Immigration

The Complete Guide on Optional Practical Training (OPT) for International Students

This blog post is an in-depth guide for international students in the U.S., explaining the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, covering eligibility, application processes, and strategies for leveraging OPT for practical work experience in their field of study.
Siam Hossain
7 min

The Complete Guide on Optional Practical Training (OPT) for International Students

Introduction

For international students in the U.S., Optional Practical Training (OPT) offers a straightforward way to gain practical experience in their field of study. What does OPT mean? This guide is designed to provide a clear understanding of what OPT involves, including the application process, eligibility criteria, and the rules you need to follow to maintain your status.

Whether you're looking into pre-completion or post-completion OPT, this guide aims to clarify the process and help you make informed decisions about your professional development in the United States.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)  

OPT stands for Optional Practical Training, which offers F-1 students an opportunity to gain practical work experience in their field of study in the U.S. The optional practical training duration is flexible, allowing up to 12 months of employment authorization, which can be utilized either before (pre-completion) or after (post-completion) their academic studies.

It's important to note that any time used during the pre-completion phase is subtracted from the total 12-month post-completion allowance. OPT is different from Curricular Practical Training (CPT) in that it can be used for employment after graduation, whereas CPT is intended for work experience as part of the curriculum during the student’s education.

In 2022 alone, there were over 171,000 OPT employment authorizations. Companies like Amazon, Google, AZTech Technologies, and Deloitte are among the top employers for students on OPT and STEM OPT extensions, highlighting the program's impact in connecting talented international students with the U.S. workforce.

Why Is OPT Important for International Students?

OPT is vital for international students in the U.S. seeking work opportunities post-graduation. Due to limited immigration options, OPT has emerged as the primary route for graduates to gain work experience and potentially secure long-term employment in the U.S. The F-1 visa's restrictions on dual intent make it challenging for students to transition to permanent residency directly. OPT serves as an important bridge, allowing graduates to explore job opportunities, develop skills, and establish connections while navigating complex immigration processes.

Despite its limitations in providing a clear path to permanent residency, OPT offers graduates a crucial buffer period to assess and pursue their immigration options while contributing to the U.S. workforce.

Types of OPT

There are a couple of different types of OPT, depending on the timeframe of your OPT. Let’s get into the details:

Pre-completion OPT

Pre-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) offers F-1 students an opportunity to gain work experience while pursuing their studies. As part of the OPT program, students can engage in pre-completion OPT, which allows them to work part-time, up to 20 hours per week, while attending classes.

To qualify, students must have completed a full academic year of study at a certified institution in the United States. During university breaks, students have the option to work full-time, providing flexibility to gain additional experience.

Importantly, eligibility for pre-completion OPT isn't solely based on holding an F-1 visa for the entire academic year; students who switch visa statuses but remain engaged in their studies can still participate. This flexibility accommodates students who may experience changes in their immigration status throughout their academic journey, allowing them to benefit from the pre-completion OPT program to enhance their professional skills and prospects.

Post-completion OPT

Post-completion OPT allows graduates to work in the U.S. after completing their studies, offering flexibility in employment with options for both part-time and full-time work. This phase of OPT can begin immediately after graduation, provided the graduate has secured a job. Unlike during their studies, there are no academic commitments to limit working hours.

However, it's essential to note that any time spent in pre-completion OPT is deducted from the total allowable 12-month OPT period. For example, if you utilized 10 months of OPT before graduating, you would only be eligible for 2 more months of post-completion OPT. The key rule is that the combined duration of pre and post-completion OPT cannot exceed 12 months.

Additionally, transitioning from an F-1 visa to a green card does not affect the duration of your OPT eligibility. This means that graduates have a clear timeframe to gain work experience in their field of study after completing their academic programs.

STEM OPT Extension

STEM OPT Extension offers a valuable opportunity for students who have completed their degrees in specific fields. For those in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) areas, there's a chance to extend their work period in the U.S. significantly. This extension allows for an additional 24 months on top of the standard 12-month post-completion OPT, totaling up to 36 months.

However, there are specific criteria to be eligible for this extension:

  • The degree obtained by the F-1 student must be from a field included on the ICE’s STEM Designated Degree Program List.
  • The student must be employed by a company that is actively enrolled in and utilizing the E-Verify program.
  • The initial grant of post-completion OPT must be based on the same STEM degree that the student is using for their current employment.

For more information on the STEM OPT Extension, check out our guide here.

What Are the Requirements for OPT?

To be eligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT), international students must meet specific criteria that align with their educational and visa status in the United States. Here's a breakdown of the eligibility criteria:

  • You must be in the U.S. with a valid F-1 visa to apply for OPT.
  • You need to be a student at an accredited U.S. educational institution.
  • You must have completed at least one academic year of enrollment in your current program of study.
  • If applying for pre-completion OPT, you agree to work part-time.
  • Your job must be directly related to your major area of study.
  • You must be physically present in the U.S. when submitting your OPT application, whether online or by mail.
  • You should not have a criminal record during your time in the U.S.
  • You must be eligible to receive an EAD from USCIS.
  • You cannot have engaged in 12 months of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) at the same education level.
  • You cannot be enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program as your primary course of study.

How to Apply for OPT

The OPT process for international students is straightforward but requires careful attention to deadlines, documentation, and eligibility criteria.

OPT Application Process

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to apply for OPT:

  • Consult with your designated school official (DSO): Request your DSO to recommend you for OPT by endorsing your Form I-20 and updating your SEVIS record.
  • Gather required documentation: This includes your signed OPT I-20 form from your DSO, a completed OPT recommendation form (if required by your institution), two passport-style photos, document copies (such as your Form I-94, passport ID page, F-1 Visa page), and any previous EAD Cards if applicable.
  • File form i-765 with USCIS: Submit the Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765) online or by mail, including the $410 filing fee and required supporting documents. The timing of your application will depend on whether you're applying for pre-completion or post-completion OPT.

Timing considerations for OPT are crucial for international students planning to apply for work authorization in the United States. Here's what you need to know:

  • Students can file for OPT up to 90 days before the program end date on the Form I-20 and no later than 60 days after the program end date on the Form I-20.
  • Most students are eligible to apply for post-completion OPT at each higher degree level.
  • OPT can only be used once per higher degree level.
  • OPT must be used directly after graduation and cannot be preserved for a later time, ensuring timely employment opportunities.
  • Students cannot begin work on OPT until receipt of the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) work card and the validity period of the card has begun.

Volunteering and Internships on OPT

On OPT, engaging in unpaid internships or volunteer work is permissible and can be counted as employment, provided these activities are related to the student's field of study. However, these positions must adhere to federal and state labor laws to ensure they're considered legitimate under OPT requirements.

Volunteering, in the context of OPT, refers to donating time to organizations with a charitable or humanitarian focus without expecting any form of payment. It's important to differentiate this from unpaid work, which is subject to strict Department of Labor guidelines to qualify as a legitimate unpaid internship. These criteria help protect the rights of volunteers and interns, ensuring the primary benefit of the arrangement is to the intern.

For those considering volunteering or interning during OPT, it's recommended to secure a contract or agreement from the overseeing supervisor. This document should outline the job description and time commitment, clearly establishing the relationship between the work and the student's field of study. Remember, while OPT employment can be unpaid, it must always relate directly to your degree to maintain compliance with OPT rules and safeguard your immigration status.

Before accepting any volunteer or internship position during OPT, consulting with a DSO is advised. This is crucial to avoid engaging in activities that might violate immigration status, potentially impacting the ability to remain in the U.S. or obtain future immigration benefits.

Options After OPT

After completing the Optional Practical Training (OPT), F-1 students enter a transition phase marked by a 60-day OPT grace period. This period begins immediately following the OPT expiration date, offering students a window to make important decisions regarding their next steps in the United States. It’s important to consider your options well before the end of your OPT to ensure a smooth transition. Here are a few paths you may consider:

  • Changing Visa Status

After engaging in Optional Practical Training (OPT), international students often consider various pathways to extend their stay in the United States, including changing their visa status.

If you receive approval for a change of visa status while on OPT, it's important to inform your institution's international office. They need to update your SEVIS record accordingly. Reporting changes promptly ensures compliance with immigration regulations and avoids potential issues with your status.

On the other hand, once your OPT concludes, if you have a pending or approved change of status, consider consulting with immigration legal counsel. They can provide guidance on what options are available to you, especially if you wish to remain in the U.S. past your 60-day grace period without adversely affecting your immigration status.

If you qualify, you should consider applying for the STEM OPT Extension and secure additional 24 months more under your status. Check, if you're eligible here.

One such visa option may be the H-1B visa. If you have a pending or approved change of status to H-1B (typically for employment in specialty occupations), you may be eligible for a Cap-Gap Extension I-20. This extension bridges the gap between the end of your OPT and the start of your H-1B status, allowing you to stay in the U.S. during this interim period.

Another pathway after OPT could be transitioning to a J-1 visa, which is designated for professors, researchers, or exchange students. This visa requires sponsorship by an academic institution, government, or private business and is focused on activities such as teaching, consulting, or conducting specialized research.

  • Going Back to School in the U.S.

For F-1 students on Optional Practical Training (OPT) considering their next steps, the option to go back to school in the U.S.A. requires careful planning and adherence to specific immigration regulations.

During OPT, students are not permitted to start a full-time program of study. If you're looking to enroll in a new program while on OPT, you must forfeit the remainder of your OPT period before your classes can begin. This involves requesting a Transfer Out of your F-1 SEVIS record to another institution.

After completing OPT, students wishing to return to school need to manage their SEVIS record similarly, ensuring the transfer or level change is requested before the 60-day grace period post-OPT expires. It's important to note that once the SEVIS transfer release date passes, you can no longer work under OPT, even if your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) hasn't expired. The transfer release date effectively ends your OPT authorization.

Furthermore, the new program must start within five months of either the SEVIS transfer release date or the EAD end date, whichever comes first. Students can set a future release date to continue working on OPT until that date arrives, provided the EAD remains valid and the new program hasn't started.

If you're considering a program that cannot admit F-1 students and therefore cannot issue an I-20, it's important to discuss your situation with the International Student Adviser at the prospective school to understand your options.

  • Leaving the USA

Another option would be to leave the U.S. after completion of OPT. If departing the U.S., it's important to adhere to specific guidelines. Students must exit the country within the 60-day grace period following the end date on their Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card. Additionally, if leaving before the EAD expiration date, it's crucial to inform your institution’s international office to update the SEVIS record accordingly. This ensures compliance with immigration regulations and facilitates a smooth transition out of the U.S.

Conclusion

Navigating the intricacies of the application processes of OPT for international students can be challenging. Algorizin offers a comprehensive OPT program that can help you navigate through these intricacies with ease.

With Algorizin's OPT service, students can access one-to-one legal assistance from experienced immigration attorneys, ensuring a smooth application process. More benefits include comprehensive OPT application assistance, help securing the Employment Authorization Document (EAD), and full-fledged legal support throughout their 12-month OPT period.

Don’t let visa complications hinder your dreams, we’re here to guide you every step of the way.

FAQs

What is the best time for international students to apply for OPT?

For pre-completion OPT, students are allowed to apply anytime as long as they complete their first academic year. It is recommended to apply in the spring as many hiring processes begin during this season.

For post-completion OPT, students should apply up to 90 days before graduation and select an OPT start date before the end of their 60-day grace period.

Check how our Founder Siam Hossain answers this question.

How much time do I have to find a job on my OPT after I graduate?

You have limited time to find a job on your OPT after you graduate. Generally, you must submit your OPT application no later than 60 days after graduation or 60 days beyond the Form I-20 end date, whichever comes earlier.

What happens if international students apply for OPT and do not get a job?

If international students on F-1 visas apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and do not secure a job, they are allowed a total of 90 days of unemployment during their 12-month post-completion OPT period. This 90-day period is aggregate, meaning it accumulates throughout the OPT period. Students must find employment related to their degree within this timeframe to maintain their F-1 status.

It's important to note that employment can include paid positions, volunteering, or unpaid internships, as long as the position does not violate U.S. labor laws and is related to the student's field of study

What type of visa am I on during OPT?

During Optional Practical Training (OPT), you remain on your F-1 student visa status. OPT is an extension of your F-1 status, allowing you to engage in temporary employment directly related to your field of study in the United States.

Can I apply for the OPT extension without a job?

No, you cannot apply for the STEM OPT extension without a job offer. While F-1 students are permitted to apply for initial OPT without a job offer in hand, the requirements for the STEM OPT extension are different. For the STEM OPT extension, you need to have a job or job offer that is directly related to your degree and field of study. This employment must meet specific criteria set by the USCIS, including being in a position related to your STEM field.

How can international students apply for jobs for OPT?

The initial OPT, unlike the STEM OPT extension, doesn’t require employers to hold any specific qualifications other than being related to the OPT holder’s field of study. So it is relatively easy to apply for jobs for OPT. After receiving OPT authorization, you could look into your variety of resources for guidance on OPT jobs. There are job fairs, resume workshops and access to job databases.

Can I travel on OPT?

Yes, you can travel internationally while on Optional Practical Training (OPT). However, there are important considerations to keep in mind:

1. Ensure you have a job or job offer to return to when re-entering the United States.

2. Have your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card, which proves your OPT approval, with you while traveling.

3. You can re-enter the U.S. before your OPT start date, during your OPT period, or after a temporary absence. However, ensure your F-1 status is valid and you have the necessary documentation.

Can international students apply for OPT after their master's?

Yes, international students can apply for OPT once every degree level.

Can you do multiple jobs on OPT?

You are permitted to work for several employers, encompassing short-term positions, self-employment, contractual work, or freelance projects. To maintain active status in your OPT, the cumulative weekly work hours across all your OPT roles must total 20 hours or more.

Can students on OPT switch jobs?

Yes, you can change employers as many times as they wish. However, all jobs need to be related to your degree of study. You need to report your employer through SEVP portal.

What happens if the OPT job I get isn't related to my field of study?

Your OPT job must be related to your field of study. Working in an unrelated job is considered a serious violation of your F-1 status and you could risk losing your F-1 status and hinder future employment and immigration possibilities.

Does OPT require sponsorship from an employer?

No, unlike some other work visa programs, employers do not need to go through a sponsorship process for students on OPT. Instead, students apply for OPT authorization themselves and can work for any employer who is willing to hire them for a job related to their field of study.

What if I lose my job during OPT?

If you lose your job during OPT (Optional Practical Training), it's important to take the following steps:

1. Report the job loss to your school's Designated School Official (DSO) as soon as possible. You are required to update your employment information within 10 days to maintain your F-1 status.

2. Actively seek new employment that is related to your field of study. You have a total of 90 days of unemployment allowed during the initial 12 months of post-completion OPT. Any days you were unemployed before losing your job count toward this 90-day total.

3. Consider other options if finding a job within your field of study is challenging. This might include volunteering or unpaid internships, as long as they are related to your major area of study and you report them to your DSO.

Do I have to use the entire 12-month OPT period at once, or may I use it in increments?

Before completing your studies, OPT may be used in increments during the pre-completion OPT phase. Any increment that remains unused can go towards post-completion OPT. However, after graduating, post-completion OPT must be utilized in one block of time and cannot be broken down into increments.

Are OPT applications ever denied?

Yes, OPT (Optional Practical Training) applications can be denied. While the specific reasons for denial can vary, they may include issues related to the application itself, such as incomplete information, failure to meet eligibility criteria or submission errors. It's important for applicants to carefully review the requirements and ensure all documentation is accurate and complete to minimize the risk of denial.

How is tax filing for international students on OPT done?

International students on OPT must file taxes if they earn income in the United States. Typically, they need to file Form 8843 to determine their tax status as a non-resident alien (if they’ve stayed in the country for less than 5 years)  and Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ for reporting their income and deductions. Students should also ensure they have all necessary documents, such as W-2 forms from their employers, before filing their taxes.

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