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Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is a benefit of F-1 students that permits up to a year of employment in an area directly related to (one of their) major field(s) of study.

The Basics

  • OPT is available to F-1 students
  • There are four kinds of OPT
  • The earliest that an F-1 student can apply for OPT is for the summer after their first academic year.
  • OPT must be directly related to your major field of study.
  • OPT is a benefit granted by the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). OIS will help you with this process but it is important to know that it is your responsibility as the applicant to ensure that your OPT application is accurate and complete before submitting it to USCIS.

The four kinds of OPT

  1. Pre-completion OPT
  2. Post-completion OPT
  3. OPT STEM extension
  4. OPT cap gap extension

1. Pre-completion OPT

  • OPT can be used for paid internships during campus breaks and possible during the academic year. HOWEVER, we recommend you apply for Curricular Practical Training where possible, for several reasons:
    • You receive one year of OPT. Using some of it prior to graduation reduces the amount of time you are eligible to work, and may thus reduce your ability to land employment.
    • OPT takes 3-5 months to get and has a fee. CPT will take a week or so and has no fee.
  • If you still believe you would like to apply for Pre-completion OPT, please reach out to OIS.

2. Post-completion OPT

The Basics

  • Post-completion OPT is for employment that occurs after you have graduated.
  • OPT must be directly related to your major field of study.
  • OPT is a benefit granted by the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). OIS will help you with this process but it is important to know that it is your responsibility as the applicant to ensure that your OPT application is accurate and complete before submitting it to USCIS.

Applying for OPT

  • Timing
    • You can apply as early as 90 days prior to completion, and up to 60 days after commencement. 90 days prior to completion is either late February or mid September, depending upon when are planning to complete.
    • It may take as long as 5 months for your OPT application to be processed, thus we recommend that you apply the earliest date permissible (but not before that date).
    • Although it is possible to apply for OPT after you graduate, the processing time makes it impractical for most students.
    • We advise you schedule a meeting with OIS one to two weeks prior to submitting your application.
    • Finally, you will actually choose the start date of your OPT, which must fall within the 60 days following graduation.
  • How to Apply
  • Make photocopies of ALL your I-20s
  • Request a copy of your transcript from the Registrar
  • Obtain two immigration-style photos, 2” x 2”
  • Photocopy your I-94 arrival/departure record (available online here)
  • Photocopy the visa and information pages of your passport.
  • Provide a check or money order payable to “DHS.” Find this amount on the I-765 “Filing Fee” link.
  • Make and keep a full photocopy of these documents in case any or all are lost in the mail.

OPT FAQs

Prior to Applying for OPT

  • When should I apply for OPT? How long does it take?
    • You can apply for OPT up to 90 days prior to your program completion date. This is the date of Commencement, if you are completing in May, or the Saturday after final exams if you are completing in December. Once you apply, it will take 2 to 5 months for your OPT card to be processed and sent to you.
    • 90 days prior is either late February or mid September
    • Note that 90 days is the earliest that USCIS can receive your OPT package. Sending your package any earlier will result in a denial.
  • What should I choose as my OPT start date?
    • One of the interesting challenges is that you get to choose the start date that will appear on your OPT card. It must fall within the 60 days immediately following program completion. Thus for a May completion, the first possible day for OPT would be the day after Commencement.
    • You will not be able to change this date after you apply, so be sure to think through all the ramifications. If you have already landed a job, be sure to select a start date on or prior to your employment start date. If you think it will be challenging to find a job, you may want to choose a later date so as not to cut into your OPT time.
    • You cannot start employment until you have your OPT card in hand and until the start date on your OPT.
  • What happens if I get a rejection or denial notice, or a request for more evidence?
    • Contact us immediately and we will review the documents and determine the best course of action available.
    • In most cases, it is possible to reapply when denials occur.
  • I used an off campus address which is going to change and I haven’t received my OPT card. What should I do?
    • The most likely course of action is to change your address with USCIS
    • There are two ways to do so:

Online: https://www.uscis.gov/addresschange

USCIS Customer Service Telephone: 1-800-375-5283

While OPT is “Pending”

  • Why is my application taking so long? Is there anything I can do to speed it up?
    • In very rare cases, it might be possible for USCIS to expedite an application.
    • Contact the USCIS Customer Service Telephone: 1-800-375-5283. They will ask for your receipt number.
    • Otherwise, the advice from USCIS is to wait until your application has been pending for more than five months from the day that USCIS received your application:
  • First, check your case status on the USCIS website using your OPT receipt.
  • Submit a case inquiry with USCIS.
    • Keep OIS in the loop. We can submit our own case inquiry if you have not heard anything back from USCIS within 15 days of initiating your case inquiry with them.
  • I never got my OPT receipt. Now what?
    • You should confirm that USCIS has your correct mailing address. Do this using either the USCIS inquiry form or by telephone: 1-800-375-5283
  • I got my receipt and my OPT was approved, but I did not get my OPT card. What happens if it gets lost?
    • First, submit a case inquiry with USCIS.
    • If the card cannot be found, you will most likely have to apply for a replacement. You can replace a lost or stolen OPT card on the USCIS website.
  • I received a request for more information from USCIS. What next?
    • Make an appointment with OIS, in person or via telephone. We will walk through the steps together.
  • How do I change my mailing address?
    • Go to the USCIS case status page.
    • Click the “Change of Address” box in the lower left of the page. If it is someone else’s address, be sure to fill out the “In Care of for Mailing, c/o” part.

Travel and OPT

  • Can I travel after I have submitted my OPT application but before I have received my OPT card?
    • Good question! This one is subject to change, so always check with us first.
    • As it stands now, you can certainly travel while you are still a student, so up until your completion date. You can travel later than that, but it becomes a question of what documents you will need to apply upon re-entry into the US.
    • You can certainly re-enter the US after the completion date on your I-20 if you have with you your OPT card, proof of employment, a valid passport, a valid F-1 visa (renewed if necessary) and the I-20 you received when you initiated the OPT application.
    • It may be possible to re-enter with your OPT receipt and these other documents, in the event your OPT card has not yet been issued. Our students typically have been able to do so; however, immigration attorneys advise against it.
  • Can I travel after I have my OPT card in hand?
    • Yes – you can certainly re-enter the US after the completion date on your I-20 if you have with you your OPT card, proof of employment, a valid F-1 visa (renewed if necessary) and the I-20 you received when you initiated the OPT application.
  • Can I travel after I have submitted my STEM OPT application but before I have received my STEM OPT card?
    • If you plan to travel after the end-date on your OPT card, you will need:
  • STEM OPT card
  • Proof of STEM OPT employment
  • Valid passport
  • Valid F-1 visa (renewed if necessary)
  • The STEM OPT I-20

Employment on OPT

  • What happens if I do not have a job?
    • Your OPT period begins with the start date on your OPT card. You will have a total of 90 days of unemployment during your year of OPT. If you do not find a job by Day 90, you must immediately depart the US or have changed to some other valid immigration status.
    • You have 90 cumulative days for the whole OPT period. If for example your OPT starts on July 1 and you get a job on August 1 then you will have roughly 60 days of unemployment remaining.
  • What kinds of jobs are acceptable?
    • First, your job should be directly related to your major, or one of your majors, at Vassar. You will have to make a connection between your employment and your major as part of OPT reporting responsibilities.
    • A job posting or ad may contain a set of degrees the employer thinks are relevant. That is a useful form of documentation to have.
    • OPT is actually fairly flexible. Here from the NAFSA manual are several kinds of acceptable employment:
  • Regular paid employment in a position directly related to the student's program of study. For post-completion OPT, the work must be for at least 20 hours per week
  • Students may work for multiple employers, as long as it is directly related to the student's program of study.
  • Payment by multiple short-term multiple employers. SEVP says that "Students, such as musicians and other performing artists, may work for multiple short term employers (gigs). The student should maintain a list of all gigs, the dates and duration. The student should maintain a list of all gigs, the dates and duration."
  • Work for hire. SEVP says, "This is also commonly referred to as 1099 employment where an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship. If requested by DHS, students should be prepared to provide evidence showing the duration of the contract periods and the name and address of the contracting company."
  • Self-employed business owner. SEVP says, "Students on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. The student should be able to prove that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in a business related to his or her degree program."
  • Employment through an agency. SEVP says, "Students on post-completion OPT must be able to provide evidence showing they worked an average of at least 20 hours per week while employed by the agency."
  • Volunteers or unpaid interns: Standard OPT. SEVP OPT Policy Guidance states that, "Students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, where this practice does not violate any labor laws. The work should be at least 20 hours per week for students on post-completion OPT. A student should be able to provide evidence, acquired from the student's employer, to verify that he or she worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment."
    • Can I have more than one employer on OPT?
  • Yes! You can have multiple employers, one, some or all of which are paid or unpaid.
  • Each job should be directly related to your major, or one of your majors.
    • How many hours per week is full time?
  • USCIS considers 20 hours a week, either with one employer or the total of two or more employers, to be full time.
  • There is not upper limit to the number of hours you can work.
    • Can I work at Vassar on OPT?
  • There are not a lot of opportunities, but the general answer is yes. You would have to be hired as a professional vs a student employee.
  • You could work for Reunion, for instance, but only if the work performed relates to your major or one of your majors.
  • You could be hired for a summer program or research assistantship, or as a full time administrative fellow.
    • What are my reporting responsibilities while on OPT?
  • Students on post-completion OPT are required to provide updates if you:
    • Change your legal name
    • Change your physical mailing address
    • Change your email address
    • Change your employer
    • Change your immigration status (eg enroll in college or change to another visa status such as H1B)
    • Depart the US and forfeit any remaining OPT time
    • You will make any updates through the SEVP portal. You will receive an email from SEVP once your OPT has been approved and your start date has passed that will contain instructions for logging into the SEVP portal. Here is an in depth guide to the SEVP portal.
    • If you have any trouble with the portal, or get locked out, or find there is some information you are unable to update – reach out to us!
    • What are my options at the end of OPT?
  • So long as you have been employed and have not accrued more than 90 days of unemployment while on OPT, you can stay in the US for up to 60 days following the end date on your OPT card.
    • Can I extend my OPT?
  • There are two ways to extend OPT.
    • If you are successfully receipted for an H1B visa, your OPT will automatically be extended through September 30th. Reach out to us for details.
    • If you qualify, you can apply for a STEM OPT extension. You must apply by the end date on your OPT card, and you must have a STEM qualifying degree.

What about health insurance while on OPT?

Vassar’s health plan ends in August, and healthcare in the US without insurance can be hugely expensive. First, check with your employer to see if they offer health insurance. Otherwise, you should explore available options to find a plan that works for you. Here are a three health plans designed specifically for F-1 students, and in one case especially for students on OPT. Compare prices and offerings before making a selection.

1. iNext

https://www.inext.com/plans/travel-to-usa/academic/

There are three levels of coverage for F-1 visa holders

2. ISO Insurance

https://www.isoa.org/#plans

ISO offers two plans designed specifically for F-1 students on OPT, OPTima Basic and OPTima Enhance.

3. International Student Insurance

https://www.internationalstudentinsurance.com/student-health-insurance/ These folks have four levels of coverage for F-1 visa holders

3. OPT STEM extension

The Basics

Students who have graduated with a STEM qualifying major are eligible for the OPT STEM extension. As of 13 January 2020, these are the qualifying majors at Vassar:

  • Vassar Major CIP CODE
  • Astronomy 40.0201
  • Biochemistry 26.0202
  • Biology 26.0101
  • Chemistry 40.0501
  • Cognitive Science 30.2501
  • Computer Science 11.0101
  • Earth Science 40.0601
  • *Economics 45.0601
  • Environmental Studies 03.0103
  • Mathematics 27.0101
  • Neuroscience & Behavior 26.1501
  • Physics 40.0801
  • Psychological Science 42.2799

Special note for Economics majors:

  • Economics majors will continue to have the general CIP code 45.0601 through graduation and into the first year of OPT. Upon application for the STEM extension, which takes place toward the end of the first year of OPT, our office will convert your CIP code to 45.0603, which is the STEM-eligible Economics major.
  • The OPT STEM extension is for employment that occurs immediately after your post-completion OPT.
  • STEM OPT must be directly related to your major field of study, and for at least 20 hours per week.
  • You may not have exceeded 90 days of unemployment on your current post-completion OPT.
  • STEM OPT must be with a company enrolled in the U.S. government’s “E-Verify” program. Find out here if your employer/prospective employer is E-Verify. Please note that Vassar College is not an E-verify employer.
  • You must have filed an application with USCIS for the STEM OPT extension before your post-completion OPT ends.
  • OPT is a benefit granted by the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). OIS will help you with this process but it is important to know that it is your responsibility as the applicant to ensure that your OPT application is accurate and complete before submitting it to USCIS.

Applying for the STEM OPT Extension

Timing

  • The earliest you can apply for the STEM OPT Extension is 90 days prior to the end date on your OPT card.
  • The latest date USCIS can receive your STEM OPT Extension is the last date of your post-completion OPT period.
  • You can continue to work for up to 180 days beyond the end date on your OPT card, while your STEM OPT application is pending.
  • You may get a maximum of 2 OPT STEM extensions, and the second one must follow a higher qualifying degree.

How to Apply: Two phases

Phase One

  • The student and the employer complete a Form I-983 Training Plan, and the student submits the completed plan to OIS.
  • Student notifies OIS with their job title.
  • OIS reviews the Form I-983 submitted by the student, and determines that it is "complete, signed, and addresses all program requirements."
  • OIS verifies that the degree program that will serve as the basis of the STEM OPT extension is on the DHS STEM Designated Degree Program List.
  • OIS will updates your SEVIS record with a recommendation for a 24-month STEM OPT extension, and issue a new Form I-20 that reflects the STEM OPT extension recommendation.

Phase Two

Within 60 days of the DSO's recommendation in SEVIS, but no sooner than 90 days before the expiration of the student's post-completion OPT, the student files with USCIS:

  • The new I-20 reflecting request for STEM OPT
  • A new Form I-765, with the following new/different information:
    • up top .... "I am applying for : Renewal of my permission ..."
    • 16. Eligibility Category = c3C
    • 17. Complete this section ... degree, employer's name, E-verify number
    • Part 6: use these pages to report on the following, if applicable
  • "All previously used SEVIS numbers" (if you have had more than one)
  • "Evidence of any previously authorized CPT or OPT and the academic level at which it was authorized."
    • A copy of your final, official paper transcript
    • Filing Fee = $410 (as of 13 January 2020)
    • G-1145 form, if you want email updates from USCIS
    • Two passport sized photos
    • Copies of all I-20s
    • Copy of passport ID and visa page
    • Copy of I-94 (available online here)
    • Copy of current EAD (opt card)
    • (NOTE: Do NOT submit Form I-983 in your application to USCIS)
    • The address you are sending this package to relates to where you live now. See the list.
    • As always, make and keep a full photocopy of these documents in case any or all are lost in the mail.
  • The 24-month STEM OPT extension period begins on the day following the expiration of your post-completion OPT. If the Form I-765 is still pending as of that date, you are authorized to continue employment for up to 180 days after the expiration of the student's post-completion OPT.
  • USCIS will issue an EAD (OPT card) reflecting the approved STEM OPT extension.
  • Throughout the STEM OPT extension period, the student, employer(s), and school must comply with all reporting, training, supervision, evaluation, wage, documentation, and other obligations specified in the regulations and on Form I-983.

STEM OPT FAQs

Prior to Applying for the STEM OPT Extension

  • I have a STEM-eligible degree but am currently working as an unpaid intern on post completion OPT. What do I need to do to apply for the STEM Extension?
    • An unpaid internship is fine for post-completion OPT, but not acceptable for the STEM OPT Extension. You will need an employment offer from an E-Verify employer to qualify for the extension.
  • I have a STEM-eligible degree but am currently self-employed on post completion OPT. What do I need to do to apply for the STEM Extension?
    • Students need to establish an employer/employee relationship for employment to qualify for the STEM Extension. Students cannot sign Form I-983 as both employer and employee. We advise you to contact an immigration attorney to work through possible options.
  • I have a STEM-eligible degree but am working for a consulting firm or staffing agency on post completion OPT. What do I need to do to apply for the STEM Extension?
    • Good question! You should discuss your situation and eligibility with your employer and/or an immigration attorney to determine if a true employer/employee relationship exists. The employer signing the training plan also has to be the employer providing the practical training experience. If it can be justified, be sure to keep documentation thereof on file as you may be asked by USCIS to submit additional evidence.
  • What happens if I receive a “request for evidence” notice from USCIS?
    • Send us a scan of the notice and we will advise on next steps.

Travel on a STEM OPT Extension

  • Can I travel during my application for STEM OPT?
    • Travel outside the US is not recommended if your current OPT has expired and your STEM OPT application is pending.
    • Travel before your current OPT expires or after your STEM OPT is approved is fine. Be sure to have with you your OPT card, proof of employment, a valid F-1 visa (renewed if necessary) and the I-20 you received when you initiated the OPT application.

STEM OPT Employment

  • How many hours a week must I work on a STEM OPT Extension?
    • You must work a minimum of 20 hours per week.
  • How much unemployment do I get on STEM OPT?
    • You are permitted to accrue a total of 150 days of unemployment, including both your post-completion OPT AND the STEM OPT extension period.
  • Do I have additional reporting responsibilities while on OPT?
      • Yes! You will have the same reporting requirements as for post-completion OPT, plus a new set of requirements relating directly to STEM OPT.
      • Here is a Planning Tool from USCIS that helps walk you through each phase of the STEM extension process.
      • Here’s a review of the OPT reporting requirements:
        • Students on STEM Extension OPT are required to provide updates if you:
          • Change your legal name
          • Change your physical mailing address
          • Change your email address
          • Change your employer
          • Change your immigration status (eg enroll in college or change to another visa status such as H1B)
          • Depart the US and forfeit any remaining OPT STEM extension time
        • You will make any updates through the SEVP portal. You will receive an email from SEVP once your OPT has been approved and your start date has passed that will contain instructions for logging into the SEVP portal. Here is an in depth guide to the SEVP portal.
        • If you have any trouble with the portal, or get locked out, or find there is some information you are unable to update – reach out to us!
      • Standard 6-month reporting requirement
        • The six month reporting requirement is simply to verify the current information in your SEVIS record, with regards to employment and address information 12 and 24 month OPT STEM reporting and self-evaluation
        • You are also required to submit the OPT self-evaluation section from Form I-983, both at the 12 month and again at the 24 month mark.
  • How do I change or add a STEM OPT employer?
    • While STEM extension application is pending. Notify OIS immediately. We will then issue you a new I-20 containing information about the new employer.
    • While already on an STEM extension. Please supply OIS with details about the new employer, plus a Form I-983 completed by the new employer and you. You will also need to submit a final self-evaluation report each time you end employment.
  • Is there a “grace period” after my OPT STEM extension ends?
    • Yes, you have a 60 day grace period that starts the day after the end date on your STEM OPT card.
    • This assumes that you have not used up your cumulative allotment of 150 days of unemployment during all three years of OPT.
    • If you travel outside the US during this grace period you will not be permitted to re-enter.
  • Will I have to pay taxes while on OPT/STEM OPT?
    • All employment in the US is subject to federal and state taxes, unless exempt under certain country tax treaties. Employment is not subject to social security or medicare tax while residency in the U.S. has been for less than five years.