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What is OPT? Everything you need to know about Optional Practical Training

The OPT program allows qualified F-1 visa holders to receive paid training in their major fields of study either before or after they graduate with their degrees.

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Millions of international students have studied in the U.S. with F-1 visas. These visas are meant to allow people to travel to the U.S. to pursue degrees at approved institutions of higher education, including colleges, universities, conservatories, and seminaries. An advantage that the U.S. has over other countries for students who want to study abroad is the optional practical training program or OPT. This program allows qualified F-1 visa holders to receive paid training in their major fields of study either before or after they graduate with their degrees.

The OPT program allows new F-1 graduates to build work experience in jobs that directly relate to their degrees. This program allows international students to work for up to 12 months. For graduates with certain science, technology, engineering, or math degrees, OPT can be extended for an additional 24 months for a total of 36 months of post-completion OPT. The OPT program means that even though you might have entered the U.S. on a student visa, you may be able to begin working in your field without having to adjust your visa status. OPT might also help you to find a more permanent position. Once you have built experience and have developed connections in your field, you could potentially stay in the U.S. for a longer time by adjusting your status to an employer-sponsored visa following OPT. This article will explain everything that you need to know about the optional practical training program so that you can determine whether it might be worthwhile to apply.

What is OPT?

Optional practical training or OPT is a program that is designed to allow eligible F-1 visa holders to gain experience in their chosen fields while they are studying in the U.S. or immediately after they graduate. F-1 visas are not dual-intent visas, which means that they do not allow people to come to the U.S. to study as well as to plan for a permanent move to the U.S. Instead, F-1 visa holders are expected to return to their home countries once they complete their degree programs.

The OPT program offers a way for F-1 visa holders to work in jobs that are related to their college majors or their degrees. The regular allotment of OPT is 12 months. However, students who graduate with certain STEM degrees might be eligible to extend OPT after graduation by up to 24 months.

Some F-1 students try to find employers to sponsor them for H-1B visas so that they can begin working immediately after graduation. However, there are a limited number of H-1B visas, and it can be very difficult to find an H-1B employer to sponsor you if you have no experience. OPT offers you the ability to gain some experience and to have more time to explore your options if you want to remain in the U.S. after you finish your degree. Unlike the H-1B visa, there are no annual caps on the number of students who can receive OPT employment authorization. In the fiscal year 2018, almost 200,000 applications for initial and renewal OPT employment authorizations were approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. By contrast, the annual cap on the number of H-1B visas that can be issued is 65,000.

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Types of OPT

There are three primary types of OPT, including pre-completion OPT, post-completion OPT, and the STEM OPT extension. The regular OPT allotment is 12 months, and any employment for OPT must be directly related to the F-1 visa holder's academic major or degree.

Pre-completion OPT is available to F-1 visa holders who have completed their first full year of academic studies. In the U.S., a full year of academic studies includes the fall and spring terms. It does not include the summer months. Pre-completion OPT is available for a maximum of 12 months. If you work through pre-completion OPT for the entire 12 months that is allowed, you will not be eligible for post-completion OPT. Pre-completion OPT employment must be directly related to your major, and you are not allowed to begin working until your first full academic year is finished. You can work up to 20 hours per week in pre-completion OPT employment while school is in session. During breaks between academic terms, you can work a maximum of 40 hours per week in pre-completion OPT.

Post-completion OPT is an employment authorization that might allow you to work for up to 12 months in the U.S. after you graduate with your degree from an SEVP-approved school. You cannot begin working in post-completion OPT until your application has been approved. If you worked any time in pre-completion OPT, it will be subtracted from the 12-month allotment. For example, if you worked for four months of pre-completion OPT, you will only be allowed to work for eight months through post-completion OPT. You are allowed to work up to 40 hours per week in post-completion OPT.

The STEM OPT extension allows eligible students to extend their post-completion OPT employment by up to 24 months. If you are approved for the STEM OPT extension, it means that you could potentially live and work in the U.S. for up to 36 months after you graduate with your degree. The STEM OPT extension is only available to students who graduate with degrees that are listed in the STEM-designated degree list on the website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Like the other types of OPT, the proposed employment must be directly related to your qualifying STEM degree. Some additional requirements will be detailed below.

Who is eligible for OPT?

F-1 students may be eligible for OPT once they have completed a full year of academic studies. They must have continued to maintain valid F-1 visa statuses and have kept a full-time schedule of courses. The students must also be physically present in the U.S., and they must intend to work in a job that is directly related to their academic majors. For post-completion OPT, students must be nearing graduation or have already graduated with their degrees. They must have maintained their F-1 visa status and must be physically present in the U.S. Their intended jobs must also directly relate to their degrees.

Maintaining legal status

F-1 students must maintain valid legal status with their F-1 visas to be eligible for OPT. There are multiple requirements that F-1 visa holders must meet to avoid violating the conditions of their F-1 visas.

You cannot enter the U.S. until 30 days or less before your academic program's start date. Once you enter the U.S., you are supposed to immediately contact the designated school official or DSO at your school to notify him or her of your arrival in the country. You must then check in with your DSO again before your program begins. Anytime your address changes, you must notify your DSO within 10 days.

F-1 students must maintain full-time student status. This means that undergraduate students must take at least 12 credit hours per semester. If you are struggling in a class, you need to talk to your DSO as soon as possible. Dropping a class and causing yourself to fall under the 12 credit hour minimum can force you out of compliance with the requirements of your F-1 visa. Your DSO might connect you with an academic tutor to help you to secure better grades in difficult classes. If you are a graduate student, your program will include information about what is considered to be full time.

It is also important for you to be aware of the expiration date that is listed in your Form I-20. This date is the expected date of when you should complete your degree. If the date will expire before you can finish your degree, you will need to apply for an extension before the expiration date arrives. The date can be found in section five of your I-20.

Your passport must remain valid during your stay in the U.S. If it will expire while you are studying, you should renew it at your home country's U.S. embassy or consulate in the U.S. Finally, you must follow the laws of the U.S. while you are studying in the country.

If you fail to maintain your legal status as an F-1 visa holder, you will not be eligible for OPT. You might also be subject to deportation and removal proceedings. This underscores the importance of maintaining your status while you are in the U.S. whether or not you apply for OPT.

How to apply for pre-completion OPT

You can apply for pre-completion OPT up to 90 days before you finish your first year of full-time academic studies. You will need to meet with your DSO and ask him or her to recommend you for pre-completion OPT. The DSO will review your information and verify that you have maintained a valid F-1 visa status. He or she will enter the recommendation for pre-completion OPT in your SEVIS record and endorse your Form I-20. While you can apply for pre-completion OPT 90 days before you finish your first year of studies, you cannot begin working through pre-completion OPT until you have applied for and have been approved for employment authorization.

To obtain your OPT employment authorization, you will need to submit Form I-765 to the USCIS together with the filing fee of $410. You can pay the filing fee by check, money order, or cashier's check. If you want to pay your fee with a credit card, you will need to complete and submit Form G-1450. In addition to the filing fee and Form I-765, you will need to submit several supporting documents, including the following:

  • Copy of your I-94

  • Your endorsed Form I-20

  • Two U.S. style passport photos

  • If you were previously issued an employment authorization document, you will need to submit a copy

  • If you were not previously issued an EAD, you will need to submit a copy of a government-issued identity document

  • Your transcripts

After you have submitted the filing fee, Form I-765, and your supporting documents, you will need to wait for your application to be processed by the USCIS. You may not begin working in pre-completion OPT until you are notified that your application has been approved, and you receive your employment authorization document. If you begin working without employment authorization, it will be a violation of your F-1 visa status. Unauthorized work in the U.S. can be the basis for deportation or removal proceedings.

Once you are approved for pre-completion OPT, make sure not to work more than 20 hours per week during school or 40 hours per week when school is not in session. Remember that any pre-completion OPT employment that you complete will be subtracted from the amount of OPT that you can work after you graduate.

How to apply for post-completion OPT

The application process for post-completion OPT is similar to the process for pre-completion OPT. You can apply for post-completion OPT during a window starting from 90 days before you are scheduled to graduate to 60 days after you graduate. You will not be allowed to apply for post-completion OPT if you wait until 60 days following your graduation.

To apply, meet with the DSO at your school and ask for his or her recommendation for post-completion OPT. The DSO will make certain that you have maintained your valid F-1 visa status and will consider your proposed employment to make certain that it relates to your degree. He or she will endorse your Form I-20 and enter his or her recommendation into the SEVIS system. Once the DSO has endorsed your I-20, you must apply for post-completion OPT employment authorization within 30 days.

Submit Form I-765, the filing fee of $410, and the supporting documents. In addition to the previously listed documents for pre-completion OPT, you will also need to include information about any periods of curricular practical training or pre-completion OPT that you have previously completed. You will also need to submit any previously used SEVIS numbers, your transcript, and a copy of your degree. After you have submitted everything, do not begin working in post-completion OPT until you have been approved and have received your employment authorization document.

How to apply for the STEM OPT extension

While you are working in post-completion OPT, you can apply for the STEM OPT extension as long as your degree appears on the STEM-designated degree list. Your employment must also directly relate to your STEM degree. To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, you must currently be working through OPT. You must also have a bachelor's degree, master's degree, or Ph.D. from an accredited SEVP-approved U.S. institution.

If you are currently working in post-completion OPT with a non-STEM degree but have a previously earned STEM degree that appears on the list, you can apply for the STEM OPT extension for employment that relates to your STEM degree. Both degrees must have been earned in the U.S. at a SEVP-approved school. Finally, if you complete one STEM OPT extension and subsequently enroll in a SEVP-approved institution to pursue a higher educational level, you may be eligible for one additional extension of 24 months based on your master's or doctoral degree in a STEM field.

The employer must also be eligible for the STEM OPT extension. An employer must participate in the E-Verify system and be in good standing with it. The employer must also offer an OPT program for which the student will receive pay, hours, and duties as U.S. workers in similar roles at the company. The employer will need to submit Form I-983, which is a training plan for the F-1 student. The position that the STEM OPT student will hold must not displace a U.S. worker.

If these qualifications are met, you can apply for the STEM OPT extension by meeting with your DSO and asking for a recommendation. The DSO will review your case to ensure that you have maintained your valid F-1 status. He or she will endorse your Form I-20 and update your SEVIS record. You will then have to submit the Form I-765 within 60 days of when you receive the recommendation together with the filing fee of $410 and the supporting documents. You will need to submit a copy of your STEM degree and documentation of any periods of unemployment that you had during your period of post-completion OPT.

If you are approved for the STEM OPT extension, you will be required to report to your DSO every six months. You must notify the DSO of any address changes or legal name changes. You must also confirm the name and contact information of your employer and your employment status. If you leave your STEM OPT job early, the employer will notify the DSO within five days of your end date.

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Unemployment during post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension

Under U.S. federal law, F-1 students who participate in post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension are limited by how many days of unemployment that they can accrue during their OPT periods. The unemployment amounts are counted in aggregate. For your initial 12-month post-completion OPT, you can only accrue a total of 90 days of unemployment. STEM OPT extension participants are allowed to accrue no more than 150 days, which counts any periods of unemployment that you had during your initial post-completion OPT period. The number of days that you have been unemployed is tracked in the SEVIS system.

Requests for evidence for OPT applications

Some OPT applicants receive requests for evidence from the USCIS after they have submitted their Form I-765 applications. If you receive a request for evidence, it means that the agency needs some additional information from you before it can adjudicate your application for employment authorization. If an RFE is issued to you, the USCIS will stop processing your case. You should not ignore an RFE. If you do, your application for OPT employment authorization will likely be denied.

If you receive an RFE, you should review it carefully. There will be a deadline for your response at the top of the letter. The letter will tell you what documents the USCIS needs. Some RFEs are fairly simple while others are much more complex. Even if the RFE appears straightforward, you should take the time to thoroughly review your Form I-765 and all of the supporting documents that you submitted to the USCIS. You can use the opportunity to submit additional documents to support your application and to show the USCIS why it should approve your application for OPT employment authorization. If the reasons for the RFE are complex, it is a wise choice to get help from an experienced immigration attorney. A lawyer might review the RFE, your application, and your supporting documents and explain what you need to send back to the USCIS.

When you respond to the RFE, make sure that you do so within the listed deadline. Late responses will not be considered. You can either partially respond or fully respond. A partial response occurs when you submit some, but not all, of the requested information to the USCIS. You might do this if you are unable to get a copy of one of the requested documents, for example. When you respond, you must submit all of your materials at the same time in one packet. Do not submit things separately. If you do, the later-submitted material will be disregarded.

Your response must be put together in a specific way. You must submit the original RFE back to the USCIS on top of your response packet. Underneath that, you will need to include a cover letter that outlines all of the evidence that you have included in your response packet. It is best if your cover letter mirrors the RFE so that the USCIS officials can see that you have included everything that was requested of you. You should then place your response documents in the same order as they are listed in the RFE and your cover letter beneath them.

Once the USCIS receives your RFE response packet, it will review the materials that you have submitted and start processing your case again. You should be aware that it can take at least 60 or more days before your application is adjudicated. You will be notified of the decision. If your application is approved, you will be sent your employment authorization document and will be allowed to begin working in your OPT or STEM OPT employment.

What happens if your OPT employment authorization application is denied?

If your application for post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension is denied, you will have a few options. F-1 students have a 60-day grace period after they graduate to leave the U.S. If you receive a denial while you are still in your 60-day grace period, you can apply to adjust your status to a different status, make plans to leave the U.S., or enroll in a program at an SEVP-approved school to pursue a higher level of education.

If you receive a denial after the 60-day grace period has expired, you will not have any additional grace period and will have to immediately leave the U.S. Once you return to your home country, you can apply for another visa to return to the U.S. For example, you could apply to an SEVP-approved school to pursue a master's or doctoral degree, and if you are accepted, you can apply for a new F-1 visa using the same process that you went through when you were initially approved for an F-1 visa.

If you apply for the STEM OPT extension while you are working in post-completion OPT, your F-1 status may expire before you receive a decision. If that happens, your F-1 status will automatically be extended for 180 days. If your application for the STEM OPT extension is denied during this period, you will have a grace period of 60 days to leave the U.S., adjust your status, or enroll in an SEVP-approved school to pursue a higher level of education.

Transitioning from OPT to an H-1B visa

Many F-1 visa holders use post-completion OPT or the STEM OPT extension to search for employers that are willing to sponsor them for H-1B visas. It may be easier to secure an H-1B visa in this way than it is to apply for an H-1B visa without completing OPT since you will have more time.

Securing an H-1B visa is not a simple task. You cannot directly apply for an H-1B visa. Instead, you must find an H-1B employer who is willing to sponsor you and to petition on your behalf. An H-1B employer must obtain a labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to certify that it was unable to find a qualified U.S. employee for the position. The employer must also agree that you will be paid the prevailing wage for similarly situated employees at the company who hold similar jobs and must participate in E-Verify. The employer must extend a job offer to you that requires your level of education.

If you find an employer to sponsor you, the employer must register you with the USCIS in March. The employer will enter basic information about you, the company, and the intended position and pay a $10 fee. Starting in 2020, the USCIS will conduct a lottery of all of the people who have been registered in the system for H-1B visas and will notify the employers that have been selected. Only the selected registrants will be allowed to apply for H-1B visas. They will need to do so when the application window opens at the beginning of April. The window will close once the cap of 65,000 H-1B petitions has been reached.

If your H-1B petition is approved, you will be able to adjust your status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa and begin working as an H-1B worker starting on Oct. 1. Unlike the F-1 visa, the H-1B visa is a dual intent visa. This means that you can work and live in the U.S. with an intent to apply for an adjustment of status to become a permanent U.S. resident. H-1B visas are valid for three years and can be renewed. After you have worked on an H-1B visa for six years, your employer can sponsor you for an employment-based immigration visa.

The cap-gap extension

Since the initial period of post-completion OPT lasts for a maximum of 12 months, many F-1 students will have their OPT authorization periods expire before their H-1B visa petitions are adjudicated. If an H-1B employer timely filed an H-1B visa petition on your behalf, you can benefit from the cap-gap extension. This is an extension of your F-1 OPT employment authorization from the date of its expiration until your H-1B petition is adjudicated or until Oct. 1.

If your H-1B petition is denied during the cap-gap extension, it will end. You will then need to leave the U.S. Unlike the grace period that follows graduation from college, there is no grace period if your H-1B visa is denied. This means that if you are in a cap-gap extension and learn that your H-1B visa petition has been denied by the USCIS, your employment authorization will immediately end, and you will need to leave the U.S. However, if your petition is approved, you can continue working through your OPT authorization through Sept. 30 if your H-1B employment start date is Oct. 1.

Adjusting your F-1 status to a different status

To receive an F-1 visa, you must prove that you intend to return to your home country once you complete your academic program. However, many students experience change while they are studying in the U.S. that makes them want to remain in the U.S. The OPT program provides you with the opportunity to get training in your field of study. However, it is a temporary employment authorization. Unless you adjust your status or enroll in an SEVP-approved school to pursue a higher level of education, you will be expected to leave the U.S. once your OPT expires.

There are other visas besides the H-1B visa that might allow you to continue living in the U.S. For example, you might be eligible for an EB-2 or EB-3 visa, which are employment-based immigration visas that might allow you to remain in the U.S. and work permanently. These visas have stringent requirements, however.

Another option for some F-1 visa holders after OPT is to apply for a marriage-based immigration visa. However, it is important to note that the USCIS thoroughly investigates marriage-based visa applications to make certain that the marriages are valid. If you have developed a relationship with a U.S. citizen while you have been studying in the U.S. or working through OPT and get married, your spouse will need to file a petition on your behalf for you to obtain conditional resident status.

The USCIS will interview you and your spouse separately and will want evidence that your marriage is valid. If the USCIS is satisfied, you will be granted status as a conditional resident. After two years, you will be allowed to apply to adjust your status to become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. If the USCIS determines that your marriage is not bona fide, you will face deportation and removal proceedings. Your spouse might also face legal penalties. Do not apply to adjust your status to a marriage-based green card unless your marriage is valid. You should likewise not enter into a marriage simply to try to get a green card.

Wrapping everything up

The optional practical training program is a major benefit for international students who want to study in the U.S. with F-1 visas. By maintaining your F-1 visa status and following the rules, you may be approved for OPT. If you are approved, you will be allowed to work in your major field of study for up to 12 months. If you graduate with an eligible STEM degree, you might be granted a 24-month extension of your OPT eligibility. Finally, you might be able to use the OPT program as a springboard to adjusting your status to an H-1B visa or another type of visa that might allow you to become a permanent U.S. resident.

When you receive your notice that your F-1 visa has been approved, a broad range of new opportunities will be open to you. The OPT program can allow you to gain experience in your field that you can use to further your career options in your home country or possibly in the U.S. If you are preparing to travel to the U.S. to begin your studies as an F-1 visa student, you will need to make preparations beyond simply securing your travel itinerary. In the U.S., creditors and landlords check the credit scores of applicants. Once you are in the U.S., you will likely need to apply for an apartment lease. You might need to apply for an auto loan, open a bank account, and get a credit card. However, the credit record that you have established in your home country will not transfer to the U.S. automatically. This means that when creditors or landlords check your credit, they will not see the record that you have built. Nova Credit offers the Nova Credit score as a solution to this issue. The company translates the credit histories of international students into useable credit scores that most major lenders, banks, and landlords accept. After you have obtained your Nova Credit score and have taken care of all of the other preparations for living and studying in the U.S., you will only have to wait until your flight to enjoy your transition to your new life.

DID YOU KNOW?

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Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing international credit history could help you establish credit in the United States. No Social Security Number (SSN) is required to start your US credit history.

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