F-1 OPT FAQs

  1. What is OPT?
  2. Do I need a job offer to apply for OPT?
  3. When can I apply for OPT?
  4. Can I travel overseas during OPT?
  5. What type of employment is allowed for students on OPT?
  6. What if I can’t find a job during my OPT?
  7. What counts as “unemployed” time?
  8. What can I do to avoid counting any “unemployment” days?
  9. How does travel outside the United States impact the period of unemployment?
  10. I have another U.S. degree and I was granted OPT based on that degree – will I qualify for another period of OPT?
  11. I have heard that STEM OPT provides an F-1 student with an additional 24 months of OPT – what is it?
  12. I have a job offer from an employer that will file an H-1B, but my OPT expires over summer – can I work during that gap?
  13. Are all F-1 students eligible for cap-gap extension?
  14. Do I have to file an H-1B petition by a certain date to qualify for cap-gap extension?
  15. Can I travel during the cap-gap extension period?
  16. Is an F-1 exempt from Social Security and Medicare and other taxes?

 

What is OPT?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary “unrestricted” employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. USCIS issues an F-1 student an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) as part of OPT.

Most students “save” their 12 months of OPT to be used as post-completion OPT after graduation. In this handout, all references to OPT refer to post-completion OPT.

Keep your options open: apply for OPT even if you don’t think you need it!

Even if you are planning to leave the United States after graduation, or if you have your “dream job” offer lined up abroad, you should always apply for OPT in case circumstances change. Oftentimes, students are offered another job opportunity or their existing job offer falls through just before leaving the United States. Don’t miss out on that last minute opportunity by neglecting to apply for OPT. The filing fee is only $380 – it is money well-worth spent to keep your options open.

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Do I need a job offer to apply for OPT?

No, a job offer is not required to apply for OPT. F-1 students simply complete the forms and submit the required documents with the government filing fee to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

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When can I apply for OPT?

F-1 students may apply for OPT up to 90 days before their academic programs end and no later than 60 days after graduation.

Since USCIS takes about 2 to 3 months to issue the EAD, don’t leave until the last minute to apply. You cannot start working until you have the Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

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Can I travel overseas during OPT?

Yes. Very generally, an F-1 student must have the following documents to travel internationally:

  • Valid passport;
  • Valid F-1 visa stamp in passport;
  • Valid Form I-20 endorsed for travel by the university’s DSO.

An F-1 student with an expired F-1 visa stamp in his/her passport will have to apply for a new F-1 visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy abroad before returning to the United States. In some circumstances, applying for a new F-1 visa for certain applicants can be risky. These risks will vary from case to case depending on the F-1’s personal situation.

Canadian F-1 students are visa-exempt, which means that a Canadian F-1 student only needs the following documents to travel internationally:

  • Valid passport;
  • Valid Form I-20 endorsed for travel by the university’s DSO.

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What type of employment is allowed for students on OPT?

The employment must be in a job that is related to the student’s degree program. This employment may include:

  • Paid employment – Students may work part-time (at least 20 hours per week) or full-time.
    • Multiple Employers: students may work for more than one employer, but all employment must be related to the student’s degree program
    • Short-term multiple employers (performing artists): students, such as musicians and other performing artists may work for multiple short-term employers (gigs). If a student has a variable schedule, it should average out to 20 hours/week within a month. The student should maintain a list of all gigs, the dates and duration.
    • Work for hire: commonly referred to as 1099 employment where an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship.
    • Self-employed business owner: students on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. In this situation, the student must work full-time. The student must be able to prove that s/he has the proper business license and is actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program.
       
      CAUTION!
        • While an F-1 student can set up a business with OPT, s/he may not be able to apply for an H-1B through the business if s/he owns or has a majority stake in the business. In some circumstances, an E investor visa may be available for entrepreneurs.
    • Employment through an agency: students must be able to provide evidence showing they worked an average of at least 20 hours per week while employed by an agency.
  • Unpaid employment – Students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, where this work does not violate labor laws. The work must be at least 20 hours per week and be related to their field of study.

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What if I can’t find a job during my OPT?

During OPT, F-1 status is dependent upon employment.

  • F-1 students on regular OPT (12 months) may not accrue more than an aggregate 90 days of unemployment
  • F-1 students who have an approved 24-month OPT period are entitled to an additional 60 days of unemployment, for a total of 150 days over their entire OPT period.
  • The 90-day limitation on unemployment applies to F-1 students during the cap-gap extension.

Students who exceed the period of unemployment are considered to have violated their status.

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What counts as “unemployed” time?

Each day (including weekends) during the period when OPT authorization begins and ends that the student does not have qualifying employment counts as a day of unemployment. The only exception is that periods of up to 10 days between the end of one job and the beginning of the next job will not be included in the calculation for time spent unemployed.

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What can I do to avoid counting any “unemployment” days?

If you volunteer for at least 20 hours a week in your field of study, you never have to count any “unemployment” days. Get out there and conduct research for a professor or volunteer at a non-profit or intern at a start-up – just make sure it is for at least 20 hours per week and related to your field of study.

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How does travel outside the United States impact the period of unemployment?

  • If a student whose approved period of OPT has started, travels outside of the United States while unemployed, the time spent outside the United States will count as unemployment against the 90/120-day limits.
  • If a student travels while employed (either during a period of leave authorized by an employer or as part of their employment), the time spent outside the United States will not count as unemployment.

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I have another U.S. degree and I was granted OPT based on that degree – will I qualify for another period of OPT?

F-1 students are normally eligible for 12 months of OPT per degree level. This means that a student may not obtain a new 12 month OPT if they begin a new same-level degree program (e.g. BA in English and then a BA in sociology only yields one 12-month OPT period). However, if a student begins a new academic program at a higher level (e.g. master’s after bachelor’s degree or Ph.D. after master’s degree), the student is eligible for an additional 12 months of OPT.

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I have heard that STEM OPT provides an F-1 student with an additional 24 months of OPT – what is it?

F-1 students with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) who are employed by businesses enrolled in the E-Verify program may extend OPT by 24 months, for a maximum of 36 months.

ELIGIBILITY

To be eligible for a STEM OPT extension, an F-1 student must:

  • Currently be participating in a 12 month period of approved post-completion OPT;
  • Have successfully completed a degree (bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate) in science, engineering, technology or mathematics (STEM) included in the DHS STEM Designated Degree Program List;
  • Be working for a U.S. employer in a job directly related to the F-1 student’s major  area of study;
  • Be working for, or accepted employment with, an employer registered and in good standing with USCIS’ E-Verify program. E-Verify is a free internet-based system operated in partnership with the Social Security Administration. E-Verify electronically compares information contained on the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 with records contained in SSA and DHS databases to assist employers verify identity and employment eligibility of newly-hired employees; and;
  • Properly maintain F-1 status.
CAUTION!
    • To qualify for STEM OPT, the employer must be an E-Verify employer!

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I have a job offer from an employer that will file an H-1B, but my OPT expires over summer – can I work during that gap?

USCIS is authorized to extend the status of F-1 students caught in a “cap-gap” between the end of the student’s OPT and the start date of an approved H-1B petition. This cap-gap extension automatically becomes effective when the H-1B cap has been reached and the student has an H-1B petition filed on his/her behalf during the acceptance period.

The cap-gap provision automatically extends the F-1 status and employment authorization of an F-1 student who has filed an H-1B petition that has been granted by, or remains pending with USCIS. This means that:

  • If an H-1B petition is filed and pending, the F-1 student’s status and employment authorization is automatically extended while the petition is pending.
  • If the H-1B petition filed on behalf of the student is selected as a “cap case,” the F-1 student may remain in the United States and continue working until September 30th of that year with their extended OPT, and the H-1B would begin on October 1.
  • Once USCIS rejects, denies or revokes a pending H-1B petition, the automatic status and employment authorization ends. The F-1 student has the standard 60-day grace period (from notification of the denial, rejection or revocation of the petition) before he or she is required to depart the United States.

Students do not automatically receive notification when they have a cap-gap extension. They should request a new I-20 from their school.

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Are all F-1 students eligible for cap-gap extension?

Unlike the extension of OPT, which is limited to F-1 students who have obtained STEM degrees, the extension of status for F-1 students in a cap-gap situation applies to all F-1 students with pending H-1B petitions.

Note: The “cap-gap” relief only applies to F-1 students who apply for “change-of-status” petitions and not to those who elect consular processing.

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Do I have to file an H-1B petition by a certain date to qualify for cap-gap extension?

A student must be in valid OPT status for the cap-gap extension of status and employment authorization provision to apply.

  • If the student’s OPT has already expired before the H-1B acceptance period, the student is not eligible for “cap-gap” relief. This means that an F-1’s OPT must still be valid on April 1. This typically has implications for F-1 students with December graduation dates.
  • A student who files a “cap-gap” H-1B petition during their 60 day grace period after the OPT expiration is only eligible for the automatic “status” extension, but is not granted continued employment authorization. This means that the F-1 student can stay in the United States while the H-1B petition is pending, but cannot work.

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Can I travel during the cap-gap extension period?

An F-1 student who travels outside of the United States during a cap-gap extension will not be able to return to the United States in F-1 status. The F-1 student must be prepared to apply for an H-1B visa at a consular post prior to returning and must therefore wait until the start date of October 1.

TRAVEL TIP!
    • An H-1B applicant may enter the United States up to 10 days prior to the start date, i.e. September 20. If you wish to travel over summer, plan to travel in September so that you can apply for the H-1B visa and then return to the U.S. on or after September 21st. However, s/he cannot start employment until October 1, the first day of the H-1B.

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Is an F-1 exempt from Social Security and Medicare and other taxes?

Social Security (FICA) and Medicare taxes:  In general, an F-1 student is exempt from Social Security (F.I.C.A.) and Medicare taxes for the first five (5) years in the United States, as long as s/he continues to declare non-resident status for tax purposes. (Internal Revenue Service Publication 519, “U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens”)

Federal, state and local income taxes:  Unless an F-1 student qualifies under a tax treaty between the United States and his/her home government, the earnings as an F-1 student will be subject to applicable federal, state and local income taxes, and employers are required by law to withhold those taxes from their paychecks. By April 15 of each year, the F-1 student must file a federal income tax return and a “Required Statement” covering the prior calendar year to determine whether taxes are owed or if a refund is due.

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