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F1 Visa OPT (Occupational Practical Training) Information

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 Engineering
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.

CJ

(USCIS F1 OPT Q&A)

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F-1 Visa: What is this US Student Visa & How Do I Get One?

The F-1 student visa is a nonimmigrant visa allowing foreign students to come to the US and attend US colleges or universities but can also include some other approved academic institutions and earn a full degree at all levels from Undergraduate to Masters to PHD.

Generally if you are doing a high-school exchange program you would be on a J-1 visa (althougth there a few exceptions).

It also can be used to attend Higher Education English Language schools in the US for students to improve there English and obtain certification at the end that is Internationallly recognized. Often many foreigners take this route as it can be hard to accepted either initially or especially transferring with the proving of available funds requriement and actually paying for a US college.

F-1 visa Requirements

1. Unless you are attending an English Language school, you generally must be fully proficient in English to participate in all aspects of the University/College classes. There are a couple of rare exceptions where the University you are attending may make an allownce to teach you extra English classes but this is not common. Many Universities may make you sit some sort of entrance test or submit a lot of documentation proving your English ablities.

2. You have to prove prior to starting the course to the University and then officially signed off on by the USCIS that you have enough funds to pay for education and living expenses prior to receiving your approval to begin studying. This can be a steep requirement even for State Universities.

This requirement varies state by state and college by college. However for example your living expenses proof in New York is a lot higher than states in the middle of the US like Ohio for example. With the private universities which are generally the most well known ones like Harvard, Yale, etc., foreign students except on scholarship generally have to pay the large tuition fees in full up front.

3. The institution has to be approved by the USCIS (United States Customs and Immigration Service). Most institutions have been approved long ago, this generally applies to the more obscure new schools that noone may have heard of.

4. The Institution has to issue you Form I-20A-B which is essentially there satisfaction that you meet all requirements like funding, english competency, academic pre-requisites, etc.

Pros & Cons of the F-1 Visa

– The main benefit of course is that you can earn a US degree or certificate which is well respected around the world and also participate in campus life in the US which opens up a lot of opportunities to you
– You Transfer from one school to another or switch academic programs by notifying the change to the USCIS
– You can legally work part-time on campus and have access to OPT (Optional Practical Training) which allows you to work in the US for a period of time, usually around a year max for undergraduate students and a max of 2 years for post graduate students.
NB: You cannot work legally off campus unless your Institution approves it which is hard to get as you often have to prove economic hardship. Generally no institution will authorize this regardless in your first year of study. In reality many people do work off campus however this may effect your chance of a Green Card/Permanent Residency later in life.
– You can travel freely in an out of the US as long as your visa is valid and your I-20 form is signed by the Instituition
– You can bring your dependents on the F-2 visa but they cannot work.
– You cannot apply for a Green Card directly from an F-1 visa status

You can generally stay as long as it takes to finish your studies and you can extend your stayon the F-1 visa relatively easily by being approved by the appropriate school officials. The I-20 extension should be filed along with your passport, Form I-94, Arrival-Departure document, a letter stating the reason for your extension.

A lot of people change from the F-1 visa to the H-1B visa or for Australians, change from the F-1 visa to the E-3 visa after completing their studies so they can continue to live and then work normally in the US.

Hopefully we may see you as a student in the US sometime soon 🙂

CJ

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