For many people around the world, studying at university is one of the most thrilling experiences of their lives. And every year, hundreds of thousands of students take the extra step to study abroad. A common wish they all have at the end is to extend their stay just a little bit longer.
The OPT – or Optional Practical Training – affords international students on F-1 visas the opportunity to stay longer. It lifts the restriction of being unable to work in the United States while studying.
Under this program, students and those who wish to set up their own small businesses after graduation are authorized to work for up to 12 months. The work they do must directly relate to their major or chosen field of study.
That said, many international students become confused when the concept of the “Cap-Gap” is introduced. So let’s clarify.
What Exactly is the Cap-Gap?
H-1B visas designate valid employer-employee relationships, but the progression from petition to approval can take time due to the multitude of H-1B visa requirements. This creates a gap of time during which a student’s F-1 visa may expire.
The H-1B visa allows qualifying students to continue living in the U.S. It also extends their F-1 status and work authorization up to the start of their approved employment period.
For example, a student whose OPT expires on July 1st but whose approved H-1B petition begins on October 1st will be covered for those three months.
How to Apply
A big mistake that many international students make is assuming that a job offer needs to be extended before applying for the OPT. The truth is that it isn’t necessary to wait.
The process generally takes 12 weeks to complete. During that time, you’re free to seek employment. Be aware that you cannot begin work until your OPT is officially approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and they have obtained your academic adviser’s signature. There’s really no point in looking for loopholes, or other sneaky ways to begin working before your EAD card is in your hands.
Your university will have all the information in their international student site, but for some reason, I couldn’t really understand what it was saying.
It’s a wonder I even managed to graduate.
That’s probably why I didn’t look into until the last two months of my graduating semester. Please don’t do that to yourself.
Keep in mind that your OPT must relate to your major or course of study. You can’t be a waitress with an engineering major, you feel me?
You might say to yourself, “My OPT application status says that I’m approved. I don’t need to be waiting around for the mail. I’m technically legally allowed to work right?”
NOPE. WRONG. Sorry.
The Application Process
- Completed Optional Practical Training Request Form (see your school’s site for tips to fill it out)
- Completed I-765 Form
- Photocopy of all previously issued I-20s (pages 1 and 3 – you can skip the second page)
- Photocopy of passport identification page
- Photocopy of F-1 visa page
- Two passport-style photos
- Photocopy of the front and back of your I-94 card–or, if you do not have an I-94 card, a copy of your F-1 admission stamp in your passport and a printout of your electronic I-94 information, which can be obtained at CBP.gov/I94
- Photocopy of previously issued EAD (if applicable)
- $380 check or money order payable to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security” (Do not postdate your check. The date format for your check should be as follows: month/day/year)
- Completed G-1145 Form (optional; it signs you up for email/text message notification of your application’s arrival at USCIS)
When I had almost everything ready to go, I went to the post office to send all the documents in. I took the passport photos at the post office, as well as the money order. It’s so much easier just to get those things when you’re at the post office. Why bother making more trips right?
Remember to get everything else double-checked, then triple-checked by your international student advisor before you even consider sending them to USCIS. This is because if you have so much as a typo in your documents, they could reject your application and you can say goodbye to that $380. You’ll have to start from 0 and re-do the whole thing if you’re not careful. So it’s better to be over prepared than anything.
And last but not least – MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THE ADDRESS FOR THE CORRECT USCIS OFFICE. My international student advisor told me to send it to the Arizona office, but apparently that was outdated information. Turns out I had to send it the the Vermont office, so it took 2 extra weeks for my application to reach the correct facility.
When to Apply
In terms of time constraints, you’ll have 90 days before the end date of your studies and up to 60 days after your period of study to submit your OPT application.
You need to ask your school for a new I-20, before you even consider sending in your application.
Remember that for your application to be accepted, it must arrive at the USCIS Service Center within 30 days of the OPT I-20 issue date. If you fail to observe this deadline, your request will be denied.
The thing with this is that, I was under the impression that you had to apply as late as possible if you didn’t have a job lined up. I mean think about it, if you apply too early and you don’t get a job offer, you’re OPT period will expire earlier, thus shortening the additional time you can spend looking for a job during your 60 days period. I thought that if I waited until day 50 after my graduation, my OPT period will start that much later.
Yeah…about that. I was totally wrong. Please don’t do that. It’s much better to apply early because if you do get a job, no employer will be cool with waiting 3 months for your documents to come through. It’s better to have it with you and say that you’ll be able to start immediately. I don’t know what I was thinking. I almost ended up getting my job offer revoked thanks to this “cute” mistake of mine.
Planning for the Future
All advanced degree petitions for the H-1B visa that are not selected will become part of an annual random selection process or “lottery” until the quota is reached. In 2015, that limit was 85,000. If your application was not approved, don’t be discouraged – the odds are still quite in your favor.
If you meet the set deadlines, put some time aside to complete the applications and begin sending a few targeted résumés with cover letters to prospective employers within your area of study. Chances are good that you’ll be able to continue living your dream.
Good luck friends!