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OPT & STEM OPT Explained 

Understanding OPT

What is OPT

Understanding OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a U.S. immigration benefit program that allows international students on F1 visas to work in their field of study to work in their field of study for up to 12 months (or up to 36 months for those in certain STEM fields) after completing their academic program. It provides an opportunity for practical experience, allowing you to improve your professional skills and form networks with other professionals in the United States.

Post-completion vs. pre-completion

Two main types of OPT exist–post-completion OPT and pre-completion OPT. The more common post-completion OPT begins after you’ve completed your degree program, allowing you to work in the United States for up to 12 months. In contrast, pre-completion OPT permits you to work part-time in your field of study before completing your degree. However, if you participate in OPT prior to graduation, the duration of your pre-completion OPT is subtracted from the post-completion time available. As such, many F1 students opt to delay OPT until after they have graduated.


Eligible students with degrees in specific science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines have the opportunity to extend their post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) for an additional 24 months, bringing the total authorization period to 36 months, under the following conditions:

  • The student holds an F-1 visa and has obtained a STEM degree that appears on the Department of Homeland Security's ICE STEM Designated Degree Program List.
  • The student is working for an employer who participates in the E-Verify program.
  • The student has previously been granted an initial post-completion OPT authorization based on the same STEM degree that is related to their current employment.
Who can use OPT?

OPT Eligibility Criteria

Status and academic requirements

To qualify for OPT, you must maintain your F1 visa status and have completed at least one academic year of full-time studies at a U.S. university. This requirement ensures that you have sufficiently engaged with your academic program before seeking practical work experience in your field of study. Additionally, the USCIS requires that you are physically present in the United States when you apply for OPT.

Relevance to your field of study

Moreover, you must demonstrate your intent to work or volunteer in a role that is directly relevant to your major field of study. For instance, if you hold a master’s degree in chemical engineering, you cannot use OPT to work in the area of real estate. This ensures that your practical training directly applies to your academic background.

OPT Application Guide

  • When to Apply
  • STEP 1: OPT Request
  • STEP 2: OPT I-20
  • STEP 3: USCIS Online Application
  • STEP 3* : I-765
  • STEP 4: EAD Card

When to Apply

The OPT application consists of two critical steps. Initially, you must request an OPT recommendation for your I-20 from your DSO. Following this, you're required to send an OPT application packet to USCIS, which should include a signed copy of your OPT-endorsed I-20.

  • University's OPT I-20 processing time = 5 business days
  • USCIS processing time = 1-5 months

*Check current USCIS Processing times for “I-765” “Based on a request by a qualified F-1 academic student [(c)(3)]” with “Potomac Service Center”

You are eligible to apply for OPT from 90 days before to 60 days after your program's expected completion date. It's crucial that USCIS receives your complete OPT application within 60 days post your program's completion date and within 30 days following your DSO's OPT recommendation on your I-20. Additionally, you must be in the U.S. when USCIS receives your application. 

CPTDog advises starting your OPT application early to avoid delays and ensure you can utilize the full 12-month period. Early application also provides a buffer to reapply if needed due to rejection or denial.

Expected Completion Date:

  • For Undergraduates: It's the final day of classes in the semester you complete your program requirements.
  • For Graduates: It's either the last day of classes in the semester you meet your program requirements or the date your thesis/dissertation is submitted to the Graduate Division. If you have a job offer that starts before semester's end or if you're a graduate student with only a thesis/dissertation pending, consult your DSO. Graduates in such cases may start post-completion OPT before their thesis/dissertation submission.

Important: If applying for OPT after completing your program, ensure USCIS receives your application before any travel outside the U.S. Exiting the U.S. post-completion without having applied for OPT renders you unable to return in F-1 status for OPT application. 


Case Studies about OPT Timing

✓ Good Timing: 

Screenshot 2024-02-26 at 11.50.01 AM

❌ Bad Timing:

Screenshot 2024-02-26 at 11.51.03 AM


OPT Application Form (OPT Request Form)

Fill out the school's OPT application form (OPT Request Form) and have it signed by an Advisor. This form is for internal use, therefore, each university has its version. But in most cases, you will need to provide the following information: 
  • Verify your anticipated program completion date.
  • On-campus employment must cease by your Program Completion Date. Work may resume in your study field only after your OPT EAD start date is authorized.
  • Obtain your academic advisor's approval.
  • Select your OPT commencement date.
  • Pay a Post-Completion Services Fee to your school (usually around $200)

How to Get an OPT I-20

It will take your DSO about 5 working days to process your request and then, they will issue you a new I-20 with OPT on it. 

After you submit the OPT I-20 Request e-form, your academic advisor will receive an email containing a link, where they will confirm your completion date and OPT eligibility.

Once your academic advisor approves your OPT request, advisers at the International Office will review your request form and OPT eligibility. If eligible, you will be issued a new I-20 with the OPT Recommendation notated on page 2. This usually takes about 5 business days. 

Important: Once you receive your OPT I-20, check it carefully, sometimes, though rare, DSO does put the wrong information on the form, and it will cause a lot of trouble if you've submitted the wrong information to USCIS. 

Note: You are responsible for submitting your OPT application to USCIS and USCIS must receive your OPT application within 30 days of the Issue Date listed on page 1 of your I-20 and within 60 days of your completion date. You must submit the I-765 while you are physically present in the US. If filing by MAIL: Also be sure the check the USCIS I-765 webpage(link is external) on the date of mailing to be sure you are using the correct USCIS form and fee. 


Application Material List: 

Prepare all of the below documents before starting the online application process. 

1. Photocopy of Passport and Visa

Photocopy your current passport biographic page with the photo and passport expiration date.

*If this is not the passport you used on your last entry to the U.S., also include a copy of the passport you used when you made entry to the U.S., even if it has expired. (You will provide information on the expired passport in the I-765)

Photocopy the F-1 visa, if applicable; the visa does not need to be valid.

2. Photocopy of I-94 Information

The I-94 can be either:

• An electronic I-94 record. Visit: to access and print your record. Select “Get Most Recent I-94”.

OR (less common)

• A paper I-94 card stapled into your passport. Include a copy of both sides, even though the backside may be blank.

OR (less common)

• A copy of an I-797 Change of Status Approval Notice which includes a new I94.

3. Photocopy of all previous OPT and CPT I20s

 If you have NEVER used CPT or OPT in the past, you do not need to include previous I-20s

4. Photocopy of Previous EAD(s), if applicable


Fill out the online form I-765:

Create a USCIS account here: 

After logging in:

>> select “File form online” >> I-765, Application for Employment Authorization >> click ‘Start form’ button >> Review the information >> click ‘Next’ >> Review ‘Completing Your Form Online’

I-765 Step by Step

Getting Started Basis of eligibility
What is your eligibility category?

 Select eligibility category: (c)(3)B) Student PostCompletion OPT Reason for applying

What is your reason for applying?

Select ‘Initial permission to accept employment’

Have you previously filed Form I-765?
  • If you have previously filed the form I-765 with USCIS (e.g. applied for OPT in the past), select ‘Yes’. 
  • If this is your first time filing the I-765 (either via mail or online) or applying for OPT, and you have only worked on-campus or applied for CPT, select ‘No’.
  • Select ‘Yes’ only if you have submitted an I-765 before to USCIS for an EAD card- even if it was rejected, denied or withdrawn.
Preparer and interpreter information
Is someone assisting you with completing this application?

This is asking if an attorney or translator has assisted you. Select ‘No’. Then Next.

"About You" Section
What is your current legal name?

Enter your name exactly as it appears in the Surname/Family Name and Given Name fields on your I-20. - Note your I-20 DOES NOT use the Middle Name field. Leave the Middle Name field blank.

Have you used any other names since birth?

If you select ‘Yes’, enter your previous names, including nicknames you have used in official records or documentation. - If your I-20 Preferred Name is different than the names you wrote for #1, include that here. Click Next. Your contact information

How may we contact you?

Provide ‘Daytime telephone number’, ‘Mobile telephone number’ (if different from Daytime telephone number, and ‘Email address’.

What is your current U.S. mailing address?

Enter your mailing address.  If the address belongs to someone other than yourself, put their full name (First Name Last Name). This person MUST be listed as a resident of the address with the U.S. Postal Service.

Is your current mailing address the same as your physical address?

If ‘No’, enter your physical address.

The rest of this section includes your gender, city of birth, etc straightforward information. Answer them truthfully. 

You Immigration Information 
What is your country of citizenship or nationality?

List all countries where you are currently a citizen or national.

What is your Form I-94 Arrival-Departure Record Number (if any)? 

Enter your current I-94 number. This is at the number found on the electronic I-94 record or the top left corner of the paper Form I-94 card.

When did you last arrive in the United States?

List your arrival date (your most recent entry date found on your passport admission stamp, electronic I-94 record, or paper I-94 card), place of arrival, and status at arrival.

What is the passport number of your most recently issued passport?

Passport information should match the country on your I-20

What is your travel document number (if any)?

Leave blank. (You have a passport, not a travel document!)

What is the expiration date of your passport or travel document?
What country issued your passport or travel document?
What is your current immigration status or category? 

Current status should be “F-1 student.” If not, talk to your advisor, and this status should be reflected in your current I94.

What is your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Number (if any)?

Use the "Additional Information" section later to include all previously used SEVIS numbers, if you had any previous F-1 or J-1 record.

Obtain the full OPT application menu here 


OPT Application and EAD card-producing progress checker:
  • check your case status by receipt date. Also can track the shipping process once the card is produced
 Lawfully ApP
  • An APP synced with the USCIS system.
  • provides a one-time free premium analysis that can help you predict how many days are left before you can start legally working in the U.S.
USPS informed delivery
  • Once you get a tracking number from USCIS, it is important to keep an eye on USPS's work. From this point on, USCIS will not be responsible for missing cards. If you, unfortunately, didn't receive your EAD card, try to contact USPS first. Tracking down a misplaced card might take less time than going through the application process all over again.

STEM OPT Application

Pre-Completion OPT Applications:

  • Students can apply after their Designated School Official (DSO) has made an OPT recommendation in their SEVIS record.
  • Applications can be submitted no earlier than 90 days before the student completes a full academic year, provided that OPT employment does not begin until after the completion of this period.

Initial Post-Completion OPT Applications:

  • Applications must be filed within 30 days following the OPT recommendation by a DSO in the student’s SEVIS record.
  • Students are eligible to apply up to 90 days before they complete their degree program but must do so no more than 60 days after finishing their degree.

STEM OPT Extensions After Post-Completion:

  • For the STEM OPT extension, the application must be submitted within 60 days after a DSO recommends OPT in the student's SEVIS record.
  • Eligible students can apply for an extension up to 90 days before their current OPT authorization ends.

Reactive a Previous Degree's STEM Extension Option: 

  • Possess a previously earned STEM degree but never utilized the accompanying 24-month STEM OPT? You can reactivate this OPT.
  • Requirement: Complete an additional degree. If this new degree isn't in a STEM field, the STEM OPT extension can be used after completing the regular OPT for the non-STEM degree.
  • Limitation: The STEM OPT extension is available for use a maximum of twice in a lifetime.
  • Condition: Each STEM OPT extension must follow a period of regular OPT.
Premium Processing

How to Expedite Your OPT Application

In March 2023, the U.S. government introduced the option of PP (Premium Processing) for F-1 visa students applying for:

  • Pre-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT)
  • Post-completion OPT
  • The 24-month OPT extension for students in STEM fields

Requesting Premium Processing

To apply for premium processing, applicants should complete and submit Form I-907, titled "Request for Premium Processing Service," ensuring they use the edition dated November 3, 2022, or a more recent version.

OPT Rejection

Common Reasons for OPT Rejections and Solutions

Common Reasons for OPT Application to be Rejected or Denied

1. OPT application was submitted violating the 30-day rule

  • The OPT application window is 90 days before and 60 days after the program end date. Applications outside this window are deemed invalid. Additionally, there's a "30-day rule" by USCIS for OPT, requiring applicants to submit their application within 30 days of receiving their OPT I-20 form. Failure to meet this deadline results in rejection, a common mistake among students.

2. Have used full-time CPT for 12 months before graduation

  • There's a trade-off between full-time CPT and OPT eligibility. Utilizing 12 months of full-time CPT disqualifies you from applying for OPT post-graduation. It's advised not to exceed 11 months of CPT use, or stick to part-time CPT during your studies.

3. Degree requirements are not met

  • Each degree level allows for one OPT application, but they must be at different educational levels. If you've already used OPT at the master's level, your next degree must be a doctoral degree to qualify for another OPT.

4. Being at F1 status for less than one academic year

  • Graduating before completing one academic year under F1 status disqualifies you from OPT. If you've changed your SEVIS number for any reason, your F1 status duration resets, counting from the new SEVIS activation date. Consider delaying graduation or preparing for the absence of OPT eligibility.

5. Errors in Form I-765 and/or supporting documents

  • Common mistakes include using outdated I-765 forms, incomplete fields, unsigned forms, incorrect information placement, wrong OPT codes, improperly formatted checks, insufficient supporting documents, non-compliant photos (refer to U.S. Passports requirements), and passports with less than six months validity. Review the OPT application guide carefully and ensure all documents meet the criteria.

6. Mistakes with your I-20 made by your DSO.

  • The first step in the application process involves your school's DSO issuing an OPT recommendation I-20 and updating your I-20 status in the system. Due to high volumes of applications, DSOs might make errors. If you find any issues with your I-20, request a correction from your school promptly.


What to Do Next?

1. Reapply for OPT

  • If your rejection is due to technical errors, such as those mentioned in reasons 5 and 6, contact your school's international office for a new I-20 and resubmit your OPT application. Ensure your materials are complete and submit within 30 days of receiving the rejection notice. Note the difference between a "rejection" (usually due to technical errors, allowing for a straightforward reapplication) and a "denial" (related to eligibility issues, requiring a more complex approach to appeal).

2. File a Motion to Reopen or a Motion to Reconsider

  • A Motion to Reopen involves presenting new facts and evidence for USCIS to review your case anew, while a Motion to Reconsider requests a review based on legal errors in the initial decision. Both motions require filing Form I-290B, the application fee, supporting documents, and a statement within 30 days of receiving the rejection notice. Given the complexity, especially for a Motion to Reconsider, consulting an immigration lawyer is advisable.

3. Reinstate your F1 status to extend your lawful stay in the U.S.

  • Applying to a new school for emergency admission to obtain a new F1 status is a common and effective strategy. Choose programs that accept quick admissions to get a new I-20 quickly, and aim for a higher degree level than your previous one to avoid future OPT rejections. If your I-20 has expired, upon receiving a new school offer, you'll need to apply for a "Reinstatement" of your student status.

I-20 Reinstatement 

Application Materials: 

  • Form I-539 (download Form I-539)
  • I-539 application fee of $370 (payable to "U.S. Department of Homeland Security")
  • New I-20 form
  • All previous I-20 forms
  • Financial proof
  • $350 SEVIS fee receipt
  • Admission letter from the school
  • Passport identification page
  • F-1 visa page
  • Entry record I-94 form
  • Form G-1145 (download G-1145)
  • Transcript
  • Personal explanation letter addressing the termination of your record and plans to maintain F-1 status. For students whose status expired over 5 months ago, explain why you couldn't file within the first five months.
  • Enrollment verification
  • Support letter from the school (usually obtained from the DSO)
  • Additional supporting evidence as per individual circumstances


  • Legal consultation fees ranging from $1,000 to $2,000
  • USCIS application fee of $370
  • SEVIS fee of $200

If your F1 status has not yet expired, re-activating a new I-20 through travel may be quicker and simpler compared to the lengthy domestic reinstatement process, which can take up to a year without the benefits associated with F-1 status, such as student health insurance. The reinstatement process is complex and typically requires professional legal assistance.

Contact CPTDog for I-20 reinstatement consultation. 

You Ask, We Answer


Is there a GPA requirement for applying for OPT? Technically, NO. However, obtaining an OPT I-20 from your school is a required step, so it depends on the school's policies. Some schools may require a minimum GPA, typically above 2.0 for undergraduates and 3.0 for graduate students.
Can I get OPT for every degree I complete? For degrees at the same level, you're not eligible for another OPT. (For example, if you complete two master's degrees, you can only use OPT once.) In other cases, you can have an OPT for each degree completed (e.g., OPT for bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees). However, you can only use the STEM OPT extension twice in your lifetime. Once after an undergraduate STEM degree and once after a graduate degree. If you reach the doctoral level, even if it's in a STEM field, you're no longer eligible for another STEM OPT extension.
Can I bank my OPT and use it later? No. OPT is a use-it-or-lose-it kind of opportunity. If you don't apply before the required application deadline, it's considered forfeited. You can only "bank" the 24-month STEM extension but not a regular OPT opportunity. 
Can I save my STEM OPT extension opportunity and use it later? Yes. However, the STEM OPT Extension must follow an OPT period. If you didn't use your STEM OPT Extension after your undergraduate degree, you can still use it after obtaining OPT for a non-STEM graduate program.
Does the 24-month STEM OPT extension have to be used immediately after the regular OPT? Yes. The STEM OPT extension must follow directly after the regular OPT. However, if you used a year of regular OPT after your undergraduate STEM degree and then pursued a non-STEM graduate degree, you can apply for the unused extension part of your undergraduate STEM OPT within 90 days before the end of your graduate OPT.
Can I apply for a green card while using F-1 OPT? Yes, if you meet the conditions.
Do I have to have a job offer when applying for OPT? No.
Do I have to work while on OPT I-20 Yes. OPT is a work permit for practical training. Not working means not participating in practical training, which leads to OPT termination. Regular OPT allows for up to 90 days of unemployment, while STEM OPT allows for up to 150 days of unemployment.
Can I work for any company I want while on OPT? No. Employment must be related to your field of study and be at least 20 hours per week. For an OPT Extension, the position must be paid.
Can I change employers or work for multiple employers during OPT? Yes. This differs from the H1B visa.
Can I bypass OPT and apply for a green card directly as an F1 international students? OPT uses the F1 visa as well. It's possible to transition from F1 status directly to a green card.
How long can I stay in the U.S. after my OPT ends? Excluding any status changes, you can stay for an additional 60 days.
If I didn't apply for OPT or COS, how long can I stay in the U.S. after graduation? If your I-20 is still valid at graduation, you can stay for 60 days. This 60-day period starts from your graduation date, but the last day of this period should be within the validity of your I-20. (Example: If the I-20 expires on August 20 and you graduate on May 10, you can stay until July 10.)
Do I need to consult a lawyer to apply for OPT? Generally, no. However, if your application is denied, it's advised to consult a lawyer for a reapplication.

I-20 Reinstatement Free Consultation

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