You just graduated this fall and couldn’t be happier. Congratulations! Now that your studies have concluded, you’ll have to make a few visa arrangements to ensure your stay in the US. As an international student, you will have to file for something known as the Optional Practical Training (OPT). This is a temporary work permit that allows you to get a job after you graduate. The OPT, unlike the H1-B visa, doesn’t require your employer to sponsor your work visa.
You can apply for an OPT prior to or after the completion of your degree. Just remember that all periods of Pre-completion OPT* you opted for will be deducted from your post-completion OPT period.
Students are normally eligible for 12 months of OPT. If you completed a STEM major though, you’ll be eligible to extend your OPT by another 24 months. So in total, your OPT period will be 36 months.
*Pre-completion OPT is what you’d have received if you end up doing internship or working during your summer or winter breaks. So if you worked for 3 months in summer for an internship during your junior year, your OPT initially after graduation would be 9 months (12 – 3).
*In order to work, you need your OPT as well as SSN.
When do I apply for the OPT?
If you apply 3 months prior to graduation or 60 days after the completion of your degree, you are opting for the Post-Completion OPT period.
To apply, you will have to request a designated school official (DSO) at your university to recommend you for the OPT. The DSO will make the recommendation by endorsing your I-20 form and Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. They will also need to make an appropriate notation in the SEVIS website.
You will also have to file for the Form I-765 (Employment For Work Authorization) and pay the required fee.
To download the Form I-765, go here.
Here are the different OPT application periods as listed by the official USCIS website:
Once you receive your OPT and EAD document
You may begin your OPT only after USCIS approves your Form I-765 and you receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The EAD is the document you submit to your employer. Most EADs are valid for one year.
The USCIS website states that a student is allowed an unemployment period of 3 months during the entire duration of their OPT. While this might sound a little terrifying, especially since finding a job is pretty hard these days, fear not. You can still opt for an internship or volunteer work in the field of your study. Being self-employed/ starting a business or taking up part-time work in the field of your study is also acceptable.
Who qualifies for the STEM Extension?
To qualify for the 24-month extension, you must:
– Be currently granted an OPT that is currently not expired.
– Have a bachelor degree or higher from an accredited US school that is registered with SEVIS.
– Possess a STEM degree you obtained before your current non-STEM degree: The extension will be granted only if you haven’t used it after finishing your STEM degree.
– You can earn an additional 24 month STEM extension if you complete another STEM degree, say a master’s degree in engineering after your US STEM bachelor’s degree.
– Are working for an employer who meets all the requirements by USCIS. (See “What is a USCIS-approved employer?” section below).
What is a USCIS-approved employer?
This is an employer that meets the requirements put forward by the USCIS. The requirements are to ensure the company provides fair wages to the employee and proper working conditions. A USCIS-approved employer should:
– Be enrolled in E-Verify and have a valid E-Verify Client Company Identification number.
– Remain in good standing with E-Verify in accordance with USCIS requirements.
– Have a valid Employer Identification Number (EIN).
– Report material changes to the STEM OPT student’s employment to the DSO within 5 business days.
– The employer must implement a formal training program to initiate the student’s learning via practical experience.
– Provide the same opportunities as U.S. workers in similar lines of work. This includes: in duties, hours, and compensation.
Applying for the STEM Extension
To apply for a STEM extension, you will need:
– To complete the Form I-765 with the stated application fee, your employer’s name as listed in E-Verify, and your employer’s EIN or their E-Verify Client Company Identification Number.
– An Offer letter from your employer sent to your DSO.
– The Form I-20 as endorsed by your DSO within the last 60 days.
– A copy of your STEM degree.
Remember to apply for STEM extension before your OPT expires
USCIS states that you need not worry if your OPT period expires while your extension application is pending. You will automatically be given an extension for employment authorization by 180 days. The 180-day extension ceases once USCIS begins to review your STEM OPT extension application.
Once your STEM extension has been granted, you will receive a new EAD via mail within a few weeks.