Optional practical training (OPT) is defined in the F-1 regulations as "temporary employment for practical training directly related to the student's major area of study." OPT can be pre-completion (before graduation), or post-completion (after graduation). This page is about post-completion OPT. Post-completion OPT is authorized to begin after graduation (or in some cases, completion of all coursework for Masters and Doctoral students), and authorizes full-time employment if approved. No job offer is required to apply for OPT. To apply for OPT, an I-20 must be issued by your school official with your proper application, and submitted with other items to USCIS. OPT applications generally take 60-90 days to be approved.
To be eligible:
You must have been a full-time student in a degree program for at least one year
You must be in Active F-1 status, and have a valid passport
You cannot have done 12 months or more of full-time CPT (curricular practical training).
You must be completing your degree coursework at the end of the current semester, or for graduate students, be completely finished with all coursework requirements and have only thesis or dissertation remaining to complete.
Length of OPT
You can do 12 months of full-time OPT per educational level (including any pre-completion OPT).
You become eligible for another 12 months of OPT when you change to a higher educational level.
If you are in a STEM field, you may be eligible the 12 months plus an extension of an additional 24 months of your OPT, with certain requirements met and a new slightly different application for the 'STEM OPT Extension.'
Job Offer and Unemployment
You do not need an offer of employment to apply for OPT, but you are required to be employed during the OPT validity period.
All employment must be directly related to your major field of studies.
All employment must be properly and timely reported.
Unemployment (or employment less than full-time) more than 90 days may result in termination of F-1 status (see details below).
Timeline to Apply
Your application for OPT can be filed not more than 90 days before the official end of the semester you are graduating or up to 60 days after.
Apply as soon as possible because it takes 60-90 days (and sometimes longer) to receive OPT authorization from the Department of Homeland Security/United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Choosing a requested start date for your authorization is your decision, and the date requested must be within 60 days of your program end date.
OPT Rules and Regulations
You can begin work only after receiving the Employment Authorization Card (EAD) issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and only on or after the start date on the EAD. Your EAD must be correct with all data, or you must request a replacement.
During OPT, your F-1 status depends on proper employment. You may not be unemployed (or underemployed) for a total of more than 90 days. Each day during the period when OPT authorization begins and ends that the student does not have qualifying employment (even time outside the U.S.) counts as a day of unemployment. If you travel while employed either during a period of leave authorized by your employer or as part of your employment, the time spent outside the United States will not count as unemployment.
You must be employed full-time (20+ hours per week) in a job (or more than one job) that is DIRECTLY RELATED to your field of studies (your major). All employment must be related to your major.
You must report your employment (all employment), address, and other information directly to your international student advisor, to be reported in SEVIS. See below, ‘Reporting Requirements.’
You cannot begin another academic program as a full-time student, either at UCCS or any other school.
Consequences of 90+ days of unemployment: You may be denied future immigration benefits that rely on your valid F-1 status if the Department of Homeland Security determines that you exceeded the limitations on unemployment. Additionally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement may examine SEVIS data and terminate your SEVIS record if it fails to show that you maintained the proper period of employment. Recently, USCIS has advised students that they must depart the U.S. immediately upon exceeding the 90-day unemployment count, and are not eligible for a grace period.
You need to keep track of your unemployed/underemployed days and not exceed 90 days to avoid falling out of status!
Regular paid employment for 20+ hours per week in a position directly related to your major. You may work for multiple employers, if all work is directly related to your major, appropriate to your educational level, and properly reported in SEVIS.
Payment by multiple short-term employers. If you are a musician or performing artist you may work for multiple short term employers (gigs).
Work for hire. This is employment where an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship. If requested by the Department of Homeland Security, you must be prepared to provide evidence showing the duration of the contract periods and the name and address of the contracting company.
Self-employed business owner. Students on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. In this situation, you must work full time. You must be able to prove that you have the proper business licenses and are actively engaged in a business related to your major.
Employment through an agency. You must be able to provide evidence showing you worked an average of more than 20 hours per week while employed by the agency.
Volunteers or unpaid interns. You may work as a volunteer or unpaid intern, where this does not violate any labor laws, if the volunteering is directly related to your degree field, and is properly reported in SEVIS. The work must be 20+ hours per week and you must be able to provide evidence from the employer that you worked 20+ hours per week during the period of employment.
NOTE: ‘Volunteer’ work for a business or any organization that operates for profit is usually considered a violation of labor law. Also, note that unpaid volunteer work will NOT qualify a STEM student for a STEM OPT extension.