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Optional Practical Training (OPT), Explained

A guide to on-the-job training for F-1 students

What Is Optional Practical Training?

A student on OPT studying

Optional practical training (OPT) allows students on an F-1 visa — students studying abroad in the United States temporarily — to take temporary employment in an area directly related to their studies. This program usually covers up to 12 months of employment for eligible students, either during their studies (known as “pre-completion”) or immediately afterwards (known as “post-completion”).

Any time spent in OPT pre-completion will count toward the total 12-month period. For example, if an engineering student spent three months before completing their course of study in OPT, they would be eligible for nine more months of post-completion OPT.

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Types of OPT Eligibility

F-1 students may be eligible for OPT in one of three ways: Pre-completion, Post-Completion and a special STEM OPT extension.

Pre-Completion OPT

F-1 students are eligible to participate in pre-completion OPT as long as they are enrolled full-time for a full academic year of study at a college, university, conservatory, or seminary that has been certified by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to enroll F-1 students.

Pre-completion authorization allows for a current student to work part time — 20 hours or less — while school is in session, and to work full-time when school is not in session.

Note: Pre-completion eligibility is not restricted to having an F-1 visa for the full academic year; if a student held another nonimmigrant status during part of that academic year but at that time was engaged in studies, they can still satisfy the requirements.

For instance, a student starts on an F-1 visa, and during the year they are hoping to participate in OPT, they obtain a green card visa. They will still be allowed to participate in OPT.

Post-Completion OPT

Students who have completed their studies at a certified academic institution may pursue approval for post-completion OPT. Post-completion OPT does not restrict work hours — graduates may work part-time or full-time.

Remember, if a student participated in OPT prior to graduation, that time is accrued as part of the 12-month period of OPT. The time spent in pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the total time of the program.

And, if a student’s status changes from F-1 to a green card, it does not reduce or restructure the OPT terms.

STEM OPT Extensions

Students who have earned a degree in certain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields can apply for a 24-month extension – for a total of 36 months – of their post-completion OPT authorization if:

  • The F-1 student received a STEM degree included on the ICE’s STEM Designated Degree Program List (PDF)
  • The F-1 student is employed by an employer who is enrolled in and is using E-Verify and
  • The F-1 student received an initial grant of post-completion OPT authorization based on the same STEM degree which drives their current employment.

More information about this can be found on ICE”s Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students (STEM OPT) page.

How to Apply For OPT

To apply for OPT, a student must follow these steps:

  1. Request that their academic institutions’s designated school official (DSO) recommend them for OPT. To do so, the DSO endorses the student’s Form I‑20 (officially called the “Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status”) and makes the appropriate notation in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).
  2. The student must properly file Form I-765 (“Application for Employment Authorization”) with USCIS, including a fee and supporting documents.

When to apply depends on which type of OPT is desired.

OPT requests for non-STEM degrees

Pre-Completion OPT requests:

  • Students may begin their OPT only after USCIS approves their Form I-765 and the student receives their Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
  • Applications may be filed up to 90 days before completion of a full academic year, as long as OPT employment is not started until the completion of one full academic year.

Post-Completion OPT request:

  • Applications must be received within 30 days of the DSO entering an OPT recommendation into a student’s SEVIS record.
  • Applications may be filed up to 90 days before the completion of a degree program, but no later than 60 days after completion.

OPT requests for STEM degrees

Pre-Completion OPT requests:

  • Applications must be submitted after a DSO enters the recommendation for OPT into a student’s SEVIS record and
  • Applications may be submitted up to 90 days before completion of a full academic year, as long as OPT employment is not started until one full academic year is completed.

Post-Completion Initial OPT requests:

  • Applications must be submitted within 30 days of a DSO entering the recommendation for OPT into a student’s SEVIS record, and
  • Applications may be submitted up to 90 days before degree completion, but no later than 60 days after completion.

Post Completion STEM OPT extensions:

  • Applications must be submitted within 60 days of a DSO entering the recommendation for OPT into a student’s SEVIS record, and
  • Applications may be submitted up to 90 days before a student’s current OPT employment authorization expires.

OPT employment may begin only after the approval of a student’s Form I-765 and the student has received their Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

What’s Next for OPT?

The Trump administration sought to drastically restrict the number of visas issued for foreign students and OPT approvals granted to foreign students already studying in the United States. In each of the four years Trump was in office, the number of OPT approvals dropped. By the fall of 2020, participation in OPT programs had decreased by 72%.

In June 2020, Trump and his administration proposed changes that would limit educational visas for four year or less, depending on the type of degree pursued and country of origin. Students from the Middle East and some African countries would have automatically been limited to two years. OPT participation would be depleted and students looking for post-completion education OPT participation would have likely experienced significant visa problems.

And in September, in an unprecedented move, the Trump administration revoked the OPT visa of thousands of Chinese graduate students and researchers. That October, the U.S. government wrote to nearly 1,000 additional OPT recipients to let them know their approval was being revoked.

In a twist, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) actually sought to protect OPT during the Trump administration. A trade union, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, asked that OPT be stopped, calling it unlawful. The DHS was named as a defendant in the case, putting it in the position of protecting OPT. In December 2020, a federal judge ruled in the defendant’s favor, holding off the threat to OPT.

In his transition plan, President-elect Joe Biden proposes loosening restrictions on student visas and the OPT program, and also calls for green cards to be issued to all foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs.