Optional Practical Training Update

Optional Practical Training (OPT) Now Available After Each Program Level—The most exciting news regarding OPT is that now it may be authorized after completion of each program level. Thus, if a student completes one year of OPT after his or her undergraduate studies, the student becomes eligible for another 12 months after completing a master’s degree, and, again, after the doctorate.

Optional practical training (OPT) must be related to the student’s major area of study and is available in four instances during a course of studies: while school is in session (limited to part-time only); during the student’s annual vacation and at other times that the school is not in session; after completion of all course requirements for the degree but before completion of a thesis or the equivalent; and after completion of the entire course of study. Practitioners must understand that only an aggregate of one year (12 months) of full-time optional practical training is permitted at each academic level. Part-time optional practical training is deducted at one-half the full-time rate. For example, a student who is granted four months of part-time optional practical training to be used during a summer vacation will have a deduction of two months. That student’s remaining “balance” of available OPT will be 10 months. That time can be used during the school year, during vacation periods, or it can be “saved” for use after completion of studies.

To qualify for optional practical training, students must have been enrolled in school for nine consecutive months at a USCIS-approved school and presently be in F-1 status. This requirement may also be met if the F-1 student was studying full-time for all or a portion of the nine months while in another lawful status that allows full-time study at a Service-approved school (including, but not limited to, J-2, H-4, L-2, or dependent E status).

To apply for OPT, the student must request the DSO for an endorsement on the SEVIS I-20 recommending OPT. An offer of employment is not a prerequisite to applying for OPT. Having received the necessary endorsement and SEVIS employment page from the DSO, the F-1 student seeking an EAD for practical training must submit the I-765 application to the USCIS regional service center having jurisdiction over the student’s residence.

Students seeking OPT after completion of studies may apply as early as 90 days prior to completion of academic studies. All practical training must be completed within a 14-month period following completion of study. It is important to note that students on OPT may not commence employment until they can present a valid EAD card. Given the long processing times for EAD cards through the regional service centers, students are advised to apply for OPT as early as possible.

The F-1 student may not receive more than 12 months of OPT at each academic level. International Travel During a Grant of Post-Completion Optional Practical Training—During the authorized period of training, reentry to the United States is permitted if the F-1 has a valid visa, a recently endorsed SEVIS I-20, and an EAD issued for practical training, provided that the student has not violated his or her immigration status.

F-1 students in periods of post-completion OPT are counseled to exercise extreme caution with respect to international travel. If a student’s F-1 visa stamp will expire prior to the date of re-entry, that student will have to apply for a new F-1 visa stamp at the consular office abroad. Such an application can lead to serious trouble, as the consular officer may express concerns regarding the individual’s nonimmigrant intent. Many consular officers, particularly in “problem” posts, consider OPT to be a “coda” at the end of an educational stay and look upon employment as being beyond the temporary purpose of a student’s stay in the United States. As a result, such visas are routinely denied.

Practical training is a privilege incident to F-1 status and must not be perceived as a right. There are far too many cases of students who left the United States for a brief and casual trip abroad and who were unable to return to resume their period of OPT. Caution and appropriate questioning should prevent such a harsh result.

Thus, post-completion OPT should be perceived as a “door that opens in only one direction.” Absent a pre-existing valid visa, students should not travel internationally during their period of post-completion OPT.

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