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Optional Practical Training (OPT)

by Hamid R. Kashani, Attorney at Law
Nov 07, 2018 (last modified Jan 31, 2019)

What is OPT?

The Optional Practical Training allows F-1 students, who have graduated from a degree program, work for an employer in their field of study and obtain practical training.

Image of young people working

You may apply for Pre-Completion OPT or Post-Completion OPT (most common).

If you apply for Pre-Completion OPT, you can work up to 20 hours per week while school is in session and full time when school is not in session.

M-1 students may only accept Post-Completion Optional Practical Training employment after completing their studies, and the period of their practical training will be limited to six (6) months.

How do I apply for OPT?

To apply for OPT, you should contact the DSO in your school.  Once the DSO approves your request and enters an OPT recommendation in your SEVIS record, you must apply to USCIS for employment authorization and issuance of an Employment Authorization Document (EAD or employment card).  You may not engage in employment until you receive your EAD.

How long is the period of OPT?

OPT period is typically granted for 12 months. However, the OPT must end within 14 months from the completion of your degree program. Therefore, if you wait until your graduation to apply for OPT and the USCIS takes 3 months to process your application, you will get only 11 months of OPT.

If you participated in Pre-Completion OPT, then the length of time for which you were approved for Pre-Completion OPT will be deducted from the 12-month period.

While you can take Pre-Completion OPT in chunks of time, the Post-Completion OPT must be taken in one block of time.

When can I apply for OPT?

You can apply for Pre-Completion OPT after you have been enrolled in school for one full academic year. You can apply for Pre-Completion OPT 90 days before completing one full academic year at school, but the OPT program itself may not start until you have completed one full academic year.

You can apply for Post-Completion OPT within 90 before to 60 days after the completion of your degree requirements. It would be best to apply for OPT no later than three (3) months before your intended start date. Furthermore, you must apply to USCIS no later than 30 days after the DSO has entered the OPT recommendation into SEVIS.

Note. Please note that the date of completion of your degree requirements is not necessarily (and usually is not) the date of graduation ceremonies.

Note. 90 days is NOT the same as three (3) months, 60 days is NOT the same as two (2) months, and 30 days is NOT the same as one (1) month.  Pay attention to the number of days. For example, the period of June 2 to September 2 is three (3) months, but it is 92 days. Do NOT miss deadlines by translating the number of days to number of months at 30 days per month.

Can I change my OPT start date after submitting an application to the USCIS?

If your application has not yet been approved, you may write to USCIS and request a change of starting date. There is no guarantee that your request will be approved, and in any event the OPT period must end no later than 14 months after your graduation. If your application has already been approved, you cannot change the start date.

Do I need to have a prospective employer before applying for OPT?

Generally, you do not need a sponsoring employer to apply for OPT. However, if you qualify to apply for STEM OPT, then you would need a sponsoring employer.  See STEM OPT Extension.

What happens if I cannot find an employer?

Once your OPT period starts, you may be unemployed only for 90 days or you will be considered out of status. However, OPT employment is flexible. You can work as a regular employee, an intern, or even a volunteer.

Does OPT employment have to be in my field of study?

Yes. Your OPT work must be in the field of study in which you received your degree.

Can I change my employer during the OPT period?

Yes. Provide the name and address of your new employer to your school's DSO.

Can I start a new degree program while in OPT?

While you are in OPT, you must either work or search for employment full time.  If you start a new degree program while on OPT, you must forfeit the remainder of your OPT period. Taking courses, while on OPT, may only be done in a way that would be incidental to your OPT program and your stay in the United States.

Do I get a new kind of visa while in OPT?

No. While you are in OPT, you are still an F-1 student of the school from which you graduated.

Can I apply for OPT if I had CPT?

If you engage in full-time CPT for a cumulative total of 12 months, you become ineligible for OPT.

Would I get a new OPT if I enroll in a new degree program and get a new degree?

Under the USCIS rule, international students are limited to 12 months of OPT per each degree level. So, if you complete a bachelor's degree program, you may receive 12 months of OPT. If subsequently you earn a master's degree program, you can apply for another 12 months of OPT. And finally, if you complete a doctoral program, you can get a third 12-month period of OPT.

If you complete two bachelor's programs, you still get one 12-month period of OPT.  You can use a few months of OPT after your first degree and the balance of the 12 months after your second degree.

How long after the completion of my OPT should I leave the country?

After the completion of OPT, you get a 60-day grace period to leave the country.  However, if you were unemployed for more than 90 days during the Post-Completion OPT, then you are considered out of status and will not receive the 60-day grace period.

Related Topics:

STEM Optional Practical Training (STEM OPT) Extension

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Dos & Don'ts for International Students


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