What is OPT Visa? – F1 International Students in USA

What is OPT? Optional Practical Training for F1 Students

What is OPT?

OPT is an Optional Training Program for F-1 students, which permits international students to work temporarily in the USA. The OPT job must be directly related to the F1 student’s major area of study. The majority of international students in the USA are on the F1 visa are studying in graduate or undergraduate schools.

International students with an F1 visa need to apply for OPT to gain permission to work in the USA. Students with OPT must work in their degree major for 12 months starting from the date of the OPT visa. International students must follow certain rules and regulations correctly to work in the USA. U.S. Government has imposed certain rules for the employment of international students. However, unpaid internships or working as volunteers are not counted under OPT.

For signing up with OPT, you need to complete at least one year of a full-time course or degree in a designated university, college, or institute, certified by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll F1 students.

Types of OPT Employment:

There are two types of OPT you should know about before you apply:

  • Pre-completion OPT: You can apply for pre-completion OPT while you are still pursuing your degree. If you wish to gain professional experience in your field during the course, you need to apply for pre-completion OPT before finishing your program of study.

With a pre-completion OPT, you can work part-time for up to 20 hours per week during the session.  It can be full-time for over 20 hours per week during session breaks.

  • Post-Completion OPT: You can start post-completion OPT AFTER finishing your program of study. Once you are about to complete your degree in the USA or have completed, you can apply for post-completion OPT.  During post-completion OPT, you are eligible to work for multiple employers, but they all should be related to the major area of your study.

Post-completion OPT allows candidates to work part-time, full-time, or both, but the time should not be less than 20 hours or exceed 40 hours per week.

An important thing to note is your pre-completion will be totaled toward post-completion OPT.

If you are applying for pre-completion OPT, USCIS will deduct that amount of time from your Post-completion OPT.  Part-time pre-completion OPT will be counted half (½), and full-time pre-completion OPT will be counted full with respect to post-completion OPT. For example, if you are authorized for 4 months of part-time pre-completion OPT, you will only be allowed 10 months to use for the post-completion OPT. If you are authorized for 4 months of full-time pre-completion OPT, you will only be allowed 8 months remaining to use for the post-completion OPT.

Who is eligible for OPT? | OPT Eligibility

You are eligible to apply for Optional Practical Training if you meet the following criteria:

  • The student has completed at least full-time one academic year of a course in a SEVP-certified:
    • College
    • University
    • Conservatory
    • Seminary
  • The student is physically present in the USA.
  • Maintaining a valid F1 visa at the time of applying for OPT application.
  • The student has not previously used all OPT available at the current level of the degree program.
  • The student has used 12 months or more of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT).
  • You do not need to have a job of applying for OPT.
  • The student’s proposed employment must relate to their major area of study.

If you full-fill these eligibility criteria, you can apply for pre-completion or post-completion OPT visa. Make sure you know how to apply for an OPT in order to avoid wasting your time. Gain as much professional experience during your stay in the USA under period of employment you get.

Reporting Requirements to DSO

It is very important for F-1 or M-1 students to regularly update your DSO, with any personal or academic change. International students must report any change to the DSO within 10 days of change occur to properly maintain your student status. Students in STEM OPT must update their DSO every six months to verify that their SEVIS record is accurate.

In some cases, students need to coordinate with the DSO before the change happens because the DSO needs to approve the student in SEVIS and verify the government records of the student for re-entry into the United States.

To view more reporting requirements, read this blog: OPT Reporting Requirements – What You Need to Follow?

Applying for Optional Practical Training Employment

How to apply for OPT?

Applying for OPT is a prime process as you should be aware of deadlines. So that you do not miss out on anything, or that might cost you your future. Before applying for Optional Practical Training should always know the right way to apply.

To apply for OPT, you will need the following documents:

  • I-765 Form
  • OPT Recommendation Form
  • Filling fee
  • Two passport size photos
  • Copies of your EAD card, latest I-20 form, passport I.D., I-94 arrival/departure record card.

Keeping these important documents ready before applying for OPT application will save you a lot of time.  And also safeguard you from missing out on important details while you are in the office. The more organized you are, the faster and better your process will get.

OPT Application Process:

  1. Submit an OPT request (recommendation) to the DSO
  2. DSO confirms eligibility and signs the Form I-20
  3. Students need to File Form I-765
  4. Adjudicate I-765
  5. Get EAD and Start Work
  6. Report Work to DSO
  7. Report Address Change and Employer Info to DSO

When to apply for OPT?

Your application will only be accepted when you will apply for it at the right time. So make sure you exactly know when you are eligible to apply for OPT.

You need to apply for pre-completion OPT at least 90 days before you want your OPT to start. And if you are planning to apply for post-completion OPT, you can apply as early as 90 days before your graduation completes or the latest by 60 days after completion of your graduation. USCIS will not accept your application if you do not apply during this mentioned period for OPT application.

You will need to mention the start date for your employment in the application form. You cannot start working in the USA without your EAD card, so make sure you have your EAD card. And this may take longer, so it is important to always apply for OPT as early as you can to avoid wasting your precious time.

For a detailed OPT Application Process with Timeline, you can read this:  F1 OPT Application Process, Processing Time and OPT Timeline.

What is OPT STEM Extension?

In case you belong to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field, then you have got some more extra time to earn dollars in the USA with an OPT STEM extension. Yes, you read that right, but for that, you need to understand its process, rules, and regulations that USCIS wants you to follow to get an OPT STEM extension.

OPT STEM extension allows international students related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics field to stay and work in the USA for an extension of 24 months after completing 12 months post-completion OPT. On May 2016, this 24 month extension came into effect changing the previous 17-month STEM OPT extension.

Eligible F-1 students enrolled in the STEM degrees and have participated in the initial period of regular post-completion OPT program can apply for OPT STEM extension.

The qualifying STEM degree needs to be on DHS’s STEM Designated Degree Program List when submitting their application for the STEM OPT extension.

Once you complete your OPT or OPT STEM extension and have applied for H-1B and your previous visa (F-1) is about to end, then you are eligible for Cap-Gap extension for an approved H-1B petition.

60 Days OPT Grace Period

F-1 students receive 60 days of grace period after completion of their OPT end date before leaving the United States. For students who participate in post-completion optional practical training, they have 60 days after their employment ends to depart.

If you would like to extend your stay in USA, discuss with your DSO to learn more about the alternatives:

  • Transfer to another school and begin a new program of study.
  • Change your education level (for example, bachelor’s to master’s degree).
  • Change your status to another visa status if eligible.

If you would like to read more about Grace Period, check out: OPT Grace Period for F1 Students after Opt Expires | J1 Grace Period

What is Cap-Gap Extension?

A Cap-gap extension allows an F-1 student to extend their stay in the USA who has applied for H-1B until the student’s status has been changed. The gap between the end of F-1 status and the start of the H-1B status is called the “cap-gap”. The cap-gap period begins on the end date of the F-1 visa and ends on October 1st when the new fiscal year begins.

Read more about OPT Cap Gap Extension in this blog: Cap-Gap Extension with Valid Pending or Approved H-1B Visa

Moving to the USA for higher studies can surely be expensive for students. But once you know all the regulations about your visa status, it helps you make the most out of it to grow your career. You should always be careful. Keep a checklist to avoid missing out on any important procedure during your stay in the USA.

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