aiming to stay in the U.S and work. There are many different opportunities that foreign students can use to achieve this goal. One of them is the Optional Practical Training (OPT).
This article will go through the details of the OPT and provide relevant information.
What is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
The Optional Practical Training (OPT) for international students is a program which allows them to work in the U.S. The students can get an OPT authorization from the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and find a job.
The employer must be aware that the person is a student and that they are working on an OPT. The reason for this is that the OPT is temporary. It does not grant a student the permission to permanently stay and work in the country.
The OPT jobs that the students get must have some relation to their fields of study. USCIS will not approve OPT applications for unrelated jobs. Students cannot work as servers or bartenders unless they prove this condition.
To get the OPT, students must be enrolled in a U.S educational institution and must be on an F-1 visa. They must be completing a university or college degree such as Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree. They must also cooperate with their university’s Designated School Official (DSO).
The DSO handles the international students in an educational institution. They usually work in the International Students Office. They can provide help and advice on the students’ statuses and assist in getting an OPT. Students cannot get their OPTs unless their DSO approves it.
A lot of students use the OPT to try and get full time job offers from U.S employers. After the OPT is complete, the U.S employer can choose to sponsor the student for an H-1B visa. Students who complete their OPTs are more likely to get sponsored than those who do not.
That is because during their OPT, students can show their skills and knowledge. This could convince the employer that they have specialized abilities, which is a H-1B visa requirement.
What are the types of OPT?
The maximum time that you work on an OPT is 12 months. You can choose to do your OPT during or after you studies though. Because of this, there are two types of OPTs.
Pre completion OPT
The pre-completion OPT is for students who are working and studying at the same time. So they could still be attending classes and working.
You can only start your pre completion OPT if you were enrolled in school for one full academic year. If approved, you are only allowed to work part time, so 20 hours per week during normal semesters. During university breaks you are allowed to work full time.
Post completion OPT
The post completion OPT means that you are working after you graduated. You can start your OPT immediately after graduation if you already found a job. Since you do not have any academic obligations, you can work full time or part time.
If you have done a pre completion OPT for some time, it will be deducted from your post completion OPT. So if you had a 10 month pre completion OPT, you are only allowed to work 2 months as a post completion OPT. However, you choose to do it, you cannot work in the U.S on an OPT for more than 12 months.
What are OPT requirements?
To qualify for the OPT, you must fulfill several requirements. Depending on the type you want to complete, then you must:
- Be in the U.S with a valid F-1 visa;
- Be a student at a U.S educational institution;
- Be enrolled in school for at least 1 academic year;
- Agree to work part time if you want a pre completion OPT;
- Agree to work in a job related to your field of study;
- NOT have a criminal record during your time in the U.S;
- Be eligible for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD);
- NOT have completed a 12 month, full time, Curricular Practical Training (CPT);
- NOT be enrolled in an English as a Second Language course.
How to Apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
To start your OPT application, you must follow these two steps:
Step 1: Have your DSO submit an OPT request on SEVIS
Once you decide to get an OPT visa, then you must inform your DSO. The DSO will take your Form I-20, confirm your eligibility for OPT, and submit a request. The request is submitted in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
Step 2: File a request for OPT EAD
The student must then file an application for the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to USCIS. The form for this is Form I-765. Based on the EAD requirements, you must submit the application fees and supporting documents.
After receiving your EAD, USCIS will issue Form I-797, Notice of Receipt. Your OPT status will be pending. Now it is up to USCIS to process your application and issue a decision.
If USCIS approves your EAD, then your OPT status changes to Approved. If they deny it, then it changes to Denied. You must closely check your status and any notices you get from USCIS.
When USCIS notifies you that your OPT is approved, they will then issue your EAD. You will get your OPT card a few days or weeks after approval, depending on the USCIS workload.
What is the OPT Processing Time?
It is best to apply for OPT as early as possible. You can set your start and end dates for the OPT for after you complete your degree. Since USCIS will have a high workload of processing, the OPT processing time could take a while.
After your DSO makes the OPT request in SEVIS, you will then file your request for an EAD. The average time it takes for USCIS to process EAD requests is around 90 days. So make sure that you apply for OPT at least 3 months before you complete your degree. This only applies if you are looking to do a post completion OPT.
Unlike some USCIS services, OPT applications do not have a premium processing or expedited option.
How Long is the OPT Valid?
The maximum amount of time you can be on an OPT is 12 months. This does not change whether you are doing a pre completion or post completion OPT. After 12 months, your OPT and visa are not valid anymore.
This is only valid for when you find a job. If you do not find a job within 90 days after your OPT gets approval, your status will end and you must leave the U.S.
After your 12 month OPT ends, you will have 60 days to move out of the U.S or find an alternative. Alternatives could be a change of status or an extension if you meet the requirements.
If you have found an employer willing to sponsor you for an H-1B visa, you could qualify for a cap gap. The cap gap means that there is some time between when your OPT ends and your H-1B visa begins. For example, your OPT might end in June, while your H-1B visa usually begins in October.
USCIS has allowed automatic revalidation of your OPT if your H-1B visa is still being processed and will not be valid until October. This period is a cap gap.
Can I Extend my OPT?
Extensions of OPT are only available for students that are in a STEM related field. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
Those who have a STEM field can apply for another 24 month OPT extension after their initial 12 months. To be eligible for this extension, students must:
- Currently have an unexpired 12 month OPT;
- Have a degree that falls into a STEM field, even if it is a previous degree;
- Work for an employer which meets OPT employer criteria;
- Submit Form I-765 to USCIS at least 90 days before your current OPT and EAD expire. Also, submit it within 60 days from the time your DSO recommends you for OPT in SEVIS.
To apply for an OPT extension based on STEM you must file these forms to USCIS:
- Form I-765 and its fees;
- The name of your employer as it is listed on E-Verify (together with the Company ID Number or valid E-Verify Client Company ID Number);
- Your Form I-20 endorsed by your DSO within the last 60 days;
- A copy of your STEM diploma.
You must file the application on time, but if it is not processed by the time your current OPT expires, USCIS will extend your EAD for another 180 days. During these 180 days, USCIS will have time to process your STEM OPT extension.
Can I Travel While on OPT?
You can travel while on an OPT, but in some instances it is not recommended. You can travel for up to 30 days outside of the U.S with a valid and signed Form I-20. Your DSO must sign off on your travel, otherwise you might have problems re-entering the U.S.
If you just got your OPT approved but do not have a job yet, it is not recommended to travel out of the U.S. The reasons for this, is that officials at a U.S port of entry could ask for an employment letter and not let you in the country if you do not have one.
If you are already working, then you can travel within the 30 days with the signature of your DSO on your Form I-20.