Many international students wonder if they can stay in the US after graduation—and yes, it is possible! Although your F-1 visa expires when you are no longer enrolled in college, there are ways new graduates can stay in the US to complete an internship or gain real-world experience. An Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension or STEM OPT extension to your F-1 visa can allow you to stay in the US legally after you graduate.
Complex rules for international workers can make staying in the US seem difficult. However, the right F-1 visa extension can help. Keep reading to understand your options for F-1 visa and OPT extensions after graduation.
How to stay in the US legally after graduation
One of the ways that students can stay in the US on an F-1 visa after graduation is with an OPT extension. The post-completion OPT allows recent graduates to work in the US for up to twelve months.
Unlike curricular practical training (CPT), which must be completed while you are still enrolled at your college or university, OPT can be completed before or after graduation. Just keep in mind you are only eligible for twelve months of practical training total. So, if you used all of your OPT or CPT while you were enrolled, you will not be eligible for this form of F-1 visa extension. However, you become eligible again if you enroll in graduate school.
Students who are studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) may be eligible for a STEM OPT extension. This program allows you to stay and work in the US for twenty-four months after graduation.
When to apply for an OPT extension
You can submit a form I-765, or request for post-completion OPT, as early as ninety days before your program end date. However, you should start planning even earlier.
Before you can apply, your Designated School Official (DSO) must enter a request for OPT into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). After the DSO requests OPT, you will have thirty days to submit your form I-765.
DHS provides a post-completion OPT planning tool that can help students identify due dates and timelines for OPT applications. You have sixty days after graduation to file your form I-765. Make sure the start date for OPT is within the F-1 visa grace period after graduation, which means it must be within sixty days of the end of your program of study.
How to apply for an OPT extension
To start your application, your DSO must enter an OPT request in SEVIS. Then, you can fill out the OPT application and pay both the filing fee and biometric services fee. The total for both fees is $495.
Here are the steps to apply for an OPT extension:
Ask your DSO to enter an OPT request in SEVIS
Sign the form I-20 (provided by your DSO)
Complete an Application for Employment Authorization
Submit the form, OPT extension fee, and supporting documentation electronically or by mail
Answer any request for evidence from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by the listed deadline
Receive your approval
You do not need a job or offer of employment to apply for OPT. However, when you do get a job, it must be directly related to your area of study.
How long does it take for OPT extension approval?
Many students get their OPT approval in eighty to 120 days. In the past, you could expect your approval within ninety days, but increased demand has led to longer processing times. From 2016 to 2018, the number of international students working in the US after graduation has increased by 400%. More than half of these new hires were working in STEM fields.
Can I apply for OPT extension after OPT expires?
A twenty-four-month STEM OPT extension is an add-on to your post-completion OPT, not a replacement for it. Do not wait until your OPT expires. File for an extension no more than ninety days before the end of your regular OPT period.
Only students who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher in an eligible STEM field can apply for a STEM OPT extension. Eligible fields include:
Some related fields on the STEM-designated degree program list
You must also have an employer willing to sponsor your request. This employer must be enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify employment eligibility verification program. Your employer must provide you with at least twenty hours of work per week. They must also provide learning objectives and formal training to help you meet those goals.
If you did not study a STEM-related field, you must leave the US by the end of the OPT extension grace period of sixty days.
Working in the US with an H-1B visa
To continue working in the United States after your practical training is complete, you will need a temporary employment authorization known as a H-1B visa. Every year, a limited number of people are granted H-1B status.
If you are switching from F-1 student status to H-1B temporary employment status, you may be eligible for a Cap-Gap extension. This extension exists to close the gap between the end of the OPT period on April 1 and the H-1B status period that begins on October 1.
You may be eligible for Cap-Gap if:
Your employer filed an H-1B petition
You have F-1 visa status
You are in an authorized period of post-completion OPT
Some workers awarded an H-1B visa go on to apply for a US Green Card in hopes of becoming a permanent US resident.
Best practices for maintaining your US visa status
Plan ahead so you can meet all the OPT deadlines. Fill out all forms thoroughly and respond promptly to any requests for additional information to prevent delays. Be sure to report to your DSO any changes to your address, contact information, and employment—this information must stay up to date in SEVIS.
For more information about career services for international students, contact a Shorelight education counselor >