Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary “unrestricted” employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Students are eligible to apply for OPT up to 90 days before their academic programs end and no later than 60 days after graduation. A job offer is not required to apply for OPT. The student must first obtain an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before starting employment. Since USCIS takes about 2 to 3 months to process the EAD, students should carefully consider the timing, and should not wait until the last minute to apply for OPT. There are two (2) kinds of OPT, namely: pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT. In this section, all references to OPT refer to post-completion OPT, unless noted otherwise.
F-1 students are normally eligible for 12 months of OPT per degree level (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 degree 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.
Employment of F-1 students under the OPT program must be in a job that is related to their field of study. It may either be paid or unpaid, and it can be full-time or part-time employment.
During OPT, F-1 students may work full-time, or at least 20 hours per week if they choose to work part-time. They can work for multiple employers provided that all employment must be related to their F-1 degree program.
F-1 OPT students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, provided that any work does not violate labor laws. The work must be at least 20 hours per week and be related to their field of study. Students should also be able to provide evidence from an employer to verify that they worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of volunteer work or unpaid internship.
There is a limit on the number of days in which F-1 OPT students can be unemployed and still maintain F-1 status. F-1 students on regular OPT (12 months) may not accrue more than an aggregate 90 days of unemployment. For F-1 students who have an approved 17-month OPT period, they are entitled to an additional 30 days of unemployment, for a total of 120 days over their entire OPT period. The 90-day limitation on unemployment also applies to F-1 students during the cap-gap extension. Students who exceed the period of unemployment are considered to have violated their status.
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 17 months, for a maximum of 29 months.
Qualifications and Requirements
The 17-month STEM OPT extension is granted based on the academic degree program of the current OPT period. Therefore, F-1 students with an undergraduate STEM degree, but whose current OPT is based on a Master’s degree in a non-STEM field (e.g. MBA), are not eligible for the 17 month extension even if they are working in a STEM field that is related to their undergraduate degree. Additionally, students cannot qualify for STEM OPT extension based on a minor in their degree. However, students with a dual major, one of which is in a STEM field, and are working in a job is directly related to the STEM degree, are eligible to apply for STEM OPT extension.
In order to be eligible for a STEM OPT extension, the employer must be an E-Verify employer and the 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
- Properly maintain F-1 status
Employment on STEM OPT
F-1 students who are granted OPT STEM extension must work at least 20 hours per week for an E-Verify-enrolled employer in a position directly related to the student’s STEM degree. They may work multiple jobs related to their STEM degree or change jobs, provided that all the employers are enrolled in E-Verify. They are also eligible for the following kinds of employment as long as all other eligibility requirements, including E-Verify registration, are met:
- Employment as an independent contractor (1099 employment)
- Employment through an agency
- Employment by a consulting firm
F-1 students who are self-employed, they must set up a business and register with E-Verify. For those who are employed through an agency or consulting firm, the agency or consulting firm, not the company for whom the student is providing services, would need to be registered in E-Verify.
Maintaining status on STEM OPT
Employers of F-1 students who qualify for the 17 month OPT extension must report to the student’s school within 48 hours if the student’s employment ends prior to the end of the student’s authorized OPT employment period. Students must also report to the school every six months from the date the OPT extension starts.
Social Security, 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.