Under current immigration law, most foreign students in degree programs in the United States in F-1 student status are eligible for optional practical training (“OPT”). OPT allows a foreign student to engage in work that is directly related to his/her major area of study. To receive OPT, a student must have completed at least one full academic year at his/her school of enrollment. An F-1 student may receive up to 12 months of optional practical training. This 12-month period may be split up into different time periods or all used at once. Most students reserve the full 12-month allotment of OPT to use after graduation. If the student goes on to a higher educational level (e.g., from a bachelor’s degree to a Ph.D. program), s/he becomes eligible for another 12 months of optional practical training. F-1 students enrolled in English language training programs, high school, or other non-degree programs are not eligible for OPT.

A student may use OPT during periods when school is not in session (e.g., summer vacation), provided the student is currently enrolled at the school and will register for the next school term; during the school year, but for no more than 20 hours per week; or after completing a course of study/degree. OPT must be completed within 14 months following the student’s graduation.

To apply for optional practical training, the student must receive authorization from the school’s office of international students. The office will provide the student with a signed Form I-20, indicating that the student has been recommended for OPT, and will enter this recommendation into the student’s electronic SEVIS record. The student will then have to file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”). If the I-765 is approved, USCIS will issue an employment authorization document (“EAD”) that serves as proof of work authorization. Note that a student cannot begin work until the date shown on the EAD card.

A student interested in applying for optional practical training to work prior to finishing a degree, but after completing one full academic year, may file the I-765 up to 90 days before the intended start date. A student who wants to apply for optional practical training to work after completing a degree (“post-completion OPT”) should file the I-765 up to 90 days prior to his/her program end date, but no later than 60 days after his/her program end date. The student must also file the I-765 within 30 days of the date that the school’s office of international students enters the recommendation for OPT into the student’s SEVIS record.

OPT work authorization automatically terminates if the student transfers to another school or starts an educational program at a different level. A student in post-completion OPT continues to hold F-1 status, which is dependent on the student’s compliance with employment rules. For that reason, a student may not accrue more than 90 aggregate days of unemployment during an initial post-completion OPT period.

It is important to keep in mind that an F-1 student working under OPT authorization must report any change of name or address, or any interruption of employment, to the school’s office of international students for the entire OPT period. Failure to do so may result in difficulty when traveling.

Special Rules for Students with a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics Degree

In addition to the 12-month OPT period allowed for F-1 students, a student with a degree in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (“STEM”) field may receive an extension of OPT for an additional 24 months. Thus, a foreign student who receives a degree in a STEM field is eligible for a total of 36 months of optional practical training. To qualify for the 24-month extension, the following requirements must be met:

  1. The student must have earned a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in a major listed in the STEM Designated Degree Program List;
    • A student participating in OPT based on a non-STEM degree may receive the 24-month STEM OPT extension based on a prior STEM degree if s/he has not already received a STEM OPT extension based on that prior STEM degree.
    • A student who has already used 36 months of optional practical training under the STEM program and who earns another qualifying STEM degree at a higher educational level is eligible for an additional 24-month STEM OPT extension.
  2. The student’s employer must participate in the E-Verify program; and
  3. The student’s employer must report material changes to the student’s employment to the office of international students at the student’s school within five business days, so that they may update the student’s electronic SEVIS record.

A student must timely and properly apply for the 24-month STEM extension, and can continue to work while the extension is pending.

Notably, employment pursuant to a STEM extension requires the employer to report on the employment and demonstrate that they will be providing formal training that increases the student’s academic learning through practical experience. Employers must complete Form I-983, Training Plan for STEM OPT Students, in order to meet this requirement.

Unlike regular post-completion OPT, a student granted the 24-month STEM OPT extension may not accrue more than 150 days of unemployment in the aggregate during the initial post-completion OPT period and the subsequent 24-month extension period.

A student under this 24-month STEM OPT extension must also report any changes to his/her legal name, residential or mailing address, e-mail address, employer’s name, employer’s address, and/or loss of employment within 10 days of the change to his/her school’s office of international students. Furthermore, every six months, the student must report to his/her school’s office of international students to confirm the accuracy of his/her information for as long as the student remains in the 24-month extension period. Failure to comply with these reporting requirements will lead to loss of F-1 status.