Optional Practical Training (OPT), Explained
A guide to on-the-job training for F-1 students
What Is Optional Practical Training?
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.
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.
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.
USCIS recently announced eight additional fields of study to the DHS STEM Designated Degree Program List. These are landscape architecture, institutional research, mechatronics, robotics, and automation engineering technology/technician, composite materials technology/technician, linguistics and computer science, developmental and adolescent psychology, geospatial intelligence, and demography and population studies.
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:
- 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).
- 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).
The government announced in March 2023 that premium processing is now available to students on an F-1 visa applying for
- Pre-completion OPT
- Post-completion OPT
- 24-month extension of OPT for STEM students
How to request premium processing
To submit a premium processing request, applicants must file Form I-907 (“Request for Premium Processing Service”), using the November 3, 2022 edition or later.
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The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program is a form of employment authorization provided by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This program allows certain foreign students to work in their field of study for up to 12 months after completing a degree program. It is designed to provide practical experience related to their major or course of study and to help foreign students gain valuable skills and experience in the United States.
To be eligible, you must have a valid F-1 student visa and maintain lawful status while working on OPT. You must also have been enrolled in school full-time for at least one academic year prior to applying and have a qualifying degree program. After you have met these requirements, you can then apply for OPT using the Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765).
You can stay in the United States for up to 12 months of full-time OPT. There are some exceptions, such as if you have a STEM degree or if you qualify for an extension, but these are limited and not guaranteed. Your OPT is only valid while you maintain lawful status in the United States.
USCIS has some restrictions on what type of activities you can engage in while on OPT. You may not work for more than one employer at a time, and you must work in your field of study or a related field. Additionally, there are limits to how much you can work per week: no more than 20 hours per week while school is in session, and 40 hours per week when school is not in session. Finally, you may not use OPT to pursue self-employment or business opportunities.