Enrolling in an OPT (Optional Practical Training) program provides many opportunities for international students to gain on-the-job knowledge and international experience that can benefit them in their careers at home or in the United States.

What is the OPT?

The OPT (Optional Practical Training) program allows international students attending college or university in the United States to work full-time (on their student F-1 visa) for a period of one-year after graduation.

Eligibility Criteria

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has two main requirements for the OPT. First, the area of work you choose must relate to your major or course of study. Second, you can only become a part of this program, if you have completed a US program that was at least one academic year in length.

Duration and Validity

While the standard OPT is 12 months, students majoring in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) are eligible to apply for an additional 24 months (hence a total of 36 months). Make sure to double-check STEM-eligible majors with your school, as some non-traditional majors are counted as STEM, including educational statistics, digital media, and personality psychology. The US Immigration Services periodically updates its list of majors, so be sure to check this before you apply for a STEM-OPT extension.

When and How to Apply

You can apply for the OPT anywhere between three months before you graduate and upto 60 days after graduation. You are allowed to select any day you want after graduation as your start date of OPT. Bear in mind that you cannot begin work until your application is approved and your start date has arrived, which means it would be a good idea to apply for the OPT 90 days before graduation to get the most out of it.  Your university’s international student services office will typically help with the paperwork, so take them up on this. Once USCIS has approved your application, you’ll receive an employment authorisation card that you can share with employers who are required to use this to verify if you are working in the US legally.

The OPT Allows You to:

Intern at a company that matches your major.

Work full-time.

Start a business which correlates with your major.

Why Apply for an OPT

The OPT gives you a one-year (or 3 years, if you’re a STEM major) reprieve to work without concern about visa sponsorship. Once that time has lapsed, you will either have to get sponsored on a work visa (H-1), pursue further studies (for example, a postgraduate), or return to your home country.

Although you may not be thinking about the OPT when you start college, it’s a good idea to map out your professional plans after your first year (or first-semester, if you’re in a two-year master’s program). Decide what internships you’d like to take, what campus jobs could help and how you want to build a resume employers would seek. Always check with the international student services office at your university to ensure you’re adhering to all US immigration laws.

Tips to Make the Most of Your OPT

Seek paid work only: The OPT allows you to work full-time for a regular salary. Hence this is worth taking advantage of as at this point you are not eligible to pay all the taxes that apply to US citizens. This is also the perfect time to make headway on paying off your student loans or build a base for your next professional or personal endeavour.

Sharing your visa status with employers: Legally, employers cannot ask you about your nationality or anything that might imply they’re discriminating against you based on nationality. Most employers will ask if you’re eligible to work, and you can honestly say yes under the (OPT). It is up to you however to tell them upfront that your employment expires in 12 months (or 3 years) or if you choose to prove yourself on the job first. Many experts would recommend you do the latter to ensure you get the job first. This is your personal choice however, but make sure you've thought it through before you go into any interviews.

Network and make the case for sponsorship: After your OPT has lapsed, you’ll need an H1 visa (skilled worker visa, the typical visa used by college graduates). Use the duration allowed you by the OPT to prove yourself to your current employer and strength the case you can make for an H1 visa sponsorship. If your employer declines however, seek another employer who will take you on during your OPT period. Typically employers in consulting, accounting, engineering or science related industries are familiar with sponsoring students. Your university may also have a list of employers who’ve sponsored international students before, so make sure to check with them.

If you'd like to know what are the top majors in the US and the top schools that offer them, then check out our blog, What and Where to Study in the United States