Table of Contents
What is Optional Practical Training?
OPT is temporary employment authorization granted by the Department of Homeland Security to F-1 students. F-1 students may use OPT to participate in employment related to their degree following graduation.
Who is eligible for OPT?
Students who are in F-1 status in a degree program and have been enrolled full-time for at least one full academic year are eligible for Optional Practical Training:
- After completion of a course of study.
- Before completion of studies if engaged in thesis or dissertation research.
- Students must have completed all program requirements by the time the OPT start date arrives (excluding thesis/dissertation requirements for graduate students).
- During the summer or over winter break or during the regular academic year (on a part-time basis, deducted from the 12-month maximum at a proportional rate) – However, please note, if this is your situation, you most likely qualify for Curricular Practical Training (CPT). Please consult the CPT information page.
When can I apply?
You may apply for OPT no sooner than 90 days before graduation/completion of your program, and as late as 60 days following graduation/program completion (Homeland Security must receive your OPT application before the 60 day period is over).
Having said this, ISSS strongly discourages students from applying during the 60 day period after graduation/completion. It normally takes an average of 3 months for OPT to be approved, sometimes longer. Applying late may result in the loss of OPT time. Plan ahead. Do not mail your application to USCIS more than 90 days before graduation/program completion – they will reject your application and the fee will not be returned!
Do I need a job offer in order to apply?
Can I go in person to a USCIS office to apply for OPT?
No. OPT applications must be submitted to the USCIS by mail, as the instructions in this packet indicate. (ISSS recommends OPT permission; the USCIS must approve it.)
Can I file the OPT application electronically?
No. While USCIS does permit some other types of applications to be done electronically, OPT applications should absolutely NOT be done this way. You must follow the application procedure outlined in this application packet.
Can I request less than 12 months of OPT?
No. Previously students might ask for 6 months of OPT for a Master’s degree, and save the remaining 6 months if they knew they would pursue a second Master’s degree (i.e. the same degree level). This is no longer possible; OPT applications will automatically be approved for 12 months (or will end 14 months from graduation, whichever comes first).
If I apply for OPT and then decide not to use it, can I get my OPT time back?
If the USCIS has not yet issued your EAD at the time you decide you do not want OPT, you may request to withdraw your application. This is not always successful, so please talk to an ISSS advisor. If the EAD card has been issued, it is not possible to cancel and the USCIS will consider you to have used up your OPT even if you really did not work. Hence decisions to cancel MUST be made early before the EAD has been issued.
What's the difference between OPT and Curricular Practical Training (CPT)? If I had CPT, can I still have OPT?
CPT permits employment before completion of required semester hours only. CPT requires the offer of a specific job. You are still eligible for OPT as long as you did not have full-time CPT for a total of 12 months.
I’ve already applied for OPT for my current degree program and sent my application to USCIS. I now have an internship or job offer and they want me to start working before I finish my studies. Can I apply for CPT authorization?
No, once you apply for OPT and send in your application to USCIS, ISSS cannot issue CPT work authorization for you for your current degree program.
Will I Still Be Covered by My SHIP or UIGradCare Insurance?
No. Although for immigration purposes you will continue to be in F-1 status while engaging in OPT, your status as an actual University of Iowa “student” will end with graduation. This means that your University insurance (whether SHIP or UIGradCare) coverage will end with the last day of the month in which you graduate.
If you do not find a job immediately, or cannot be covered by your OPT employer’s insurance program right away, you are strongly advised to consider an alternate means of providing some degree of medical coverage during the interim between the month of graduation and the start of coverage at your new OPT job:
Check the UI Benefits website for information on COBRA, a means of signing up to temporarily extend your UI insurance coverage; here is another resource for obtaining short-term interim insurance coverage. Feel free to consult the University Benefits office at 335-2676 at any time to clarify when your UI coverage will end, how to extend your UI coverage, etc.
- Complete form I-765 (a sample form is provided for reference). Make sure you use the ISSS address as indicated on the form I-765 instructions.
- Login to your iHawk account (click the blue login button) using your HawkID and password. Go to "F-1 Practical Training" and complete the e-form request "Optional Practical Training (OPT) 12 Month Request"
- After submission of your e-form request, come in to meet with an ISSS advisor during walk-in hours. Please bring your completed I-765 form with you. If there are no questions regarding your request, an advisor will issue you a new I-20 recommending OPT.
The Optional Practical Training (OPT) 12 Month e-form request asks for the start date and end date for OPT. What are my options?
You have a 60 day window to choose a start date. The earliest day you may choose is the day after graduation. The last date you may choose is the 60th day after graduation. Consider your job search process and future plans when picking a start date. Your end date will be one calendar year from your star
Note: Graduate students working on a thesis or dissertation may be eligible to start OPT sooner. Please consult with an ISSS advisor if you wish to begin OPT before graduating.
Changing OPT starting and ending dates: When you meet with the ISSS advisor, he/she will enter into SEVIS the OPT starting and ending dates you request. If you decide you wish to change the dates BEFORE you mail your application to USCIS, ISSS can help you do so. However, once you mail the application, ISSS cannot change the dates ourselves and instead must follow a lengthy procedure with the Nebraska Service Center, which could significantly delay your OPT authorization or even cause you to lose your OPT eligibility. So before you mail your application you should be very certain that you have the starting/ending dates you want.
- Send the following documentation to USCIS to apply for OPT, arranged IN THE ORDER listed below:
- Application Fee- The cost is $380. Personal checks or money orders must be in the exact amount and payable to the "United States Department of Homeland Security." Personal checks are preferable to money orders, because they can more easily be traced in case of problems.
- Two identical "natural color" passport photos – These are U.S.-style passport photos – that must have been taken within the last 30 days. Passport photos taken in your home country will not be acceptable. Lightly print your name and your SEVIS number on the back of each photograph with a pencil to prevent problems should your photographs become separated from your I-765 application. Local businesses that typically take passport photographs include drugstores, copy centers, and the post office. ISSS does not encourage you to attempt to take these photos yourself. Visit here for more details on the photograph specifications.
- Form I-765 (See sample I-765 with instructions)
- Copy of new OPT I-20 that you will receive after the OPT application session with an ISSS advisor
- Record of any prior CPT authorizations that you will receive after the OPT application session with an ISSS advisor. (If you never participated in CPT, then this does not apply to you.)
- A copy of your most recent Form I-94, front and back (make sure the immigration stamp is visible on the copy)
- A copy of your passport photo/information page showing the passport expiration date AND your most recent U.S. visa
- A copy of your previous Employment Authorization Card [EAD], if you have ever had one before. If the EAD was for OPT, please also include a copy of the I-20 for that authorization with your application. If you had prior OPT authorization, please discuss this fact with the ISSS advisor.
Where to Mail:
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
PO Box 21281
Phoenix, AZ 85036
- Do not mail your application to USCIS more than 90 days before graduation/program completion. They will automatically reject it and will not refund the application fee.
- USCIS must receive your OPT application within 30 days of the creation of your I-20 reflecting your OPT request.
- If you change your mind and do not mail your OPT application, you must notify ISSS, or your SEVIS record will terminate.
- In the event that there is a delay in the processing of your application, ISSS may not be able to help you if you do not have a photocopy of your application and proof that you mailed your application in a timely manner.
About 3-4 weeks after you mail your application, you should get a special receipt letter from the USCIS called a Notice of Action. This letter will actually be mailed to ISSS, and we will email you to notify you when it arrives. Remember to keep this letter, since it will contain a special number beginning with the letters “LIN...” that refers to your specific application. If you do not receive the Notice of Action after 5 weeks, please notify ISSS.
The Notice of Action also has a phone number that you can call to check on the status of your application. This number is generally busy during the day, so you may have more success getting through late at night. You now also have the option of checking online. To do so you must have the LIN number from your Notice of Action.
Decision on Your Application:
The average processing time for OPT is currently 3 months; it could happen faster or could take longer in individual cases, so apply well in advance. If your application is approved, your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card will be mailed to ISSS and we will notify you by email that it has arrived. In the very unlikely event that your application cannot be granted, you will receive an explanation for the denial. Likewise, if USCIS wants you to send additional or supporting documentation before they will proceed with your application, they will send a letter to ISSS and we will notify you by email.
If I apply for OPT can I leave the U.S.?
Travel on OPT can be tricky. Please review our Travel on OPT page before making travel plans.
While on OPT you are still legally required to report certain information to ISSS. Changes to any of the following must be reported within 10 days of the event. To report, use our online form.
- Changes in name or residential/mailing address
- Report your employer name, address, starting/ending dates, and supervisor’s email within 10 days of any changes or new employment
- Report changes to another immigration status
- If you will leave your OPT employment before your OPT end date
- Notify ISSS if your email address changes
When can I start to work under OPT?
You may only begin employment on the day that you are able to show your employer your actual EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card, assuming that the start date listed on the card has already arrived. If you receive the card but the start date is still in the future, you cannot begin working until that date arrives. Employment can only be effective as of the day you show your employer the card; you cannot begin working before this time, and email notices of OPT approval do not suffice to begin employment.
Does OPT employment need to be full time?
No, but you should be working more than 20 hours/week. You may also work for more than one employer while on OPT.
What kind of work can I do while on OPT?
You may work anywhere in the United States, but the key criteria is the work must be related to the degree you just obtained and for which the OPT is being authorized. OPT employment cannot be done based on prior degrees earned in the U.S. or abroad; the employment must relate to your current degree program. For example, students in the Master’s of Public Health program often may have earned a medical degree in their home countries before coming to the U.S. However, because the OPT is based on the current MPH degree program, such students are unable to take any employment, such as medical residencies, that are not directly related to the MPH degree. Another example would be graduate students who pursue two programs jointly, or at the same time; if a student graduates from one program before graduating from the second, the OPT can be granted ONLY for the most recent program; since the student already graduated from the first program, they no longer qualify for OPT based on that earlier program. A student who wishes to use OPT for both programs needs to finish the two programs at the same time.
A good resource to consult if you are searching for employment is the Pomerantz Career Center's Going Global site which provides employer information about country guides and employer information, including who has sponsored H-1B petition in the past.
Must OPT employment be in only paid positions?
Please see the section on “What about volunteering and self-employment?” later in this packet.
Must I keep information about my employment?
Homeland Security recommends you keep records of all OPT employment.
- If you are in a regular, paid position your employer should keep regular HR/payroll records that demonstrate your work.
- Those in the Arts fields should keep records of each gig performed, art sold, etc. and the duration of all employment
- If you do contract work, keep records of the duration of contract periods and the name/address of the contracting company.
- If you will be a self-employed business owner, you must be working full-time, and obtain any applicable business licenses.
- If employed through an agency, you must keep documentation to show that you worked at least 20 hours/week through the agency.
- If you are volunteering or on an unpaid internship, have your employer document that you are “working” at least 20 hours/week and that the work was related to your degree area. See the previous section about unpaid positions.
In order to prove that the work/internship/volunteer activity is related to your area of study, also keep documentation for each job/gig about the position held, the duration of the position or dates worked, job title, supervisor name/contact information, and a description of the work. Often offer letters contain descriptions of the job duties, so keep these. If it is not clear from the job description that the work is related to your degree, you are advised to obtain a letter from your employer that briefly describes how your degree is related to the work you perform.
Keeping documentation is also a good idea because ISSS has learned that in H-1B applications, anyone on OPT is being asked for the specific starting and ending dates of their employment.
Can I extend my OPT right now to get an additional 17 months?
No. Only certain students are eligible to extend OPT, and this should be done 3 months before the initial period of OPT will end. To determine whether or not you might later be eligible for an extension, see the OPT 17 Month Extension page.
Can I take classes if I have OPT?
Perhaps. If you have graduated and have OPT, regulations allow you to take classes informally, as long as you maintain your OPT employment. However, if you begin a new course of study (i.e. a new degree program), this will automatically cancel your OPT authorization. Also, ISSS does not recommend taking a class that may later be used to satisfy new degree program requirements.
Can I change employers if I am authorized for the 12-month OPT?
Yes. As long as the employment is related to your field of study, you can work for any employer or even multiple employers at once.
How long can I stay in the United States after my OPT expires?
Can I return to school after completing OPT?
Yes. You need to obtain an I-20 for the next program of studies, and complete the USCIS procedure for Change of Degree Level (if you resume studies at the UI) or the procedure for Transfer (if you go to a different school). Please note that if you transfer to a new school you are only allowed to remain in the U.S. for up to 5 months between the time your OPT ends and the new program of studies is to begin; if the time period is greater than 5 months, you will be required to leave the U.S. and can only re-enter within 30 days of the start of your new program of study.
If I have OPT for a year and return to school for another degree, can I have another year of OPT?
You will be eligible for another year of OPT if your new degree will be at a HIGHER level of study. For instance, if you obtained a Master’s degree, did 12 months of OPT, then enter a PhD program, you will be eligible for another 12 months of OPT following the PhD program.
What If I Cannot Find a Job?
Students on OPT cannot accrue more than 90 cumulative days of unemployment during the 12-month period of OPT. If you accumulate 90 days of unemployment, your legal F-1 status ends immediately as of the 91st day. Before the 91st day, you will need to make arrangements to leave the U.S., start a new degree program, or change to a different status. If you are still in the U.S. after 90 days of unemployment, you have no legal status.
Do they count business days or calendar days?
Calendar. In other words, Saturdays and Sundays count when you are unemployed, not just Monday-Friday.
What if I am out of the U.S.? Does this count as unemployment?
If your time away is authorized by your employer, such as on vacation/sick leave or traveling on company business, it is still counted as being employed.
What about volunteering or self-employment?
Yes, volunteering or self-employment does count as “employed” if you meet certain criteria. The following guidelines must be met:
- While the OPT regulations state that volunteer work or unpaid internships can count as “employment,” most of these situations are not going to qualify. You need to be careful that the volunteer position is “truly” volunteer; in other words, people are never paid for doing that work. Examples would be a social work major volunteering on a crisis hotline, or a computer science major volunteering to set up a website for a nonprofit food bank, or an accounting major who volunteers during tax season – i.e. if anyone else did the same work, they would not be paid. You cannot “volunteer” in a position that would normally be paid, such as “volunteering” to work in a lab because they don’t have funds to pay you. Doing so would violate both immigration and labor laws. It is the same issue with “unpaid internships.” Very few true internships exist outside of the student context, i.e. after graduation (journalism might be an example where newspapers or magazines often have formal internships for non-students). ISSS recommends you ensure the position is a true internship and keep documentation to prove it. For example, can you document the history of the internship, that it has been advertised as such, that it has existed for a certain period of time, and what the application process is? Or is it being created just to help an F-1 on OPT avoid accruing days of unemployment? Finally, such work must meet all other OPT criteria, i.e. must be related to your area of study, at least 20 hours/week, and can be started only after OPT has been approved. Please note the ISSS will not make a determination about whether a volunteer position or an unpaid internship “qualifies” as employment for OPT. Based on our description, as well as our Volunteering page, this is a determination you and your employer will have to make.
- See the prior section on “Must I document my employment?” This will indicate what kinds of documents you should keep regarding your self-employment if you work on a contractual basis, have started a business, are in the Arts areas, or work through an agency.