Can I stay and work in the U.S. after I graduate? (For F-1 students)
Again, the answer is yes and the program is called Optional Practical Training (OPT). The application process is quite a bit more involved than the CPT (Curricular Practical Training) authorization process as it requires submitting an application to the United States Immigration and Citizenship Service (USCIS).
- The work must relate to your major or course of study.
- OPT can be used before and/or after you complete your program of study but you must have been in valid F-1 status for at least one academic year before applying. Do note that the amount of time you use for pre-completion OPT will be deducted from your 12-month allowance and that you may not work more than 20 hours a week while you are enrolled in classes.
- You cannot start working until you have received your work permit from the USCIS and your selected start date has arrived. (The permit is called the Employment Authorization Document (EAD).)
- You must work a minimum of 20 hours a week.
- A job offer is not required to apply for OPT but once you receive a job offer, you must notify your International advisor so that they can enter this information into SEVIS.
- Unemployment is allowed for no more than 90 days (or 120 days if you have received a STEM program extension.) If you are having trouble finding a job within that period, I recommend finding volunteer work (at least 20 hours a week) until you can secure paid employment.
- The employment may occur anywhere in the U.S.
- No special permission is required to change employers or terminate your employment but you must always notify your advisor of these changes.
- During OPT, you are still considered to be in F-1 status, since OPT is considered to be part of your program of study.
- You can apply for 12 months of OPT after each education level (i.e., you would be eligible after completing an undergraduate degree and if you decide to go on for a graduate degree, you would be able to apply for authorization for another year.
Types of Permissible Employment
As I mentioned earlier your work must be related to your field of study. Whatever you do, it’s a good idea to keep a record including the dates of the work, the job title, the name and contact information of your supervisor and a detailed description of the work you did. You may be asked to present this at a later date.
In addition to standard full-time paid employment, these types of situations are allowed:
- Multiple employers: You are allowed to work for more than one employer but the total hours must be more than 20 a week.
- Volunteer / Unpaid employment:
You are also able to volunteer or do an unpaid internship, provided it does not violate any labor laws and that you are working at least 20 hours a week.
- Short-term multiple employers: This usually pertains to performing artists (musicians, dancers, etc.) You are allowed to use the time to perform for different organizations/places. It’s a good idea to keep a list of all “gigs” as you may be asked to show this in the future.
- Contract/Consultant work: Also called 1099 employment. You are allowed to take on multiple assignments as a contractor or consultant but again it’s a good idea to keep a list of all employers, dates of projects, etc.
- Self-employment/Entrepreneurial work. Let’s say you’re an MBA student and during your program you developed a business plan. During approved OPT, you are able to start your own business and be self-employed. In this case, you are required to show that you are working full-time and that you have the proper business license(s). If you do choose to take this path, I strongly recommend consulting an immigration attorney before you get started. The USCIS is wary of these sorts of situations and you need to prove that you have an exit plan at the end of the year.
To receive authorization to work, you are required to submit the USCIS application (called the I-765 form) and in many cases, you are also required to complete a second school-specific application. Your advisor will recommend approval but the application is ultimately reviewed by the USCIS and final authorization comes from their office. Each university handles the application process differently, so be sure to check in with your advisor about your school’s specific requirements, application process and timeline for processing. To get an idea of what is needed on the application, you can visit the USCIS website. The processing fee is currently USD $380.00.
Timing is tricky with the OPT application; the application processing time can range from two-five months and you cannot control how long it takes. (In some parts of the U.S., applications may be processed more quickly and wait times are always longer in the late Spring / Summer months when most students apply.)
Keep in mind that you cannot start working until you receive approval and get your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) in the mail and if you already have a job offer, your new employer must be somewhat flexible about your start date. On the other hand, if you do not yet have a job offer, you don’t want to risk exceeding the maximum unemployment period of 90 days.
The earliest you can apply is 90 days before your “completion” date, or the day you complete your final degree requirements—usually the last day of final exams or if you are filling a thesis or dissertation, your final due date. And the latest you can apply is 60 days after that same date.
When you fill out your Form I-765, you’re also required to select a start date for employment (and this is when the clock starts ticking in terms of your employment status). This can be a difficult decision as you don’t know how long it will take to get your application approved and you may not yet know when you will have a job offer. Keep in mind that once you submit your application to the USCIS, it’s impossible to change your selected authorization dates or to cancel the application. I recommend consulting your advisor before selecting your start dates as he may have a good idea of the general waiting times for processing in the region.
STEM Program extension
OPT is limited to 12 months unless you are a student in a STEM program (see below). If you are in a STEM program, you can apply to extend your OPT beyond 12 months (for up to 17 additional months, or 29 months total) provided you meet these conditions:
- Your OPT is based on a degree in a STEM major (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics). For a list of currently accepted programs, visit the NAFSA website.
- You are currently authorized for OPT and are working in a job related to your field of study.
- Your employer subscribes to E-Verify, the USCIS database that employers use to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S.
Travel Considerations While on OPT
If you’d like to travel outside of the U.S. while on OPT or while waiting for your approval from the USCIS, proceed carefully and be sure to consult your international advisor before you depart. You will need the proper authorizations and if you have a job offer or are already working, be sure to get a letter from your employer. If you are still job hunting, again I would strongly recommend speaking with your advisor so that he or she can recommend what documentation to prepare to support your re-entry. In most cases you will not have a problem, but there is no guarantee that you will be allowed to re-enter, and for students who have been subject to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) or who are from certain countries deemed “high-risk” by USCIS, travel outside the U.S. during this period may not be advisable.
After you complete your authorized OPT, you have 60 days to make a decision about your next steps, including:
- Returning home (be sure to notify your International advisor of your date of departure so that they can update this information in SEVIS)
- Changing your immigration status, by either starting a new degree program or continuing to work in the U.S. as a sponsored H-1B employee. For more information about the (even more complicated!) H1-B petition process, visit the USCIS website.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone finding this a complicated process…and this doesn’t even include the daunting experience of job-hunting in a foreign country! Keep in mind that these regulations change relatively often so it’s very important to check in with your International advisor early in your program.
** Please note that USCIS regulations are subject to change and you should always check with the International Student Advisor at your school for the latest information and requirements. **