Optional Practical Training (OPT) Guide for International Students

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By Shorelight Team
Last updated on January 31, 2024

Learn how to work or get an internship in the United States with OPT.

A young Black man sits at an airport holding his passport and student visa with his suitcase next to him

Optional Practical Training (OPT) permits F-1 student visa holders to work either during or after their study program in the United States. Most international students qualify for 12 months of optional practical training; however, some students in STEM fields may extend their OPT visa authorization an additional 24 months. While training offers international students the opportunity to gain valuable experience in their fields of studies, getting OPT employment authorization can be confusing, especially in an unfamiliar country. But don’t worry — read on and prepare yourself for applying for OPT Status as a F-1 student visa holder in the United States. 

What Is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

International students who wish to work while studying in the United States must qualify for practical training that aligns with their F-1 status and other visa requirements. Practical training could be an internship, work-study program, or even a job related to your field of study, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

There are two types of career development training opportunities for which F-1 student visa holders may qualify: Curricular Practical Training (CPT) — which is part of a program and must be completed before graduation — and Optional Practical Training, which can be completed before or after graduation. 

Learn more about Curricular Practical Training >>

There are four types of OPT available to international students: 

  1. Pre-Completion OPT: Part- or full-time OPT used before your program ends.

  2. Post-Completion OPT: Part- or full-time OPT used after your program ends.

  3. 24-month (STEM) OPT Extension: An additional two years of DHS-sanctioned eligibility to OPT for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) majors.

  4. Cap-Gap OPT Extension: For international students whose prospective employers filed a qualifying H-1B-cap subject petition. These are much rarer because employers face restrictions that can make it difficult to file for H-1B status on behalf of their employees. 

NOTE: It is a good idea to check in with your DSO and confirm your university’s OPT policies. Some schools do not allow full-time pre-completion OPT, for example. 

You only have 12 months of OPT if you do not qualify for a STEM or Cap-Gap extension. Always be aware of how long your training assignments last — especially if you think you will complete more than one assignment while studying in the US. For example, if you have worked nine months of pre-completion OPT, you will only have three months of post-completion OPT available unless you qualify for OPT extensions

OPT Visa Benefits

Just like with CPT, your optional practical training must relate directly to your major. Your Designated School Official (DSO) will review your application, make an OPT recommendation in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), and then update your official I-20 form

There are some important distinctions that separate OPT from CPT. With CPT, you must complete your training as part of your course curriculum, but your training can occur before or after you graduate with OPT. 

As a result, OPT is more flexible and appeals to many international students across multiple scenarios. For example, OPT is an excellent option for STEM majors who are deciding between a career path and post-graduate work. OPT is also great for undergraduates who want to take advantage of an internship that is only available outside of their course curriculum. You can even qualify for OPT before you officially receive a job offer, making it easier to start as soon as possible. 

Who Can Apply for an OPT Visa?

Optional Practical Training is available for international students on F-1 visas for 12 months at each level of higher learning. You are eligible for an additional 12 months of OPT authorization when you begin a new program at a higher educational level. OPT for undergraduate students resets if they continue their graduate school studies in the United States. 

To be eligible for an optional training program, international students must meet the following qualifications: 

  • Your university is SEVP-certified

  • You are enrolled full time

  • You have been a student for at least one year

  • You are not studying English as a second language

  • Your OPT relates to your major area of study

  • You have not used up all your OPT availability (which is usually one year)

  • You have not used up 12 months of CPT

How Do I Qualify for a 24-Month STEM Extension?

International students with eligible Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) degrees may qualify for a one-time 24-month extension of post-completion OPT. 

Here is how you can be eligible: 

  • You have post-completion OPT status

  • You have not received any extensions based on a qualifying STEM degree

  • You graduated within the last 10 years

  • Your school is SEVIS-certified and accredited by a U.S. Department of Education accrediting organization

  • Your employer is part of the E-Verify program

There are many great ways to take advantage of the 24-month extension. For example, an international undergraduate student may graduate from a US university with a bachelor of science in biochemistry. The student may then qualify for 12 months of post-completion OPT work authorization for a pharmaceutical company that builds vaccines. Before completing the 12-month assignment, this student could be eligible for a 24-month extension to their OPT visa. Then, two years later, the student could go to graduate school and enjoy a new 12-month OPT window of eligibility, as well as a 24-month extension opportunity. 

Application Process

With CPT, students must have a job before they can apply for training certification with their DSO. However, with optional practical training, students can get their OPT visa certification first and then look for jobs while the government reviews their request. Applying for OPT takes time, and you may face restrictions on when you can apply. For instance, post-completion OPT certification is only available during the period of 90 days before graduation to 60 days after graduation, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). 

Here is how to apply for OPT status in the United States: 

  1. Request OPT with your DSO: Be sure to review your school policies for submitting your OPT request to your DSO before you start the authorization process.

  2. Your DSO recommends OPT: Your DSO confirms your OPT work authorization eligibility and then updates your form I-20, signs it, and then changes your OPT request status in SEVIS to “requested.”

  3. File your I-765: The form I-765 is your application for employment authorization. You must file your Form I-765, pay the application fee, and file any supporting documentation with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within 30 days of the DSO’s recommendation. Otherwise, your application will be canceled.

  4. USCIS approves your application: If you are granted OPT, you will receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD), and your application request in SEVIS will change from “Pending” to “Approved.”

  5. Start work: As soon as you have your EAD and your authorization to work date arrives, you can start your new training position. If you have not yet secured work, you will need to report your employer information to your DSO once you receive and accept a job offer.

  6. DSO records employment information: Your DSO must update SEVIS with employment information, name, or address changes within 21 days.

How Much Does it Cost to Get My OPT Visa? 

There is a fee to file the I-765 application for employment authorization with the US federal government. You may also be required to pay an additional biometric fee, but that does not usually apply to F-1 student visa holders. 

Additional Information

Getting your Optional Practical Training approval can take a long time. That is why it’s important to get your application in as soon as you possibly can. Most schools recommend you submit your application 90 days before you graduate, as that is the earliest allowable date you can apply. 

Many schools and government websites say 90 days is the typical processing time for your OPT paperwork, but that can vary depending on the time of year. For instance, if your application overlaps with all the others being processed right around the spring graduation date for students in the US, then you will likely face longer wait times compared to a different period of the year. Applying as soon as possible will ensure you do not lose any valuable OPT eligibility to processing delays or other documentation issues. 

Have questions about OPT international student employment requirements, PPT eligibility, or the OPT visa process? Our helpful counselors can provide answers.

Contact a Shorelight counselor for OPT F-1 assistance >