OPT (Optional Practical Training) is an authorized work authorization available to F-1 students that allows them to gain practical experience in their chosen field of study. Authorized OPT workers may work up to 12 months post or pre-completion.
OPT may be paid or unpaid, full-time or part-time work experience directly related to your degree program. There are no strict salary or contract job arrangements requirements – the key is finding something directly related.
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What is OPT?
OPT (Optional Practical Training) allows international students on F-1 visas to work in the United States during their academic programs, making an integral part of the educational experience and providing an invaluable hands-on professional experience. One recent report has demonstrated how international students on OPT contribute significantly to the US economy.
OPT eligibility requires students to have good academic standing (i.e., have attained a GPA of 2.5 or above), progress toward their degree, have completed at least one full academic year, and be financially capable of supporting themselves during their OPT period.
Once approved for OPT, students will be sent an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) by USCIS to show proof they can begin work in the US. Students should consult their DSO before making applications or after receiving their EADs for advice about when and how to apply.
OPT-eligible students have many choices when finding employment during OPT; what matters is that their work directly relates to their area of study and degree program. OPT positions may include complete or part-time positions that pay hourly, salaried or salaried, paid or unpaid, and in for-profit or non-profit organizations and self-employment opportunities.
Importantly, students on OPT cannot save unused months; any unused time during their program’s duration will be lost as forfeiture. Furthermore, students can only use OPT once for each higher level of education – for instance, after earning both their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
OPT processes are often complex and time-sensitive: students must meet specific timelines to process their applications on time for the earliest available start date. Failing this deadline could force rethinking OPT plans or delay job searches.
Pre-completion OPT allows students to participate in professional experiences related to their degree program. It provides invaluable opportunities to gain hands-on experience and develop practical skills in the workplace while alleviating some of the costs associated with studying abroad. It’s also an ideal opportunity to build resumes and expand professional networks while earning a salary – two desirable characteristics!
Pre-Completion OPT may begin 60 days after your program end date (check your I-20 to find it out). Applying early for Pre-Completion OPT is crucial; USCIS takes up to 90 days to process applications for this benefit.
To be eligible for pre-completion OPT, one must have been in F-1 status for at least one full academic year and completed one or more Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral programs from a SEVP-certified institution.
Pre-completion OPT may be used part-time during school sessions (up to 20 hours per week) or full-time during session breaks, but not between semesters. Any time spent using pre-completion OPT during your final semester of the degree program will count against your eligibility for post-completion OPT (up to 12 months).
As part of your pre-completion OPT, it is necessary to submit an updated I-765 form to USCIS before your employment start date. Be sure to provide accurate details about your job and field of work and any new duties about your field of study that pertain to you or are assigned by your employer. In addition, remember that an employer may request an I-9 form from you, so ensure all details are correct on both forms.
Your OPT application requires you to clearly and concisely describe how your employment relates to and differs from similar jobs within your field of study and industry and compare it against similar jobs elsewhere. This step is central to getting approved, so if you feel uncertain about how best to answer this question, please attend an OPT workshop for assistance.
Post-Completion OPT differs from Pre-Completion OPT in that you participate after you have finished your degree program of study. Your OPT start date must fall within 60 days of your expected graduation date or program completion date as listed on your I-20, and any job that relates to your field of study (whether full- or part-time, paid or unpaid volunteer work) must not violate labor laws or be illegal.
For this type of OPT, your DSO must complete and submit Form I-20: “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.” He or she should ensure that your OPT start and end dates correspond with your actual or anticipated graduation or program completion dates on your I-20. Furthermore, your DSO should submit a signed statement from either your academic adviser or Dean of Students that verifies you will finish all course requirements other than the thesis/dissertation by the expected graduation date.
An Employment Authorization Document (EAD) allows international students to gain valuable work experience and enhance their resumes for entry-level jobs in the US job market. Applying early will give you time to begin job searching immediately upon graduation!
In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security made headlines when it implemented an extension to OPT for students majoring in particular science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM). Called STEM OPT Enhancement or STEM OPT Extension, this initiative allows these individuals on OPT to extend their work authorization by 24 months if specific criteria are met.
Students must be F-1 status and have completed all degree requirements except thesis or dissertation writing to qualify for STEM OPT extension. They also require an employer who will participate in this enhancement program by providing them with a formal training plan and OPT enhancement training opportunities.
The H-1B visa is a work permit that enables US employers to employ foreign workers in specific occupations. Only limited numbers are available each year and an intensive application process. Students on OPT who wish to transition into permanent employment often take advantage of it.
OPT provides international students an ideal way to gain work experience and hone their skills before seeking full-time work in the USA. The USCIS website contains resources and information relevant to those interested in the H-1B process.
As part of your OPT period, you can work any job related to your field of study. When reporting this employment information to OIA within ten days of starting each new job, make sure that you can clearly and concisely demonstrate its relevance for your degree program.
If you are on post-completion OPT, remember that one 12-month segment can only be utilized per degree program completed. Any remaining OPT that has not been utilized within 60 days after your program end date will be forfeited, so it is wise to begin searching for an H-1B sponsor as soon as your post-completion OPT begins.
Ensure you update your e-verify account regularly or risk USCIS canceling your F-1 status.
OPT should only be considered when you have a legitimate employer who will sponsor your visa application. The USCIS website contains numerous resources that will assist in finding an employer who meets eligibility requirements.
Students pursuing pre-completion OPT must be in their final semester of studies, so you must closely maintain contact with and follow instructions from your adviser. It is also beneficial to attend virtual OPT workshops for up-to-date information on the process; we suggest signing up for one of our weekly OPT webinars so you can ask questions and receive up-to-date details regarding this process.