Every year, thousands of foreign students across the United States complete specialized training related to their education. Many of these students are able to legally work in the United States by obtaining an Optional Practical Training (OPT) status.

Under this status, foreign students can get valuable work experience in the United States. Typically, the OPT job is related directly to the student’s field of study. The student can earn money, gain experience, and complete an education under the F-1 student visa program with Optional Practical Training.

Today, we’re explaining everything you need to know about Optional Practical Training and the F-1 student visa.

How Does Optional Practical Training Work?

The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program allows international students in the United States to work in certain jobs. If you are an F-1 student visa holder in the United States to complete education, then you may qualify for OPT authorization.

Students will need to get OPT authorization from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and then find a job.

Any employers who hire the student must be aware of the student’s OPT status. OPT status is temporary, and it does not allow the student to stay and work in the country.

Any OPT jobs that the student gets must be related to the student’s field of study. USCIS will not typically approve OPT authorization for a job unrelated to the student’s education. A foreign student in the United States studying mathematics, for example, cannot typically receive OPT authorization to work as a server or bartender.

The major requirements for OPT authorization include being enrolled in a U.S. educational institution and on an F-1 visa. Typically, those who receive OPT authorization are in the United States completing a formal degree like a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree.

To obtain OPT authorization, the F-1 student visa holder must also cooperate with the university’s Designated School Official (DSO). The DSO handles all types of visa-related work for student visa holders, including OPT authorization. Until the DSO approves the student’s OPT request, OPT authorization will not be granted.

Some F-1 student visa holders will use the OPT program to try and get a full-time job offer from a U.S. employer. The student may apply for part-time or full-time work for the employer while completing an education, for example, and then receive an employment-sponsored visa to remain in the United States after graduation.

Obtaining an OPT is one of the most effective ways for an F-1 student visa holder to remain in the country after graduation: during the work term, the student can build experience and connections that may help them obtain a permanent job in the United States after graduation.

Types of Optional Practical Training (OPT) Programs

There are two broad types of OPTs. The maximum length of time that you can work on either OPT is 12 months (combined). You can choose to complete your OPT during your studies or after graduation. Some F-1 student visa holders only obtain one type of OPT. Other F-1 student visa holders obtain both, choosing to work for, say, 6 months on either OPT position for a total of 12 months.

Pre-Completion OPT

The pre-completion OPT is for students working and studying at the same time. If you are currently on the path towards completing your degree, for example, and want to earn money and build experience on the side, then you can obtain a pre-completion OPT to study while you work.

If you are approved for a pre-completion OPT, then you will have restrictions you won’t find on a post-completion OPT. You can only work part-time while enrolled in school, which means you are limited to 20 hours of work per week during normal full-time semesters. However, you are permitted to work full-time during breaks between semesters.

Post-Completion OPT

Some students choose to request OPT authorization after graduation. In this case, you can start your OPT immediately after graduating – assuming you have already found a job and obtained OPT authorization. Unlike with a pre-completion OPT, you are not restricted in terms of the number of hours you can work. If you have already completed your studies, then you can work full-time in your OPT position.

If you have already completed a pre-completion OPT and wish to complete a post-completion OPT, then the time you spent on your pre-completion OPT will be deducted from your post-completion OPT.

For example, if you spent 9 months at a pre-completion OPT position, then you will only be permitted to work 3 months at a post-completion OPT position. If you have spent 12 months at a pre-completion OPT position, then you cannot obtain a post-completion OPT position.

OPT Requirements for F-1 Student Visa Holders

F-1 student visa holders will need to fulfill several requirements depending on the type of OPT you wish to receive. You may also be required to submit different documents depending on the status of your student visa or your country of origin. Generally, these are the standard OPT requirements for F-1 student visa holders:

  • Be in the United States with a valid F-1 visa
  • Be a student at a U.S. educational institution
  • Be enrolled in school for at least 1 academic year
  • Agree to work part-time (fewer than 20 hours per week) during the school year if obtaining a pre-completion OPT
  • Find work in a field related to your study
  • Not have a criminal record during your time in the United States
  • Be eligible for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD)
  • Did not complete a 12-month, full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program or work term
  • Is not enrolled in English as a Second Language course

If you meet the above requirements, then you may qualify for an OPT under an F-1 student visa.

How to Apply for Optional Practical Training (OPT) Authorization

Here are the steps required to apply for OPT authorization:

Step 1) Have your DSO Submit an OPT Request Via SEVIS

Your Designated School Official handles many matters related to student visas and student visa holders. The first step to obtaining OPT authorization is to inform your DSO. Your DSO will take your Form I-20 and confirm that you are eligible for OPT authorization. Then, the DSO will submit the request to the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) visa SEVIS.

Step 2) File a Request for an OPT EAD

Students who wish to work under the OPT program must obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). To get an EAD, you need to submit an application to USCIS. File Form I-765 and pay all applicable fees. The application may ask for specific supporting documents. USCIS will issue Form I-797, Notice of Receipt, if it has successfully received your EAD application. Within a few days or weeks, your OPT EAD status will change from “pending” status to “approved” or “denied”. If your OPT is approved, then you have officially obtained authorization to work in the United States. USCIS will issue an EAD, which is an official card like a driver’s license. This card can be shown to employers as proof that you are able to work in the United States under the OPT program on an F-1 student visa.

How Long Does It Take to Process an OPT Application?

OPT application processing times can vary considerably depending on the workload of USCIS. Some students report completing the application process in as little as 30 days. With most applications, however, you can expect the application to take about 30 to 90 days.

How Long Does My OPT Last?

OPT authorization is granted for a total of 12 months. This time can be split between pre-completion and post-completion OPTs. If you spend 5 months working on a pre-completion OPT position, then you can work on a post-completion OPT position for a maximum of 7 months.

Your OPT is activated when you find and start a job. If you do not find a job within 90 days of your OPT being approved, then you must leave the United States (assuming your studies have ended).

If you use the full 12 months of your OPT, then you have a 60 day grace period after your OPT ends. You have 60 days to move out of the United States. Alternatively, you can find an employer willing to sponsor you for a work visa. Some students are able to obtain full-time employment after impressing an employer during an OPT term.

Can I Extend My OPT?

Certain students are able to extend their OPT work term beyond the usual 12-month limit. If you are a student working in a STEM-related field (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), then you may be able to extend your OPT for up to 24 months beyond the original 12-month limit.

To qualify for this 24-month extension, you must meet the following requirements:

  • Currently, be in the United States on a 12-month OPT that has not yet expired
  • Have a degree that is considered a STEM degree (even if it is a previous degree and you are currently studying a different field)
  • Work for an employer that meets OPT employer criteria (i.e. an employer in your field of study)

If you meet these requirements, then you can submit Form I-765 to USCIS at least 90 days before your current OPT and EAD expire. You will also be required to provide the name of your employer, the company ID number, form I-20, and a copy of your degree from a STEM-related field. If approved, you can remain in the United States for another 24 months (2 years) under your OPT.

Can I Travel While on an OPT?

F-1 student visa holders can leave the United States and return under the OPT. However, if you have OPT authorization but are not currently employed, then you may face issues when re-entering the United States. Most OPT holders have no issue leaving the United States and returning as long as they are employed.

You can leave the United States for up to 30 days if you have a valid signed Form I-20. Your school’s DSO must approve your travel. If you fail to get DSO approval, then you may have trouble returning to the United States after your trip.

It is not recommended to leave the United States if you just got your OPT approved but have not yet obtained a job. Upon re-entry to the United States, the border officer may ask you to provide proof of your employer or job offer. If you do not have proof, then you may be refused entry.

If you already have a job and are working under your OPT, however, then you can take trips of up to 30 days without issue as long as you have a signature from your school’s DSO.

By following the guide above, you can enjoy a smooth and easy Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization application process as an F-1 student visa holder.