Optional Practical Training (OPT) is one of the biggest perks the USA offers international students to help them gain relevant work experience. To put it simply, OPT is an employment authorization benefit that allows students holding F-1 visa (a type of non-immigrant student visa) to gain work experience in their areas of specialization. The employment type can be both full-time and part-time and all students who are pursuing or have completed degree courses of 12-month duration are free to apply for OPT. The authorization is approved by the USCIS (The US Citizenship & Immigration Services).
Benefits of OPT
International students on F-1 visas may finish the full degree with certain work rights as long as they hold a valid visa status. The key use for OPT is working rights for 12 months after completing your degree. As you near the completion of graduation, you may apply for the same, enabling you to work for almost any US employer (subject to specific regulations). You may apply for new OPT periods for every new degree that you are completing.
Students graduating from a college/university in the US with a particular STEM field degree, i.e., covering technology, science, mathematics, and engineering, may apply for OPT extension for an additional 24 months, taking their complete post-graduation OPT tally to 36 months (3 years). The degrees that can qualify for extension include Computer Science Applications, Actuarial Sciences, Engineering Technologies, Engineering, Mathematics, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Military Technologies, and others. OPT extension can only be used in continuation after the allowed OPT period after graduation.
Also, the extension is only available for STEM students. Those enrolled in non-STEM degrees cannot seek this benefit.
Who is eligible for OPT?
Eligibility for Optional Practical Training is restricted to those holding the F-1 visa and studying at any academic course at a university in the US for a minimum of one year. Although there are three student visa types, international students enrolled at the US colleges/universities will usually be holders of F-1 visas. You will not require job offers for OPT applications; this is a major benefit. The EAD (Employment Authorization Document) will be needed from the USCIS.
OPTs should be directly linked to your field of study. F-1 students may have eligibility for OPT participation in various methods-:
- Pre-Completion OPT: You can apply for pre-completion OPT participation after enrollment for a full academic year at an institution certified by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) for F-1 student enrollment. You need not have this status for a complete academic year. If you get authorization, you can work for up to 20 hours or lower every week on a part-time basis throughout your session. Full-time work is possible during breaks and holidays.
- Post-Completion OPT: You can apply for participation in post-completion OPT after finishing your course. If you get authorization, you may work full-time or part-time for 20 hours or less every week.
It is important to note that if you took part in pre-completion OPT, the amount of time will be deducted from post-completion OPT approval by USCIS. For example, if you go for a pre-completion OPT of 4 months, you will only be eligible for an 8-month OPT post the completion of your degree.
Read More: Student Visa- A Detailed Guide!
Application process for Optional Practical Training in the USA
You should take the following aspects into account while applying for Optional Practical Training in the USA.
- Request an OPT recommendation from the DSO (Designated School Official) at the institution/university. They will make this with endorsements of your Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status and Form I-20 and through making the suitable notation within the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System).
- File Form I-765 suitably and apply for employment authorization with the USCIS along with the payable fee and required documents.
Application Timings for OPT ● It should be applied up to 90 days prior to completing the full session. However, you should not have commenced OPT employment. ● May apply within 90 days before degree completion but not more than 60 days post degree completion. ● Can apply up to 90 days prior to expiry of your present OPT employment authorization. ● Can apply up to 90 days prior to completing the entire academic year. However, you cannot begin OPT employment before completing the academic session. ● Can apply within 90 days prior to degree completion but not more than 60 days post degree completion.
Recommended Application Timings
● Should apply before DSO enters recommendation for OPT into the SEVIS record.
Initial post-completion OPT
● Should apply within 30 days from entry of OPT recommendation in student’s SEVIS record by DSO.
STEM OPT extension
● Should apply within 60 days of DSO making the OPT recommendation entry into SEVIS records.
● Should apply after entry of OPT recommendation by DSO in SEVIS record.
● Should apply within 30 days of OPT recommendation by DSO in SEVIS records.
Application Timings for OPT
● It should be applied up to 90 days prior to completing the full session. However, you should not have commenced OPT employment.
● May apply within 90 days before degree completion but not more than 60 days post degree completion.
● Can apply up to 90 days prior to expiry of your present OPT employment authorization.
● Can apply up to 90 days prior to completing the entire academic year. However, you cannot begin OPT employment before completing the academic session.
● Can apply within 90 days prior to degree completion but not more than 60 days post degree completion.
You may start the OPT once your Form I-765 is approved and you get the EAD (Employment Authorization Document). Suppose the STEM OPT application for extension is filed on time and the OPT period expires while the application is pending. In that case, the employment authorization will automatically extend for up to 180 days.
Important Resources to Read:
Essential Points to Note
- Once your OPT expires, you are allowed a 60-day grace period to leave the United States, change your visa status, or transfer your F-1 record to a new school or program.
- All employment must be related to your major field of study.
- Students may change jobs if they wish during OPT. However, all employment just directly be related to their field of study, and the work is a minimum of 20 hours per week.
How are OPT and CPT different?
CPT (Curricular Practical Training) is a program that temporarily enables international students with F-1 visas to get practical experience linked directly to their major area of study via paid/unpaid internships, employment, cooperative education, etc. CPT should be finished before graduation and can be up to 20 hour or lower every week (part-time) and 20 hours or more every week (full- time). You will however miss OPT eligibility if you are working full-time throughout 12 months in your CPT.
The key difference between OPT and CPT is the duration you will have eligibility for these programs and the work types allowed under them. OPT may be done before or after graduation, while CPT should be completed before graduation. CPT employment is considered a part of your primary curriculum, enabling students to work in paid/unpaid internships, cooperative education programs or practicum. Your major requires CPT, and if you have not participated in it, you should earn course credit. Only specific employers take part in CPT. OPT is not specific to the employer and enables work, not internships or co-ops. You do not have to earn any course credit against OPT.
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