Optional Practical Training (OPT) is an extension of F-1 student status that allows you to work in the U.S. in order to gain practical experience in your major field of study. Any employment you undertake must be directly related to your major field of study and commensurate with your degree level. OPT must be recommended by your international student advisor (see Center for Global Education), and it must be authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS – Division of the Department of Homeland Security).
Pre-Completion OPT – While you are still a student
OPT done before completion of studies must be part-time (no more than 20 hours per week) while school is in session, but can be full-time during vacation periods, such as summer vacation or winter break. Any OPT done before you complete your studies will subtract from the total 12 months of OPT available. If pre-completion OPT is done part-time, it will only subtract from the total at half the rate. For example, if you do pre-completion OPT part-time for 4 months, you will have used 2 months of your total 12. You must maintain your full-time registration status at all times.
Post-Completion OPT – In anticipation of your graduation
For Undergraduate and Master’s students who earn the degree in May: Your completion date is your graduation date.
For December Undergraduate and Master’s Graduates: Your completion date will be the last day of finals for the semester. This is the date that you will have completed all course requirements for the degree.
Students applying for OPT must complete a USCIS Form I-765 and follow the “Special Instructions”. On Section 16 of the application, students must enter the appropriate OPT code:
- Pre-Completion – C3A
- Post-Completion – C3B
- STEM Extension – C3C
When Can I File for OPT?
For post-completion OPT, you can apply as early as 90 days prior to the completion date of your program, as discussed above. The latest you can file is 60 days after your program end date. For example, if your graduation date is May 20th, you may apply for OPT beginning February 21st, and July 13th is the cut-off date to ensure that USCIS will receive your application before July 19th, the 60th day after graduation.
You do not need a job offer in order to apply for OPT. It is highly recommended to apply early.
The OPT application approval can take 2 to 3 months, so be sure to plan ahead. OPT applications cannot be expedited. Current average processing times for applications are listed on the www.uscis.gov website. Typically, the earlier you file your OPT application, the shorter the processing time on the application due to the number of applications they receive, so plan accordingly!
Selecting a Start Date for OPT
Post-completion OPT always counts as full-time and it must be completed within 14 months of completing your program. For example, if you complete your program on May 20th, your start date for OPT must be between May 21st and July 19th, the 60th day after completing your program. Please note that although you can apply for OPT after graduation, it is to your advantage to file early, as you may forfeit some of your twelve months of OPT while waiting for your card. You may not change your OPT dates once you have mailed your application. You may not begin working until you receive your EAD card and reach the beginning date on your EAD card.
Questions to Think About When Selecting a Start Date
- Are you planning to move after graduation? If so, you may need a week or two to get settled
- Do you need additional time to search for a job after you graduate? According to the regulations, you should not accumulate 90 days total of unemployment during your 12 months of post-completion OPT. The unemployment time is accrued when your EAD card is valid, not while your OPT application is pending. If you are able to find an internship or a volunteer experience in your major field of study, as long as you are working at least 20 hours a week, this counts as employment.
- If you choose a late start date, do you have enough finances to cover you while waiting for a later start date? Since the regulations now state that students should not accumulate 90 days of unemployment during their OPT, you may choose a later start date to allow more time to find a job. However, you need to consider how long you can live in the U.S. without being able to work. Also, if you receive a job offer with an earlier start date than you have chosen for your OPT, you will have to advise your employer as to when your OPT authorization will start.
- Do you have travel plans outside of the U.S.?
What is my status while I am waiting for my OPT card?
As long as you have filed your OPT application in a timely manner, you are authorized to remain in the US while your application is pending (even if the application is pending beyond the start date you have chosen for your OPT). If you do not already have a job / internship offer, you should be actively seeking employment in the U.S. while waiting for your EAD card.
What if I want to travel and return to the U.S. before graduation? Do I need a job offer and the EAD in order to return to the U.S.?
The answer depends upon when you travel and at what stage the OPT application is in.
Travel – before your completion date while the OPT application is either pending or approved:
Low risk. You do not need a job offer or EAD in order to travel, as long as you return to the U.S. before you have completed degree requirements. In order to be readmitted in F-1 visa status, you need a “valid academic reason” to return. **Please note that attending a graduation ceremony is not considered an “academic reason”. However, finishing classes, exams, or defending your thesis are examples of a “valid academic reason”. If your application is pending, you should bring the Receipt Notice from USCIS with you when you travel. If the application is approved, we advise you to bring your EAD card and job offer letter, if available.
Travel –after your completion date and while the OPT application is pending:
High risk. After you have completed your program, the law [8CFR 214.2(f)(13)(ii)] references the need to show a valid EAD/approved OPT card in order to re-enter. We do not recommend travel and re-entry after your completion date and while the OPT application is pending unless you have a valid job offer. One never knows when USCIS will adjudicate the OPT application, and once the application is approved, it is clear that both a job offer and the EAD is needed (see below). We recommend reviewing and even printing out the information on line from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding travel on OPT (section 2.N and 2.O)
Travel – after your completion date and your OPT card has been approved:
High risk. Once the OPT application is approved by CIS, you MUST have an official job offer and the EAD to present at the Port of Entry to return to the United States. Once the OPT is approved, students can only return to the U.S. to resume employment; this is determined by a job offer. The Department of Homeland Security states, “If your OPT has been approved and you depart before you get a job, your OPT ends and you cannot reenter.” They have clarified their position to state that you do not need the job offer in order to depart, but you DO need the job offer to reenter the U.S.
- While on Post-Completion OPT, you are still on an F-1 student visa and you are still a Lynchburg College student for visa purposes. You are responsible for communicating the following information to the Center for Global Education during your time of OPT:
- You must submit a copy of your EAD card to the Center for Global Education as soon as it arrives
- Change of local and international addresses
- Beginning and end date of all jobs
- Name of the employer(s), mailing address, supervisor name, and supervisor’s phone number
- Type of employment and brief description of how the work is related to your program of study
- If you have changed your visa status, you must provide the Center for Global Education the copies of your Approval Notice from USCIS indicating your new visa status or your I-94 card and visa stamp indicating the new visa status. This must be done within 10 days of receiving the documents from USCIS or re-entering the US. The Center for Global Education will then COMPLETE your SEVIS record.
- Finally, when you have completed your OPT or if you leave the US and do not intend to return to use the remainder of your OPT, please email the Center for Global Education within 10 days of leaving the US or finishing OPT.
Notifying the Center for Global Education of Employer Information
The Center for Global Education is required to update SEVIS with your employer information. You need to inform the Center for Global Education of your employer name, physical address, employment start date and phone number within 10 days of beginning employment on OPT. You will also need to notify the Center for Global Education when you terminate employment or if you change your employer.
If you are graduating, it is important to think about health insurance because you will no longer be eligible for the student health insurance plan after mid-August of your graduation year. If your employer will not be providing you with coverage, please contact the Center for Global Education for a list of optional health insurance companies. We recommend that you review rates and plans carefully to ensure your full knowledge of the coverage.
17-Month Extension of OPT for F-1 Students who have Obtained a STEM Degree
Regulations allow F-1 students who have received a degree in the U.S. in a STEM field (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) to obtain an extension of their existing post-completion OPT for up to 17 months, for a maximum period of post-completion OPT of 29 months. The extension is available only to students who are employed or will be employed by an E-verify employer in good standing with the USCIS, and who have obtained a degree in a “STEM” field – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Note: Only one 17-month extension period is allowed. (i.e. If you apply for a 17-month OPT extension after completing an M.S. degree in a STEM field, you will not qualify for another 17-month extension of OPT after completing a Ph.D. in a STEM field.) Students receiving the 17-month OPT extension may not accumulate an aggregate of 120 days of unemployment during any period of post-completion OPT (including the initial 12-month period, and the 17-month extension period).
After you complete your degree requirements, you will need the following to re-enter the U.S.:
- Travel Signature on your I-20 that is less than six (6) months old.
- Letter from your employer to prove that you have a job to resume when you return to the U.S. or an offer letter to show that you will begin a job upon your return to the U.S.
- Financial documentation: If you have a low-paying job or unpaid internship, it is highly recommended to carry financial documentation with you to show you have sufficient finances to live in the U.S. Offer letters should contain salary information
- F-1 visa in your passport that will be valid on the day you plan to return to the U.S. If your visa stamp will be expired, you will need to renew it at a US consulate or embassy while outside the U.S.
- OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD, also known as “OPT Card”)
- Valid Passport
- It is also highly recommended that you carry your diploma or transcripts or certification of completion from Lynchburg College.
Do You Need to Renew Your F-1 Visa Stamp While on OPT?
If you do not travel outside of the U.S. during your OPT, it is not a problem if your F-1 visa stamp expires. However, if you are traveling outside of the U.S. and then re-entering during your OPT, you will need to go to a U.S. embassy outside of the U.S. to renew your visa stamp. For visa renewal documentation, you will need the items listed for travel above, including either your diploma or certification of completion from Lynchburg College.
When you re-enter the U.S., retrieve your electronic I-94 and print it out.
Make sure that your I-94 indicates your visa status as F-1, D/S. If you re-enter as a tourist or in any other visa status, it will interrupt your F status, which will invalidate your OPT.
After the end date on your EAD card, you will have 60 days to do one of the following:
- Depart the United States
- Transfer to another school to begin a new program
- Begin a new program of study at Lynchburg College
- Seek a change to another nonimmigrant or immigrant status