F-1 Students in STEM Fields Can Extend Optional Practical Training Period by 24 Months

STEM graduates can now work a total of 36 months in the U.S.

If you're in the U.S. with F-1 student status, pursing a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) from an accredited U.S. institution of higher education, a recent Department of Homeland Security (DHS) rule may allow you to extend your maximum possible post-graduation period of Optional Practical Training (OPT) employment from 12 to 36 months.

This began as a temporary, interim rule from 2008/2009, which allowed extensions of only 17 months. The old, 17-month STEM OPT regulations will stay in effect until May 9, 2016, and the new, 24-month extension take effect on May 10, 2016.

To qualify for this new, 24-month extension, you must:

  • be participating in an initial period of regular post-completion OPT
  • have a degree in an eligible STEM field from a Student and Exchange Visitor Program-certified school that is accredited when you send your STEM OPT extension application to USCIS (this can be a previous degree to your most recent one; for example, a B.A., even if you are finishing an M.A. program)
  • be working with an employer that’s enrolled in USCIS's E-Verify employment eligibility verification program and that will provide you with formal training, including identified learning objectives and evaluation, and
  • plan to work a minimum of 20 hours per week per employer.

Not only you, but your school AND your employer will need to comply with added reporting requirements. These include an annual self-evaluation requirement, under which you’ll need to report to your designated student officer (DSO) on your progress with the practical training.

The new rule will (like the old rule it replaces) also allow students to apply for OPT within 60 days of graduation. (Also see How to Apply for an Optional Practical Training (OPT) Work Permit.)

Part of the purpose of this extension is to acknowledge that many businesses would like their OPT employees to receive an H-1B visa, but can't get USCIS approval or an available visa in time to avoid the student having to return to his or her home country.

For more information, and assistance in applying for the extension, talk to your DSO and see the final rule as published in the Federal Register.