After getting an overview of the U.S. student visa program you may want to know your other option to gain valuable practical training through work experience after graduation 

Optional Practical Training (or OPT) has long been used by the US government as it allows international students to remain in the United States for up to 12 months following graduation. 

The first changes in the regulations were introduced In 2008 by the Department of Homeland Security.  By May 2016, another set of changes to the regulations were published.  The latest updates allowed graduates of certain eligible programs a longer time to remain in the United States.

You can gain OPT work experience in two ways:


Regardless of what you decide though, there are some key points that you must know to decide whether undertaking OPT will benefit you.

This is important because if you decide to take Post-completion OPT, you may not pursue a new course of study.  

Starting a new course of study, whether full-time or part-time or with the same academic institution or a new one, will automatically cancel your OPT authorization. 

In addition to being enrolled in a school authorized to accept international students, you must:

  1. Be currently living in the United States and;
  2. Be maintaining F-1 status and;
  3. Have been enrolled for at least one full academic year and;
  4. If you participated in Curricular Practical Training (or CPT), your total CPT period should be less than 12 months full-time training or work.

In contrast to CPT, on-campus employment does not count against the 12-month OPT eligibility

The objective of the OPT is for you to apply theoretical knowledge you may have gained during your one-year of studies.  This is to increase the educational benefits that you will receive from your practical training experience. 

In addition, your OPT must also be commensurate with the level of your course of study.

Training or work may be completed for any employer anywhere in the United States as long as the employment qualifies under OPT standards and after you receive your Employment Authorization Document or EAD.

  1. Associates (AA, AS)
  2. Bachelors (BA/BS)
  3. Masters (MA/MS, LLM, MBA)
  4. PhD, JD, SJD

You may work only up to 20 hours per week during the regular semester or while classes are still in session.  You may however, request for full-time employment for Pre-completion OPT when school is not in session or during your regular school vacations.

If you are a Master's or Doctoral student, you may be allowed to engage in Post-completion OPT if you have already completed your course work but are still working on your thesis or studying for comprehensive exams.

For Post-completion OPT, you must be employed for at least 20 hours per week but may work up to 40+ hours weekly.

OPT is generally a maximum of 12 months at each education level i.e. Associate of Arts degree, Bachelors, master's.  

However, if you engaged in Pre-completion OPT, your eligible period of  Post-completion OPT will be reduced by one month for every two months of part-time pre-completion OPT. 

Hence if you work 6 months part-time during your Pre-completion OPT, three months will be subtracted from the 12 months total OPT.

At this time, only Bachelor's Degrees and higher are considered for the 24-month extension. A U.S. STEM Program is one that is classified as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the related fields.

If your program is listed as a STEM Designated Degree Program, you may qualify for the 24-month STEM OPT extension and  stay for up to 36 months in OPT post-graduation.

You may for example, finish an Associate of Science degree first, apply for OPT for one year then return and enroll in a Bachelor's degree program.  Once you complete this, you apply for OPT again, work for a year then enroll in graduate school and on until you complete your PhD.

Although a job offer is not needed to apply for OPT, the DSO will endorse your Form I-20 and make the appropriate notation in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS).

Most graduates change their status to H-1B (Specialty Occupation).  For this, you must have an employer who is willing and eligible to sponsor you as an employee.   You may also want to check your options to work while studying in the United States as an international student.

Immigration law allows for a period of employment but only for a limited number of days as follows:

  1. Up to 90 days only for the initial Post-completion OPT;
  2. An additional 60 days during the 24-month OPT extension.  This means that you may be unemployed for a total of 150 days during the OPT period.

Be sure the get the latest information on how to apply for Employment Authorization as an international student!

For information not included in the above post, check the segment Frequently Asked Questions on Optional Practical Training.  

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About the Author

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer Aranda

Jennifer S. Aranda is the COO of IVC Immigrant Visa Center, Inc.


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