Optional Practical Training: One Way for Foreign Students to Gain Experience Working in the US
Being able to gain hands–on work experience after graduating was one of the reasons why I chose United States as a place to pursue my Bachelor’s degree. Not only would I be able to explore various careers offered in the US that caught my interest and were still rare in Indonesia, the thought of bringing home what I would have learned was also very intriguing. Thanks to the Optional Practical Training given by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that I was able to stay and work in the US for a year.
So, what is OPT exactly? The Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a working authorization for F-1 students per educational level to pursue a 12-month or more of work experience in related major field of studies. The authorization can be used for both paid or unpaid jobs – before (Pre-completion OPT) or after the completion of the degree or of the program of the study (Post-Completion OPT). Extension of post-completion OPT with the length of time from 17 to 24 months can only be granted to students who have completed their degree in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
I, personally, was not familiar with the process of applying for OPT until my junior year in college. Through the OPT info session held by the International Student Center at University of California at San Diego I finally found out about it. To be honest, applying for the OPT can be a little bit tricky at times. With all the requirements it imposes and a long list of application checklist that needs to be completed, attentiveness is needed. However, as long as you follow the procedures, it is all manageable.
OPT Eligibility and Requirements
The first thing I recommend is to determine whether you are eligible or not for the OPT. You must be present in the US at the time of applying, have a valid F-1 visa (J-1 Visa holders cannot apply for OPT), be enrolled on a full-time basis for at least one academic year, and have not exceeded 12 months of full time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) to be eligible. If you fall under those categories, you can proceed towards fulfilling all its requirements. Besides the work that must be related to your major area of study, you are also required to authorize your post-completion OPT within 60 days of completing the program of study. It is recommended to have a job offer letter for pre-completion OPT. However, the job offer is not needed for post-completion OPT.
Begin early and Plan Wisely!
Remember that it takes around 90 days for the USCIS to approve and issue an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card. Without EAD, it is impossible for you to apply for the Social Security Number, let alone to work. So, it is recommended that you apply as early as possible because the earlier you apply the more likely you’ll get the EAD card faster. You can start applying for OPT 90 days before your program completion date, or as late as 60 days after the completion of the program. In my case, I applied for OPT around two and a half months before my degree completion and got the EAD card around two and a half months later.
Students are given 90 days after the completion of the program to look for jobs, given that you’ve received your OPT authorization. When it exceeds, your EAD card will be invalid and you have to go back to your home country. Based on my experience, it is safer to look for jobs even before graduation as the process of securing a job may take a while.
Choosing when do you want to start the OPT is also crucial. You can’t work before the start date even though you have your EAD card with you. You can choose the start date of your OPT within 60 days after your program completion date. I chose my OPT start date around a month after my program completion because I was thinking to use that month to look for jobs and to travel with my family. Thankfully, I got a job offer two weeks after I graduated and so it was right for me to choose the start of my OPT.
Complete and Submit all the OPT Application Packet
A complete OPT Application Packet includes:
□ US$380 check or money payable to “US Department of Homeland Security.”
□ Two US-style passport photos
□ Completed Original F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) Request Form
□ Completed Original I-765 Application for Employment Authorization
□ Copy of the passport identification page (including photo, birth date, and expiration date); include passport extension page (if applicable).
□ Copy of I-94 card (front and back page) or I-797 receipt showing F-1 status approval
□ Copy of F-1 visa page
□ Copy of all I-20s (page 1-3) issued by all schools you attended in the USA
□ Photocopy of complete Academic History showing courses taken each quarter/semester
After you have completed all of the above, bring those documents to the International Center at your school for review and they will return it back to you with a new I-20. With it, you can then mail the complete OPT application to the USCIS no earlier than 90 days or later than 60 days after your program end date on the I-20 and within 30 days after the new OPT I-20 is issued.
Within 30 business days after you mail in your application, USCIS will send a receipt (Form I-797) as a confirmation that they received the application. Keep the case number and the original receipt in a safe place to track your application at the USCIS Service Centers.
For those who are wondering whether you can leave the country and reenter when you are doing the OPT, the answer is YES! As long as you have your EAD card, job offer letter, a valid F-1 Visa and a valid I-20 with a travel signature on it, you are good to go. However, it will be risky to leave and reenter the USA when you are still on a pending status or when your EAD card has not arrived as you might come across some problems at the immigration checkpoint.
Link to USCIS website:
Image Courtesy: http://visaandgreencard.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Depositphotos_11584296_s7-300×199.jpg
Grace Tjandra received her Bachelor's degree from University of California, San Diego majoring in Political Science/ International Relations and minoring in Economics. She is currently working as a research assistant in Jakarta and will be pursuing her graduate degree next year at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.