Optional practical training (OPT) is work that is in a field related to your studies; and it is among the forms of off-campus work available to foreign students in the U.S. in F-1 status. For details on eligibility, see Nolo’s article, “When F-1 Students Can Work in the U.S.“ Here, we’ll explain how to apply for the work permit that you’ll need in order to pursue OPT.
If you decide to do your OPT after finishing your program, don’t wait too long to apply—your application must be received by USCIS within 60 days of completing your program requirements. Be careful - this date is usually before your graduation date. Some students have even tried to attend their graduation the following semester just to prolong their status, even though they finished their program – this doesn’t work.
The application process for an OPT work permit (also called an employment authorization document or EAD card) involves both your DSO and USCIS. First, the DSO must issue you a new I-20 with the dates you want OPT for. You can ask for only up to 12 months and your start date must be earlier than the last day of your grace period. You will then complete USCIS Form I-765 and assemble additional supporting documents.
Your DSO can review your I-765 application packet before you sign and mail it to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Application Forms for Optional Practical Training
The forms that you or your DSO will need to fill out include:
- copies of all your SEVIS Form I-20 (you should have these, but your DSO can provide copies of any you have lost)
- a copy of your SEVIS Form I-20 ID with your DSO’s recommendation of practical training
- USCIS Form I-765.
Line-by-Line Instructions for Form I-765
Form I-765 is the main form used by applicants for work permits. Most of the pages are instructions, which you don’t need to send to USCIS with the rest of the application.
Under “I am applying for,” check “Permission to Accept Employment,” unless you have had a previous EAD under another program, in which case you should check the box for renewals.
Questions 1-8: Self-explanatory.
Question 9: You will probably not have a Social Security number unless you are changing from a visa or status that allowed you to work. If you don’t have one, enter “None.”
Question 10: You will have an Alien registration number (A-number) only if you have been in deportation or removal proceedings or have submitted certain immigration applications, particularly for permanent residence. If you were in proceedings or had any applications denied, especially for reasons such as fraud, see a lawyer. If you don’t have an A-number, enter the number from your I-94 (and before the -actual number, write “I-94#”).
Question 14: List the type of visa on which you last entered the United States, which is probably a -student visa, unless you entered as a visitor or on another temporary visa and then applied for a Change of Status to become a student.
Question 15: Your current immigration status is “F-1 student.”
Question 16: Your eligibility category depends on the basis for your work permit. As an F visa holder applying for optional practical training after finishing your studies, your category is (c)(3)(B). If you are applying for OPT for a different reason, talk to your DSO about what category to use.
Documents for Optional Practical Training Application
Along with the forms described above, you’ll need the following documents to complete your application:
- a copy of the identity page and visa page from your passport
- a copy of the front and back of your I-94 card, if isssued. (Customs & Border Protection phased out paper I-94s for many U.S. visitors in early 2013. If you did not receive a I-94 card, you can access this form online.)
- copies of all your I-20 forms since you began your studies in the United States (including I-20 forms from other schools if you transferred).
- two photos (passport style); print your full name in pencil on the back of the photos
- the fee (as of early 2013, $380 for the Form I-765, but double-check with your DSO or on the USCIS website). Pay by check or money order, payable to the Department of Homeland Security. Do not send cash.
Mailing Your Optional Practical Application and Receiving Your Work Permit
Once you have prepared all the application materials, make a photocopy for your records. Then mail them (by courier or certified mail with a return receipt requested) to the USCIS office or Service Center listed in the instructions that come with the form.
USCIS will send you a receipt notice within two to three weeks. The receipt notice will include a case number that will allow you to check its status online at www. uscis.gov.
Once you are approved, USCIS will mail you a wallet-sized plastic work permit card with your photo on it. The card will indicate how many months you are allowed to work. It’s usually 12, but this will be reduced if you have logged any previous curricular practical training time. You are not allowed to work until you receive this card.
Your work period may also get shortened if USCIS delays in approving your work permit. Students who are doing their optional practical training after finishing their studies have a 14-month time limit to start and finish their 12 months of work. Unfortunately, USCIS starts counting those 14 months from the day they receive your I-765 application for a work permit. So, for example, if it takes USCIS three months to approve your work permit, your 12 months of optional practical training will go down to 11 months. To avoid this problem, you may apply for your work permit up to 120 days before you are scheduled to start work (DSOs typically recommend 90 days before your requested start date for employment).
A final warning: If you apply to USCIS for a work permit, it’s best not to leave the U.S. until it is approved. The agency may take weeks or even months to reply. During this time, you may be tempted to leave the United States – perhaps to take a vacation or return home for a visit -- especially if it’s summertime. Technically students can travel when they receive the USCIS receipt notice, BUT it is not recommended unless they have a job offer. Leaving the United States may be considered an abandonment of your work permit application, in which case it will be cancelled.