Notice Regarding OPT Denials and USCIS
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may increase the denial of applications submitted to them that are missing application material or have forms that are not filled out completely and accurately. Very carefully review your forms I-765 and supporting documentation before you mail your application to avoid having your application denied. You will not receive a refund from USCIS if it is denied.
What do I need to know BEFORE I apply for OPT?
What is Optional Practical Training?
OPT is temporary employment authorization granted by the Department of Homeland Security to F-1 students. F-1 students may use OPT to participate in employment related to their degree following graduation.
Who is eligible for OPT?
Students who are in F-1 status in a degree program and have been enrolled full-time for at least one full academic year are eligible for Optional Practical Training:
- After completion of a course of study.
- Before completion of studies if engaged in thesis or dissertation research.
- Students must have completed all program requirements by the time the OPT start date arrives (excluding thesis/dissertation requirements for graduate students).
- During the summer or over winter break or during the regular academic year (on a part-time basis, deducted from the 12-month maximum at a proportional rate) – However, please note, if this is your situation, you most likely qualify for Curricular Practical Training (CPT). Please consult the CPT information page.
When can I apply?
You may apply for OPT no sooner than 90 days before graduation/completion of your program, and as late as 60 days following graduation/program completion (Homeland Security must receive your OPT application before the 60 day period is over).
This OPT Timeline Chart for Fall 2021 will help show graphically when you can apply for OPT for the fall, spring, and summer semesters in the upcoming year. Please note you can submit the OPT request e-form before the first date, but ISSS will not issue the OPT I-20 until that date arrives, so you must wait to come in and meet with the ISSS advisor until that date arrives or has passed.
Also please note, this restriction on the earliest date does not apply to PhD students or a Master's student with thesis, as they have more flexible options to start OPT before graduation if desired.
Having said this, ISSS strongly discourages students from applying during the 60 day period after graduation/completion. Applying late may result in the loss of OPT time. Plan ahead. Do not mail your application to USCIS more than 90 days before graduation/program completion – they will reject your application and the fee will not be returned!
Do I need a job offer in order to apply?
Can I go in person to a USCIS office to apply for OPT?
No. OPT applications must be submitted to the USCIS by mail, as the instructions in this packet indicate. (ISSS recommends OPT permission; the USCIS must approve it.)
Can I file the OPT application electronically?
No. While USCIS does permit some other types of applications to be done electronically, OPT applications should absolutely NOT be done this way. You must follow the application procedure outlined in this application packet.
Can I request less than 12 months of OPT?
No. Previously students might ask for 6 months of OPT for a Master’s degree, and save the remaining 6 months if they knew they would pursue a second Master’s degree (i.e. the same degree level). This is no longer possible; OPT applications will automatically be approved for 12 months (or will end 14 months from graduation, whichever comes first).
If I apply for OPT and then decide not to use it, can I get my OPT time back?
If the USCIS has not yet issued your EAD at the time you decide you do not want OPT, you may request to withdraw your application. This is not always successful, so please talk to an ISSS advisor. If the EAD card has been issued, it is not possible to cancel and the USCIS will consider you to have used up your OPT even if you really did not work. Hence decisions to cancel MUST be made early before the EAD has been issued.
What's the difference between OPT and Curricular Practical Training (CPT)? If I had CPT, can I still have OPT?
CPT permits employment before completion of required semester hours only. CPT requires the offer of a specific job. You are still eligible for OPT as long as you did not have full-time CPT for a total of 12 months.
I’ve already applied for OPT for my current degree program and sent my application to USCIS. I now have an internship or job offer and they want me to start working before I finish my studies. Can I apply for CPT authorization?
No, once you apply for OPT and send in your application to USCIS, ISSS cannot issue CPT work authorization for you for your current degree program.
What if my campus supervisor wants me to continue working for the University of Iowa after graduation but before the OPT is approved, can I do this?
No. All employment, including on-campus for the University of Iowa, must end as of the last Friday of the semester or your I-20 end date, whichever comes first. You cannot continue work you were doing while you were still a student and the semester still in session, instead you must wait for the OPT to be approved and the start date for the OPT arrives. If you believe you will want to continue working for the UI immediately after graduation, you will want to take this into consideration when deciding on the OPT start date that you wish to request.
Will I Still Be Covered by SHIP or UIGradCare Insurance?
No, not automatically, at least. Although for immigration purposes you will continue to be in F-1 status while engaging in OPT, your status as an actual University of Iowa “student” will end with graduation. This means that your University insurance (whether SHIP or UIGradCare) coverage will end with the last day of the month in which you graduate.
However, do check the UI Benefits website for information on how to sign up for a temporary (up to 12 months) extension of your student insurance. It is important to know that for this option to be accessed the student must apply for it within the 45 days following graduation. Feel free to consult the University Benefits office at 335-2676 at any time to clarify when your UI coverage will end, how to extend your UI coverage, etc.
If you do not extend your student coverage, do not find employment immediately, or cannot be covered by your OPT employer’s insurance program right away, you are strongly advised to consider an alternate means of providing some degree of medical coverage during the interim between the month of graduation and the start of coverage at your new OPT job. An internet search for short-term private health insurance suitable for international students is the best option if no other coverage is available.
How do I apply for OPT?
There are now two ways to file an OPT application: Mailing in paper a I-765 application OR filing an I-765 Online. The traditional process for filing by mail is directly below and students should review that process first even if they decide to file by online. Below the paper filing instructions are instructions for the newer Online I-765 process. Please meet with an ISSS advisor during a Zoom or in-person walk-in advising session if you have questions about either of these filing options.
How should I fill out the I-765 for filing in paper format by mail?
The instructions below will help clarify how you should fill out the form. For full instructions, see the "Instructions for Form I-765" on the I-765 application website.
- Complete form I-765 (go to https://www.uscis.gov/i-765 and click on the link for "Form I-765 PDF"). Check the form I-765 edition in the bottom left corner of form and complete the 08/25/2020 edition with the barcode.
2. Login to your iHawk account (click the blue login button) using your HawkID and password. Go to "F-1 Practical Training" and complete the e-form request "Optional Practical Training (OPT) 12 Month Request"
3. After submission of your e-form request, visit with an ISSS advisor during a zoom or in-person walk-in advising session. If there are no questions regarding your request, an ISSS advisor will issue you a new I-20 recommending OPT.
The Optional Practical Training (OPT) 12 Month e-form request asks for the start date and end date for OPT. What are my options?
You have a 60 day window to choose a start date. The earliest day you may choose is the day after graduation. The last date you may choose is the 60th day after graduation. Consider your job search process and future plans when picking a start date. Your end date will be one calendar year from your star
Note: Graduate students working on a thesis or dissertation may be eligible to start OPT sooner. Please consult with an ISSS advisor if you wish to begin OPT before graduating.
Changing OPT starting and ending dates: When you meet with the ISSS advisor, he/she will enter into SEVIS the OPT starting and ending dates you request. If you decide you wish to change the dates BEFORE you mail your application to USCIS, ISSS can help you do so. However, once you mail the application, ISSS cannot change the dates ourselves and instead must follow a lengthy procedure with the Nebraska Service Center, which could significantly delay your OPT authorization or even cause you to lose your OPT eligibility. So before you mail your application you should be very certain that you have the starting/ending dates you want.
Mailing Your Application to USCIS
Send the following documentation to USCIS to apply for OPT, arranged IN THE ORDER listed below:
- Application Fee- $410 (Please note the USCIS proposal to increase this fee has been challenged. The OPT filing fee increase is now on hold, but this could change in the future. Check with an ISSS advisor if you have any questions). Personal checks or money orders must be in the exact amount and payable to the "United States Department of Homeland Security." Personal checks are preferable to money orders, because they can more easily be traced in case of problems.
- Two identical "natural color" passport photos – These are U.S.-style passport photos that must have been taken within the last 30 days. Passport photos taken in your home country will not be acceptable. Lightly print your name and your SEVIS number on the back of each photograph with a pencil to prevent problems should your photographs become separated from your I-765 application. Local businesses that typically take passport photographs include drugstores, copy centers, and the post office. ISSS does not encourage you to attempt to take these photos yourself as they are often rejected.
- Form I-765 (See the link above in the instructions section) Check the form I-765 edition in the bottom left corner of form and complete the 08/25/2020 edition.
- Copy of new OPT I-20 that you will receive after the OPT application session with an ISSS advisor
- Record of any prior CPT authorizations that you will receive after the OPT application session with an ISSS advisor. (If you never participated in CPT, then this does not apply to you.)
- A copy of your most recent Form I-94 which is printed from this website
- A copy of your passport photo/information page showing the passport expiration date AND your most recent U.S. visa
- A copy of your previous Employment Authorization Card [EAD], if you have ever had one before. If the EAD was for OPT, please also include a copy of the I-20 for that authorization with your application. If you had prior OPT authorization, please discuss this fact with the ISSS advisor.
- Optional: Complete the Form G-1145 E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance if you wish to take advantage of receiving email and/or text messages when your application has been received by USCIS. This means that you will not need to wait until the official receipt notice is mailed before you can know that the application has been officially received by the government. NOTE: USCIS will continue to mail the receipt notices to the address you specify on the I-765. Completion and submission of this form for email and/or text message notification is an option for you and not a required form, and does not affect the outcome of your OPT application. If you include this form, please put it as the FIRST PAGE of your application.
Where to mail
The current address to which OPT/STEM should be sent is listed under the “Foreign Students” dropdown link at this USCIS web site. Currently all OPTs are to be sent to the Chicago Lockbox but do confirm with the advisor who produces your I-20 that the Chicago Lockbox is still correct before sending the application. We also recommend that you use postal or courier service that offers proof of delivery.
IMPORTANT! Follow the USCIS process to track issuance and delivery of your EAD card.
- If you do not follow these instructions, you risk not having your OPT EAD card delivered and be unable to work.
- The card will be mailed to the address you put on the form I-765. Make sure that your name is listed with the postal service as being able to receive mail at that address! DO NOT use the ISSS address or another University of Iowa department address.
- Delivery of your EAD card will require your signature or that of someone you delegate.
- Sign up for a "Case Status Online" account as instructed in the link above.
- Register for "Informed Delivery" as instructed in the link above.
- It may be a good idea to choose to have the US Postal Service hold your card at your local post office until you can go in person to retrieve it and sign for it. This is something you can arrange in "Informed Delivery."
- Remember that it is your responsibility to update USCIS should you move to a new address before your OPT is approved. The EAD card will not be forwarded and instead would be returned to USCIS, causing considerable delay for you and ISSS cannot impact this.
- Do not mail your application to USCIS more than 90 days before graduation/program completion. They will automatically reject it and will not refund the application fee.
- USCIS must receive your OPT application within 30 days of the creation of your I-20 reflecting your OPT request.
- If you change your mind and do not mail your OPT application, you must notify ISSS, or your SEVIS record will terminate.
How do I complete the I-765 through the online application process?
The instructions below will help clarify how you should fill out the form.
- Review these directions which will help to answer certain questions in the online I-765 process. Do not proceed to full submission of an online application until you have followed the directions below and received an OPT I-20 from the ISSS.
2. Login to your iHawk account (click the blue login button) using your HawkID and password. Go to "F-1 Practical Training" and complete the e-form request "Optional Practical Training (OPT) 12 Month Request"
3. After submission of your e-form request, visit with an ISSS advisor during a zoom or in-person walk-in advising session. If there are no questions regarding your request, an ISSS advisor will issue you an update OPT I-20 which you can use to complete the USCIS online application process.
What happens after I mail my OPT application?
About 3-4 weeks after you mail your application, you should get a special receipt letter from the USCIS called a Notice of Action. Remember to keep this letter, since it will contain a special "receipt number" beginning with letters such as “YSC...” that refers to your specific application. If you do not receive the Notice of Action after 5 weeks, please notify ISSS.
The Notice of Action also has a phone number that you can call regarding your application. This number is generally busy during the day, so you may have more success getting through late at night. You now also have the option of checking online. To do so you must have the receipt number from your Notice of Action (Receipt Notice).
Decision on Your Application
The average processing time for OPT is currently 3-4 months; it could happen faster or could take longer in individual cases, so apply well in advance. If your application is approved, your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card will be mailed to the mailing address you provided to USCIS. In the very unlikely event that your application cannot be granted, you will receive an explanation for the denial. Likewise, if USCIS wants you to send additional or supporting documentation before they will proceed with your application, they will send a letter to the designated mailing address.
Travel and OPT
If I apply for OPT can I leave the U.S.?
Travel on OPT can be tricky. Please review our Travel on OPT page before making travel plans.
Reporting information to ISSS while on OPT
While on OPT you are still legally required to report certain information to ISSS. Changes to any of the following must be reported within 10 days of the event. To report, use our online form.
NOTE: In March 2018 SEVP made it possible for students to log in directly to the SEVIS system to report updates to your address, telephone, and employer information. This is referred to as SEVP Portal. For the time being we encourage students to continue to use our iHawk e-form to update this information in order to avoid conflicting information. Please see our OPT Reporting site for more information.
- Changes in name or residential/mailing address
- Report your employer name, address, starting/ending dates, and supervisor’s email within 10 days of any changes or new employment
- Report changes to another immigration status
- If you will leave your OPT employment before your OPT end date
- Notify ISSS if your email address changes
What do I need to know once I receive my OPT Authorization Card (the EAD Card)?
When can I start to work under OPT?
You may only begin employment on the day that you are able to show your employer your actual EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card, assuming that the start date listed on the card has already arrived. If you receive the card but the start date is still in the future, you cannot begin working until that date arrives. Employment can only be effective as of the day you show your employer the card; you cannot begin working before this time, and the OPT Approval Notice from USCIS does not suffice to begin employment either.
Does OPT employment need to be full time?
No, but at a minimum you should be working 20 hours or more per week. You may also work for more than one employer at the same time while on OPT.
What kind of work can I do while on OPT?
You may work anywhere in the United States, but the key criteria is the work must be related to the degree you just obtained and for which the OPT is being authorized. OPT employment cannot be done based on prior degrees earned in the U.S. or abroad; the employment must relate to your current degree program. For example, students in the Master’s of Public Health program often may have earned a medical degree in their home countries before coming to the U.S. However, because the OPT is based on the current MPH degree program, such students are unable to take any employment, such as medical residencies, that are not directly related to the MPH degree. Another example would be graduate students who pursue two programs jointly, or at the same time; if a student graduates from one program before graduating from the second, the OPT can be granted ONLY for the most recent program; since the student already graduated from the first program, they no longer qualify for OPT based on that earlier program. A student who wishes to use OPT for both programs needs to finish the two programs at the same time.
Must OPT employment be in only paid positions?
Please see the section on “What about volunteering and self-employment?” later in this packet.
Yes, volunteering or self-employment does count as “employed” if you meet certain criteria. The following guidelines must be met:
- The volunteer work must still be directly related to the degree program(s) on which the OPT is based and you must be putting in at least 20 hours/week..
- While the OPT regulations state that volunteer work or unpaid internships can count as “employment,” many situations will not qualify. You need to be careful that the volunteer position is “truly” volunteer; in other words, people are never paid for doing that work. You cannot “volunteer” in a position that would normally be paid, such as “volunteering” to work in a lab because they don’t have funds to pay you. Doing so would violate both immigration and labor laws.
- Examples of volunteer work that may qualify for OPT would be a social work major volunteering on a crisis hotline, or a computer science major volunteering to set up a website for a nonprofit food bank, or an accounting major who volunteers during tax season – i.e. the volunteer works relates to the degree program and no one else doing the same work is paid.
- It is the same issue with “unpaid internships.” Very few true internships exist outside of the student context, i.e. after graduation (journalism might be an example where newspapers or magazines often have formal internships for non-students). ISSS recommends you ensure the position is a true internship and keep documentation to prove it. For example, can you document the history of the internship, that it has been advertised as such, that it has existed for a certain period of time, and what the application process is? Or is it being created just to help an F-1 on OPT avoid accruing days of unemployment? Finally, such work must meet all other OPT criteria, i.e. must be related to your area of study, at least 20 hours/week, and can be started only after OPT has been approved. Please note the ISSS will not make a determination about whether a volunteer position or an unpaid internship “qualifies” as employment for OPT. Based on our description, as well as our Volunteering page, this is a determination you and your employer will have to make.
- Department of Homeland Security guidance states, "A student on OPT may start a business and be self-employed. The student must be able to prove that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program."
- The work done for self-employment must still relate directly to the degree on which your OPT is based. This can become tricky for those who are starting their own business. As many immigration attorneys and Department of Homeland Security staff have described, a business has many different components to it: accounting, payroll and HR, marketing, labor, etc. A student on OPT starting their own business must be very careful to engage only in aspects of the work that relate directly to the degree area. Using the example of a restaurant, an accounting major might be able to handle the financial aspects of the business, but shouldn't be cooking or waiting on tables. You should also be cautious about hiring other international students to work for you: ISSS will not authorize CPT for an international student to work for another international student's startup, so you must ensure any employees have the proper employment authorization to work for you
- See the section below on “Must I document my employment?” This will indicate what kinds of documents you should keep regarding your self-employment if you work on a contractual basis, have started a business, are in the Arts areas, or work through an agency.
Must I keep information about my employment?
Homeland Security recommends you keep records of all OPT employment.
- If you are in a regular, paid position your employer should keep regular HR/payroll records that demonstrate your work.
- Those in the Arts fields should keep records of each gig performed, art sold, etc. and the duration of all employment.
- If you do contract work, keep records of the duration of contract periods and the name/address of the contracting company.
- If you will be a self-employed business owner, you must be working full-time, and obtain any applicable business licenses.
- If employed through an agency, you must keep documentation to show that you worked at least 20 hours/week through the agency.
- If you are volunteering or on an unpaid internship, have your employer document that you are “working” at least 20 hours/week and that the work was related to your degree area. See the previous section about unpaid positions.
In order to prove that the work/internship/volunteer activity is related to your area of study, also keep documentation for each job/gig about the position held, the duration of the position or dates worked, job title, supervisor name/contact information, and a description of the work. Often offer letters contain descriptions of the job duties, so keep these. If it is not clear from the job description that the work is related to your degree, you are advised to obtain a letter from your employer that briefly describes how your degree is related to the work you perform.
Keeping documentation is also a good idea because ISSS has learned that in H-1B applications, anyone on OPT is being asked for the specific starting and ending dates of their employment.
Can I extend my OPT right now to get an additional 24 months?
No. Only certain students are eligible to extend OPT, and this should be done 3 months before the initial period of OPT will end. To determine whether or not you might later be eligible for an extension, see the OPT 24-Month STEM Extension page.
Can I take classes if I have OPT?
Perhaps. If you have graduated and have OPT, regulations allow you to take classes informally and part-time, as long as you maintain your OPT employment. However, if you begin a new course of study (i.e. a new degree program), this will automatically cancel your OPT authorization.
Can I change employers if I am authorized for the 12-month OPT?
Yes. As long as the employment is related to your field of study, you can work for any employer or even multiple employers at once.
How long can I stay in the United States after my OPT expires?
Sixty (60) days, unless you have either 1) obtained a new I-20 to enter a new degree program (and requested a transfer to another school), or 2) applied for a STEM OPT extension, or 3) applied to change to another immigration status.
Students are not required to submit OPT report to ISSS once their OPT expires. However, they are required to depart the United States within 60 days of OPT expiration date, unless they do one of the three events listed above.
Can I return to school after completing OPT?
Yes. You need to obtain an I-20 for the next program of studies, and complete the USCIS procedure for Change of Degree Level (if you resume studies at the UI) or the procedure for Transfer (if you go to a different school). Please note that if you transfer to a new school you are only allowed to remain in the U.S. for up to 5 months between the time your OPT ends and the new program of studies is to begin; if the time period is greater than 5 months, you will be required to leave the U.S. and can only re-enter within 30 days of the start of your new program of study.
If I have OPT for a year and return to school for another degree, can I have another year of OPT?
You will be eligible for another year of OPT if your new degree will be at a HIGHER level of study. For instance, if you obtained a Master’s degree, did 12 months of OPT, then enter a PhD program, you will be eligible for another 12 months of OPT following the PhD program.
Unemployment and OPT
What If I Cannot Find a Job?
Students on OPT cannot accrue more than 90 cumulative days of unemployment during the 12-month period of OPT. If you accumulate 90 days of unemployment, your legal F-1 status ends immediately as of the 91st day. Before the 91st day, you will need to make arrangements to leave the U.S., start a new degree program, or change to a different status. If you are still in the U.S. after 90 days of unemployment, you have no legal status.
Do they count business days or calendar days?
Calendar. In other words, Saturdays and Sundays count when you are unemployed, not just Monday-Friday.
What if I am out of the U.S.? Does this count as unemployment?
If your time away is authorized by your employer, such as on vacation/sick leave or traveling on company business, it is still counted as being employed.