Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Optional Practical Training (OPT) provides F-1 students with an opportunity for hands-on work experience related to their academic field of study.
You are eligible to apply if you meet the following criteria:
- You are currently in F-1 status.
- You have been enrolled in a full course of study for one academic year (three quarters, including final exams weeks) or will complete one academic year by the date the OPT approval begins.
- You have not exceeded 12 months of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization. (Part-time CPT does not affect OPT eligibility.)
- You do not need a job offer first; you can apply for OPT without a job offer.
You are eligible for 12 months of full-time OPT per academic level. For example, you may apply for 12 months of OPT after completing a bachelor's degree and then another 12 months after completing a master's degree. You may apply for OPT authorization during your academic program, after your program completion, or a combination of both. An additional 17-month extension may be possible depending on your field of study.
OPT authorization that begins after completion of your academic program is called post-completion OPT. This is the most common type of OPT. Post-completion OPT is full-time, and it can begin:
- After you complete your degree or exchange program.
- After you complete all course requirements for your degree, excluding thesis or equivalent.
OPT used while you are a student is called pre-completion OPT. Pre-completion OPT is very uncommon. Usually current students are eligible for alternate employment authorization, such as Curricular Practical Training (CPT). Because pre-completion OPT is deducted from the 12 months of OPT eligibility, most students prefer to save OPT for after program completion.
While approved for OPT, you are still in F-1 status and must report address changes and employment information to your ISSS advisor.
12 months of OPT: How to Apply
Apply early! Allow three months for processing by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), plus additional time for obtaining your academic advisor's signature on the OPT certification form, ISSS processing, and mailing to USCIS. You cannot work until you receive OPT approval.
You may submit your application to USCIS as early as 90 days before your program end date and up to 60 days after your program end date. (Your program end date is the last day of your final quarter, including final exams week, according to the academic calendar.) Please note that your OPT application must arrive at the USCIS Service Center within 30 days of the OPT I-20 issue date, or the request will be denied.
ISSS strongly encourages you to apply for OPT three months prior to your program end date. Though USCIS will accept your application up to 60 days after your program end date, you cannot begin work until the application is approved. A delayed application may result in delayed work authorization and/or loss of full OPT eligibility (12 months) due to the three-month processing time by USCIS.
Please read through the materials below and contact ISSS to set up a time to discuss your OPT application.
24-month STEM Extension of OPT: How to Apply
You are eligible to apply for a 24-month OPT extension, beyond the initial 12 months of OPT, if you meet all of the following conditions:
- You are currently approved for post-completion OPT
- You completed a bachelor's or master's in a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) field. Visit the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement website for the STEM Designated Degree Program List. Eligible degrees are listed by their Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code. Your degree's CIP code is listed on the "primary major" line in the top left corner on the third page of your I-20.
- You have a job or job offer from an E-Verify employer
Apply before your current EAD expires. USCIS recommends you apply up to 90 days before your OPT expiration. You can continue to work for up to 180 days while the application is pending.
Contact your ISSS advisor for details and forms for applying for 24-month STEM Extension of OPT.
After OPT Approval
Limits on Periods of Unemployment
Between the start and end date of your post-completion OPT authorization (the dates on your EAD), you cannot be unemployed for more than 90 days. If you received a 17-month STEM extension, you are allowed an additional 30 days of unemployment for a total of 120 days. Each day (including weekends) that you do not have qualifying employment counts as a day of unemployment. There is no grace period after 90/120 days of unemployment. To avoid violating status, USCIS recommends that prior to reaching the unemployment limit, you should prepare to transfer to another school, change education level, depart the US, or change to a different immigration status.
Reporting Requirements to ISSS
Address changes, legal name changes, and employment information must be reported to ISSS using the OPT Reporting Form within 10 days of any changes. Failure to update ISSS with employment information in a timely manner may result in the automatic termination of your immigration record by the SEVIS system. The following information is required:
- Name of employer
- Start date of employment
- Mailing address of employer
- Change of employer, with end and start dates of employment
- How employment is related to your coursework
- Decision to exit the US and complete F-1 status prior to OPT expiration date (if applicable)
- Your current residential address
- Your email address
- Your phone number
Keep documentation of your OPT employment history for your own records. You may need it for future benefits applications.
Employment Allowed While on OPT
You may accept any job that is related to your field of study and commensurate with your level of education. You should be employed at least 20 hours per week. During the 12-month OPT period, this may include:
- Multiple employers: you may work for more than one employer, but all employment must relate to your degree program
- Short-term multiple employers (performing artists): musicians and other performing artists may work for multiple short-term employers (gigs). Keep a list of all positions, dates, and duration
- Work for hire: contract employment
- Self-employment: you may start a business and be self-employed. You must have a business license and document your active engagement in business related to your degree
- Employment through an agency or consulting firm: Keep documentation of working an average of 20 hours per week while employed by the agency
- Volunteer service: you may work as a volunteer or unpaid intern, as long as this does not violate any labor laws. This volunteer service counts as employment for purposes of maintaining F-1 status
24-month STEM extension-approved students:
You must work at least 20 hours per week for an E-Verify employer in a position directly related to your STEM degree. Employment may include:
- Multiple employers: you may work for more than one employer, but all employment must relate to your degree program and each employer must be enrolled in E-Verify.
- Work for hire: contract employment. The company for whom you are providing services must be registered with E-Verify.
- Self-employment: you may start a business and be self-employed. You must register your business with E-Verify and work full time. You must have a business license and document your active engagement in business related to your degree.
- Employment through an agency or consulting firm: you may be employed by an employment agency or consulting firm. The employment agency or consulting firm must be registered with E-Verify, but the third parties contracting with the agency of firm (for which you are providing services) need not be registered with E-Verify.
- Volunteer service: you may work as a volunteer or unpaid intern, as long as this does not violate any labor laws. This volunteer service counts as employment for purposes of maintaining F-1 status.
You will need a Social Security number in order to receive payment from your employer. In general, as an F-1 student you will be exempt from Social Security (FICA) taxes for your first five years in the US, as long as you continue to declare nonresident status for tax purposes. Unless you qualify under a tax treaty between the US and your home government, your earnings as an F-1 student will be subject to applicable federal, state, and local taxes, and employers are required to withhold those taxes from your paychecks. For more information on taxes, see our Tax Resources page.
Medical insurance is an extremely important consideration while you are on OPT. If you are not insured through your employer, you should purchase an individual plan.
Travel and OPT
If your pre-completion OPT application is pending or approved, you may travel and reenter the US.
If your post-completion OPT application is pending, you may travel and re-enter the US.
After graduation, if your post-completion OPT has been approved and your EAD issued, you may not re-enter the US unless you have evidence of employment. You should carry the following documents with you:
- I-20 signed for travel by an international student advisor within the last 6 months
- EAD card*
- Valid passport
- Unexpired F-1 visa (unless returning from a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean)
- Evidence of employment in your field of study (letter of employment, written job offer)
* On the EAD card, there is a statement "Not Valid For Reentry" which means that the EAD card alone is not a proof of your legal status to seek entry into the US. You must have all of the documents mentioned above to be able to reenter the country.
Once the approved period of OPT has begun, time spent outside the US will count as unemployment against the 90/120-day limits. Travel while employed either during a vacation authorized by an employer or as part of your employment will not count as unemployment.
If you have dependents in F-2 status who will travel without you, be sure they carry a photocopy of your EAD card and proof of your employment along with their updated F-2 I-20 that is properly signed for travel.
Study While on OPT
While approved for OPT you may take recreational courses, but if you begin a new degree program, your OPT is automatically terminated.
Students who do not exceed 90/120 days of unemployment and report employment to ISSS as required are automatically granted a 60-day grace period after the end date listed on the EAD. Within this 60-day grace period, you have the following options:
- Depart the US. Once you leave the US (including trips to Canada and Mexico) after completing your studies and OPT period, you are not eligible to reenter with your current I-20. The grace period is meant for travel within and preparation to depart the US.
- Request a new I-20 if you will continue at WWU in a new degree program. If you are an undergraduate and will begin graduate studies, your new I-20 will be issued by Graduate Admissions.
- Transfer your SEVIS record to a new school.
- Apply to change status to another visa category.
H-1B Cap Gap Extension
H-1B is a work visa that is sponsored by an employer. Students commonly transition from Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorization, part of F-1 status, to H-1B status. There are a limited number of H-1Bs available each fiscal year, for most employers, and this limit is often called the "H-1B cap."
New H-1Bs become effective each October 1, but the application period for most employers begins six months earlier, April 1. The "cap gap" occurs when a student's F-1 status and/or OPT expire before their approved H-1B begins October 1.
The Cap Gap Extension
The H-1B Cap Gap Extension allows certain students with pending or approved H-1B petitions to remain in the US in F-1 status until the start date of their approved H-1B employment period, even if the OPT authorization and/or F-1 grace period would have otherwise expired before October 1.
You are eligible for the cap gap extension if both:
- Your employer files an H-1B petition for you, on or after April 1, and requests a change of status to H-1B to begin October 1.
- You are still within your OPT authorization period, or 60-day grace period following the OPT expiration, when your employer submits the H-1B petition on your behalf (on or after April 1).
If your OPT authorization is still valid when your employer submits your H-1B petition to USCIS, your OPT authorization is extended. You can continue working in F-1 status through the extension date.
If your OPT authorization is expired but you are in your 60-day grace period when your employer submits your H-1B petition to USCIS, your F-1 status is extended. You cannot work but you can remain in the US through the extension date.
The length of your extension depends on your H-1B petition phase:
- Filed: If your H-1B petition is properly filed (but not yet receipted or approved), your OPT authorization is extended to June 1. If your OPT authorization already expired but you were in your 60-day grace period at the time of filing, your F-1 status is extended to June 1.
- Selected for receipting: If your H-1B petition is selected for receipting, your OPT authorization is extended to September 30. If your OPT authorization already expired but you were in your 60-day grace period at the time of filing, your F-1 status is extended to September 30.
- Approved: If your H-1B petition is approved, your OPT authorization is extended to September 30. If your OPT authorization already expired but you were in your 60-day grace period at the time of filing, your F-1 status is extended to September 30.
How to Apply
The cap gap extension of F-1 status is automatic. It begins when your employer submits the H-1B petition to USCIS.
To obtain documentation of your F-1 status extension, submit proof of your H-1B petition by e-mail to your ISSS advisor. If your H-1B petition is:
- Filed: submit a copy of the petition and FedEx, UPS, or USPS Express/certified mail receipt to your ISSS advisor. (If your regular OPT authorization is valid through June 1, do not request a new I-20 based on H-1B filing only. Wait for the receipt or approval notice.)
- Selected for receipting: submit a copy of the I-797 Notice of Action (receipt notice) to your ISSS advisor.
- Approved: submit a copy of your approval notice to your ISSS advisor.
Your ISSS advisor will print a new I-20 for you that indicates the extension of your F-1 status and (if eligible) extension of your OPT employment authorization. The extension benefit is automatic, so you can continue working (if eligible) and remain in the US while waiting for the new I-20.
USCIS provides thorough Cap Gap information.