Many students come to the US to study via the F1 visa for undergraduate, graduate or pHD level degrees. The US is generally recognized as having the best colleges and universities in the world although maybe not the cheapest. Then from that many students use the F1 student visa as stepping stone to work full time in the US on a visa like the H1B visa.
There are many pros and cons of studying in the US but certainly one of the biggest benefits of the F1 visa apart from the generally excellent education you will receive is that it allows you to work in the US temporarily on the Occupational Practical Training, or more commonly known as OPT.
This OPT program is often one of the major ways that foreign students eventually get full sponsorship via a visa like the H1B visa as it allows them to seek employment without the employer needing to sponsor them or pay additional costs. Thus they get to trial the foreign worker before committing to sponsoring that person.
Additionally from the foreigners perspective they also get to trial an employer and generally the US work lifestyle out. So it also helps them decide firstly if their current employer is a great fit or indeed if that is not the case, then allows them to have some US work experience on their resume. That experience combined with time to network within the US work and professional group scene is invaluable to finding other work opportunities that may suit you better.
Now there are many myths about what the F1 visa OPT program is an isn’t so we will try and clear all the main ones here so you are well prepared in your US Immigration journey.
In short F-1 visa students are permitted a total of 12 months towards practical training, on being certified by the advisor of the usefulness of the work towards goals of the degree, which can be distributed between Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and OPT. CPT is just working while still study as opposed to following graduation. This permission is granted via the International Students Office or similar body of the academic institution and like post graduation OPT must be in line with the field of study undertaken.
(NB: M-1 visa students are also eligible for OPT up to a maximum of 6 months which is earned by one month of work time allowed for every 4 months of study)
What is the Process & Filing Costs for OPT?
- A foreign student can begin the procedure by requesting the Designated School Official (DSO) at their university to recommend the OPT. The DSO can approve or deny this request but will generally approve if it is a legitimate job offer and employer and related to the student’s field of study
- The DSO will note this on the student’s I-20 form and update the SEVIS records.
- The foreign student then files form I-765 with the USCIS. This filing costs $340 and is paid for by the student.
- This is the Application for Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and this EAD will be issued if the USCIS approve the work.
- Work may only begin after the EAD has been issued.
You should note that is you spent 6 months working prior to graduation this will then be deducted from the 12 month maximum alotted for OPT.
17 Month OPT Extension
On April 8, 2008, an interim order came from the Department of Homeland Security allowing certain students to apply for up to a 17 month extension of their OPT period bringing up to a maximum of 29 months being allowed to work under this status. This temporary interim ruling was designed to provide a permanent solution to what is known as the H-1B visa “cap-gap”. This is basically when a foreign’s student’s F1 visa status and EAD period has expired during a US Immigration fiscal year (Oct 1 – Sep 30) but prior to them being eligible work under an approved H1B visa which only starts on October 1st. In the past other interim solutions tried to address this issue but only related to someone remaining in the country but not for their work authorization.
The foreign students that are eligible for this are those that have graduated in areas designated as important to the US economy with lots of open position but a constant shortfall among US citizen graduates. This includes Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (STEM). The eligible degree fields of study must be within the following;
o Computer Science Applications
o Biological and Biomedical Sciences
o Actuarial Science
o Mathematics and Statistics
o Military Technologies
o Engineering Technologies
o Physical Sciences
o Science Technologies
o Medical Scientist
It should be noted that for approval that your OPT approval must be based on one of these types of degrees. That means if you have an undergraduate degree in one of these areasa and master’s degree in something else but your OPT program is approved based on your Master’s degree say in education, then you are not eligible for the STEM extension.
It is also mandatory that your employer be enrolled in the free US Government E-Verify program and that you apply for this extension prior to the expiry of your current OPT period.
What is the Process for the STEM OPT 17 month Extension & Costs?
- Again the foreign student must file Form I-765 with USCIS which again costs $340. Additionally you must include with filing your Form I-20 endorsed by the DSO at your school and then a copy of your degree in one of the designated STEM fields of study. This is effectively an amendment to your original form I-765 filing as well as for inclusion of your Employers E-Verify information.
- If there is a delay in the 17 month extension processing of the application by the USCIS and the student filed the STEM extension ahead of time, there is an up to 180 extension of employment authorization.
You should also note that every 6 months you need to report to your DSO information regarding your employer and your status in terms of addresses, contacts and names to confirm information. Additionally if any of this information ever changes it needs to be reported within 10 days.
Additionally if your 17 month extension period ends prior to October 1 and your H1B visa petition has been approved then you get an automatic stand and work authorization extension up until this date and your H1B status takes over. If this is the case then the DSO reporting requirements above still apply.
Finally if your are on the regular OPT program you may not accrue in aggregate any more than 90 days on unemployment or with the 17 month STEM extension, 120 days on unemployment as otherwise your OPT status becomes void.