How can an international student work after graduation? Students in F-1 visa status are able to obtain practical “hands-on” training in their field of study after graduation based on Optional Practical Training (OPT).  Generally, OPT is authorized for F-1 students lawfully enrolled on a full time basis, in a USCIS service-approved college or university for one full academic year (with limited exceptions to this rule).

There are six things students should know about optional practical training:

1. Eligibility: An F-1 student who has attended an approved college, university, conservatory, or seminary on a full-time basis for at least one academic year may be authorized for up to 12 months of OPT per education level.  However, F-1 students who have one year or more of full-time curricular practical training (CPT) are not eligible for OPT for that degree (see my previous blog post for an explanation of CPT).

2. OPT Extension Eligibility: Students who graduated with a U.S. Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degrees in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields may be eligible for a one-time, 17-month extension of post-completion OPT.  F-1 students must have also maintained valid F-1 status during the initial 12 months of OPT.

3. Employer: The first 12 months of standard OPT are not employer specific, meaning that F-1 students are not required to have a job offer in order to apply for OPT.  OPT employment however, must be directly related to the student’s academic field of study.  OPT STEM extension requires the F-1 student to have a job or job offer from an employer enrolled in E-Verify, a government employment verification program.

4. Timeframes: OPT can be used post-completion or pre-completion during an academic program.  Many university students choose to use curricular practical training (CPT) to obtain practical experience during their course of study, but OPT may also be used during a course of study as pre-completion OPT.  Any time used in pre-completion OPT is subtracted from the maximum 12 months of standard post-completion OPT.  For example, if a student uses pre-completion OPT during the summer for three months, it is subtracted from the student’s total OPT time and the student is left with nine months post-completion OPT.

5. Applying & deadlines:

  • USCIS deadlines are not flexible. Graduating students can file an OPT application (Form I-765) and the accompanying supporting materials with USCIS no earlier than 90 days prior to the program end date and must file no later than 60 days after the program end date.
  • The Designated School Official (DSO) must recommend an F-1 student for OPT and issue the student a new Form I-20 with the recommendation on page 3.  Once obtained, the student must file an application to the USCIS with the appropriate filing fee.  Students should discuss the process with their DSO well in advance of working to ensure they do not miss an employment opportunity!
  • Students can only begin the 12 months of post-completion OPT employment once the employment authorization card is issued to and received by, the student.  The USCIS email confirmation is not sufficient evidence to begin OPT employment.
  • OPT STEM extension applications must be received by USCIS prior to the expiration date of a student’s current OPT. Students can apply as early as 90 days before the expiration date for OPT STEM extension.  If timely filed, students may continue working while the OPT STEM extension application is pending.

6. Unemployment periods: Students may not accrue an aggregate of more than 90 days of unemployment while on initial post-completion OPT. The aggregate unemployment period is 120 days over 29 months if using the OPT STEM extension option.


Posted by: Holly Hatton