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OPT & STEM (OPT) Extension FAQs
What is F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
Optional Practical Training is the opportunity to apply knowledge gained in your program of study to work in your major field. OPT is authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The authorization process can take up to 3 months. The maximum amount of time granted to work in F-1 OPT status is 12 months per degree level (undergraduate, masters and doctoral) with the possibility of a 24-month extension for those in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) related fields who qualify.
It is highly recommended to use Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during your course of study and save all 12 months for post-completion OPT. Students may apply for post-completion OPT up to 90 days before completion of studies and up to 60 days after the program completion date.
Students MUST file their application with USCIS within 30 days of getting the new OPT recommendation I-20 Form from ISSS.
What are the program completion date guidelines?
For students who are registered full or part-time, and/or students who have Graduate Assistantship positions, the program completion date will automatically default to graduation/commencement date or the last day of classes in the semester of OPT application.
Graduate students who have completed all coursework except their thesis/dissertation, are registered for research for 1 credit hour, and anticipate completing their degree in one academic year, may apply for post-completion OPT. These students may use their published defense date as the program end date.
The recommended employment start date must be after the student's program completion date and no later than the end of his or her 60 day grace period.
Who is eligible for OPT?
To be eligible to apply for OPT, you must: (1) have been in full-time student status for at least one academic year by the requested start date of your OPT, and (2) be maintaining valid F-1 status at the time of the application, (3) have not used OPT at the same degree level previously, and (4) not have engaged in more than 12 months of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) during the current degree level.
If I complete one degree program, use 12 months of practical training, and then begin a second course of study, am I eligible for an additional 12 months of practical training?
Yes, but only at a higher degree level.
Do I have to use the entire 12-month OPT period at once, or may I use it in increments?
After completion of studies it may only be used as a single block of time. It is highly recommended that student use the CPT option prior to program completion and save all 12 months for post-completion OPT.
May I save any of my unused post-completion OPT eligibility and use it at a later time?
No. Once you apply for post-completion OPT, the OPT work eligibility for that degree ends. There is no recapture of unused OPT time.
What immigration status do I have during OPT?
A student with OPT authorization is still an F-1 student holding an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card for OPT.
When can I start working under OPT?
Work only after you receive the OPT EAD card issued by the USCIS, and the effective start date listed on the employment document has been reached.
Authorization for OPT is granted by USCIS and processing can take up to 3-5 months ( https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times). Therefore it is important that you apply for the authorization well in advance of the date you wish to start working. You may apply up to 90 days before completion of studies and no later than 60 days after. You must file your application with USCIS within 30 days of receiving the new OPT Form I-20 from ISSS.
Do I need to have a job or job offer to apply for OPT?
Frequently asked questions concerning OPT application forms:
Question 3: Address
- This is where USCIS will send correspondence and the EAD card. You should provide an address that will not be changing for at least 3-4 months
- Filled-in to represent your most recent I-94 number. If you do not have an I-94 card, you should be able to retrieve this number at https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov
What can I do if I’ve been waiting more than 90 days for my OPT authorization?
You can always check your case status online at the USCIS website Case Status Online. OPT applications typically remain in “Initial Review Status” until approved. Applications cannot be expedited.
May I cancel my OPT application once I have applied?
Yes, you may request that the OPT application be withdrawn and the recommendation in SEVIS be cancelled, but only if you have recently mailed it to USCIS and it has not been approved. Contact your International Student Advisor in ISSS as soon as possible if you need to cancel the OPT application with your reason(s) for cancellation and what your next plans are which may include exiting the U.S. Once your OPT application has been approved by USCIS, it cannot be cancelled or withdrawn.
While on OPT
Do I need to have a job during the Post-Completion OPT period?
Yes. The regulation requires students to have employment while on OPT after completion of studies. Students are only allowed a total of 90 days of unemployment in the 12 month period of OPT or 120 days total if working with the 24-month STEM extension. During the entire OPT period, students must update ISSS with employment information through the link: OPT Employment Update (formerly OPT Compliance Form)
Does the job I have while on OPT have to be paid employment, or can it be unpaid?
For the first 12 month period of post-completion OPT, the employment does NOT have to be paid employment. Therefore, a student who is self-employed (including performance majors with regular “gigs”), interning or volunteering in a position directly related to the academic field would be considered “employed” for the purposes of OPT employment reporting as long as this practice does not violate any labor laws and they work in the unpaid position for an average of 20 hours per week. The principal federal labor law concerned with "unpaid" positions (there are state laws too) is the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which at its core requires individuals performing work to be paid for their services. Students should keep documentation for all unpaid employment positions. For the 24-month STEM extension, employment must be traditional paid employment.
Can I begin working before I receive the Employment Authorization Document (EAD)?
No! Working before OPT has been authorized by USCIS constitutes illegal employment that will jeopardize your legal status in the United States.
What should I do once I receive the EAD card in the mail?
You can now start your OPT employment on the the start date indicated on your EAD card. Keep your EAD card in a safe place and send ISSS a scanned copy to keep in your student file. Be sure to report your employment information to ISSS using the link: OPT Employment Update (formerly OPT Compliance Form)
Do I have to do anything with ISSS during Post-Completion OPT?
Yes! Immigration regulations REQUIRE that while on POST-completion OPT (after graduation), you MUST report employment and address changes to ISSS by completing the OPT Employment Update (formerly OPT Compliance Form). You will need to request a travel signature every six months if you plan to travel outside the United States and return in F-1 status and must report to ISSS if you choose to end your OPT period early for any reason. It is in your best interest so as to keep your SEVIS record accurate and current at all times.
What if I lose my EAD?
If you lose your EAD, you will need to submit a new application and new fee to USCIS before changing employers during the approved OPT period. The new EAD card will also be necessary as a reentry document after any travel abroad.
What happens if I exceed the 90-day unemployment limit?
After 90 days of unemployment, an F-1 student in the post-completion period loses valid immigration status. Students are encouraged to depart the United States or change status prior to the 90 day expiry. Students who exceed the 90-day unemployment limit may be denied future immigration benefits.
May I take classes during OPT?
If you had intended to graduate, but have not yet completed your thesis/dissertation, you can continue to register for 1 credit hour (administrative purposes) until you finish the thesis/dissertation requirement. In this case, you would still remain subject to the 90-day unemployment rule.
Beginning a new course of study will automatically cancel your OPT authorization. Transferring to a new institution or changing your educational level will also automatically cause the cancellation of your OPT authorization. ISSS does not recommend taking a class or classes (even part-time) that may later be used to satisfy new program degree requirements. Vocational classes may be taken during OPT.
Can I change employers during OPT?
Yes. As long as the employment is directly related to your field of study, you can work for any and all employers you would like. You will need to notify ISSS of your employer change information through OPT Employment Update (formerly OPT Compliance Form)
How do I renew my driver's license while on OPT?
You may need to wait until the start date on your EAD is current before you can renew your driver’s license.
Can I extend my OPT after the 12 months?
There are two types of extensions available after completion of the initial OPT period: (1) a 24-month extension for those in certain STEM fields. A list of approved STEM programs is available at: STEM Program List (2) An “H-1B Cap Gap Extension” which extends work authorization through to the start of your cap-subject H-1B visa. If your OPT ends after your employer has applied for an H-1B but before the H-1B starts on October 1st, a cap gap extension is possible. Speak with an International Student Advisor for guidance.
How long can I stay in the U.S. after my post-completion OPT end date?
There is a 60-day grace period following the end of the OPT period. The grace period is only applicable for those who have not exceeded the 90 days of unemployment during the OPT period or the 150 aggregate days (maximum of 90 for OPT + maximum of 60 during STEM) of unemployment during the STEM extension.
The 24-Month STEM Extension
What is the 24-month STEM extension of OPT?
The STEM Extension allows F-1 students who have received a degree in specific fields listed as science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, to apply for a one time, 24-month extension of their regular OPT period. Students cannot apply for 24 months of OPT up front. 90 days prior to expiration of the first OPT period (12 months), students file an application for the 24-month OPT extension and will be able to continue employment for up to 180 days while the extension application is pending.
How do I apply for the 24-month extension?
Students graduating with degrees in the Stem List will first apply for the regular 12 month period of OPT. Within 3 months of the end of that first OPT period, if all criteria are met, students can apply through ISSS for the 24-month extension of OPT (instructions here).
Criteria for the 24-Month Extension:
- Employer must be enrolled in E-Verify (see information links below)
- Current degree is in one of the STEM fields
- Student must have maintained F-1 status while on OPT
- Apply within 3 months of the current OPT end date
- The employment must be traditional, paid employment
- See additional information here
What is E-Verify?
E-Verify is an Internet-based system operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration (SSA). E-Verify is currently free to employers and is available in all 50 states. E-Verify provides an automated link to federal databases to help employers determine employment eligibility of new hires and the validity of their Social Security Numbers.
Can a student change employers if the STEM extension application is pending with USCIS?
Yes. However, if the STEM extension period has started, the new employer must also be an E-Verify employer. The student must report the change in employment to his or her International Student Advisor. The International Student Advisor must update the student’s employer information in SEVIS and issue an updated I-20 with the new employer information (including EIN). The International Student Advisor will then email a copy to USCIS.
Are there any other requirements during the 24-month extension?
In addition to filling out the OPT Employment Update (formerly OPT Compliance Form) for changes in address or employment, students working on the 24-month STEM extension of OPT who wish to travel outside the U.S are also required to have a current (no older than 6 months) International Student Advisor signature on their I-20’s prior to their travel.
What is the F-1/H-1B “cap-gap”?
Cap-gap occurs when an F-1 student’s status and work authorization expire in the current fiscal year before they can start their approved H-1B employment in the next fiscal year beginning on October 1. An F-1 student in a cap-gap situation does not have to leave the United States and return at the time his or her H-1B status becomes effective at the beginning of the next fiscal year. The F-1 status of students is automatically extended when the student is the beneficiary of an H-1B petition for the next fiscal year (with an October 1 employment start date) filed on his or her behalf during the period in which H-1B petitions are accepted for that fiscal year.
The automatic extension terminates when USCIS rejects, denies, or revokes the H-1B petition.
If the H-1B petition filed on behalf of the student is selected, the student may remain in the United States and, if on post-completion OPT, continue working until the October 1 start date indicated on the approved H-1B petition. The student may benefit from this provision only if he or she has not violated his or her status.
H-1B Cap-Gap Procedure
To obtain this “automatic” extension, the student will have to notify our office (ISSS) that they are eligible for the extension and request a new I-20 showing the extension. Provide ISSS with the following:
- Your OPT I-20
- Your OPT (EAD) card (front and back)
- Your H-1B Receipt or Approval notice
- Your current mailing address
If you wish, you may want to scan the above documents and email the scans to email@example.com.
Now that I’ve turned in my OPT application, can I travel outside the United States while I wait for the EAD?
While application is pending: Traveling during this time is not recommended as it is risky. USCIS may request for additional evidence while you are away. Also if USCIS approves your application, you will be expected to have your EAD in hand to renter the U.S. Like a request for further information, the EAD card will only be sent to a U.S address.
After application is approved: In order to re-enter the United States you must have the following: EAD authorizing OPT, valid passport, a current F-1 visa stamp, I-20 signed within the last six months, AND job offer letter or proof of employment, with salary or bank information.
I want to leave the United States for a short time while my OPT application is pending, but I may return before the EAD card arrives. I have another valid visa type such as a tourist visa (B-2) that is valid for 10 years. Can I just enter the United States with my tourist visa, then start work with the EAD once it arrives?
NO!! If you intend to continue working with OPT, NEVER enter in any other immigration status except F-1. If you leave the United States and re-enter in B-1/B-2 status, you are considered to have abandoned your F-1 status and your OPT will end!
What documents do I need to re-enter the United States during post-completion OPT?
- I-20 Form recommending OPT and endorsed on the travel line by ISSS within the last 6 months
- EAD authorizing OPT
- valid passport
- a current F-1 visa stamp
- Job offer letter or proof of employment
- And proof of financial support
What if I have applied for the 24-month extension but I have not yet received the EAD, can I travel out of the United States and return in F-1 status?
No, USCIS advises against tourism travel while you are waiting for the approval of the 24-month extension.
The visa stamp in my passport has expired, but I want to travel outside the United States during the OPT period. Do I need to get a new visa stamp at an embassy?
If you are going to Canada or Mexico, and staying for less than 30 days, you may re-enter the United States with your expired F-1 visa stamp, your I-94 card, a valid passport, your EAD card, an I-20 that has been signed by ISSS within the last 6 months, AND your job offer letter or proof of employment as long as: 1) you do not apply for a visa while in Canada and 2) you are NOT a national of Iran, Syria, Sudan, Cuba or North Korea.
However, if you are traveling elsewhere, you will need to go to a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad and request an F-1 visa renewal. Research the visa application requirements on the website for the U.S. Embassy abroad where you intend to apply. It is impossible to renew an F-1 visa inside the United States.
In what ways is my application to the embassy for a new visa stamp affected by post-completion OPT?
The risk of denial of an application for a renewed visa stamp for OPT is somewhat higher than while you are in your active student program. The F-1 student visa requires that the applicant show intent to return to the home country at the end of the program, and if the embassy official is not convinced of your intention to return home, the visa application could be denied. However, the majority of students do not have problems with the visa renewal process during the OPT period.
Do I still need to get the travel line on my I-20 signed by ISSS during the year of OPT and the STEM extension period?
Yes! During the initial OPT and STEM periods, students must have the travel line signed every six months. If you are not located in the local area, you can mail the original I-20 to ISSS for endorsement, leaving plenty of time for mailing delays both ways.