F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) and STEM Extension
Every year at graduation time, many U.S. university graduates who hold F-1 student visas may join the U.S. workforce without requiring work-visa sponsorship. This special work eligibility arises from the “OPT” and “STEM OPT” programs reviewed in this article.
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 OPT. This 12-month period may be split up into different time periods or used all 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 OPT. 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.
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 OPT. To qualify for the 24-month extension, the following requirements must be met:
The student must have earned a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in a major listed in the STEM Designated Degree Program List, which can be viewed at http://www.ice.gov/sevis/stemlist.htm;
The student’s OPT employer must participate in the E-Verify program; and
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 OPT 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.