Life in the U.S.
Nov 11, 2020

A Guide to Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the U.S.

The United States’ immigration and visa system can feel confusing for many international students in the U.S. on student visas. The transition from school-life to the professional world is naturally stressful, and navigating visa and immigration hurdles makes an international student’s life even more complicated. After studying hard to gain valuable skills in their education, international students are eager to apply their knowledge to real-world work. Optional Practical Training (OPT) offers these students the chance to work in the U.S. and launch their careers in their field of study.

Optional Practical Training is a work permission for students and recent graduates of college or grad school who are in the United States on an F-1 student visa. OPT allows these students to extend their F-1 student visa status for 12 months in the U.S., so that they can work in a field that gives them practical training to complement their education. For recent graduates of a STEM program (science, technology, engineering and math), a STEM OPT is also available. The STEM OPT grants an additional 24 month period (after the 12-month OPT) for work that relates to an F-1 student’s field of study. 

Here’s a step-by-step guide to applying for OPT or a STEM OPT extension.

Here’s a breakdown of the steps needed to apply for OPT

You don’t need an existing job offer to apply for OPT. Once you’ve been enrolled in your qualifying school for nine months, you can apply for OPT. After a full year of enrollment, you can begin working.

Step one

First, ask your Designated School Official (DSO) at your school to submit a recommendation for your OPT in your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, (SEVIS). Your DSO will endorse your Form I-20 and update your SEVIS.

Step two

Next, you will file a Form I-765, which is an Application for Employment Authorization.

You’ll file this form with the USCIS, along with the required fee and the necessary supporting documents. The documents required, listed on your Form I-750, often include proof of identity, F-1 certificate, photograph of yourself, degree information and financial information. 

Step three

Once your Form I-750 has been filed and processed, you will receive your Employment Authorization Document. This is your work authorization card. You must have your Employment Authorization Document before you are eligible to begin working. USCIS often experiences a backlog of EAD cases in their system, so be sure to submit your Form I-750 as soon as possible to avoid delays to your employment eligibility. 

Is your degree non-STEM? (Meaning Not Science, Technology, Engineering or Math)

OPT before completing your degree

  • Apply after 9 months of study, once your school’s designated official makes the recommendation for OPT in your SEVIS record

OPT after completing your degree

  • Apply within 30 days after your school’s designated official recommends the OPT in your SEVIS record
  • Apply up to 90 days before you finish your degree or within 60 days after finishing your degree

Is your degree STEM? (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math)

Pre-Completion OPT

  • Apply after 9 months of study, once your school’s designated official makes the recommendation for OPT in your SEVIS record

Initial Post-Completion OPT

  • After 9 months of study, apply within 30 days after your school’s designated official recommends the OPT in your SEVIS record.

STEM OPT extension

  • Apply within 60 days after your school’s designated official recommends the OPT in your SEVIS record.
  • Apply up to 90 days before the expiration of your current OPT period and employment authorization.

What to do if your current OPT is expiring

When your OPT ends, you’re given 60 days to remain in the U.S. At this point, you have several options if you wish to stay in the U.S. longer.

  1. Extend your OPT
  2. Enroll in a Day 1 CPR University
  3. Get a work visa with an H1B exemption
  4. Start a business of your own
  5. Study for a PhD
  6. Get married

Applying for a STEM OPT extension

Students with a STEM degree who are in the 12 month OPT period can apply for a STEM OPT extension.

To receive the STEM OPT extension, you must pursue your practical training with an employer that is enrolled in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) E-Verify employment eligibility verification program.

If you graduated with a STEM degree (studies focused in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math) from a U.S. college or university verified by a Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency (and certified by SEVP), you can apply to extend your OPT period for an additional 2 years. 

To be eligible for a STEM extension for your OPT, you must be an F-1 visa student currently in your period of valid OPT related to your STEM degree. Also, if you’re in OPT based on a non-STEM degree, but you have previously obtained a STEM degree, you may be eligible for the STEM extension. You’re only eligible for the STEM extension once for the degree you have, but if you pursue another STEM degree, you may be eligible for another STEM extension.

Here’s what you need to do to receive your STEM OPT extension.

Along with a copy of your STEM degree, file your Form I-750, which is your application for employment authorization. Include the fee, and your employer’s name and E-Verify company identification number. Also, file your form I-20, which is the certification of eligibility for nonimmigrant student status. This form must have been endorsed by your school’s designated official within the last 60 days.

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