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Everything you need to know about transitioning from OPT to an H-1B Visa

This article will address everything that you need to know about transitioning from the OPT program to an H-1B visa.

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Hundreds of thousands of international students have been able to travel to the U.S. to study at approved institutions of higher learning because of the F-1 visa program. Many F-1 students choose to participate in the OPT program, which allows eligible F-1 visa holders to obtain up to 12 months of training by working in jobs that are related to their major degree fields. Once they graduate from undergraduate or graduate degree programs, many F-1 students hope that they can eventually adjust their statuses from F-1 visas to H-1B visas. While it is possible to adjust their statuses directly from F-1 to H-1B visas, many students choose to work through OPT to give themselves more time to find H-1B sponsoring employers. This article will address everything that you need to know about transitioning from the OPT program to an H-1B visa.

What is OPT?

Optional practical training is commonly referred to as OPT. It is a program that is designed to provide F-1 visa students to gain experience working in jobs that are related to their degree fields off-campus either during their studies or immediately following graduation.

Pre-completion OPT is off-campus employment related to the student's major that is available for up to 12 months. F-1 students are not eligible to participate in pre-completion OPT until after they have finished their first full academic year. The full academic year includes the fall and spring academic terms, but it does not include summer school. Students who wish to work through the pre-completion OPT can apply no earlier than 90 days before they finish their first full academic year.

The application process starts when the student meets with the designated school official or DSO in the international students' office on his or her campus. The DSO will review the student's information to verify that he or she is in compliance with the terms of his or her F-1 visa. If the student is eligible, and the intended job is directly related to his or her major, the DSO will enter the recommendation into the student's record in the SEVIS system and will endorse his or her Form I-20. The student must then apply for an employment authorization document by submitting the Form I-765, the endorsed Form I-20, and the application fee of $410 to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The student may not begin working in the pre-completion OPT job until he or she is approved and receives his or her employment authorization document or EAD from the USCIS.

If a student is approved for pre-completion OPT, he or she will be limited to working no more than 20 hours per week while school is in session. He or she can work up to 40 hours per week between academic terms and during breaks. It is important to note that the total OPT allotment is 12 months. This means that if a student works a total of 12 months of pre-completion OPT, he or she will not be eligible to work through the post-completion OPT program.

Post-completion OPT is available for a maximum of 12 months following an F-1 visa holder's degree completion date. Students who wish to work through the post-completion OPT program may apply from 90 days before they graduate up to a maximum of 60 days after their graduation dates. To start the application process, an F-1 student must meet with the DSO at his or her school. The DSO will review the student's visa to make certain that he or she is still in compliance with its terms. If the DSO agrees to recommend the student for post-completion OPT, he or she will update the student's SEVIS record and endorse his or her Form I-20. The student will then need to apply for an employment authorization document by filing Form I-765, his or her Form I-20, and the filing fee of $410 to the USCIS. The student is not allowed to begin working until he or she receives the approval from the USCIS and his or her EAD.

If the student worked any pre-completion OPT, it will be subtracted from the 12 months of the total allotted time. For example, if the student worked for two months through the pre-completion OPT program, he or she will be allowed to work a maximum of 10 months in post-completion OPT.

F-1 visa holders who graduated with STEM degrees that are listed on DHS's designated STEM degree list are eligible to apply for a 24-month extension of post-completion OPT. The STEM OPT employer must participate in E-Verify and must provide the F-1 student with formal learning objectives during his or her employment. To apply for the STEM OPT extension, you must submit Form I-765, the application fee, a copy of your Form I-20, and a copy of your STEM degree.

Many F-1 visa holders participate in OPT before they apply for adjustments of status to H-1B visas. By working through post-completion OPT, F-1 students can benefit from an interim phase during which they will gain experience in their degree fields while having more time to find an H-1B employer to sponsor them. F-1 students are also allowed to try to adjust their statuses directly from an F-1 visa without participating in post-completion OPT if they have found employers to sponsor them. However, this might be a more difficult path than applying for an adjustment of status during post-completion OPT.

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The H-1B visa

The H-1B visa program allows U.S. employers to hire people from other countries to work in specialty occupations, as fashion models, or in cooperative development and research projects through the U.S. Department of Defense. The H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa that is dual intent. It provides a way for people who have Bachelor's degrees or Master's degrees to live in the U.S. while they are working in jobs that require their educational levels and for which employers have been unable to find enough qualified U.S. workers to fill.

F-1 students might want to adjust their statuses to H-1B visas for a couple of reasons. The visa allows the workers to live in the U.S. while working for their sponsoring employees for an initial period of three years. The visa can be renewed for an additional three years. After an H-1B visa worker has lived and worked in the U.S. for six years, he or she might be eligible to apply for an adjustment of status to a green card so that he or she can continue living and working in the U.S. permanently.

F-1 students can pursue H-1B visas after they graduate or while they are working in the OPT program. The students are not able to apply for the H-1B visas themselves. Instead, they must find H-1B employers who are willing to sponsor them, and the employers petition for the H-1B visas on their behalf.

H-1B visa holders enjoy the following benefits:

  • Ability to legally work and live in the U.S. for three to six years

  • Ability to gain theoretical and practical experience in their fields

  • Ability to bring their spouses and dependent children to the U.S. with H-4 visas

  • Ability to travel inside and outside of the U.S. while their H-1B visa statuses remain valid

  • Ability to apply for lawful permanent residency in the U.S.

How to secure an H-1B visa as an F-1 OPT worker

Getting an H-1B visa is not an easy process. The government sets an annual cap on the number of visas that it issues each year of 65,000 for people with Bachelor's degrees. It offers an additional allotment of 20,000 visas for people who have Master's degrees. Since U.S. employers have thousands of jobs that go unfilled each year because of an inability to find qualified U.S. workers, the H-1B visa program is highly competitive. Employers have a short window to petition for H-1B visas for their workers that opens on April 1. Once the cap is reached, the applications close for the year. In most cases, the cap is reached within just a couple of days.

Because of the competitive nature of the H-1B visa process, OPT workers need to start as early as possible. This can give the students more time to find H-1B visa employers and to potentially secure the visas. We will cover the steps to take next.

1. Find an employer to sponsor your petition for an H-1B visa.

The first step in securing an H-1B visa is to find an employer to sponsor your petition. This is true regardless of whether you want to apply for an H-1B visa directly from your F-1 visa status or while you are participating in OPT employment. You must find an H-1B visa employer and obtain an offer of employment to apply for an H-1B visa. The job must be one for which a Bachelor's degree or higher is normally required of all applicants, and the employer must be able to show that it tried, but was unable to find, enough qualified U.S. workers to fill all of the positions that it has available. You are not eligible for an H-1B visa until you have obtained your degree.

The employer must be able to show the USCIS that the worker will be paid the prevailing or actual wage for the position in the geographic location, whichever is greater. This means that the employer will need to file a Labor Conditional Application or LCA to the Department of Labor. The statements that the employer makes on the LCA are made under penalty of perjury. The LCA includes attestations that the employer will pay the H-1B worker at least the prevailing wage and that the worker will not adversely impact the working conditions of U.S. workers.

2. The H-1B petition must be filed on time.

The employer will be sent a certified copy of the LCA by the Department of Labor. Once the employer receives this, it must file the H-1B visa petition on behalf of the worker. The petition must be submitted to the USCIS with supporting documentation, the filing fee, and some additional fees. The filing and additional fee amounts depend on the employer's size as follows:

  • Employers with 25 or fewer workers - Filing fee of $750

  • Employers with more than 25 workers - Filing fee of $1,500

  • Employers with more than 50 workers for which 50% or more are H-1B or L visa employees - Filing fee of $4,000

  • Employers seeking the first H-1B petition for a worker - $500 fraud detection and prevention fee

Certain types of employers do not have to pay the filing fee, including institutions of higher education or their affiliated nonprofit organizations, nonprofit research organizations, government research organizations, K-12 educational institutions, and nonprofits that work in curriculum-based clinical training programs for students.

It is important to note that employers must pay these fees. They cannot require the H-1B visa applicants to pay the filing and fraud detection fees for them.

The H-1B visa limit for each fiscal year under the general category is 65,000. An additional 20,000 H-1B visas are reserved for people with Master's degrees or higher. The H-1B visa petition must be filed on time, or it will be unsuccessful.

3. The employer files the H-1B petition.

After you have secured an offer of employment, your employer must file the H-1B visa petition on your behalf as a change of status by the deadline. If the petition is approved, you will be granted an adjustment of status to an H-1B visa. You will not be able to begin working under your H-1B visa status until Oct. 1 of the year in which it is granted.

4. Check your eligibility for the cap-gap extension.

If your H-1B visa petition has been filed by your employer, you might be eligible for the cap-gap extension while your petition is pending. If you are working in OPT at the time that your petition is filed, the cap-gap extension extends your OPT employment authorization until Sept. 30 or until you receive a decision on your H-1B visa petition.

The cap-gap extension is designed to allow OPT students to continue working while their applications are pending because many F-1 OPT students will have their OPT EADs expire before the decision is reached. For example, if you are approved to work for 12 months through the OPT program beginning in June after you graduate from college, your OPT authorization would expire at the end of May. The start date for an H-1B visa status does not occur until Oct. 1, which would fall outside of the 60-day grace period that you would otherwise enjoy after the end of your OPT authorization.

If your authorized stay under your F-1 visa ends before Oct. 1, and you do not qualify for the cap-gap extension, you will be required to leave the U.S. If you do not, you can lose your status. After you leave the U.S., you will then need to apply for your H-1B visa at the embassy or consulate in your home country and reenter the U.S. after your H-1B visa petition is approved.

If your OPT employment authorization will end in the next few weeks, you should start thinking about your options after your period of training ends. You will either have to return to your home country after your F-1 visa expires following the completion of OPT or apply for an H-1B visa after you receive a job offer from a U.S. employer that is willing to sponsor you.

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What documents must be submitted with the H-1B visa application?

When you are trying to adjust your status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa after your employer's petition has been approved, several documents must be submitted with your application. You will need to submit written documentation of your official job offer. This must be an offer of employment from your U.S. employer showing that it is the sponsor of your H-1B visa. Your application must also include a detailed description of the duties and responsibilities of the job.

You must also submit a copy of your resume to demonstrate that you have the education and skills that are required by the position that you intend to take. Since you must have a degree or specialized knowledge within your field, this should be demonstrated on your resume. You will also need to provide a copy of your degree to prove your education. You will need to submit a certified copy of your college transcripts as further proof of your educational record. If you have a previous employer, you should ask that employer to give you an experience letter to verify your education and skills. The employer should verify the duties that you performed and the length of time you worked there. You also must have a valid passport from your home country.

If you have won any awards for your work or occupation, it is a good idea to submit copies. These can help to demonstrate the extent of your knowledge within your career field.

On your application, your biographical information must be included. This includes your name, date of birth, place of birth, nationality, marital status, and permanent address. Other documents, including your birth certificate and marriage certificate, can also be submitted to offer biographical information about you.

Finally, you will need to submit copies of your Form I-20, your current I-94 card, and copies of your EAD card.

Can you travel outside of the U.S. during a cap-gap extension?

The employment authorization document or EAD authorizes you to work in the U.S. for a temporary period. If you are granted a cap-gap extension and want to travel outside of the U.S. after your initial OPT period is completed, your EAD will be considered to be expired under the cap-gap extension. This means that you will not be able to reenter the U.S. with your F-1 status. Instead, you would need to apply for the H-1B visa before you can return to the U.S. If the petition is approved, you will not be able to reenter the country before your H-1B visa status begins.

What happens if the H-1B visa petition is denied?

Even if your petition is filed on time, it can still be denied for any number of reasons. The number of denials of H-1B visa applications has been increasing. If your petition is denied, you will have a few options.

Your denial letter will list reasons for why the petition was denied, which can help you to figure out your next steps. You need to understand the difference between a rejection and a denial. A rejection means that an error occurred with the filing of the petition or the payment of the fees. Denial occurs when the USCIS does not consider either you or your employer to be qualified for an H-1B visa.

If the reasons that are given are something that you or your employer can correct following a rejected petition, your employer can file a new Form I-129 and make certain to avoid the previous error. For example, if the application was denied because an important document was left out, your employer will need to make certain to include the document on the second try.

If you are outside of the U.S. when you receive a rejection, your employer can file another I-129 for you. However, since there is an annual cap on the number of visas that are issued each year, this must be done quickly. If the cap has not been reached, the USCIS might still adjudicate your case after you have fixed the errors and have submitted a new petition. If the limit for the year has been reached, you will have to wait until the next year's application period. You can also explore entering the U.S. with a different type of nonimmigrant visa. An immigration attorney might be able to provide some guidance on which types might be available.

If you are in the U.S. with a legal visa status at the time that you receive a rejection, your employer can file a new Form I-129 petition for you as long as the problems are correctable. If the problems are not easily fixed, you might want to try to extend your current visa status or adjust to another status. For example, you can enroll in a SEVP-approved institution of higher learning to further your studies on an F-1 visa. If you have a bachelor's degree in mathematics, for example, you might be able to remain in the U.S. and pursue a Master's degree with an F-1 visa. Pursuing an advanced degree can also allow you to participate in an additional period of OPT and to further your qualifications, which might make it easier to qualify for an H-1B visa later. If you have a Master's degree or higher, you will be able to take advantage of the additional allotment of 20,000 H-1B visas for people with advanced degrees. This can give you a better chance of being approved for an H-1B visa.

You might also apply for an EB-2 or EB-3 visa to adjust your status and work in the U.S. If you have a Master's degree or a Bachelor's degree with at least five years of progressive experience in your field, you might qualify for an EB-2 visa. You might also be eligible to apply for an EB-3 visa. The EB-2 and EB-3 visas are employment-based immigrant visas. Finally, if you are involved in a longterm relationship with a U.S. citizen and decide to marry, you might be able to secure conditional lawful permanent residence with a marriage visa. It is important to note that the USCIS thoroughly investigates marriage-based immigration applications. If the USCIS does not believe that your marriage is bona fide, you may face penalties and possible deportation and removal proceedings. Before you apply to adjust your status to a different status after the denial of your H-1B visa petition, you should talk to an experienced immigration law attorney to avoid making mistakes.

Finally, if your H-1B visa petition is denied, you can choose to leave the U.S. and return to your home country. While F-1 visa holders have 60-day grace periods once their visas expire to leave the U.S., you will not have a 60-day grace period if your H-1B visa is denied. This means that you should be prepared to leave while your petition is pending in case it is denied so that you can remain in good standing. If you overstay your visa status, you can be barred from reentering the U.S. for several years.

Wrapping everything up

Transitioning from OPT to an H-1B visa is difficult but not impossible. If you think that you want to try to adjust your status from your F-1 visa to an H-1B visa, getting started as early as possible is important. If you have earned a degree in a STEM field from the designated degree list, you can take advantage of the STEM OPT extension to extend the period of your authorized employment while giving yourself more time to find an H-1B employer to petition on your behalf. If your degree is not in a STEM field, starting your search as soon as you begin working in post-completion OPT is a good idea. You must find a qualifying U.S. employer who is willing to sponsor you for your H-1B visa. Once your OPT ends after the completion of your degree program, your F-1 visa will expire. If you have not applied to adjust your status to a different visa status or have not enrolled in an institution of higher education to further your studies, you will have to leave the U.S.

If you learn that your H-1B visa petition is approved, the idea of starting your new life in the U.S. can be exciting. There are many steps that you will need to take to prepare for the transition. While you are trying to take care of everything, do not overlook the importance of your credit record. You might have spent years building a good credit record in your home country. However, the credit history that you have built outside of the U.S. will not transfer directly. Most credit decisions in the U.S. by lenders, landlords, and banks are made based on the credit scores of applicants. Since your credit history will not automatically transfer, this means that a creditor will not be able to see your credit score when you apply for credit.

Nova Credit helps to solve the problem of credit scores for international students. The company offers a global credit passport by translating your credit history into a useable credit score. Many major lenders, landlords, and banks in the U.S. accept the Nova credit score to aid them in making decisions about whether to approve applicants for credit. By getting your Nova Credit score, you can facilitate your transition to your new life as an H-1B worker so that you can more easily open a bank account, lease an apartment, get a credit card, purchase a vehicle, and take care of other needs that your new life might require. Once you have taken care of your credit, the rest of your journey in the U.S. will be largely up to you.

Moved to the U.S. from Australia, India or the UK?

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