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How to Apply for OPT

OPT, optional practical training, is an employment opportunity for international students that have recently graduated from college. It offers additional training in your chosen field of study through paid work that can be either part-time or full-time. OPT is available to F-1 status international students who have completed one full academic year.

Unlike a campus job, OPT must be related to your degree. This practical experience may be essential to your success as a professional.

OPT also requires its own paperwork. Your designated school official, or DSO, must formally recommend you for OPT and issue you a new Form I-20 bearing that recommendation. At that point, you will receive a “Notice of Action” from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) confirming they have received your application while you wait for your updated employment authorization document (EAD).

With the basics of OPT in mind, we have collected a few more things you should know when seeking this authorization.

When to Apply

You do not want to be too early or too late with paperwork related to an F-1 visa. Once you are approved by your DSO, you must apply for your EAD with USCIS within 30 days. You may file the paperwork for an EAD up to 90 days prior to the end date of your studies and no more than 60 days after your end date. You may not start working an OPT-related job without the approved EAD.

Using OPT Before or After Graduation

You can start your OPT prior to your program’s end date. This is known as pre-completion OPT. You will be required to limit yourself to 20 hours per week while you study and you cannot legally supplement that with 20 more hours at another on-campus job. You will also lose 1 month of your approved post-graduation OPT period for every two months of pre-completion OPT you complete. That means if you are granted 12 months of OPT, and you work 2 months of it part-time before you graduate, you will have 11 months remaining to work full-time after you graduate.

Documents Required to Apply

When applying for OPT, you will need several documents and some cash. Here is a list:

– Form I-20 with DSO approval

– A valid passport

– Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization)

– A check or money order for US $410.00 made out to U.S. Department of Homeland Security

– 2 color photos with a white background taken within 30 days of your submission to the USCIS

Check with your DSO to confirm if you need any additional paperwork.

Advancing Your Degree for Additional OPT

As an international student with an F-1 visa, you are permitted 12 months of OPT per degree. That means that you can work for a whole year after you finish your bachelor’s degree and another year after you finish a master’s, and yet one more after finishing a doctoral program. Going to school for a longer period is a highly rewarding incentive for students who want to extend their OPT and stay in the U.S.

A STEM Major Can Extend Your OPT

If you are studying a STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline, you will enjoy a unique advantage when seeking OPT. You can apply for a 17-month extension of your OPT period, up to 29 months of total OPT. To be eligible for this extension, your employer must be enrolled in the eVerify program. You cannot work OPT without an updated EAD, however, you can work for up to 180 days on an expired EAD while waiting for approval of your STEM extension.

If you receive OPT, congratulations! Although OPT only lasts for one year, you are one step closer to settling in the U.S. Any employment beyond the maximum of 29 months will require your employer to sponsor you for a H-1B work visa.