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Extending your F-1 OPT Visa: Your questions answered

Prodigy Finance - October 30, 2019

Extending your OPT Visa: Your questions answered

About to complete your international degree in the US? Already completed it and secured your American post-grad position?

Either way, you’ll soon become an expert on the OPT extension of your F-1 visa and this timing guide will get you on your way. 

What is OPT?

OPT stands for Optional Practical Training and there are 3 types:

3 types of F-1 OPT visas for international graduates in the US

For each type of OPT, 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 your F-1 with an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

SEVP - Student and Exchange Visitor Program: SEVP-certified schools are those who have authorisation to provide study opportunities to nonimmigrant students.

TIP: All US universities supported by Prodigy Finance loans are SEVP-approved and listed on the SEVIS system.

Who can apply for an OPT visa? 

You’re eligible to apply for an 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. 

How long is the OPT valid?

Pre-completion and post-completion OPTs are valid for a maximum of 12 months 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, you’re only eligible for 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 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.

STEM OPT extensions offer an additional 24 months, for a total of 36 months. 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. 

Can you extend your OPT time?

No, you’ll need to apply for a different visa class if you wish to remain in the US for work. And, you’ll need to be granted one of these visas to remain legal. 

Can you renew your F1 student visa while on the OPT or the OPT STEM 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 OPT STEM Extension.

CRITICAL 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 OPT STEM 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 Authorization 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. 

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, and
  • USCIS processing time. 

How long does it take to get your OPT status?

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. 

F-1 OPT visa application timeline for international graduates in the US

Understanding OPT 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 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.

When should you apply for the 24-month STEM extension?

Once you receive your OPT, you can apply for the 24-month STEM 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 extension has been received on time, you qualify for an automatic 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 extension:

  • If your STEM extension is granted, you are bound by the dates in your amended OPT documentation.
  • If your STEM 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 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. 
F-1 OPT visa terms for international graduates working in the US

CPT - Curricular Practical Training: only applies during your studies.

DSO - Designated school official: the person who recommends you pursue an OPT, makes the necessary amendments to your I-20 form and registers your intent on the SEVIS system.

EAD - Employment Authorization 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 nonimmigrant 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  master's 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 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 authorized 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 or other category visa.

Post updated for accuracy and freshness on October 30, 2019. Originally published on July 3, 2019.

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