Gaining work experience is an important way to jump start your career. Employers prefer graduates who have had some work experience and for you it’s a good opportunity to gain first-hand experience in an industry or a specific company before you commit to a job.

Under the Optional Practical Training scheme, eligible international students can receive permission to work for up to 12 months. This is a great opportunity, so make sure you take advantage of the program and leverage what you are studying in a real work environment.

What is Optional Practical Training? 

If you are an international undergraduate or graduate student studying in the US under the F-1 visa program, you can apply for temporary employment that is directly related to your area of study under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. The purpose of the program is for international students to gain practical training within their field of study. There are two types of OPT to consider:

  • Pre-completion OPT – after you have completed one year of study, you can apply for the pre-completion OPT. Under this program, you can work for up to 20 hours a week during the school semester and work full-time during school holidays for a total of 12 months.
  • Post-completion OPT – after you complete your studies, you can apply for the post-completion OPT. You must work full time under this program, for a total of 12 months.

It is important to note that the total employment period under the OPT scheme is 12 months. This means the combined total months you worked under both the pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT cannot exceed 12 months. However, you can get 12 months under the OPT scheme as an undergraduate and another 12 months, if you continue your studies at a graduate level.

STEM Extension

You can extend your OPT for an additional 24 months for one time, if you studied a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) approved STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) field. The following is a link to the list of STEM-designated degrees that are accepted under the STEM Extension:

View list

If your degree qualifies, you can apply for a STEM OPT extension. 

Applying for OPT

Visit your school’s international student’s service office; they will be able to help you with the necessary paperwork to apply for OPT. You will need a recommendation letter from your major professor, the school will need to endorse your Form I-20 (Certification of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status) and then you will have to file Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization) together with the required fee (at the time of writing this fee was $410). It will take 60-90 days to complete the application process from the day your application is received by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), so make sure you calculate this into your timeline.

When can I use OPT?

You can start your OPT only after the Form I-765 is approved and you receive the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the USCIS. The EAD will tell you on which date you can start your OPT.