Immigration

The Complete Guide to OPTX for International Students

Navigating STEM OPTX can be complex, but our guide simplifies the process for international students.
Siam Hossain
7 min

The Complete Guide to OPTX for International Students

Introduction

Navigating STEM OPTX can be complex, but our guide simplifies the process for international students. We’ll go over all the steps you will need to take to ensure a smooth STEM OPTX process, from the eligibility criteria for application to what your next course of action may be after your OPTX expires.

What Is the STEM OPT Extension?

The STEM OPT extension is based on the Optional Practical Training (OPT) which is a program for F-1 students in the United States, providing them with an opportunity to gain practical experience in their field of study. Essentially, STEM OPT allows international students to undertake temporary employment that is directly related to their major area of study. The total duration for which a student can be authorized for OPT is usually 12 months, but this can be extended using the STEM OPT extension.

The STEM OPT extension, often referred to as OPTX, is a 24-month extra training period designed for F-1 students who've completed degrees in specific STEM fields .This extension allows students to extend their initial Optional Practical Training (OPT) period, giving them hands-on experience in their academic field. F-1 students can apply for this extension twice during their academic journey. To start this process, F-1 holders need to submit their extension application around 90 days before their initial OPT period concludes.

STEM OPTX Eligibility

Requirements for STEM OPT Extension

To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, F-1 students currently in their regular post-completion OPT period need to meet certain criteria. Here's a straightforward checklist for STEM OPT extension eligibility:

  • The student must be in an ongoing initial period of regular post-completion OPT
  • The employer must participate in the E-Verify program and comply with all the stipulations outlined in Form I-983
  • The student’s degree should be from a STEM field. This can be either the current degree or a previous STEM degree obtained from a U.S. institution within the last 10 years
  • The student must have maintained their F-1 status while on their current OPT
  • The application for the STEM OPT extension must be submitted within 90 days before the current OPT end date
  • The job must be full-time, entailing at least 20 hours of work per week, and it must be a traditional, paid position
  • There should be a legitimate employer-employee relationship

Remember, students can take advantage of the STEM OPT extension twice during their academic career in the U.S. For more detailed information on STEM OPT eligibility, check out Study in the States.

When Do I Apply for STEM OPT?

To apply for your STEM OPT extension, you should start the process about 90 days before your current 12-month OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Card expires. Simply request the necessary STEM OPT Extension I-20 from your school’s International Student Services (ISS).

Remember, it's essential to ensure that USCIS receives your STEM OPT extension application before your current OPT EAD Card expires to avoid any complications or disqualification from the STEM OPT 180-day extension. Planning ahead will help smoothly transition from your initial OPT period to the STEM OPT extension.

How to Apply for STEM OPT Extension

The application process can be complex, so here is a detailed step-by-step guide to help you navigate it:

  • Complete Form I-765 for Paper Application: If you're applying through a paper-based application, fill out Form I-765, available here. Also, consider completing Form G-1145 for free e-notifications about your application status. For online applications, you don't need the paper I-765 form, but the information may still be useful.

  • Form I-983 with Your Employer: This form, which you must complete with your employer, is crucial for the Office of International Affairs (OIA) to issue an I-20 recommending the STEM extension. It must be signed in ink. You don't need to include this form in your USCIS application, but it's needed for the I-20 request. Detailed guidance is available on the DHS website.

  • Gather Documentation: Assemble all necessary documents including:
    - Your most recent electronic I-94 record or paper I-94 card
    - Passport identification page
    - F-1 visa stamp
    - Front and back of your current OPT card (EAD)
    - Letters from OPT employers confirming employment or pay receipts and offer letters
    - Evidence of your STEM degree.

  • Passport Photos and Fee Payment: You'll need passport photos (follow these recommendations) and a $410 fee for the application, payable by check or money order to USCIS.

  • Complete STEM OPTx Request through your university’s international student services office:
    You can complete your STEM OPTx request form through your university’s international student affairs office. Upload all the necessary documents according to your university’s guidelines.

  • Compile Application Materials: After receiving request approval, make any suggested changes to your materials. Include your new, signed, and dated I-20. For paper applications, also include the check for $410, signed I-765, and optionally, Form G-1145.

    For both paper and online applications, submit photos, new I-20, previous I-20, EAD, I-94 record, passport page, F-1 visa stamp, job confirmation letters, and evidence of your STEM degree. Staple the packet for paper applications.

  • Receive Receipt Notice and Wait: USCIS will send a receipt notice once they receive your application. The STEM OPT processing time varies, but you can continue working while your application is pending, up to 180 days or until a decision is made.

What to Do When Your STEM OPT Extension Expires

When your STEM OPT extension ends, you receive a 60-day grace period. During this time, you will not be allowed to work, and you need to prepare to leave the country if you don’t have another visa lined up.

Moreover, many visa processes take longer than two months. If you wait until your STEM OPT is nearly over to look for other ways to stay in the US, you might have to leave regardless. This could mean losing your job and restarting the immigration process from scratch. To prevent this, here are some options you can consider:

  1. Apply for an H-1B Visa

The H-1B visa is ideal if you're working in a specialty occupation and have an employer ready to sponsor you. It is important to note, however, that the application process is competitive, with an annual cap on the number of visas issued. This visa offers the flexibility of full-time or part-time employment and can be a stepping stone to permanent residency in the U.S.

Learn more here: Step-by-Step Guide to 2024 H1B Visa Application.

  1. Apply for a J-1 Visa

The J-1 visa is tailored specifically to professors, researchers, or exchange students, and requires sponsorship from an academic institution, government, or private business. The work under this visa should predominantly involve teaching, consulting, or specialized research. The J-1 visa is a great option for those looking to engage in academic or research-oriented roles and can be a gateway to further opportunities in the U.S.

  1. Go Back to School in the U.S.

Another route is returning to school through programs like the Day 1 Curricular Practical Training (CPT), especially if you're aiming for a graduate degree and a career in the U.S. The CPT program allows you to start working from the first day of your graduate program, though it needs renewal every year or semester based on the university's policy.

This option can be a bit of a juggle, balancing work and study, particularly if you opt for full-time employment while pursuing an advanced degree. Though it might delay immediate career advancement, it sets the stage for potentially more rewarding opportunities in the future.

  1. Start a Business

If you have entrepreneurial goals, starting a business could be your path to staying in the U.S. This path can lead to eligibility for a few different permanent immigration visas, including the EB-5 category, which is designed for people with specialized knowledge or advanced degrees.

This route is particularly suitable for those who have a solid business idea and the means to bring it to fruition, offering an opportunity to combine entrepreneurial skills with the goal of securing a more permanent status in the U.S.

  1. Return to Your Home Country

With the global shift towards remote work, some U.S. companies are open to the idea of their employees working remotely from their home countries. This allows you to maintain your career trajectory without any major disruptions.

However, it’s important to discuss remote work possibilities with your current employer well before your STEM OPT expires. Keep in mind the time zone differences and legal restrictions that might apply. This option is best suited for those who are comfortable relocating back and can adapt to working across time zones, and are capable of maintaining their professional relationships and work quality.

Degrees that Qualify for OPT STEM Extension

To qualify for the OPT STEM extension, students must have degrees in specific fields. These include:

  • Actuarial Sciences
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Engineering
  • Engineering Technologies
  • Life Sciences
  • Mathematics
  • Military Technologies
  • Physical Sciences

It’s important to note, your school should code your major to match one of the CIP codes listed here in order to qualify for the STEM OPT extension.

Conclusion

We understand the challenges you face as an international student. Algorizin is your go-to for simplifying these immigration hurdles. Our services cover everything from legal assistance to job placement, ensuring a trouble-free STEM OPT extension period. Your dream career is within reach, and we're here to guide you every step of the way.

FAQs

If I am currently in F-1 status, will I be eligible for a 24-month OPT STEM extension?

Yes, if you are currently in F-1 status and in a period of post-completion OPT, you are eligible for a 24-month STEM OPT extension. This eligibility applies once per degree level, including bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degrees.

Can you get a STEM extension twice?

Yes, it is possible to get a STEM extension twice. To qualify for a second STEM OPT extension, a student must earn a second qualifying degree at a higher education level and apply to USCIS during their initial period of OPT. Additionally, in some cases, students may use a prior STEM degree to be eligible for their second STEM OPT extension.

Can I work for a Start-Up on the STEM extension?

You can work for a start-up on the STEM extension, provided that the regulatory requirements are met, and there is a genuine employer-employee relationship. The Office of Global Services (OGS) will need confirmation of this relationship from students.

Additionally, the start-up employer must adhere to the training plan requirements, remain in good standing with E-Verify, offer compensation comparable to U.S. workers, and have the necessary resources to comply with the proposed training plan.

How long does it take to get a STEM extension approved?

The processing times for STEM OPT extensions can vary, but on average, you should anticipate USCIS to take approximately 90-120 days to approve your STEM OPT Extension application.


Who is eligible for STEM OPT?

To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, an F-1 student must fulfill the following criteria:

1. The student must be currently in a valid period of regular post-completion OPT

2. The employer must be a participant in the E-Verify program and adhere to the requirements in Form I-983

3. The student’s degree should be in a STEM field, which could be the current degree or a previous STEM degree earned from a U.S. institution within the last 10 years

4. The student must have maintained F-1 status during their current OPT period

5. The application for the STEM OPT extension needs to be filed within 90 days before the current OPT expiration date

6. The employment must be full-time (at least 20 hours per week) and should be a paid position

7. A legitimate employer-employee relationship must be established

Can I apply for a STEM extension after the OPT expires?

You must apply for your STEM OPT extension up to 90 days before your current OPT ends. Once your 12-month OPT expires or during the 60-day grace period, you cannot submit an application. Ensure that USCIS receives your complete OPT extension application before the expiration of your initial 12 months of OPT to maintain eligibility.

Can I have multiple employers on STEM OPT?

Yes, you can have multiple employers on STEM OPT. However, there are specific conditions:

1. Each employer must hire you for at least 20 hours per week

2. All employers must be registered with E-Verify

3. Both you and each employer must sign and agree to fulfill all the reporting requirements outlined in Form I-983

Can I change employers while on STEM OPT?

Yes, students on STEM OPT can change employers. However, there are specific requirements:

1. Every employer you work for while on STEM OPT must be enrolled in E-Verify

2. The position must meet all STEM requirements

3. Upon leaving a company while on STEM OPT, you must submit the Final Evaluation on Student Progress (last page of the I-983) to your institution's
Center for International Education (CIE)

4. When starting with a new employer, a new Form I-983 must be submitted to CIE for the new employer

How much unemployment time do I receive under STEM OPT?

You receive a total of 60 days of unemployment during your STEM OPT period. This is in addition to any unused unemployment days from the initial 90 days granted under Post Completion OPT. The combined maximum allowance for unemployment days during your entire Post Completion OPT and STEM Extension OPT period is 150 days.

What happens if I exceed the 150-day unemployment limit?

Exceeding the 150-day unemployment limit can lead to accruing unlawful presence, risking future U.S. immigration benefits and readmission. To avoid this, it's recommended to depart the U.S., contact your IS Advisor to close the F-1 record, and seek guidance from experienced immigration attorneys. Students surpassing the limit lose the ability to transfer F-1 status for a new academic program and don't have an F-1 grace period.

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