Students with an F-1 visa may participate in the United States’ optional practical training (OPT) program, which allows them to work for up to 12 months in the U.S. either before or after completing their studies. And depending on the type of degree, some students may be eligible for a 24-month extension of the OPT program.
In this article, we go into detail about the OPT program, the OPT extension and the grace period for application.
What is the OPT program?
International students wanting to study in the U.S. can apply for an F-1 visa--after they are accepted by an approved educational institution. An F-1 visa allows students to participate in the OPT program, meaning they can work in a job related to their program of study.
Students may participate in the OPT program either before or after completing their degrees, but only for a total of 12 months. So if a student works for 12 months in pre-completion OPT, they won’t have any time left after graduation to participate in post-completion OPT.
Note that students can’t start working through a pre-completion OPT program until they have finished at least one (1) year of full-time studies in their degree program. One full year of studies includes the fall and spring academic terms but does not include the summer months.
OPT extension for STEM students
Students may also apply for an extension if they graduate from specific science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) degrees. STEM degree-holders may extend their post-completion OPT up to 24 months.
Once an F-1 visa holder graduates and completes training, they get a “grace period.” This grace period allows the student to stay in the U.S. before they must either (1) return to their home country or (2) adjust to a different status.
For the full list of eligible degrees, click here. Designated degrees include (but are not limited to):
Architectural and Building Sciences
Computer and Information Science
Educational Evaluation and Research
Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects
Military Applied Sciences
Applications must be submitted while students are still in their post-completion OPT programs. Students can submit their applications for STEM OPT extensions no sooner than 90 days before their EADs expire. If their EADs have already expired, they cannot apply for the extension and will be required to leave the U.S. following the end of their grace periods.
DID YOU KNOW?
Secured credit cards can help you build credit!
Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing international credit history could help you establish credit in the United States. No Social Security Number (SSN) is required to start your US credit history.Learn More
Applying for pre-completion OPT
F-1 students can apply for pre-completion OPT participation up to 90 days before they finish their first year of full-time academic studies.
To apply, they must talk to the designated school official (DSO) at their school. The DSO will review their records to ensure that they comply with the requirements of their F-1 visas. The DSO also enters the recommendation for OPT participation in the students' Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record. The students' Form I-20s will be endorsed to reflect the recommendation.
Afterward, students will need to apply for work authorization by submitting Form I-765 and the accompanying fees to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Students should not begin working in their pre-completion OPT programs until they receive their employment authorizations from the USCIS.
Applying for post-completion OPT
Students may apply for post-completion OPT up to 90 days before graduating or no later than 60 days after graduating. Note that hours worked in pre-completion OPT will be subtracted from the total allotment of 12 months.
To apply, students will need to meet with the DSOs at their schools to secure their recommendations. The DSOs will enter the recommendations into the F-1 students' SEVIS records and endorse their Form I-20s.
The students will then need to apply for employment authorization by submitting Form I-765 to the USCIS together with the appropriate fees. F-1 visa holders cannot begin working until they receive their employment authorization documents (EAD).
Grace periods for F-1 visa holders
The U.S. provides grace periods to F-1 students. The grace period is the additional time that you can stay in the U.S. with your F-1 visa before and after your studies and training.
The grace period before you begin your studies is 30 days. While you may be issued an F-1 visa up to 120 days before the start of your program, you will not be allowed to enter the U.S. until 30 days before you begin. The 30-day period gives you some time to get settled before you begin your studies.
When an F-1 visa is issued, it will be valid for the length of your academic program together with a grace period instead of a specific date.
Regular grace periods for F-1 students
After you complete your studies and finish your degree requirements, you will have a second grace period of 60 days.
This means that, once you graduate, you will have 60 days to leave the U.S., apply for post-completion OPT and employment authorization, transfer to a different program of study or apply for additional studies such as a graduate program.
If you apply for post-completion OPT and are approved, you will be given another grace period of 60 days after you complete OPT to prepare your departure from the U.S., apply to a graduate program of studies or apply to adjust your status to another type of nonimmigrant visa.
If you apply to adjust your status, your application should reach the USCIS before your grace period expires. If it is not received on time, you will need to leave the U.S. and apply for reinstatement from the USCIS before returning. F-1 students who want to withdraw from their programs of study may be granted a 15-day grace period by the DSO to prepare to return to their home countries.
Grace period for post-completion OPT applicants
F-1 students are allowed to apply for OPT programs within 90 days of their graduation dates and up to 60 days following the date that they complete their studies. If your application for OPT is denied during this time, you can use the 60 days that you have during your grace period after you graduate to reapply. If the USCIS denies your application for OPT after you have completed your studies during your 60-day grace period, you will be granted an additional 60-day grace period beginning on the date of your denial. However, if your application for post-completion OPT is denied after the 60-day grace period is over, you will not be given another 60-day grace period and will need to leave the U.S.
Grace period for STEM OPT extension applicants
If you are an F-1 student with a qualifying STEM degree and are currently working through post-completion OPT, you can apply for a 24-month STEM OPT extension. If you are approved for the extension, you will be allowed to extend your stay and training for an additional 24 months. Once you apply and are waiting for the USCIS to make a decision, your F-1 visa and employment authorization will continue for 180 days or until you receive your decision from the USCIS. If your application for a STEM OPT extension is denied during the 180 days, you will receive a 60-day grace period to prepare to depart the U.S., apply for a graduate program, or apply for an adjustment of status to a different nonimmigrant visa.
Many F-1 students who participate in post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension choose to apply to adjust their statuses to H-1B visa statuses. The H-1B visa is a dual-intent nonimmigrant visa that allows the visa holders to remain in the U.S. for up to three years while they work for their sponsoring employers. The H-1B visa can be renewed one time for an additional three years. After an H-1B visa holder has lived and worked in the U.S. for six years, he or she will be eligible to apply to adjust his or her status to obtain a green card. Securing a green card allows the person to live and work in the U.S. permanently as a lawful permanent resident.
The H-1B visa is not something an F-1 visa holder can apply for on his or her own. Instead, the F-1 student must find an employer that is willing to sponsor him or her. The employer must apply for the H-1B visa on behalf of the F-1 visa holder. There is an annual cap on the number of H-1B visas that are issued of 65,000. This means that the H-1B visa program is highly competitive. Employers should submit the petitions on behalf of the F-1 visa holders as soon as the application window opens at the beginning of April. If the petition is approved, the F-1 student will be able to adjust his or her status to an H-1B visa and begin working under that status beginning in October.
The cap-gap extension grace period
Many students who participate in post-completion OPT will have their employment authorizations for OPT expire in early June. Since the H-1B visa application window is open for a short period in early April, this means that OPT participants whose sponsoring employers have applied for H-1B visas for them may reach the expiration of their OPT employment authorization before a decision is made by the USCIS on their H-1B petitions. Because of this problem, the U.S. offers a cap-gap extension for F-1 students who have pending H-1B visa applications that were timely filed.
The cap-gap extension is a grace period that starts on the date that the OPT employment authorization expires and lasts until the start date of their H-1B employment. The H-1B employment for approved H-1B visa petitions must begin on Oct. 1.
F-1 OPT participants who receive the cap-gap extension will be allowed to extend their OPT employment authorization from the date of expiration until Oct. 1. If the F-1 visa holder that received the cap-gap extension receives a denial of the H-1B petition before the Oct. 1 H-1B employment start date, he or she will be given 10 days additional days of employment authorization after the denial and a grace period of 60 days to leave the U.S. or adjust his or her status. The same periods apply if the sponsoring employer withdraws the H-1B visa petition for the F-1 visa holder.
If the USCIS finds that you have violated your F-1 visa status, you will not be granted a grace period. If your H-1B visa application is denied based on willful misrepresentation or fraud, you will be required to leave the U.S. immediately and will not be given a grace period.
If the H-1B visa petition is denied after Oct. 1, you will not be given a grace period and will need to depart the U.S. immediately. The cap-gap extension does not extend beyond Oct. 1 for F-1 visa holders, and the F-1 visa will only be valid until Oct. 1. This means that you will not have a grace period if your H-1B visa petition is denied after Oct. 1.
Options if your application for a STEM OPT extension is denied
If your STEM OPT extension application is denied, and you have been granted the 60-day grace period, you will have several options. You can choose to leave the U.S. after your OPT has expired and will have 60 days to prepare for your departure. If you want to remain in the U.S., you can do one of the following things:
Enroll at a new university and transfer your SEVIS record
Enroll in a graduate program of studies
Apply to adjust your status to a different type of visa
Make certain to comply with the requirements of your F-1 visa and the grace period. If you violate your visa status, you will have to leave the U.S. and might be barred from reentering the U.S. for several years or permanently. This makes it important to not overstay your visa in the U.S.
Wrapping everything up
The F-1 visa and OPT programs offer excellent opportunities to international students who wish to study and to receive training in the U.S. F-1 visa holders who participate in OPT must pay attention to the grace period rules. The grace periods provide you with additional time in the U.S. after your OPT program and studies have finished, but you do not want to remain beyond it without adjusting your status or enrolling in further studies.
Being approved for an F-1 visa can be exciting. While you are preparing to travel to the U.S., you will want to ensure a smooth transition. You should know that the credit record that you have built up in your home country will not transfer to the U.S. credit reporting system. Since landlords, banks, and lenders in the U.S. check the credit histories of applicants before they will agree to extend credit, you will need to figure out a way to provide them with access to your credit record. Nova Credit offers a global credit passport. The company translates your credit record in your home country to a score that can be used by lenders, landlords, and banks to make credit decisions. By getting your Nova Credit score, you can have an easier time getting started with your new life as an F-1 student. You can then work on your academic studies and work in an OPT program without worrying about meeting your needs while you are in the U.S.
Recently moved to the U.S.?
Put your international credit score to work in the United States
Check if you're eligible to use your international credit history to apply for a U.S. credit card, even without an SSN.
More from Nova Credit: