As an international student, you are eligible to work in the U.S. for up to a year on your F-1 visa through something called Optional Practical Training (OPT). You DO NOT have to have a job offer to apply for OPT. 

OPT is a 12-month work authorization program that permits international students to gain professional experience without having to apply for an H-1B visa. In general, you must work in a job that is directly related to your area of study. A 2-year extension of standard OPT is available to students pursuing STEM majors

You aren’t automatically eligible though. You must first apply to the federal government for employment authorization. 

Fortunately for you, the process is relatively straightforward. Nonetheless, we’ve assembled this helpful guide to both explain the program and get you started. 

Types of OPT

You are eligible to apply for work authorization through OPT while you are still in school. This is called “Pre-Completion OPT.” Pre-completion OPT allows you to work part-time while class is in session and full-time when class isn’t in session. 

You are also eligible to apply for OPT after you graduate for either part-time or full-time work. This is called…any guesses? 

“Post-Completion OPT.”

The government allows you to take advantage of both types. You aren’t limited to just one. However, you ARE limited to 12 months total of full-time equivalent work for both pre-completion and post-completion combined.  

So, you’ll want to think strategically about how you use your 12 months. Most students wait to start their OPT until after they’ve graduated. 

OPT and STEM Majors

STEM OPT is a 2-year extension of standard OPT for recent graduates who have completed their education in a science, technology, engineering or math degree program. 

To be eligible for STEM OPT, you must have already been granted OPT. Furthermore, the government will only grant STEM OPT to those who are in “Post-Completion” OPT. In other words, the program is for graduates, not current students. 

Combining Post-Completion OPT with the STEM extension allows you to stay in the U.S. for three years after graduation on your F-1 student visa. 

You can learn more about the program on the Department of Homeland Security’s Study in the States STEM OPT website. 

OPT Eligibility

You DO NOT have to have a job offer to apply for OPT. 

In order to apply for optional practical training, you must be able to respond “yes” to the following questions:

  • Is your I-20 current?
  • Have you been a full-time student for at least one full academic year?
  • Do you have a valid, unexpired passport?
  • Have you used fewer than 12 months of full-time curricular practical training?
  • Does it reflect your current field of study and educational level?
  • Have you been registered full-time as an F-1 student every semester you attended school? 

Thinking ahead: When should you apply for OPT?

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responsible for the OPT program. After you apply for work authorization through OPT, it can take the USCIS up to three months to process your application and mail your employment authorization card.

So, you need to think ahead a little and not wait until the last minute to get started. 

You are not eligible to begin Pre-Completion OPT until you have completed a year of study in the U.S. as an F-1 student. Nonetheless, the government allows you to apply as early as 90 days before you even begin your first year. If you think you might work as a student, you should consider starting the application process as soon as possible. 

If you are seeking Post-Completion OPT, the application window is more restrictive. 

For post-completion, you can apply between 90 days before graduation and 60 days after graduation. 

How to apply for OPT

Now that you know to start early and allow yourself plenty of time, what exactly does starting the process look like?

Your first step will be to see if your college or university can help. Fortunately for you, many international centers offer resources, information sessions, and one-on-one counseling to help students with OPT. 

Then, have your Designated School Official (DSO) endorse your Form I-20 (Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status) and make the appropriate notation in your profile in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This step is something your DSO will already understand without you having to explain anything. The school is likely to have a process in place for this already, usually as an online form through the school’s website. 

Next, fill out Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization) and mail it to USCIS. 

You can fill out the form as a printable PDF online and then print it. Or, you can print it and then fill it out by hand using black ink. 

The form is seven pages long and has basic questions about your identity, immigration status, eligibility, and reason for applying. You are allowed to have an interpreter help or a preparer fill out the form based on the information you provided, but you must identify those people and they must sign it. 

The government uses this form for other immigration statuses as well, including asylum seekers and dependents of foreign diplomats. So there may be some sections that do not apply to you as an F-1 student. The form has detailed instructions for how to fill out those sections that don’t apply. 

Finally, consider having an advisor at your school look over the form before you mail it in.

You’re approved for OPT! Now what?

OPT is a short program. Those 12 months will be up before you know it, and you need to be ready for the next phase in your life. 

If you studied in the sciences, technology, engineering or mathematics fields, you may be eligible for a 24-month extension once your original OPT runs out. 

Otherwise, you are going to want to apply for H-1B status. Getting an H1-B is not easy, and the process is highly competitive. So you should always have a Plan B. 

Good luck on your OPT journey. If you remember to start early and work closely with your university, you should be just fine. 

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