Understanding Optional Practical Training

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is defined in the regulations as temporary employment to gain practical experience directly related to the student’s major field of study.  OPT can be authorized at the following times:

  • Pre-completion OPT: During the student’s annual vacation and at other times when school is not in session if the student is currently enrolled and eligible, and intends to register for the next term or session, and while school is in session, provided that it does not exceed 20 hours per week while school is in session;
  • Post-completion OPT: After completion of all course requirements for the degree, excluding thesis or equivalent, if the student is in a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree program, or after completion of the course of study
  • STEM Extension OPT: Recipients of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in certain STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields can apply for a 17-month post-completion OPT extension if certain requirements are met.

Who is eligible for OPT?
F-1 students must have been lawfully enrolled on a full-time basis at a USCIS/DHS approved school for one full academic year before being eligible for OPT. Students in English language training are not eligible for OPT.

Where can I use OPT?
Students may engage in OPT for any employer for the duration of OPT authorized, as long as the employment qualifies under OPT standards. Training/work can be completed anywhere in the U.S. after the OPT EAD card is issued.

How long does OPT last?
Standard OPT is available for a cumulative maximum of 12 months per educational level. A one-time extension of 17 months (for a total of 29 months) is available to certain STEM degree recipients.

How many hours per week can I work?
Pre-completion OPT is limited to 20 hours per week while school is in session and the student still has coursework to complete. Full-time employment can be requested for pre-completion OPT done during official school breaks. For post-completion OPT, a student must be employed for at least 20 hours per week. Students requesting post-completion OPT may work 40 + hours per week.

Can I work anywhere?
NO! The job must be directly related to and commensurate with the level of the student’s course of study. Please see your academic advisor / professors for questions about which jobs will apply. It is very important that you can document that the job you accept is directly related to your field of study.

Must I have an offer of employment to apply for OPT?
No offer of employment is required, but the student is expected to work while on OPT. You should keep records of all job postings, letters of invitation for interviews, letters of rejection or resume postings related to your job search. Students on post-completion OPT are limited to a maximum of 90 days of unemployment. You must be working a minimum of 20 hours per week while on post-completion OPT. According to DHS, “students may be denied future immigration benefits that rely on the student’s valid F-1 status if DHS determines that the student exceeded the limitations on unemployment.” To apply for a 17-month STEM extension, a student must have an offer of employment from an employer registered with E-Verify.

How do I obtain approval for OPT?
Students must apply for OPT with the assistance of the CIE. An I-765 for standard post-completion OPT can be filed up to 90 days before the program end-date and up to 60 days after the program end-date. Work can begin only after receiving the EAD issued by USCIS, and on or after the start date on the EAD. Applications for the 17-month STEM extension must be filed before the current EAD expires.

Other Important OPT Facts

  • OPT can be authorized for a maximum aggregate period of 12 months per educational level. A student becomes eligible for another 12 months of practical training when he or she changes to a higher educational level.
  • OPT done after completion of the course of study must be completed within a 14-month period following the completion of study.
  • Prior use of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for one year or more eliminates eligibility for OPT.

NEW Regulations Impacting OPT, Effective April 8, 2008
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an interim final rule revising its regulations on F-1 Optional Practical Training effective April 8, 2008. The main changes are listed below:

  • The addition of the 17-month post-completion OPT extension for certain STEM graduates.
  • OPT filing deadlines extended to include 60 days following the program end-date.
  • H-1B cap-gap extension of D/S and OPT work authorization until October 1.  Duration of status and OPT work authorization will be automatically extended for an F-1 student who is the beneficiary of a timely-filed H-1B petition requesting change of status and an employment start date of October 1 of the following fiscal year.
  • The new rule states that “during post-completion OPT, F-1 status is dependent upon employment. During any initial 12-month period of post-completion OPT, no student (including STEM students) may be unemployed for an aggregate of more than 90 days. If a STEM student receives a 17-month extension, the limit on unemployment is raised to an aggregate of no more than 120 days, applied to the entire 29-month period on which the student is on post-completion OPT.”

Reporting Obligations 
While you are on OPT, it is important to remember that you are still in F-1 visa status and under the jurisdiction of your I-20 issued by Millikin University. With this in mind, please remember that you must report the following information to the Center for International Education:

  • You must report your change of address or name within 10 days of moving. You should send an email with your new address anytime you move or if you change your name to Amy Pennington.
  • You must report the name of your employer, the start date of your employment and the mailing address of your employer anytime you start a job. If you quit the job, you should report this as well. 
  • Each semester you will be required to complete an F-1 Update form, much like the update form you currently complete at the beginning of each semester. This form will be emailed to you. Once the form has been completed, you can email or fax the form to Jacob Cushing.

As mentioned above, while you are on OPT you are still on your F-1 student visa. It is very important that you follow these rules. Failure to do so could result in your I-20 and OPT being terminated as well as being denied future immigration benefits that rely on your valid F-1 status if DHS determines that you have exceeded the limitations on unemployment or failed to update your address and employer information.

Please keep good records for each job detailing the position you held, proof of the duration of your employment, contact information for your supervisor or manager and a description of your work. You should always be able to prove that you are employed and that your job relates to your course of study.