OPT, or optional practical training, is an employment opportunity for international students. It offers additional training in your chosen field of study through paid work that can be either part-time or full-time. OPT is available to F-1 status international students who have completed one full academic year. This is similar to curricular practical training, or CPT, but whereas CPT is designed for internships before you graduate, OPT is almost always used for work after your course of study is complete.
OPT is different from a campus job in that it MUST be relevant to your course of study. Depending on your field of study, this kind of practical experience may be essential to your success as a professional. It also requires its own paperwork. Your designated school official, or DSO, must formally recommend you for OPT and issue you a new Form I-20 bearing that recommendation. At that point, you’ll receive a “Notice of Action” from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) confirming they’ve received your application while you wait for your updated employment authorization document (EAD). With the basics of OPT in mind, we’ve collected a few more things you should know when seeking out this authorization.
1. Timing Is Everything
As usual, you don’t want to be too early or too late with paperwork relating to an F-1 visa. Once you’re approved by your DSO, you must apply for your EAD with USCIS within 30 days. You may file the paperwork for an EAD up to 90 days prior to the end date of your studies but no more than 60 days after the end date. Unlike waiting for your SSN, you may not start working an OPT-related job without the approved EAD.
2. Pre or Post?
You can actually start your OPT prior to your program’s end date. This is what’s known as pre-completion OPT. You will still be required to limit yourself to 20 hours per week while you study (and you cannot legally supplement that with 20 more hours at another on campus job). You will also lose 1 month of your approved post-completion OPT period for every two months of pre-completion OPT you complete. That means if you’re granted 12 months of OPT, and you work 4 months of it part-time before you graduate, you will have 10 months remaining to work full-time after you graduate.
This is worth considering if you have no pressing options for OPT before you graduate. You may want to wait to seek out an ideal work situation that you can focus on after you complete your studies.
3. Extend With STEM
If you’re studying a STEM discipline, you’ll enjoy a unique advantage when seeking OPT. You can apply for a 17-month extension of your OPT period! That means up to 29 months total OPT. To be eligible for this extension, your employer must be enrolled in the eVerify program. And although you cannot work OPT without an updated EAD, you can work for up to 180 days on an expired EAD while you wait for approval of your STEM extension, provided you submitted your application for the extension complete and on time.
4. Study More to Work More
As an international student with an F-1 visa, you’re permitted 12 months of OPT per degree. That means you can work for a whole year after you finish your bachelor’s, another year after you finish a master’s, and yet one more after finishing a doctoral program. Yes, this is highly ambitious and perhaps not a likely scenario for many students. But it’s a highly rewarding incentive for students who end up on this path.
5. Get Your Papers…And Some Cash
Now that you have a plan for post-graduation employment, here’s a list of the paperwork and the rather large payment you’ll need to apply for OPT:
Form I-20 with DSO approval.
Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization).
A check or money order for US $380.00 made out to U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
2 color photos with white background taken within 30 days of your submission to the USCIS.
Check with your DSO to confirm if you need any additional paperwork. And remember: any employment beyond the maximum of 29 months will require your employer to sponsor you for an H-1B work visa. When in doubt, consult with a campus official or on the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.