By Staff Writer - June 15, 2021

Working in the United States with Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Full article taken from Calistudies

What is an OPT visa?
In this article, we sort out all the applicable OPT visas. Having worked abroad looks impressive on your CV, but getting a work visa in the US is difficult. The biggest obstacle is that the employer must sponsor your work visa. In addition, it is only possible to apply for an H-1B work visa once a year and it is more like a lottery than a fair application process. Lucky then that there are other ways to work in the US!

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a temporary work permit designed for foreign students in the United States, as an internship opportunity in your future field of work. The program gives you great freedoms, as you can work anywhere in the United States for one year. However, you are responsible for finding employment in your field of study.

Unlike a work visa, it costs nothing for an employer to hire someone with an OPT work permit. OPT is thus not a work visa, but you retain your F-1 status as a student when you participate in the program.

Who can apply for OPT?
There are two types of OPT; pre-completion and post-completion. To apply for pre-completion OPT, it is sufficient that you have studied at an American college or university for one year. To apply for post-completion OPT, you must have completed (or are about to complete) a degree, at least an Associate degree, which usually takes two years of study.

Since OPT is designed as an extension of your student, it is important that your employment is directly corresponding to your field of study. If you study marketing, for example, the job should be in the same industry. You can apply for which positions you want, but you must be able to justify a direct connection to your field of study.

How long can you work?
The work permit is valid for one year. If your major is in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), you have the opportunity to extend your post-completion OPT work permit for another 24 months after the first year. For other study areas and pre-completion OPT, a maximum of one year's work permit per participation applies.

You can apply for a work permit via the OPT program several times during your studies. For example, if you plan to study for a Bachelor's degree, you can apply for post-completion OPT twice; first after your Associate degree, and then again after you have taken your Bachelor's degree.

Working hours
With pre-completion OPT, you can work a maximum of 20 hours a week while the studies are in progress and full-time during breaks from studies such as summer and winter holidays. As a pre-completion OPT participant, there is no maximum limit on unemployed days, as you are still counted as a full-time student.

As a post-completion OPT participant, you must work full time or at least 20 hours a week and during the program's validity period, you must be unemployed for a maximum of 90 days before you risk losing your permit. You may not study with post-completion OPT, but it is possible to cancel your OPT at any time if you want to return to your studies before the end of the program.

Application process & cost
You apply through your school. As a foreign student at an American university, you should already have a Designated School Official (DSO) that you can turn to. Your DSO acts as the contact person between you and the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the application process. USCIS is the authority that handles OPT cases. 

An application fee of $ 410 is added to the application, which is most easily paid through USCIS's website . Unfortunately, the application fee is non-refundable, even if your application is denied. It is important to save the receipt which you then send in by post together with the rest of the OPT application.

In your application, you can request a start date for the work permit, but you can start work at the earliest the day after your program is completed and no later than 60 days after. Make sure you plan the timeline carefully so that you have a job-ready when it's time. It would be sad to get a job offer too early if the employer does not want to wait for the work permit to be ready.

From the time the application is submitted, the process usually takes between 90-120 days. It is worth submitting the application as early as possible to shorten the waiting time. It is also important that you have access to the postal address that you provide in your application. If there is a risk that you will have to move during the processing time, you can enter the address of a friend or family member.

Once you have been approved
When your application is approved by USCIS, you will first receive a confirmation in the mail, then a physical work permit; Employment Authorization Document (EAD), which looks like an ID card. Once you have received your EAD, you are free to start working! If you already have a job offer, the employer only needs to note your USCIS number, which is on your EAD card.

You will also receive login information from the authorities to a portal where you report your active employment. There you state the scope of the position (full-time / part-time), describe your work tasks and justify how the employment is linked to your studies. If you are unsure how to fill in the fields, you can contact your contact person at the school.

When the work permit expires
After your OPT expiration date, you will have a 60-day "grace period" to either leave the United States or change your status. If you want to continue studying in the United States after post-completion OPT, you need to change your status back to full-time students, transfer your F-1 to a new school or program. Your DSO at school can also help with this.

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