Immigration Lawyers Los Angeles: Immigration Questions: What Is Optional Practical Training OPT

General overview of optional practical training (OPT)

OPT is work authorization issued by the USCIS to F-1 Student Visa holders. OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to the student's major area of study, and it is intended to allow a student to gain practical training in the field of his or her studies. This does not automatically authorize a student to work in the United States on a permanent or a long term basis. It is simply intended for students to gain practical work experience, and the student does not need a permanent job offer to participate in the program. A student may participate in the pre-completion training program while studying or post-completion training program after graduating, and a student may work for an employer or be self-employed.

Basic eligibility requirements for the practical training

To be eligible for optional practical training, a student must have a valid F-1 student visa and be in a valid F-1 visa status, and be enrolled in academic studies for at least one year.

Pre-completion and post-completion OPT

  • Pre-completion OPT: Students must be registered to take full-time courses, enroll in the training program, and work on a part-time basis while the school is in session. Part-time work schedule may not exceed 20 hours per week. Students may work full time only during holidays or when the school is not in session.
  • Post-completion OPT: Students who have graduated and have completed their courses may enroll in the training program, and work on a full-time basis. They may work for different employers or be self-employed as independent contractors.

Work must be directly related to the student's course of studies under both pre-completion and post-completion OPT. The total duration of the optional practical training program is 12 months, and it can be done in combination of both pre-completion and post-completion. Any student who wishes to enroll in the pre-completion OPT must understand that the time spent in the pre-completion program will be subtracted from the 12 months available, and they may only enroll in the post-completion for the remaining duration.

The OPT application process

In order to be eligible for the OPT, students must be recommended by the Designated School Official (DSO) at their academic institution. The DSO will make the recommendation by endorsing the I-20 forms and make appropriate notation in SEVIS. Once the DSO endorsement has been received on I-20, students should file the application for Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Form I-765 with the USCIS. Students must wait for the USCIS approval and issuance of EAD prior to commencing work. Working without the EAD is a clear violation of the F1 Visa rules.

Extension of post-completion OPT

Students have the option to extend their post-completion OPT for 17 months if they have a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degree included in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) designated list. A STEM designated degree includes the following:
  • Actuarial Science.
  • Biological and Biomedical Sciences.
  • Computer Science Applications.
  • Engineering.
  • Engineering Technologies.
  • Mathematics and Statistics.
  • Medical Scientist.
  • Military Technologies.
  • Physical Sciences.
  • Science Technologies.

A full list of STEM designated degree program list can be found in the PDF file at ICE website. To be eligible for the STEM extension, a student must be in valid F-1 status on an approved post-completion optional practical training based on a designated STEM degree. Each student is eligible for a one-time 17 month extension, and the application for the extension must be filed before the post-completion OPT expires. The student must also have an offer of paid employment from an employer who is registered in the E-Verify program.

The application for the post-completion extension is similar to the OPT application as mentioned above. Students must obtain DSO endorsement on their I-20 forms and file an I-765 from. They must also indicate the degree and provide the employer's E-Verify information for the extension.

OPT Unemployment

OPT Unemployment rule allows students to be unemployed for up to 90 days. Students with STEM designated degrees are allowed an additional 30 days of umployment.

Extension of stay in the United States beyond OPT

Students who are close to the expiration of their post-completion OPT or their 17 month STEM extensions have other options available to them if they want to remain in the United States. Converting to an H-1B visa is the best option available if they can convince their employers to sponsor them. This would ensure their continuity in the United States, and it would also benefit employers because they would get employees who have already gained some knowledge about their company and the type of work through optional practical training.

Last reviewed on: 06/24/2012
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