International students who come to the U.S. with F-1 visas may choose to take part in optional practical training (OPT) to gain experience in their respective fields and further their careers. Some F-1 students use OPT to help identify potential sponsors for H-1B visas, which would allow them to remain in the U.S. and work for up to six years—with the potential to become a permanent resident (Green Card holder) down the line.
In this article, we will explain everything that you need to know about the different types of OPT and how you can secure your employment authorization document.
What is the OPT program?
The optional practical training program (OPT) program is a temporary employment program for F-1 students. It allows approved students to secure training in their chosen fields of study.
Students eligible to work through the OPT program can submit applications to work for up to 12 months either before or immediately after they graduate. Some OPT students may also be eligible for an extension, depending on their degree.
If F-1 students choose to participate in OPT before they graduate, any time that they spend in OPT is deducted from the total time available to them post-graduation.
OPT program types
There are three types of OPT:
STEM OPT extension
There is also an extension for certain students on OPT who have pending H-1B visa applications and whose OPT authorizations will expire before the start dates of their H-1B statuses.
The pre-completion OPT program allows international students with F-1 or M-1 visas to work in jobs related to their fields of study after they have completed one year of full-time coursework at a university, college, seminary or conservatory. The educational institution must be approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
To qualify for a pre-completion OPT program, you don’t need to have your F-1 visa status for the entire academic year. You may still qualify for the one-year requirement even if you had a different nonimmigrant status during a portion of that time, such as a J-1 visa.
If you are approved for pre-completion OPT, you will be able to work 20 hours or less each week during the academic term. When school is not in session, you can work full-time (or 40 hours each week). This includes working during:
the break between the fall and spring terms
yearly summer vacation
Any time that you spend working in pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the amount of your post-completion OPT. For example, if you work for three months of pre-completion OPT, you will be nine months of post-completion OPT instead of twelve months.
The post-completion OPT program provides F-1 students with the opportunity to work for 12 months after they receive their degrees. Post-completion OPT programs must involve work directly related to the degree fields of F-1 students. If you are approved to work through a post-completion OPT program, you can work on either a part-time or full-time basis.
If you worked in pre-completion OPT, USCIS will subtract the time that you worked in pre-completion OPT from your total allotted time for post-completion OPT. There are also specific deadlines that you must follow when you apply for post-completion OPT.
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STEM OPT extension
F-1 students who earn degrees in specific STEM fields may apply for a two-year extension of their post-completion OPT work. You may qualify to apply for this extension if all of the following apply:
You are an F-1 visa holder who completed a degree in a STEM field that is listed on the STEM-designated degree program list
Your employer is enrolled in E-Verify and uses it
Your original approval for the OPT employment authorization was based on the qualifying STEM degree
You can review the list of designated STEM fields on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.
Employment authorization documents and the OPT programs
U.S. law requires that F-1 students who wish to work in OPT programs secure employment authorization documents before they can begin working in their programs. USCIS governs both OPT and the issuance of employment authorization documents.
The OPT application and approval process is overseen by the designated school official (DSO) at your SEVP-approved educational institution. Your DSO can also answer any questions you might have about how OPT works and the application process.
What is an EAD?
An employment authorization document (EAD) is a document that temporarily grants certain nonimmigrant visa type holders the right to work while they are in the U.S. An EAD is a temporary work permit. Many nonimmigrant visas require holders to obtain EADs before they will be legally authorized to work in the U.S.
EADs do not replace visas. You must have a valid visa before you will be eligible for an EAD. Some types of visas do not allow their holders to apply for EADs.
Eligibility for an OPT EAD
Not all people with nonimmigrant visas are eligible for an EAD. The OPT EAD is available to specific students, including F-1 and M-1 visa holders.
Other nonimmigrant visa holders might be eligible to apply for a regular EAD outside the OPT program. For example, if you are an asylee, U-visa holder or refugee, you can apply for an EAD to prove that you are legally authorized to work in the U.S.
You might also need to apply for an EAD if you have a pending I-485 or I-589 application.
If you are an F-1 or M-1 student, however, your visa requires that you to obtain permission to work in the U.S. before you can seek employment through the OPT program. Students can apply for an OPT EAD as long as they maintain their visa statuses and meet other eligibility requirements.
What is the OPT EAD card?
You can apply for an EAD before you can begin your OPT program if your DSO recommends it. Remember that your F-1 visa by itself does not give you the right to work. If you are an international student who wants to participate in an OPT program, you need to secure an EAD before you will be legally allowed to work in a job that directly relates to your chosen field of study.
If you are approved for an EAD, you will receive an OPT EAD card, which will only be valid for the specified period and will not extend beyond your visa's validity. You can show your OPT EAD card to your employer to prove that you have been granted authorization to work in the U.S. Remember: to maintain your right to employment in the U.S., you will need to regularly renew your EAD status.
The OPT EAD application process
To get your EAD for the OPT program either before or after you graduate, you must follow specific steps:
1. Talk to the DSO at your school
The DSO must recommend that you be allowed to work in the OPT program and enter the recommendation in your SEVIS record. They will also endorse your I-20 form to reflect the OPT recommendation.
You are not eligible to participate in OPT until you have completed one year of full-time academic studies in the U.S. This period includes the fall and spring academic terms but does not include the summer break. If you plan to work through the pre-completion OPT program, you can apply up to 90 days before you complete your first full academic year.
2. Apply for your EAD
Once the DSO enters their recommendation, apply for your employment authorization document by submitting Form I-765 and paying the required filing fee to secure your OPT EAD. As of 2020, the filing fee for the Form I-765 is $410. You cannot begin working in your OPT program until you receive your EAD card.
If you are applying for post-completion OPT, you must get the recommendation of the DSO and apply no later than 30 days after the recommendation is entered. If you do not meet this deadline, you cannot participate in your post-completion OPT program and will be required to leave the U.S. within 60 days after you receive your degree. You can apply for post-completion OPT up to 90 days before you graduate from college with your degree or within 60 days after your graduation.
To apply for the STEM OPT extension, you will need to secure the recommendation of the DSO for your participation in the program and apply within 60 days of your receipt of the recommendation. You are allowed to apply for a STEM OPT extension of your post-completion OPT program within 90 days of when the initial OPT is scheduled to expire.
3. Submit requirements
When you file Form I-765, submit the required documents.
For pre-completion OPT, you need to submit the following:
Documentation stating that you have been lawfully enrolled in a SEVP-approved educational institution for a minimum of one full year of full-time academic studies
Documentations stating that you have maintained your F-1 visa status
All of your previous SEVIS numbers in the additional information section of the Form I-765
Evidence of any prior OPT or curricular practical training in which you have participated
A copy of your Form I-20
For post-completion OPT, you will need to submit:
Your endorsed Form I-20
Any previous SEVIS numbers that have been issued to you
If you are applying for the STEM OPT extension, you will need to provide:
Evidence that your degree is one of the designated STEM degrees
A copy of your endorsed Form I-20 that was endorsed no later than 60 days before the date of your application for the EAD
Evidence that your school is a SEVP-approved institution if your application for the STEM OPT extension is based on a degree that you have already earned
After you have submitted your I-765 and all of the required documents, you will need to be patient. It can take more than 90 days for your EAD application to be processed. Do not begin working before you receive your EAD card
4. Receive your OPT EAD card
After you receive your OPT EAD card, you can begin working. USCIS will send the notice of its decision on your application by mail using the address listed on your I-765.
When you receive your OPT EAD card, you will only be legally authorized to work for the employer that is designated in your OPT program.
H-1B cap-gap extension for eligible F-1 OPT students
Many international students with F-1 visas hope to adjust their status to H-1B after participating in an OPT program. Learn more about how to shift from F-1 to H-1B status in our guide.
The H-1B visa allows people to live in the U.S. while they work for a sponsoring employer for up to three years, after which it may be renewed for an additional three years. Once you have lived and worked in the U.S. for six years with an H-1B visa, you can apply for permanent residence (a Green Card) and remain in the U.S. permanently.
To get an H-1B visa, you must find an employer willing to sponsor you for the visa. Employers must apply for the visas on behalf of their workers—you cannot directly apply for an H-1B visa. Because there is a cap on the total number of H-1B visas issued each year, your employer should submit the petition for you as soon as the application period opens.
If you have a pending H-1B visa application and your OPT status will end before the start date of your H-1B status, the H-1B “cap-gap” extension may allow you to extend your employment authorization document until the start date of your H-1B visa status. The cap-gap period will begin on the date that your OPT authorization expires and last until October 1. The earliest date an employer may submit an H-1B application is on April 1.
For example, if you were approved for 12 months of post-completion OPT beginning on June 1, your 12 months of post-completion OPT would expire on May 31 of the following year.
If you are approved for your H-1B visa, then you can begin working under your H-1B visa beginning on Oct. 1 and will not be required to return to your home country.
While the process of applying and obtaining work authorization may appear daunting, this guide is intended to help simplify the process of starting your new life in the U.S. After you begin your new working life in the U.S., consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment.
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