International students with an F-1 visa at US universities are eligible for OPT, temporary employment directly related to the applicant’s main field of study. Students with an F-1 visa who complete their course in the US do not need a job offer to apply for OPT. The applicant may work for more than one employer or job, but all employment must be related to education. The employment contract must be at least 20 hours per week.
While all international students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT work permit before completing their studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion); the ROD (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) OPT program allows F-1 students pursuing bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degrees in certain fields to stay in the United States for up to 36 months to work in their field. To be eligible for the 24-month OPT STEM extension, the applicant must be employed by, or have been offered a job by, an employer registered with the E-Verify Employment Verification System operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in collaboration with the Social Insurance Bank. Such employment must be paid and full-time.
Even if OPT offers Indian students flexibility to stay in the US after completing their programs of study; applicants must maintain legal F-1 OPT status throughout the period of employment. “Evidence must be obtained from the employer to verify that those with OPT status have worked at least 20 hours per week during the employment period. Once the OPT period begins after completion of the course, one should not accumulate more than 90 days of unemployment within the dates on the EAD (employment permit document),” says Mumbai and Florida immigration attorney Poorvi Chothani. Post-completion OPT is any part of OPT that is used after the student’s program end date while pre-completion is any part of OPT that is used before the student’s program end date.
Chothani adds that applicants must submit OPT update and report employment on the student portal of the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) to stop unemployment in the student exchange and visitor information system. “Any time spent outside of the United States, if not employed by a U.S. employer, counts toward the 90-day unemployment period.
Unemployment days are cumulative, so if the OPT holder is employed less than the OPT time and looks for another employer, he will not get an additional 90 days of unemployment,” says Chothani.
Those who have not been unemployed for 90 days after completion of the OPT or 150 days after completion of the OPT and STEM OPT renewal periods will be granted a grace period of 60 days after completion of the OPT. “This grace period is intended to allow time to prepare for departure from the US unless the OPT visa holder successfully changes their status to another visa type or has enrolled in another approved graduate program,” said Chothani.
In a recent interview with a news agency, the adviser to the US Secretary of Consular Affairs in India, Don Heflin, said Indian students who are in the US with OPT and travel back to India must have a visa stamped in their passport before they can return to the US. This summer, Indian students with F1 OPT visas, traveling to India, have been given the flexibility of drop box appointments, which means they don’t have to show up for face-to-face visa interviews to get their passport stamped. However, Indian students in the US, who are OPT approved and have a Work Permit (EAD) and valid student visa status both with their university and with the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), do not need to get a new visa when they leave the US does not.
F-1 OPT holders can change their status to other visa categories. “Often OPT holders change their status to H-1B work visas depending on whether they want to continue working with their OPT employer who is willing to sponsor them or if they have found a new employer willing to sponsor their H-1B. Either way, they will have to be selected in the H-1B lottery,” says Chothani.
While OPT is an advantage of F-1 status that allows students to work for a year (possibly longer if the student is eligible for an extension), H-1B is a separate classification for non-immigrant workers, specifically for work. The sponsoring employer must submit an H-1B visa application as a “change of status” within a specified time. “In general, student status changes from F-1 (OPT) to H-1B from October 1 of that year, once the H-1B visa application is approved. There is no need to purchase a visa stamp to start working on H-1B status. However, if the person leaves the US, he or she will need a new H-1B visa to return to the US to work on H-1B status,” said Chothani.