Wherever you are in your international student journey, it is never too early to start thinking about jobs and internships. We understand how stressful finding employment can be, which is why we’re here to guide you. It's easy to put the logistics side of things off until later, but if you plan ahead, you'll have more options available to you.
To get you started, we've put together a step-by-step process with the most important information to know at each stage. We will go through the definition of OPT and how you can apply for work authorization during the length of your academic program. At the end, we've also included key considerations for three scenarios as examples for how to better design your time in the U.S.
Step One: Understanding OPT
Let's start with a basic definition of OPT, which stands for Optional Practical Training. If you are an F-1 visa holder, your visa automatically comes with OPT, which qualifies you for temporary employment directly related to your field of study in the U.S. To figure out what “directly related to your field of study” means, it is best to talk to your school's international office or career advising services. You'd be surprised what counts and what doesn't!
OPT should be used after you finish your studies in the U.S. as it will allow you to stay and work in the country longer. If you want to work during your academic program then we recommend you looking into CPT as an option—here is an article that we have written to help you understand CPT better.
Step Two: Defining Your Priorities
Being strategic with your time in the U.S. means knowing what you want and how best to get there. Perhaps you want to...
- Make a lot of money... Yeah, we all do. (Go to Scenario A)
- Maximize your time in the U.S... because you love it so much! (Go to Scenario B)
- Have fulfilling work and professional experiences in general... We love to hear it! (Go to Scenario C)
Of course, these are just a few out of many different objectives. The important thing is to have a big picture understanding of how OPT fits into your plans.
Step Three: Making Initial Choices
If you've just gotten to the U.S., you have a lot of flexibility in your decision-making. Here are some things to keep in mind:
If you're an F-1 visa holder, you cannot work off campus during your first year but you can accept on-campus employment. More specifically, you do not need to get work authorization from USCIS (i.e. fill out any of their applications) in order to hold an on-campus job. Your part-time on-campus job, however, comes with a couple of conditions and restrictions:
- You can only work up to 20 hours per week during the semester, meaning employment has to be part time.
- When school is not in session (e.g. winter break), you can work on campus full time.
- You will need to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) in order to start working. To do this, you most likely will have to go to a Social Security office in person. Note: Normally, your international office will have detailed information about the logistics, so be sure to check with them.
- For more information, check out what USCIS and ICE have to say.
If you are still deciding what to study, remember that STEM majors have two more years of OPT than non-STEM majors. What this means is that non-STEM majors get one year of OPT in total, whereas STEM majors get three years. If you want to stay longer in the U.S., this might be important to consider!
- What qualifies as a STEM field? Eligible STEM fields are listed here.
- More information on applying for a STEM extension here.
You cannot apply for OPT until you have been enrolled for at least one academic year. If you do want to use OPT for an internship or job, you will have to wait until after your freshman year. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing! Below, we will talk about saving your OPT (recommended!) and finding other options.
Step Four: Cruising through Your Time on Campus
With OPT, you only get one year in total (or three years, if studying STEM) which means that if you use up your OPT during your time at school, you will not have any left when you graduate. Because of this reason, many people will SAVE their OPT for after they graduate. That way, they can get a whole year of work experience in the U.S. after their studies.
So, what are your other options for getting work experience in the U.S.? If your school allows for Curricular Practical Training (CPT), you're in luck. CPT is another type of work authorization but here are some rules and caveats:
- It must be directly related to your major area of study.
- You must be enrolled simultaneously in a course that requires off-campus training experience. This means that your work experience will be for school credit.
- CPT is only possible if your university is on board with it.
Step Five: Coordinating between OPT and Finding Employment
While searching for a job, remember the following:
Because you have OPT, your employer does not need to sponsor you (source). What this means is that the employer does not have to spend time and money filling out an application so that you can work for them. If a prospective employer is unaware of this detail, it might be good to let them know.
There is a limited time frame in which you can apply for post-completion OPT, i.e. OPT for after you graduate. It goes like this:
- You can apply for OPT 90 days BEFORE you complete your degree.
- The deadline for applying to OPT is 60 days AFTER you complete your degree.
- Once your DSO enters your recommendation for OPT into your SEVIS record, you have 30 days to finish the application.
- Note: It normally takes 3-4 months to get an OPT application approved by USCIS and they do not expedite applications. With covid-19, there might be further delays, so be prepared! (source).
- More information can be found on the USCIS page here.
You do not need a job offer to apply for OPT. Coordinating between finding a job and getting your OPT approved can be very stressful. The good news is that you don't have to have a job offer to qualify for OPT, so you can submit an OPT application first and then continue job searching while the application is pending. If you're certain you want to stay in the U.S. for at least a year after college, it might be a good idea to go ahead and just apply for OPT. Note, however, that the amount of unemployment you are allowed on OPT is limited (explained below) and if you use it up, you won't be able to continue staying in the U.S. (source).
Step Six: Using Your OPT
You've begun your job. Congrats! Keep in mind the privileges that you have on OPT:
If you are on post-completion OPT, you are allowed 90 days of unemployment in total. If you are on post-completion OPT with STEM extension, you are allowed 150 days of unemployment in total (source). This means that if you haven't found a job by the time your OPT application gets approved, you can use your unemployment days and legally stay in the U.S. Or, for example, if you decide to leave your job and haven't lined up the next one yet, you will have some breathing room to figure things out. Note: The total number of days of unemployment is cumulative. For example, if you have used up 30 days of unemployment, then you only have sixty days left.
Apart from the requirement that OPT should be directly related to your field of study, you have quite a bit of flexibility. OPT does not only apply to certain types of companies, and you can work both part time or full time (source).
Step Seven: Planning for What's Next
What happens after your OPT expires? Once again, planning is key! To get you started with some ideas, here are paths taken by other people in the past:
- Some people will be sponsored by their companies to enter the H-1B lottery. Especially at big corporations, there are usually set processes to help employees with their visa situations. For example, depending on whether the H-1B lottery is not successful, companies may transfer international employees to another office outside of the U.S.
- Some people will go to grad school, which means that they are on another F-1 visa. In this case, their OPT time starts all over again when they graduate, and if their grad degree is in a STEM field, a STEM extension also applies.
- There are also a number of specialty visas, such as the O-1 visa, that people apply for. We won't get into the details here. For more information, please refer to this USCIS page.
Welcome to the appendix! We've included three possible goals and how to use your time in the U.S. strategically to maximize your options for each goal. After reading this, you'll be designing your own international student experience in no time!
Scenario A: Making a lot of Money
We get it. You're just here to hustle. These are some things to think about:
- You probably want a side gig during your time in the U.S. No one ever said 'no' to a lil' extra pocket money! Remember, however, that in terms of formal employment, F-1 visa holders cannot work off-campus their first year (source). You are free to work on campus with a few caveats.
- Think carefully about when and how to use your OPT. Imagine this scenario: After putting in all the hard work, you find a high-paying job with a nice and cushy six-figure salary. Congrats! It's perfect... except for the fact that you've used up all your OPT.
You definitely don't want to be in that sort of situation. One thing that many people want coming out of college is a job with a nice salary, which is 100% possible! So, if this sounds like you, make sure you save your OPT time to give yourself the option of taking such a job.
- You might want to consider studying a STEM field. Not only do STEM careers come with $$ but also you will have two extra years in the U.S. (due to STEM extension) to capitalize on your super great earning potential.
- You CAN start a business with a few very important considerations. You're really enterprising and decide that you want to start your own venture. That's great, and you can do that on your OPT! Make sure, however, to read the fine print: information here and here.
Scenario B: Maximizing Your Time in the U.S.
As an international student, how can you gain the maximum amount of work experience in the U.S.? Here are some things to consider:
- Save your OPT for full-time professional experience after graduating. If you want to maximize your time in the U.S., getting work experience is really important. Thus, you want to make sure that you have enough OPT to give yourself that opportunity. If you use OPT on internships during the time you're in school, it will limit your options when you are job searching later.
- If you want to pursue internships, consider CPT instead. You like to be well-prepared and want to have some experience under your belt before job searching. Good for you! In this case, consider CPT, which in short, is practical training as part of a school course or for school credit (you can look at our more extensive explanation in the above sections). Remember, however, that CPT is school-dependent, so you will have to verify if your school accepts CPT. Another option is of course to do internships internationally during your years in school, through which you can also gain valuable practical experience.
- You should definitely consider studying a STEM field. While this is not for everyone, STEM extension gives you two extra years to build expertise and credibility in the U.S., which can be very valuable. It is important that you know this as you are making your decision.
- You should consider a grad program. Again, a grad degree is not for everyone, but some people find it very useful in building extra skills. For our purposes, most notably, you will be on an F-1 visa again for grad school AND you will get more OPT time for you to gain practical experience afterward.
- You should consider building your credit history and thinking longer term. If you know you want to stay in the U.S., building credit is something that you should start early rather than later. Check out this article for more information.
Scenario C: Have Fulfilling Experiences
Because fulfilling experiences could mean many different things, you have a lot of flexibility in shaping your time in the U.S. Here are some key things to think about:
- Keep in mind the differences between OPT and CPT. To give yourself more options, it is better to save OPT for after graduating and to use CPT to pursue internships or short periods of practical training during your time in school.
- Know that OPT allows you great variation in lifestyle and the place where you work. While your job on OPT must be directly related to your major, it can be part time or full time and there are no limitations on the type of company or organization you are working for. Maybe you want to work for a non-profit, a startup, or a big corporation. Great! All three are possible as long as you are within your field of study.
- Consider working in the U.S. on OPT if you'd like to be in the same place as your college friends after graduating. You've spent time during school making new friends and getting to know so many cool people. Many of them will be living in the same city, and you realize that you also want a taste of that Friends lifestyle. Well, good thing you saved up on OPT and can now use it to work for at least a year in the U.S. Life after graduating is very different from school life, and if you want to have a variety of experiences, make sure to plan early so that that is a possibility!