One of the biggest misconceptions that students have about studying in the US is that following your graduation, you have to leave the country almost right away. Luckily for most foreign students, this is false!
As long as you graduated from an American university as a full-time student, you can benefit from Optional Practical Training (OPT). When you graduate college, the US government grants you up to one year (or up to three if you are a STEM degree-seeking student) to work in the United States. OPT can start as soon as you graduate and you can apply for it starting three months away from your graduation (or as late as two months after you graduate).
So, how do you apply for OPT and ensure that you can benefit from this extra year of working in the US?
Determine when you want to apply to OPT. If you have a job lined up after you graduate, then it is highly recommended to apply for it exactly three months before the first date you will be starting your job (or earlier if possible). There are no ways to expedite this process and since it can take anywhere before two to three months, (and sometimes more, unfortunately) you need to make sure you are doing everything you can to ensure your Employment Authorization Document (or EAD) arrives on time. You cannot work in the US without having this card physically in your hands.
You do not need to have a job before applying for OPT and we highly recommend you apply as soon as you can, regardless of whether or not you have a job lined up, since processing can take up to three months. This is a great timeline to help you determine when it’s best for you to apply for OPT.
OPT must be completed fourteen months after graduation, (unless you’re a STEM student) so applying late might make you lose some of the twelve month work authorization that you can receive.
Contact your DSO (Designated School Official). Sometimes she or he will assist you with completing, and even mailing, your application. Make sure you contact your DSO to figure out what your school’s procedure for applying for OPT is like. It is recommended to contact them as soon as your last semester of college starts since sometimes schools have their own processing times for certain documents you will need to file with your application. If your DSO is like the one we both dealt with, and will meet with you to complete all the application documents, then set up an appointment far enough in advance to go over everything.
Retrieve all the necessary documents:
- Two passport photos (with your name and SEVIS number written on the back). You can get these at any CVS or Walgreens.
- A photocopy of your visa
- A photocopy of your passport, and any visa stamp pages or cards
- A photocopy of EVERY I-20 you have every received (We hope you held onto those!)
- A copy of your I-94, which you may retrieve here
- A check or money order for $410 made payable to the US Department of Homeland Security.
“I highly recommend checks since you can check when it was cashed, and therefore when the application was received. Also, USCIS will usually write your case number on the back of the check. Your case number allows you to check your case status online, as we will explain in detail below.” – A
“I had an opposite experience to Ale’s – I paid with a check, and forgot to make sure I would have enough money in my account for the fee after I paid my rent. My check bounced, and my application was delayed while USCIS sent me a new invoice. If you’re like me, and juggling your money, I recommend a money order.” – E
- Form I-756
- Form G-1145.This is optional and simply for USCIS to send you text and email notifications of the status of your application. This is highly recommended if you’re anxious and crazy and terrified about something going wrong with your application (which is unlikely if you apply properly)
- Your new I-20. Your DSO will apply for your OPT via her SEVIS portal and will print out a new I-20 with your desired days of employment. You will be allowed to work for one whole year so make sure you choose the most convenient days for you, and account for the 3 month processing time when picking your start date. Your work date must start within two months of graduation, so if you apply for OPT late you might miss out on your whole year of work due to processing times. Your one year of OPT will be adjusted to make up for late processing, so if you pick a certain date and you receive your Employment Authorization Document (or EAD) after that date, then you’re missing out that time period.
Mail all documents to your designated USCIS office. Ask your DSO which office to mail these documents to, as it varies depending on where your school is. If you are on a time crunch (applying three months before graduation because you must start work right after your graduate), you should consider mailing your documents via first class mail. We recommend paying for tracking on your packages either way, so you know when it arrives. You may only use the US Post Office to mail your documents. If your DSO does not mail your application for you, you must make sure that your OPT application arrives at the USCIS Service Center within 30 days of the OPT I-20 issue date.
Receive your notice of receipt. About two to four weeks after you mail your application, you will receive a letter in the mail that acknowledges the receipt of your documents. This document will include your receipt date (the date your application was received) and your case number. It’s is VERY IMPORTANT for you to write your full name inside your mailbox because USPS is not allowed to deliver any USCIS documents unless you are a verified resident of the address. (Ale never received her notice of receipt and is certain this was the reason why.) The receipt number will allow you to log into the USCIS website and check on the status of your application. The initial review stage of this application will start with “Your Case Was Received.”
Wait for your application to be accepted. When your application gets accepted, this will show up on your Case Status in the USCIS website. Note that this cannot always be trusted since Ale’s application was never updated to “accepted” and she has already received my EAD.
Receive your EAD. Once the application gets accepted, you should receive your EAD within the next two weeks or so. A GREAT trick for keeping track with your EAD is to set up an account with the US Post Office. When you create an account, you will be able to track any packages being mailed to your apartment. (Ale was able to see that a package was coming from USCIS Production Facility and that’s how she knew my EAD was on its way.) Also, if your Case Status gets updated to “Card Was Mailed,” you can call USCIS and request the tracking number so you can track your package.
Contact your DSO. Once your receive your EAD, make sure you let your DSO know so they can put this in their system. You must also let them know when you get a job since they need your employer’s information. Hopefully, the time when you receive your EAD, and the time you get a job lines us perfectly so you don’t lose any workable days. Every day is precious when you are on OPT.
- You might receive a Request for Evidence notice, basically meaning that USCIS needs more information from you before they can approve your case. If they do, contact your DSO immediately and they will be able to assist you. Make sure you read the notice carefully because there will be a deadline for you to submit your documents or your application will be denied.
- If your application is denied (which is very unlikely unless you mailed your documents 30 days after your received your new I-20 from your DSO), contact your DSO to ask how to proceed. It is very unlikely for USCIS to reconsider their decision.
- If 75 days have passes since USCIS received your application and there have been no updates, you are allowed to call them and let them know. You cannot complain before the 75 days have passed.
- While on OPT, you cannot be unemployed for more than 90 days or you violate your F-1 status. (Employment can mean anything from volunteering to interning to self-employment.)
- You should not travel outside the country while your OPT application is pending. This can be risky; if you must travel talk to your DSO for advice.
“My OTP application experience was horrible and it caused lots of stress and anxiety because I am currently employed under CPT and needed my OTP card to arrive exactly by graduation to make sure I could show up to work the following Monday. If you are in a similar situation, it is important to be upfront with your job and let them know so you can have a plan of action in case your card gets delayed. That being said, my card arrived exactly two months after my application was received. So, waiting for your OPT application will teach you patience, but more likely than not, everything will work out in the end.” – Ale