2024

Ultimate Guide to OPT & STEM OPT

What is OPT? What is the difference between STEM OPT and OPT? How can I apply for the OPT, STEM OPT and EAD?

Complete Process, Required Documents, and Essential Tips

 

 

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What is an OPT?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a temporary employment authorization granted to international students holding an F-1 visa in the United States, either before or after completing their studies. Its purpose is to provide students with the opportunity to gain practical work experience in their field of study.

The application process for OPT begins with a preliminary review by the Designated School Official (DSO) at the student's educational institution. The DSO updates the student's information in the SEVIS system and issues a new I-20 form, after which the student can apply for the OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

If the OPT application is approved, USCIS will issue an OPT EAD with a maximum validity of 12 months to the applying student. Once the EAD card becomes effective, international students are permitted to engage in part-time or full-time work related to their field of study in the United States. STEM students, those in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fields, have the opportunity to apply for an additional 24-month extension of their OPT upon the completion of the initial 12-month period.

Pre-Completion OPT v.s. Post-Completion OPT

Pre-Completion OPT

Students enrolled in U.S. educational institutions who have been registered for at least one year can apply for pre-completion OPT to engage in employment related to their field of study before graduation. Pre-completion OPT is available in both full-time and part-time formats. Full-time allows for 40 hours of work per week, while part-time permits up to 20 hours. However, please note:

1. The use of pre-completion OPT requires the approval of the school's Designated School Official (DSO) and a recommendation in the SEVIS system before application.

2. Utilizing pre-completion OPT will impact the availability of post-completion OPT after graduation. Therefore, unless necessary, it is generally not recommended that students use pre-completion OPT.

⚠️ After using pre-completion OPT, the remaining days available for post-completion OPT are calculated as follows:

  • 12 months minus the duration of full-time pre-completion OPT; or
  • 12 months minus 50% of the duration of part-time pre-completion OPT.

⚠️ Under what circumstances should one choose pre-completion OPT over CPT?

  • Students granted Reduced Course Load (RCL) permission: If, according to CPT requirements, an F1 student with RCL is taking fewer courses than a full-time program requires, but the school’s DSO approves the RCL, then the student is eligible for pre-completion OPT.
  • Non-immigrant visa holders other than F-1: CPT typically must be tied to an F1 visa. If you are studying in the U.S. on a visa other than F1, or were denied CPT because part of your study was under a non-F1 visa, consider using pre-completion OPT. According to NAFSA, “Legal non-immigrants studying full-time in the U.S. in J-1 student status or as dependents in A, E, G, H, J, L, O, and TN status can use their time studying full-time in a non-F1 status to meet the 'one academic year' requirement for pre-completion OPT eligibility.”

Post-Completion OPT

This option is more common. Undergraduates and graduates who complete their degrees in the U.S. are eligible for one year of OPT. For STEM graduates, an additional 24-month extension can be applied for after the initial OPT period, allowing for a total of 36 months of OPT.

OPT/STEM OPT Application

OPT Application Timeline

When applying for the OPT EAD (Employment Authorization Document) with USCIS, applicants must adhere to the "90-60-30 Day Rule":

90

The OPT application can be submitted as early as 90 days before the program's completion date.

60

The OPT application can be submitted within 60 days after graduation.

30

The application must be filed within 30 days after the school's DSO has updated the OPT information in the SEVIS system.

USCIS mandates that the OPT application can be submitted as early as 90 days before the program's completion date, and at the latest, within 60 days after graduation. Additionally, the application must be filed within 30 days after the school's Designated School Official (DSO) has updated the OPT information in the SEVIS system. Applications submitted outside these intervals are subject to denial by USCIS.

The term "graduation" is officially defined by USCIS as the completion date, which might differ from one's perception of graduation day or the day the degree certificate is received. The definition of the completion date is critical and can usually be inferred from the school's published Academic Calendar or directly confirmed with the institution's DSO.

For instance, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the completion date likely aligns with the end of the final semester's exam week or the final deadline set by the thesis advisor for completing the graduation thesis.

Assuming the school's designated completion date is December 17 of this year, the earliest you could submit your OPT application would be September 16, and the latest submission date for OPT would be February 16.

The "90-60-30 Day Rule" specifically pertains to the submission of the EAD application to USCIS. Initiating OPT preparation work with the DSO can begin more than 90 days before graduation.

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OPT Application Process

The OPT application process is simplified into these key steps:
1. Students express their intention to apply for OPT to their school's Designated School Official (DSO).
2. The DSO updates the student's information in the SEVIS system.
3. A new I-20 is issued to the student.
4. The student applies for the OPT EAD card with USCIS.
5. Once the EAD card is approved, the student can start working and must report their employment to the DSO.
 

Detailed Steps for OPT Application:

Step 1: Consult with the DSO or your program advisor

Consult with the DSO or your program advisor to determine your Completion Date.

Step 2: Submit a request to the DSO for an OPT recommendation I-20

providing the required materials (which may vary by school) including:

  • Form I-765 Application for Employment Authorization
  • I-94
  • Passport
  • Previous EAD card (if applicable)
  • A possible application fee charged by the school (Fee might vary by each school's DSO, normally $100 - $500)

Step 3: Prepare and submit your OPT EAD application materials to USCIS

You can submit it either online or via mail. The materials include:

  • The new I-20
  • Recent passport-style photos
  • The most recent I-94 record printed from the official website
  • Completed Form I-765, selecting the category c(3)(B)
  • Form G-1145 for electronic notification from USCIS
  • Copies of your F-1 visa and passport
  • A copy of any previous EADs
  • The $470 application fee

Step 4: Submitting the OPT EAD

Application Materials to USCIS. Note the different mailing addresses for USPS and other couriers like FedEx, UPS, DHL.

Online Submission (Recommended)

To submit your application online, visit the USCIS website at USCIS MyAccount and create an account. After logging in, select "My USCIS" followed by "File a form online." Choose the Application for Employment Authorization (I-765) and click "Start form" to complete the online form. For guidance on filling out the form, refer to the appendix below titled "OPT Application Form Filling Guide I-765."

Traditional Mailing
  • The mailing must originate from within the United States.

  • It is advisable to use courier services such as FedEx or UPS. If you must use USPS, find a specific lockbox on the USPS official website rather than using regular mail.

  • The mailing address varies by region (see the table below for details).

 

Step5: Receive your OPT EAD Card and Report Employment to Your School’s DSO

  • Expect a receipt from USCIS within a few weeks, allowing you to track your application online.
  • The current processing time for F-1 OPT EAD cards is approximately 3-5 months. USCIS plans to offer Premium Processing for new F-1 OPT applications starting April, with an expedited fee of $1,500 and a processing time of 30 days.
  • Once you receive your EAD card, you can officially start working. Remember to report your employment within 90 days of your OPT start date to avoid termination of your F-1 OPT status and SEVIS record. 

Additional Important Notes on OPT:

  • The job must be related to your field of study.
  • If you don't have an SSN yet, you can request one on Form I-765 and expect it within a month after OPT approval.
  • You can only apply for OPT once per educational level.
  • A maximum of 90 days of unemployment is allowed during the 12-month OPT period.
  • An employer offer is not required to apply for OPT, allowing for job changes as long as the work remains related to your field of study. 

STEM OPT Application Process

If you are planning to apply for your STEM extension, aside from what we discussed previously, there are more things you need to take care of, including documents, eligibility, and so on.

When to Apply

You are eligible to request your STEM OPT Extension I-20 from the International Student & Scholarships Services (ISSS) as early as 90 days prior to the expiration date of your current 12-month OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Card. It's crucial to ensure that USCIS receives your STEM OPT extension application before the expiration of your current 12-month OPT EAD Card to maintain continuous employment authorization.

Eligibility

  • F-1 Visa Status: You must currently hold F-1 visa status.
  • Post-Completion OPT: You should be currently employed under a period of post-completion OPT.
  • STEM Degree: Possess a bachelor’s degree or higher in an eligible STEM field.
  • Job Requirements:
    • Employer Participation: Your employer must be enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify program.
    • Work Hours: The job offer must include at least 20 hours of work per week.
    • Compensation: The position must be paid.
    • Training and Learning Objectives: The job should provide formal training and learning objectives that are directly related to your qualifying STEM degree.
  • I-983 Training Plan: You need to be able to complete the I-983 Training Plan with your employer.

Steps to Apply

Step 1: 

  • Submit Your I-20 Request: Initiate your request through your profile in your school's ISSS portal.
  • Maintain F-1 Status:
    • Ensure that you have been maintaining F-1 status.
    • Confirm that your 12-month OPT information is up-to-date by checking the SEVP Portal.
    • If any information is outdated, update it or submit a SEVP portal assistance request through your school's ISSS portal.
  • Pay the STEM OPT Fee:
    • Pay the STEM Post-Completion Training fee ($100-300).
    • Save a copy of the receipt or payment confirmation for your records.
  • Complete Form I-983:
    • Complete the I-983 Training Plan with your employer.
    • Review your graduated school's ISSS Tips for Form I-983 to ensure accuracy and compliance.

Step 2: Receive Your STEM OPT I-20 with OPT Recommendation

Before you submit your OPT application to USCIS, you MUST obtain a signed I-20 form that includes a STEM OPT recommendation from a Designated School Official (DSO). It is essential that you have this document in hand as proof of eligibility and endorsement for your OPT application. Ensure this step is completed to avoid any delays or issues with your application process.

Step 3: Submit Your I-765 Application to USCIS

Be aware of potential issues with EAD cards being sent to incorrect addresses when applying online through USCIS. Make sure to read any relevant posts or guidelines issued by your advising office to ensure that your EAD Card is sent to the correct address.

Note: Once you submit your I-765 application for the STEM OPT extension and receive a receipt from USCIS, you are automatically granted a 6-month extension. This extension allows you to continue working while your application is being processed, effective from the date USCIS receives your STEM OPT extension application. Ensure that your application is submitted before the expiration of your current OPT to maintain uninterrupted employment eligibility.

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After Submitting the Application to USCIS

Here’s how you can manage your work authorization and potential employer changes during your STEM OPT extension period.

Your ISSS advisor will take necessary actions, such as providing a copy of an updated I-20 directly to USCIS, to support any changes or requirements related to your application. Always maintain open communication with ISSS to ensure compliance with immigration regulations.

 

Continued Work Authorization and Travel

  • Your work authorization is automatically extended for up to 180 days while your 24-month STEM OPT extension application is pending. The receipt notice from USCIS serves as documentation of this extended authorization.
  • You are allowed to travel during your pending or approved STEM OPT extension period.
  • If your employer requires information on what documents to collect as proof of extended work authorization, direct them to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' I-9 Central.

Changing Employers While Extension is Pending

  • You are permitted to change employers while your STEM OPT extension application is still under review by USCIS.
  • If you change employers, report this change to the ISSS through the 'Report New Employment' request on your school's ISSS portal. In the comments section, indicate that your STEM OPT extension application is pending with USCIS. It is mandatory to report employment changes within 10 days.

Handling RFEs, Returned, or Denied Applications

  • If you receive a Request for Evidence (RFE), or if your application is returned or denied, notify ISSS immediately.
  • It may be necessary for ISS to issue a new I-20 before you can respond to the USCIS inquiry or resubmit your STEM OPT application.

EAD Application - A Step By Step Guide (i765 Form)

How to fill the i765 form is a big problem from a lot of international students. Here, we would like to share an ultimate E-file and Mail-file guide for you. 

Step 0: Prepare for your account

If you plan to file electronically, you will need to register an account on the USCIS official website. If you are going to file by mailing, you need to fill in the i765 form and print it out.

 

  • Select "my USCIS"
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  • Select 'File a Form Online' under 'Resources'


  • Select "I-765, Application for Employment Authorization." Carefully read and review the information on the subsequent screens, then click "Next" to continue.
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Step 1: Get Started Basis of eligibility

  • Select (c)(3)(B) Student Post Completion OPT if you are going to graduate soon or have just graduated and applying for your first OPT.
  • Select (c)(3)(C) STEM Extension if you are going to apply for a 24-month extension.
  • If you are applying for Post-Completion OPT, choose 'Initial Permission to Accept Employment'. If you are applying for a STEM extension, select 'Renewal of Permission to Accept Employment' and mark 'Yes'.
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Step 2: 'About You' Section

Your Name
  • Input your name precisely as it is listed in the Surname/Family Name and Given Name fields on your I-20 form. Please note that the I-20 form does not include a Middle Name field; therefore, leave the Middle Name field blank.
  • If you have used any other names since birth, select 'Yes' and provide all previous names, including any nicknames used in official records or documentation. If the Preferred Name on your I-20 differs from the names you entered in the previous section, make sure to include it here as well.
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Your Contact Info
  • Enter your mailing address in the provided field. If the address belongs to someone other than yourself, enter their full name (First Name Last Name). It is important to ensure that this person is officially listed as a resident of the address with the U.S. Postal Service.
  • The remainder of this section will ask for straightforward details such as your gender, city of birth, and similar information. Make sure to provide accurate and truthful responses for each field.
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You Immigration Information
  • List all the countries where you currently hold citizenship or nationality.
  • Enter your current I-94 number, which can be found on your electronic I-94 record or at the top left corner of the paper Form I-94 card.
  • List the details regarding your most recent entry into the United States.
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Other Information
  • Enter any additional information required in the form. Most students will not have an A-Number (Alien Registration Number), so if this applies to you, you can leave that field blank.

Step 3: 'Evidence' Section


  • Photo Upload: Provide a 2 x 2 inch photo of yourself. You can skip this step if you are only creating a draft for review.
  • I-94 Upload: Upload a copy of your I-94 document. This can be skipped if the current task is to create a draft for review.
  • EAD Card Upload: If available, upload a copy of your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card. If you do not have an EAD, include a copy of your passport biography page and visa instead. This step can be omitted if you are preparing a draft for review.
  • STEM OPT I-20 Upload: Upload the STEM OPT I-20 form signed by your school's International Student Advisor. If you are still awaiting this document and are preparing a draft, you can skip this step.
  • Unofficial Transcript Upload: This requirement is specifically for students applying for a STEM extension. If you are drafting for review purposes, this can also be skipped.
  • Institution Accreditation Upload: For applications based on a previously earned STEM degree, upload your institution's accreditation. This is only applicable for STEM extension applicants and can be skipped if you are preparing a draft for review.

Step 4: 'Other' & 'Review & Submit' Section


  • Enter any additional information you deem necessary. This section is optional.
  • You can review your form under the "Review and Submit" tab before paying the I-765 fee ($470) and submitting your request.
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Employment Regulations & Types for OPT & STEM OPT Students

For students holding their 1st-year OPT

Below are key guidelines and restrictions regarding employment during your Post-Completion OPT. It is vital to comply with these regulations to maintain your legal status and make the most of your OPT period.

  • EAD Requirement for Employment: You can only begin working once you have physically received your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and the start date on the card has arrived. An email confirmation from USCIS is not sufficient evidence of eligibility to work. You must only work within the validity period specified on the EAD.
  • Job Relevance to Academic Study: Your job must be directly related to your field of study.
    Post-graduation campus employment is not permitted unless the job directly relates to your academic field and falls within the EAD validity period. You need to demonstrate a clear connection between your studies and your job.
  • Employment Hours: To maintain lawful F-1 OPT status, employment must be a minimum of 20 hours per week, whether paid or unpaid. You should be able to provide evidence, such as documentation from your employer, confirming that you worked at least 20 hours per week during your employment.
  • Limitation on Unemployment: During your post-completion OPT, you are not allowed to accrue more than 90 days of unemployment within the dates specified on your EAD. To prevent the unemployment days from counting, you must update your employment status and report to the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) through an OPT update. Time spent outside the United States, if not employed by a U.S. employer, also counts towards these 90 days. Unemployment days accumulate throughout the duration of your OPT; finding employment after a period of unemployment does not reset the 90-day limit.
  • Unemployment Caution: If no employment is reported for 90 consecutive days, SEVIS records will automatically terminate. It is crucial to make alternate plans and communicate them to OISS before your record is terminated to avoid issues. If you have any concerns, you should contact your OISS adviser for guidance and support.

Employer Type

Here are the permissible types of employment while on Post-Completion OPT (1st-year OPT), all of which must be related to your degree program. Each of these employment types requires strict adherence to the conditions of your OPT to maintain lawful F-1 status.

  • Multiple Employers: You are allowed to work for more than one employer. Ensure that each job directly relates to your field of study.
  • Multiple Short-term Employers: Suitable for individuals like musicians or performing artists, you can engage in multiple short-term gigs. Maintain a record of all gigs, including the dates and durations.
  • Work for Hire (1099 Employment): Often characterized by contractual rather than employment relationships. If you opt for work for hire, keep detailed documentation of contract durations and the names and addresses of contracting companies.
  • Self-employed Business Owner: You may start and operate your own business. It's important to ensure that you possess the relevant business licenses and that your business activities are closely related to your degree program.
  • Employment Through an Agency or Staffing Firm: You can find employment through an agency or staffing company. You must provide evidence that you worked at least 20 hours per week on average while employed through the agency.
  • Unpaid Employment: You may engage in volunteer work or internships, provided that these roles do not violate any labor laws. Ensure to keep proof of your involvement and hours worked, even in unpaid positions.

For students holding their STEM OPT

Here's a breakdown of the eligibility criteria and requirements for the 24-Month STEM OPT Extension. Both you and your employer must fulfill these requirements to be eligible for the 24-month STEM OPT extension, ensuring both compliance with the program's regulations and the opportunity for continued professional development in your STEM field.

Student Requirements:

  • Maintain Valid F-1 Status: You must be in good standing with your F-1 visa status.
  • Current OPT Participation: You should be actively participating in a standard Post-Completion OPT period.
  • STEM Degree Holder: Possess a degree from the official STEM Designated Degree Program List, as indicated on your I-20 form.
  • Job Offer from E-Verify Employer: Have a job offer from an employer who is registered with the E-Verify program.
  • STEM-Related Employment: Demonstrate that your job is directly related to your STEM field of study.
  • Paid Employment: Confirm that the job offered is a paid position.
  • Training Plan (Form I-983): Prepare and sign a detailed training plan with your employer.
  • Timely Application: Apply for the STEM OPT extension before your current Post-Completion OPT expires.

Employer Requirements:

  • E-Verify Registration: The employer must be enrolled in the E-Verify program.
  • Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN): The employer must have a valid EIN.
  • Training Plan Agreement: The employer must agree to the terms of the STEM OPT by completing their sections of the Training Plan (Form I-983).

Eligibility for a Second Period of STEM OPT After Higher Degree:

  • New Academic Program: If you enroll in a new academic program in the U.S. and earn another qualifying STEM degree at a higher educational level, you may be eligible for a second 24-month STEM OPT extension.
    Example: If you initially received a 24-month STEM OPT extension with your Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and later earn a Master’s degree in Computer Science or another STEM-eligible field, you can apply for Post-Completion OPT and subsequently, a second 24-month STEM OPT extension based on your Master’s degree.

Eligibility Based on a Previously Obtained STEM Degree:

  • Accreditation and Certification: Both your current and previous degrees must be from institutions that are currently accredited and SEVP-certified.

  • Degree Recency: The previously earned STEM degree must have been conferred within the last 10 years at the time of your current STEM OPT application.

  • STEM Designated Degree: The previous degree must have a STEM eligible code as found on the STEM Designated Degree Program List at the time of application.

  • No Previous STEM OPT Based on the Same Degree: You have not already received a STEM OPT extension based on this previous degree.

  • Related Training Opportunity: The practical training opportunity must be directly related to the previously obtained STEM degree.

  • Employer Compliance: Your employer must meet all the criteria necessary for a STEM OPT extension (such as being enrolled in E-Verify).

    Example: If you are on Post-Completion OPT from a Master’s degree in Business and Management, but you previously earned a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics (a STEM-eligible field), you may apply for a STEM OPT extension based on your Bachelor’s degree, provided all the above conditions are met.

Common OPT Rejections and Solutions

Reapply for OPT

If the rejection was due to technical errors, as outlined in reasons 5 and 6 from your notice, consult your school's international office for a new I-20 and resubmit the OPT application. Make sure all your documents are complete and reapply within 30 days of receiving the rejection. Note that a "rejection" usually stems from technical errors and permits a simple reapplication, whereas a "denial" pertains to eligibility issues and necessitates a more involved appeal.

Reinstate Your F1 Status

To legally extend your stay in the U.S., consider applying to a new school for emergency admission to regain F1 status. Choose programs that admit students quickly to obtain a new I-20 as soon as possible. Targeting a higher degree level than your last can help avert future OPT issues. If your current I-20 is expired and you've received a new school offer, you must apply for a "Reinstatement" of your student status.

File a Motion to Reopen or Reconsider

File a Motion to Reopen to present new evidence or facts for USCIS to reconsider your case, or a Motion to Reconsider to address legal errors in the initial decision. Both actions require you to file Form I-290B, pay the applicable fee, provide supporting documents, and submit a statement within 30 days of the rejection. These processes can be complex, and consulting with an immigration attorney is recommended.

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Protect your EAD card

EAD Card Errors

  • Identifying Errors: If your EAD Card contains incorrect information, it's important to address this issue promptly.
  • Procedure for Corrections:
    • Wait until you receive a job offer before requesting a correction so you can show the correct card to your employer. Ideally, corrections should be made after your employer has copied your EAD for hiring purposes.
    • To correct a typographic error on your EAD Card, submit a request through the USCIS website.

Lost EAD Card

  • Immediate Action Required: Since your EAD Card is essential for legal employment under OPT or STEM OPT, you must take swift action if your card is lost, stolen, or destroyed.
  • Replacement Process: File a new Form I-765 with USCIS, accompanied by the required filing fee, to obtain a replacement card.

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