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How to transition from OPT to a green card

If you are an F-1 visa holder who participates in OPT, you might be able to apply for a green card. This article summarizes the process

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Hundreds of thousands of international students have studied in the U.S. with F-1 visas. The F-1 visa program allows students from around the world to study at approved colleges, universities, seminaries, and conservatories. F-1 visa holders can take advantage of their ability to advance their knowledge in their chosen fields of study. The F-1 visa status also provides an opportunity for eligible international students to receive training that directly relates to their major fields of study by participating in the optional practical training program. Being approved for OPT can allow the F-1 visa holders to live and work in the U.S. for up to 12 months after they graduate, and qualified STEM graduates might be able to extend their training by an additional 24 months.

Many F-1 visa holders who participate in OPT decide that they want to remain in the U.S. permanently. To do this, the F-1 visa holders will need to find ways to obtain green cards. F-1 visa OPT participants have a few options to adjust their statuses so that they can become lawful permanent residents of the U.S.

If you are an F-1 visa holder who participates in OPT, you might be able to apply for a green card. While participating in optional practical training provides you with the ability to secure employment in the U.S. that directly relates to your degree, the OPT program only gives you a temporary employment authorization. Transitioning to a green card can allow you to permanently live and work in the U.S.

Understanding the F-1 visa

The F-1 visa is a type of nonimmigrant visa that allows qualified international students to travel to the U.S. to pursue degree programs at educational institutions that have been approved to participate in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program or SEVP. Students who have been offered admission to a SEVP-approved school and who enroll may be granted F-1 visas. However, to obtain an F-1 visa, international students must demonstrate their intent to return to their home countries after they complete their programs of study in the U.S. This means that securing an F-1 visa to study in the U.S. will not allow you to permanently remain in the country. If F-1 visa applicants cannot prove to the consular or embassy officials who interview them that they intend to return to their home countries after they graduate from their programs in the U.S., their visa applications will be denied.

While an F-1 visa is not an avenue to directly immigrate to the U.S., many F-1 visa students experience changes in their lives while they are studying that make them want to secure green cards and to become lawful permanent residents. Because of the nature of F-1 visas, becoming a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. will require students to adjust their statuses to a different type of visa. When a student is participating in the OPT program, they have a few ways that they might be able to secure an adjustment of status to a different visa status that will allow them to make their stays in the U.S. permanent.

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What is optional practical training?

F-1 students may want to complete training outside of their educational institutions while they work to earn their degrees or immediately following graduation. The optional training program is designed to offer F-1 visa holders the opportunity to work temporarily in jobs that directly relate to their majors. There are two main types of OPT, including pre-completion and post-completion optional practical training.

Pre-completion OPT allows students who are still studying in their degree programs to obtain employment. Students can complete up to 12 months of pre-completion OPT. However, any time that they spend participating in pre-completion OPT will be subtracted from the 12-month allotment of post-completion OPT.

F-1 visa holders are eligible to apply for pre-completion OPT to begin after they have completed the first year of full-time academic studies at a SEVP-approved educational institution. They can apply for pre-completion OPT up to 90 days before they finish their first year of studies, but they cannot begin working in their jobs through the pre-completion OPT program until the first full year of studies is finished.

Students who are approved for pre-completion OPT are limited to working no more than 20 hours per week when school is in session. They can work up to 40 hours per week in between the academic terms, including during the holiday break and the summer months.

To apply for pre-completion OPT, an F-1 visa holder must ask for a recommendation from the designated school official or DSO at his or her school. If the F-1 visa holder's status remains valid, the DSO can enter the recommendation for pre-completion OPT in the student's SEVIS record and endorse his or her Form I-20. Once the recommendation has been made, the student will then need to submit Form I-765 and the filing fee of $410 to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the student's application for temporary employment authorization is approved, the USCIS will send the employment authorization documents that allow them to begin working in pre-completion OPT employment.

Students who have not exhausted their OPT allotments in pre-completion OPT are eligible to apply for up to 12 months of post-completion OPT following the date that they graduate from their degree programs. Post-completion OPT allows students who have earned their degrees to work in jobs that are in their degree fields for up to 12 months.

F-1 visa holders can apply for post-completion OPT during a window of 90 days before they graduate up to 60 days after graduation. If the students wait until 60 days have elapsed after graduation, they will not be eligible for OPT and will need to return to their home countries before they will be allowed to reenter the U.S.

Applying for post-completion OPT follows the same process as applying for precompletion OPT. The F-1 students must secure recommendations for post-completion OPT from the DSO at their schools. Once their SEVIS records have been updated and their I-20 forms endorsed, they will then need to submit the Form I-765 to the USCIS and the filing fee. They cannot begin working in their post-completion OPT employment until they receive their employment authorization documents.

STEM OPT extension

Students who earn degrees in STEM fields that appear on the Department of Homeland Security's designated list may be eligible to apply for the STEM OPT extension. This allows F-1 visa holders who are participating in the 12-month post-completion OPT to apply to extend their temporary employment authorizations for up to 24 additional months.

To apply for the 24-month STEM OPT extension, you must submit a Form I-765 and pay the filing fee of $410. You must also submit a copy of your STEM degree, the Form I-20 that has been endorsed by your DSO within the previous 60 days, your employer's name as listed in E-verify, and your employer's E-verify number. If you are approved, your temporary authorization to continue working in the U.S. will be extended by 24 months.

What happens when OPT ends?

As long as you have not been unemployed for 90 days of your post-completion OPT or 150 days of your post-completion and STEM OPT extension periods, you will be given a 60-day grace period following the completion of your OPT. This grace period is meant to give you time to prepare for your departure from the U.S. Unless you have successfully adjusted your status to a different type of visa or have enrolled in an approved graduate program, you will be required to leave the U.S. by the end of your grace period. You do not want to overstay the time allowed to you. If you do, you may be subject to deportation and removal proceedings. You may also be barred from returning to the U.S. for several years or permanently, depending on how long you remained in the U.S. beyond the expiration of your F-1 visa.

Participating in OPT allows you to have a chance to build your experience so that you can have a good start on your career. However, many F-1 visa OPT participants want to stay in the U.S. permanently and to continue working. There are several avenues that you can explore to transition from OPT to a green card so that you can obtain lawful permanent residence status.

Applying for a green card during OPT

If you want to apply for a green card while you are in F-1 OPT visa status, you will need to apply early. Depending on your home country, there might be a lengthy wait. While the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act in July 2019, the Senate has not acted on this bill. If it was passed, it would remove the cap on the number of green cards and H-1B visas that are issued each year to applicants from countries such as China or India. However, the bill has not been passed by the Senate or signed into law. If your home country is a country that has a cap, it might mean that you will face a long backlog. This might mean that the process could take much longer than your OPT status might last.

If your home country does not have a backlog of green card applicants, it may be more realistic for you to apply for a green card while you are in OPT status. The key factor might be how quickly your employer acts so that you can obtain your permanent residence status before your OPT expires.

Conditional vs. regular permanent residence

If you secure a conditional permanent resident green card, it will be valid for two years. Conditional green cards are typically given to green card applicants who have been married to U.S. citizens for fewer than two years. A regular permanent residence green card is valid for 10 years and is renewable. Conditional permanent resident green cards are not renewable. However, you can apply to adjust your status from conditional residence to permanent residence. If this is granted, the expiration date would be extended. Adjusting your status from a conditional to a permanent green card might allow you to renew your green card. Regardless of which type you have, a green card can be revoked if you violate your visa status.

There are six ways that you can transition from an F-1 visa OPT status to a green card, including the following:

  • Employment-based green card

  • Green card lottery

  • Marriage-based visa

  • Asylum petition

  • Family sponsorship

  • H-1B visa to green card

We will briefly describe each of these paths to a green card below.

Employment-based green cards

If you qualify and can find an employer to sponsor you, you might be able to apply for an EB-2 or EB-3 visa as an F1-student on OPT. An EB-2 second-preference visa is more difficult to get than an EB-3 visa because of the requirements. To be eligible for an EB-2 visa, you must have an advanced degree and be offered a job that requires your advanced degree, demonstrate exceptional ability in your field, or be able to demonstrate that it is in the U.S. national interest for you to work in the country. You must also meet three criteria out of a list.

An EB-3 third preference employment-based visa is available to skilled workers with at least two years of training, professional workers who hold a minimum of a baccalaureate degree, or an unskilled worker. As an F-1 student in OPT, the baccalaureate degree option is the likeliest path. To secure an EB-3 visa, you must have an offer of full-time employment in a position for which there are no available U.S. workers.

Green card lottery

The U.S. Department of State holds a green card lottery each year. However, the lottery is only open for a short period, and there is a limit on the number of green cards that are issued. If you are from a country that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the last five years, you are not eligible to apply for a green card through the lottery. You will need to check to see if your home country is on the list before you enter the green card lottery. People who enter the green card lottery are randomly selected, which means that you are not guaranteed the ability to get a green card through this process. If you are accepted while you are on your OPT status, you can apply to adjust your status.

Marriage to a U.S. citizen

As previously mentioned, marrying a U.S. citizen may provide a path to obtain a marriage-based visa. If your marriage has lasted less than two years, your green card will be conditional instead of regular.

The USCIS conducts rigorous investigations of people who apply for marriage-based visas. The agency wants to ensure that the marriages are valid. The agency will conduct background checks, review your documents, and interview you and your spouse to determine whether they believe that your marriage is valid or was something that you entered into simply to get a green card.

If the USCIS determines that your marriage is valid, you will be issued a green card. If you secure a marriage-based visa, you will not be forced to remain married to maintain your status as a lawful permanent resident. If you ultimately get divorced, you won't automatically lose your green card. You will still need to prove to the USCIS that your divorce occurred legitimately and did not happen simply because you obtained your green card.

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