The F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) program is an opportunity for international students in the United States to gain practical experience and work after college. As an F-1 student, navigating through the process of filing OPT can be confusing. This guide provides you with details on the OPT application process and your employment options during your OPT year.
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What is OPT?
OPT refers to temporary employment directly related to an F-1 student’s major field of study, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Eligible applicants can receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before graduating from their academic studies, which is known as pre-completion OPT. They can also work after graduating, which is known as post-completion OPT. If you worked
Note that all periods of pre-completion OPT will be subtracted from the available period of post-completion OPT.
You can apply for pre-completion OPT after being lawfully enrolled full-time for an academic year at an institution approved by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to accept F-1 students. You are not required to have had F-1 status for the entire academic year and can meet the “one full academic year” criterion even if you were in a different nonimmigrant status during that time.
If you are approved for pre-completion OPT, you may work 20 hours or less per week while school is in session. When school is not in session, you can work full-time.
You can apply for post-completion OPT after completing your studies. If you are approved for post-completion OPT, you must work part-time (20 hours or more per week) or full-time.
Working with OPT authorization before and after graduating
A student with an F-1 Visa has 12 months total of OPT authorization to use towards work while they are in school and after they have graduated. Some students may decide to split this time into part-time work while they are in school and full-time work after they have graduated. In that case, part-time work counts differently towards a student’s overall total.
For example, if you used two months of full-time pre-completion OPT, you will have 10 months of post-completion OPT remaining. In comparison, part-time OPT is deducted at half the rate. So, if you used two months of part-time pre-completion OPT, you will have 11 months of post-completion OPT remaining.
The 12-month tally starts over if a student pursues a degree at a higher education level. So, a student who worked with OPT while enrolled in a bachelor’s degree will get another 12 months of OPT once they are in a master’s program.
Am I eligible to work as an OPT student?
Yale University Office of International Students and Scholars’ website explains that to be eligible to apply for OPT, you must:
- Maintain valid F-1 student status at the time of application
- Be enrolled full-time for at least one full academic year in the U.S.
- Be physically present in the U.S. at the time of submitting your application
- Intend to work or volunteer in jobs directly related to your major field of study.
STEM OPT extension
You may apply for a 24-month extension of your post-completion OPT if you:
- Have been granted OPT and are currently in a valid period of post-completion OPT
- Have earned a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree from a school accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency and is certified by the SEVP when you submit your STEM OPT extension application;
- Work for an employer that is enrolled in and using E-Verify.
Please visit the USCIS website for more information.
How to apply for OPT
- Submit an application to your designated school official (DSO) to obtain a new I-20 with the OPT recommendation printed. Be prepared to provide the following documents: a copy of your most recent I-94 arrival record and copies of Employment Authorization Document (EAD) cards from previous OPT applications, if any. You also need to choose your OPT start and end dates.
- File Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization with USCIS, pay the fee and submit the supporting documentation as required.
You’ll usually get two notices from the USCIS prior to EAD. These include the I-797 receipt notice with a case number and an approval notice.
When to apply for OPT
- Must apply after your DSO enters the recommendation for OPT into your SEVIS record, and
- May apply up to 90 days before completing a full academic year, as long as you do not start OPT employment until you complete one full academic year.
- Must apply within 30 days after you receive your new I-20 with the recommendation for OPT from your DSO, and
- May apply up to 90 days before you complete your degree, but no later than 60 days after you complete your degree.
Other timing considerations
USCIS can take three months (maybe even more) to process your EAD, so it is recommended that you plan ahead and apply as soon as possible. You can check USCIS case processing times to see how long I-765 applications are currently taking.
- Even if you have multiple degrees per level, you can only use OPT once per higher degree level.
- The 12 months of OPT must be used all at once and cannot be broken up.
- OPT cannot be saved for later and should be used directly after graduation.
Do I need to confirm my employment before applying?
No, you do not need a job offer to apply for OPT. However, you need to start working within 90 days of the start date on your Employment Authorization Document, also known as an EAD Card.
How to choose my start date?
Choosing your OPT start date can be difficult, especially if you have yet to get an offer letter. Keep the following in mind:
- You may want to choose a late date to maximize the period to search for a job. But if you have a job offer before the date you choose, you cannot begin working until the start date.
- You cannot change your start date once you submit your application.
My case is taking too long. What can I do about it?
Can I accelerate the process of OPT approval?
You can request premium processing. Generally, USCIS will take adjudicative action on the case for Form I-765 for F-1 students seeking OPT or STEM OPT extensions within 30 calendar days. The premium processing fee is $1,500.
Transferring to another school/beginning study at a higher level
If you transfer to another school or begin studies at another educational level, your OPT will automatically terminate. In this case, as long as you comply with all requirements for maintaining your student status, including not working on a terminated EAD, your F-1 status remains unaffected.
What to do if I lost my EAD card or if it did not arrive?
If you need to renew or replace your EAD card, or if the card contains errors, find out more on the USCIS website.
Usually, your EAD card should be produced within one to two weeks after your I-765 is approved. If you have not received your card, the USCIS asks that you allow 30 days from approval before inquiring with them, taking the mailing time into consideration. You can use Case Status Online to find your mail tracking number for the card delivery. If you still have not received your card, troubleshoot your situation on the USCIS website on non-delivery of card.
What are my employment options?
You can only start working after you get the physical EAD card – an email from the USCIS is not sufficient evidence of employment eligibility. Working before receiving the EAD card is considered illegal employment. Plus, you can only work within the dates on the card. You cannot start working even without being paid until you get your EAD card.
Be mindful that the job you intend to take, paid or unpaid, should be directly linked to your major field of study.
You should work at least 20 hours a week and be able to get evidence from your employer to prove that you worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment. You can also work on multiple opportunities at once.
You can learn more about the employment types allowed on post-completion OPT on the ICE policy guidance.
Can I be self-employed while on OPT?
The U.S. ICE policy guidance on OPT says that “a student on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. The student must prove that they have the proper business licenses and are actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program.” Pandev Law has written an explanation of what the passage means.
The 24-month STEM OPT usually does not allow self-employment, but the regulations do not explicitly prohibit self-employment. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires a bona fide relationship between the employer and the student. It is recommended that you consult a qualified lawyer to discuss the possibility of self-employment under the STEM OPT extension.
How long can I stay unemployed?
Once your post-completion OPT period starts, you cannot accumulate more than 90 days (150 days over the combined periods of OPT and STEM OPT) of unemployment within the dates on your EAD. You need to submit an OPT update and report your employment to your DSO to avoid counting the unemployment period in SEVIS. If you are not employed by a U.S. employer, the time you spend outside the U.S. is counted towards the unemployment period.
Do I need to have a Social Security Number to work?
Yes. The SSN is a nine-digit number issued by the Social Security Administration “to report wages to the government, track Social Security benefits and for other identification purposes”, according to the DHS. You can apply for an SSN as part of your OPT application to USCIS.
When and how to submit my OPT update?
You need to report OPT employment and other changes no later than 10 days after the change, according to Yale University OISS. You need to report the following:
- The start and end date of all your employment. The start date is the date you begin employment, not when you receive or accept an offer
- Change of your name or your residence and/or mailing address
- All your OPT employers’ information (name, address, etc.)
- Current employer changing name and/or address.
- Change of current visa status (to H1-B, for example).
- Leaving the U.S. and not intending to use OPT anymore.
For STEM OPT, you need to report every six months. Columbia University International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) has written a detailed guide on reporting OPT updates.
What is the H-1B cap-gap extension?
The H-1B cap is a limit on the number of people who may be granted initial H-1B status during each fiscal year running from Oct. 1 of the current year to Sept. 30 of the next year. The earliest day you can file H-1B is April 1 each year. So, if you graduated in the spring term and have a one-year OPT, your OPT will often expire before your H-1B status begins (if it is approved). However, if you file an H-1B petition before your current OPT expires, you will be granted the cap-gap extension of OPT through Sept. 30 of the current year. It looks something like the one below.
Illustration courtesy of Yale University OISS.