F1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) Frequently Asked Questions
Practical training is the opportunity to apply knowledge gained in your degree program to off-campus work in your major field. OPT is authorized by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This authorization can take 2 to 3 months to obtain. The maximum amount of time granted to work on F1 OPT status is 12 months per degree level plus a possible H1B cap gap extension OR a 24 month STEM extension for those who qualify (see info below). You may use some or all of the available 12 months of practical training during your course of study or save the full twelve months to use after you graduate.
To be eligible to apply for optional practical training, you must: (1) have been in full time student status for at least one academic year (two full semesters) by the requested start date of your OPT, and (2) be maintaining valid F1 status at the time of the application.
Yes, you are eligible to apply for another 12 month period of F1 Optional Practical Training after changing to a higher degree level. This does not apply to a second master’s degree.
You may use OPT while you are still in your degree program as follows: (1) part-time while school is in session, (2) full-time during annual vacation periods, and/or (3) full-time after you completed all course requirements for the degree and have a thesis requirement remaining. These periods of OPT used before you graduate will be deducted from the total allowable period of 12 months. Part-time OPT will be deducted at one-half the full-time rate.
Authorization for F1 OPT is granted by USCIS and can take 3 to 3 1/2 months to obtain. Therefore it is important that you apply for the authorization well in advance of the date you wish to start working. You may apply up to 90 days before your graduation date and NO LATER THAN 60 days beyond your graduation date or end date of your I-20.
You may apply for POST-graduation OPT up to 90 days before your graduation date and the immigration service MUST RECEIVE your application NO LATER THAN 60 days beyond your graduation date or 60 days beyond the end date of your I-20 (WHICHEVER IS EARLIER) or, if you are an advanced graduate student, NO LATER THAN 60 days beyond the last day that you are registered as a student. If you are leaving the US during the 60 day grace period, you MUST apply for OPT before you leave the US. If you leave the US without applying for OPT, you forfeit the benefit of applying for OPT. You MUST send your application within 30 days of getting the new I-20 from the ISSO.
You are allowed to pick a start date any time within the 60 days following your graduation date or your last day of registration (whichever is earlier). There is some leeway if you finish your coursework and need an earlier start date. There are many overlapping time constraints which effect your OPT application (see OPT time-line in the OPT application packet). When choosing the start date for your OPT card, the most important priorities to weigh are:
1) Choose the earliest day that you might want to start working (you cannot begin working BEFORE the start date on the OPT card and until you receive the card). What if someone offers you a job with the stipulation that you start the day after graduation? Plan for any possibility. [PLEASE NOTE: on campus work authorization ends when your registration ends, so if you want to continue in an on campus job once you are no longer registered, that job must be in your field, and you must have received your OPT card.]
2) If you want the latest possible day to start your work authorization, the latest day you may choose as your start date for the OPT card is 60 days after your graduation or last day of registration (whichever is earlier).
REMEMBER: You may NOT change these dates after you apply for OPT.
If you submitted your OPT application with your current address as the return address on the I-765 form, and now you are moving, you should call the NCSC (National Customer Service Center) at (800) 375-5283 and give them your change of address information. Be sure to explain that you need to change the return address on your I-765.
You do NOT need to have a job offer before applying for optional practical training.
Yes. The regulations require that you do have employment while on your POST-graduation OPT period. You are only allowed to have a total of 90 days of unemployment in your 12 month period of OPT or 150 days if you apply for and receive the STEM extension. While on POST-graduation OPT, you are required to update the ISSO with your employment information by completing the OPT report form on the web.
For the first twelve months of OPT, the employment does NOT have to be paid employment. Therefore, a student who is self-employed (including performance majors with regular “gigs”), interning or volunteering in a position directly related to the academic field would be considered “employed” for the purposes of regular OPT employment. If you are “self-employed,” keep careful records of all the work you do—it is supposed to be at least 20 hours per week. While on the STEM extension, you must be paid, and you must have a regular employer—employee relationship with the employer (no temp agencies, no self-employment, no independent contracting).
Because the employment does NOT have to paid employment for the first 12 months, you will be considered employed if you are doing unpaid research for a faculty member in your field of study or you are interning or volunteering in a position directly related to your academic field, or you are even self-employed (including performance majors with regular “gigs”). Thus, if you do not yet have a paid job once you are on regular 12 month OPT, we suggest you make an arrangement with a faculty member to work in an unpaid position. You should get a letter from that faculty member simply stating that you will be doing research for them and have them include the start date of that employment. You should keep that letter in a file with your other immigration documents. You should also fill in our OPT report form with that job information.
You may NOT begin employment before you receive your EAD (OPT work card) from USCIS; working before practical training has been authorized by the USCIS constitutes illegal employment that will jeopardize your legal status in the US.
Yes! Immigration regulations REQUIRE that while you are on POST-graduation OPT, you MUST report your employment and address information to the Cornell ISSO by filling out the ISSO OPT report form.
Can I extend my OPT after the 12 months?
There are two types of extensions available—click on the links below for more information on each:
1) A STEM extension for those in certain fields, and
2) An “H1B Cap Gap Extension” which extends your work authorization through to the start of your cap subject H1B visa
After you graduate, in order to re-enter the US you must have the following: OPT card (or receipt notice for the OPT application), your valid passport, a current F1 visa stamp, I-20 signed within the last six months, AND your job offer letter or proof of employment.
Before you graduate, you should be able to get back in to the US without the OPT card as long as it is still at least one month in advance of your graduation. If you have to travel close to graduation and you want to re-enter the US in F1 status, you should have already applied for OPT, and plan to have all of the docouments mentioned above under "after you graduate." Feel free to come in to the ISSO to talk to an advisor at the ISSO before you leave.
I want to leave the US for a short time while my OPT application is in process, but I need to return before the card will arrive. I have a tourist visa (B2) that is valid for 10 years. Can’t I just enter the US on my tourist visa while I’m waiting to get the EAD card (OPT work card), then start work with the card once I get it?
NO!! If you intend to continue working on your OPT, NEVER enter in any other immigration status except F1. If you leave the US and re-enter with a B status, and you will have lost your F1 status and your OPT will be invalid!
You may travel out of the US and re-enter while the STEM extension is pending. You just need to have the STEM OPT receipt notice, I-20 with the STEM recommendation, along with the other documents required for travel while on OPT.
If you are going to Canada or Mexico, and staying for less than 30 days, you could re-enter the US on your expired F1 visa stamp, with your I-94 card, a valid passport, your EAD card (or receipt notice), an I-20 that has been signed by the ISSO within the last 6 months, AND your job offer letter or proof of employment as long as: 1) you do not apply for a visa while in Canada and 2) you are NOT a national of Iran, Syria, Sudan, or North Korea. If you are traveling elsewhere, you will need to go to a US embassy or consulate and seek a new visa stamp. Please come in to the ISSO to discuss your visa application with an advisor as the consulates often change the requirements for visa applications for students on OPT.
The risk of denial of an application for a renewed visa stamp for Optional Practical Training is somewhat higher than while you are in your active student program. The F1 student visa requires that the applicant must intend to return to the home country at the end of the program, and if the embassy official is not convinced of your intention to return home, the visa application will be denied. It is possible and many students on OPT get their F1 visa stamps renewed. You do have to be careful to demonstrate non-immigrant intent. Please see an ISSO advisor to discuss in more detail.
Yes, during the OPT year, if you travel outside the US, you need to have the travel line signed every six months. If you are not located in Ithaca, mail the original I-20 to the ISSO for endorsement, leaving plenty of time for mailing delays both ways.