Looking for something specific?
- Can you extend your OPT time?
- Can you renew your F-1 student visa while on the OPT or the OPT STEM extension?
- When does the OPT begin and end?
- Understanding OPT grace periods and time limitations
- When should you apply for the 24-month STEM extension?
About to complete your international degree in the US? Or perhaps you’ve already completed it and secured your American post-grad position?
Either way, thanks to this guide you’ll soon become an expert on the F-1 OPT visa extension.
What is a US F-1 OPT visa?
OPT stands for Optional Practical Training and there are 3 types:
As part of the OPT visa rules, you must first have a valid F-1 visa for study at a SEVP-recognised institution. The OPT is not a visa class on its own, but rather it is your F-1 visa plus an Employment Authorisation Document (EAD).
SEVP-certified schools (Student and Exchange Visitor Program) are those who have authorisation to provide study opportunities to nonimmigrant students. You can get your OPT visa only if your school is an SEVP-recognised institution.
TIP: All US universities supported by Prodigy Finance loans are SEVP-approved and listed on the SEVIS system.
What you should know about an OPT visa extension:
OPT visa eligibility: Who can apply for an OPT visa in the USA?
You’re eligible to apply for a US OPT visa if you have:
- A valid F-1 visa.
- Been enrolled as a full-time student for at least 1 academic year before the start date you apply for.
- Not previously used your OPT privileges at this degree level.
What can you do with an OPT visa?
You get the right to remain in the US to look for and secure paid employment in your field of study for a limited duration, as well as the right to obtain a social security number (SSN).
What can’t you do with an OPT visa?
You cannot undertake work outside your field while on your F-1 OPT visa.
OPT visa validity: When does the OPT begin and end?
In principle, this is up to you, but there are a lot of official timing considerations you need to work around which might impact your dates as well as the total time you’re given, including:
- Requested start date
- Application submission date
- USCIS processing time
OPT visa validity: How long does it last?
Pre-completion and post-completion OPTs are valid for a maximum of 12 months, with a 24-month extension available to STEM students, and must be undertaken within 14 months after you’ve received your degree. How you use that time depends on a couple of factors:
- Any time you use before graduation counts against the 12 months. For example, if you work for 2 months during your studies, your OPT visa will only be valid for another 10 months post-graduation. However, you may be able to work fewer than 20 hours a week on-campus without using your OPT time.
- Pre-completion OPT time may be split according to work you undertake. For example, you may use 1 month in October of your second year and another month in March, leaving you with 10 months eligibility after graduation.
- Post-completion OPT time may only be used in a continuous block; you’re unable to split it. If your post-completion OPT start date begins in September and you have a full 12 months of OPT time remaining, it will remain valid until August of the following year. If you have less time, it will expire sooner.
When can you apply for an OPT visa extension?
For pre-completion OPT: As early as 90 days before finishing your first academic year.
For post-completion OPT: Up to 90 days before degree completion or up to 60 days after degree completion.
For science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) extensions: Up to 90 days before the initial OPT expires.
What do you get with an OPT extension?
It’s important to note that your OPT visa grants work privileges as well as the possibility of additional time in the United States, referred to as a post-completion OPT.
But, it’s also possible to use up all your OPT time during your studies, referred to as pre-completion OPT, which may leave you with fewer visa options to remain in the US after graduation.
OPT jobs in the US
With an OPT extension on your F-1 visa, you gain the privilege of working legally in the US for up to 12 months, as long as the work relates to your programme of study.
However, if you decide to work during your studies (jobs for OPT students include many internships) it counts against your 12-month extension period. If you use the entire year before you graduate, you’ll have to consider other options if you want to remain in the US (and most of them require investment or a permanent position with an employer willing to sponsor your H1-B visa).
Although the F-1 visa doesn’t allow you to undertake off-campus work, you’re likely to find your university has several avenues through which you can gain work experience or exposure during this time in the form of internships or other non-compensated positions.
In addition, universities are often able to offer limited on-campus work opportunities as these are considered financial aid rather than employment. That said, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll secure one of these spots because not every programme offers them, and those that do often have more students than jobs to fill.
Can you extend your OPT visa time?
Extra OPT extension time for STEM graduates
STEM OPT visa extensions offer an additional 24 months to your stay, giving a total of 36 months validity. Again, this must be used in a continuous block after graduation, though it’s possible to split it when using time on your pre-completion OPT. Unfortunately, there is no OPT extension for non-STEM students.
TIP: Just because you’re pursuing an MS degree, doesn’t mean you will automatically qualify for the STEM extension. The individual programme and degree must fit specific criteria and carry the relevant qualification. If you haven’t already checked on the STEM OPT extension status of your programme, make a plan to do so soon.
When should you apply for the 24-month STEM OPT visa extension?
Once you receive your OPT, you can apply for the 24-month STEM OPT visa extension:
- Up to 90 days before your current OPT authorisation ends, and
- Up to 60 days after your DSO enters a recommendation into your SEVIS record
As long as your STEM OPT visa extension has been received on time, you qualify for an automatic OPT visa extension of your OPT for 180 days to allow for processing. However, this period ends as soon as a decision is made on your STEM OPT visa extension:
- If your STEM OPT extension is granted, you are bound by the dates in your amended OPT documentation.
- If your STEM OPT extension is denied, you’ll need to leave the US, though you may want to consult with an immigration lawyer about other visa classes that may be suitable for your situation.
After receiving your OPT visa extension and EAD card, you can:
- Begin your OPT employment
- File for your Social Security Number (SSN) if you haven’t already received one
- Investigate your H-1B employment visa options with your employer
- Prepare for a strong financial future in the US by building a strong credit profile
Note: There is, unfortunately, no OPT extension for non-STEM students
F-1 renewal on OPT: Can you renew your F1 student visa while on the OPT or the STEM OPT visa extension?
Prodigy Finance recommends you speak to an immigration attorney to discuss the possible risks involved in renewing your F1 student visa while on the OPT or STEM OPT visa Extension.
TIP: It’s critical to demonstrate non-immigrant intent while applying for and remaining on the F-1 visa as the OPT is a benefit reserved for those without permanent immigrant intent. If you indicate immigrant intent, your F-1 visa could be denied.
With the above caveat, you may indeed renew your F-1 student visa while on the OPT or STEM OPT visa extension. You’ll need a valid EAD as well as evidence that you already have a job or will have a job in the US in your field of study, along with the required visa renewal documents. Be sure to have the following:
- A valid passport.
- An I-20 signed in the last 6 months.
- Your I-901 SEVIS receipt (no need to pay the SEVIS fee again).
- A valid Employment Authorisation Document (EAD).
- An official job offer letter showing your salary, location of employment, part-time or full-time employment status, and job duties. Be prepared to clearly explain how the job is related to your field of study.
How to apply for your US OPT visa
- Request your designated school official (DSO) to recommend the OPT.
- The DSO will make your OPT recommendation by endorsing your Form I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, and notation in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System).
- File your Form I-765 and Application for Employment Authorisation with USCIS, along with the specified fees and supporting documents.
How long does it take to get your US OPT visa?
If you’re going into your second year of a 2-year degree in the US, this will be the most pressing question you have over the next several months. And, you’ll need to get the timing right to maximise your OPT time in the US.
On average, it takes around 3 months to obtain your OPT documentation, including your EAD. But, there are very specific points you’ll need to pay attention to along the way.
Understanding OPT visa grace periods and time limitations
Most F-1 student visas provide internationals with a grace period of 60 days after receiving their degree to leave the country. This isn’t always the case and you need to ensure you abide by the dates and stipulations conferred by your visa.
If you intend to apply for OPT, your application must reach USCIS within this 60-day post-degree grace period. You’ll receive a receipt of your application roughly 2 or 3 weeks after USCIS gets it - and that’s only the receipt of your application, not your OPT with EAD.
But if you want to use the full 12 months for work, you need to apply for your OPT visa sooner as the latest start date you qualify for is 60 days after getting your degree.
Scenario 1: You’ve accepted a job contract long before graduation
Students who have accepted job contracts before graduation should apply as early as possible within the 90 days before receiving their degree (and within 30 days after their intent has been registered by the DSO at their university). You can specify your intended start date as late as 60 days after getting your degree.
Scenario 2: You’ve accepted a job contract long just before or after graduation
The latest start date of your EAD is 60 days after receiving your degree. If you use your F-1 60-day post-completion grace period to apply, you may not get the full 12 months work authorisation as it could take 3 months to receive your EAD and you may not work until you receive this documentation in the mail.
With an OPT that begins 60 days after receiving your degree, you have a maximum of 14 months to remain in the US legally on your F-1 visa. That’s 12 months for your OPT and a further 60-day grace period (without work) to prepare to leave the country.
After receiving your OPT and EAD paperwork
Once you’ve received your EAD card, you can:
- Begin your OPT employment.
- File for your Social Security Number (SSN) if you haven’t already received one.
- Investigate your H-1B employment visa options with your employer.
- Prepare for a strong financial future in the US by building a strong credit profile.
Ready to build your credit in the US?
CPT - Curricular Practical Training: only applies during your studies.
DSO - Designated school official: the person who recommends you pursue an OPT visa, makes the necessary amendments to your I-20 form and registers your intent on the SEVIS system.
EAD - Employment Authorisation Document: this is the privilege that sets the OPT apart from your F-1.
SEVIS - Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service: the system used by the US DHS to maintain information on the relevant schools and students.
SEVP - Student and Exchange Visitor Program: SEVP-certified schools are those who have authorisation to provide study opportunities to non-immigrant students.
SSN - Social Security Number: your tax identification number in the US.
USCIS - United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security and responsible for processing visas, amongst other responsibilities.
Need an international student loan to attend your dream US school?
Prodigy Finance can help you with that. We provide international student loans to qualified international masters students attending top universities in the US and across the globe.
The purpose of this guide is to provide prospective students with an overview of the application process for a US student visa and OPT visa extension, and should not be regarded as legal or immigration advice or as a substitute for the official information published by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from time to time or any instructions and/or advice provided by US embassies and consuls. Whilst we have carefully compiled the guide in accordance with the information published by USCIS, Prodigy Finance Limited does not accept liability for any inaccuracies, mistakes, omissions or outdated information in the guide and we encourage prospective students and other readers to consult the USCIS’s website at https://www.uscis.gov. Prodigy Finance Limited is not authorised by the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to provide immigration services and will not provide any additional information or assistance to any person to apply for a US student visa, OPT, OPT visa extension or other category visa.
If you want to know how to improve your international student credit score, or if you are at an even earlier stage and simply preparing to be an international student, check out more great articles in our Study Centre.
Post updated for accuracy and freshness on September 7th 2020. Originally published on July 3rd 2019.