International students in the U.S. in valid F-1 immigration status are permitted to work off-campus in optional practical training (OPT) status both during and after completion of their degree. Rules established by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) govern the implementation of OPT, and all OPT employment requires prior authorization from USCIS and from your school’s International Student Office.
You can apply for OPT after being enrolled for at least 9 months, but you cannot begin employment until you receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS and you have been enrolled for at least a year. You do not need to have a job offer to apply for your OPT EAD, and your OPT employment can occur anywhere in the US. Start early—USCIS takes up to 90 days to process your application—and make sure you work closely with your school’s International Student Office. As with everything you will do while in the U.S., permission is based on maintaining lawful F-1 status, and your International Student Office is there to help you maintain that status throughout your stay.
General OPT Requirements
- Employment must be “directly related” to the student’s major
- Student must maintain lawful F-1 status
- Student must apply for OPT before completion of all work towards a degree
- Students who have engaged in 12 months or more of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) are not eligible for OPT
- OPT is permitted for up to 12 months full-time in total – part-time OPT (while still in school) reduces available full-time OPT by half of the amount of part-time work (for instance, if you work part time for 6 months, you can work full-time for up to 9 months)
Students can be authorized for 12 months of OPT for each successive level of degree achieved – for instance, you can do 12 months of OPT after receiving your undergraduate degree, go back to graduate school, and then do 12 months of OPT after receiving your graduate degree. Pre-completion OPT (students are still in school) and post-completion OPT (students have completed their degree) each have different rules:
OPT before completing a degree:
• Students must be enrolled in school full-time
• Students may only work 20 hours per week while school is in session
• Students may work full-time during summer and other breaks (as long as the student will return to school after the break)
• Student may work full-time after completion of all coursework, if a thesis or dissertation is still required and student is making normal progress towards the degree
OPT after completing a degree:
• After completion of your degree, OPT work must be full time (40 hours/week)
• All OPT must be completed within 14 months after completion of your degree
• Applications for post-completion OPT must be received by USCIS before the completion of the degree
One final note – be mindful of the travel regulations governing F-1 students on OPT. If you leave the country after completion of your degree, but before receiving your EAD and obtaining a job, you may not be readmitted. You can leave the country after completion of your degree if you have your EAD and a job, but make sure you bring everything that you’ll need to get back in (including valid passport, valid EAD card, valid F1 visa, all your I-20s with page 3 endorsed for travel by your international student advisor within the past 6 months, and a letter of employment, including dates of employment and salary).