Optional Practical Training (OPT)
This employment authorization is available to foreign students who have completed associate, bachelors, masters or doctorate degrees as well as non-degree students completing structured programs or certificate programs in F-1 student status. An applicant should apply and receive approval from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to be employed for a period of one year. Optional practical training after completion of studies is not a one-time option. Upon completion of the OPT student can apply for the second OPT if he/she has attained a higher degree. OPT is not available to Students in English language programs. USCIS regulations, at 8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)(10), provide that optional “practical training is available to F-1 students who have been lawfully enrolled on a full-time basis in a Service-approved college, university, conservatory, or seminary for at least nine consecutive months.
In order to receive optional practical training, you must apply to your Designated School Official (DSO) or foreign student advisor at your university. You may apply for practical training at any time prior to the completion of your studies or within 60 days thereafter. Ideally, you should apply as early as possible in order to begin your employment immediately after you have completed your studies.
To apply for optional practical training, you must complete the top portion of form I-538 (Certification by DSO) and give this form accompanied by your current form I-20 ID to your DSO. The DSO must certify on form I-538 that the employment which you have proposed is directly related to your major area of study and is commensurate with your educational level. The DSO will endorse your I-20 ID if he recommends practical training in your major field of study.
- Under current procedures, form I-538, a copy of form I-20 with your DSOs endorsement, an Application for Employment Authorization (I-765 immigration form) together with the appropriate fee, photographs, and signature card are sent to the Regional INS Service Center having jurisdiction over your school. Only when INS issues you an Employment Authorization Document I-766 may you begin employment.
- Under USCIS rules, a student may engage in optional practical training “after all course requirements for the degree (excluding thesis or equivalent) if the student is in a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree program.”
Your Employment Authorization Document I-766 will allow you to be employed for a maximum of 12 months. However, since practical training will terminate no later than 14 months after completion of study, it is best to apply early.
What if your want to engage in practical training prior to the completion of your studies? Optional practical training is available during as well as after the completion of your academic program. However, remember that the total amount of optional practical training permitted is 12 months although some STEM graduates may be able to extend their OPT for an additional 17 months if their employers enroll in the E-Verify program. You may apply for part-time optional practical training prior to the completion of your studies. After you complete your studies only full-time optional practical training is available.
There are a number of other work options available for students such as work-study and on-campus employment. One such option is called “curricular” practical training (CPT). USCIS requires students who are authorized for one year or more of curricular training to forfeit all optional practical training benefits. However, it pays to know the rules. Students who engage in less than one year of curricular training may still qualify for one year of optional practical training. Also, time spent in part-time curricular training is not counted as time spent in full-time curricular training for this purpose.