International Student Services

OPT: Work, Travel, and More

Reporting Requirements to ISS

The U.S. government checks that students with OPT authorization are engaged in practical training experience (work/internships/unpaid professional experience) related to their major area of study.

WARNING
If you do not report your practical training/employment to ISS, the U.S. government will terminate your F-1 SEVIS record 90 days after the OPT start date print on your EAD card. A terminated SEVIS record cancels OPT authorization and requires you to leave the U.S.

Use our online OPT Reporting Form below to notify ISS about the following updates during your OPT year.

  • Employment/Practical Training information: Report employment/practical training as soon as you start working. Report employment changes within 10 days.
    • 12-month standard OPT: Do not exceed 90 days of unemployment.
    • 17-month STEM Extension:  Do not exceed 120 days of unemployment.
    • 24-month STEM Extension: Do not exceed 150 days of unemployment.
  • Address changes: Report within 10 days of moving.
  • Final departure from the U.S. (if earlier than your OPT end date)

Email your primary ISS adviser directly within 10 days of any legal name change that happens during your OPT.

How to Report Employment Changes During the 24-Month STEM OPT Extension Period

  1. Complete the OPT Reporting Form above; in the comments section, include the E-Verify number of your new employer
  2. Email a new, completed I-983 Training Plan, signed by your new employer, to uwiss@uw.edu
  3. Email a final evaluation (Page 5 of the I-983 Training Plan), signed by your previous employer, to uwiss@uw.edu

Proof of Employment

Keep documentation of your OPT employment history for your own records. You might need it for future benefits applications. The immigration regulations do not specify what documents are “proof of employment.” Examples of employment documentation could include:

  • Offer letter from your employer
  • Letter from your supervisor on official letterhead that confirms continued employment (or internship/volunteer service)
    If the connection between your field of study and your employment/practical training is not obvious, it might be helpful for the letter to explain how your practical training relates to your studies.
  • Payment records
  • Timesheet/activity log for unpaid practical training experience

Limits on Periods of Unemployment

  • You cannot exceed 90 days of unemployment between the start and end date of your post-completion 12-month OPT authorization (the dates on your EAD).
  • You must report your practical training/employment to ISS; your ISS adviser will update your F-1 SEVIS record with your employment information.
  • If you exceed 90 days of unemployment, or if you forget to report your employment/practical training to ISS, the U.S. government will terminate your F-1 SEVIS record 90 days after your OPT start date. A terminated SEVIS record cancels OPT authorization and requires you to leave the U.S.
  • If you received a 17-month STEM extension, you are allowed an additional 30 days of unemployment, for a total of 120 days.
  • If you received a 24-month STEM extension, you are allowed an additional 60 days of unemployment, for a total of 150 days.
  • Each day (including weekends) that you do not have qualifying employment counts as a day of unemployment. There is no grace period after 90/120 days of unemployment.
  • To avoid violating status, Immigration recommends that prior to reaching the unemployment limit, you should prepare to transfer to another school, change education level, depart the U.S., or change to a different immigration status.

Employment Requirements

OPT authorizes employment/practical training that is related to your major area of study and commensurate with your level of education.
OPT does NOT authorize employment unrelated to your major area of study.

If you work in a job unrelated to your major area of study, or that does not meet the government’s requirements for your type of OPT (12-month standard, 17-month STEM extension, 24-month STEM extension) you are in violation of your F-1 status. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can terminate a student’s F-1 SEVIS record if a student works in a position unrelated to their studies. A terminated SEVIS record cancels OPT authorization and invalidates F-1 status in the U.S.

It is your responsibility to evaluate how a job relates to your major area of study. ISS advisers CANNOT review job descriptions to assess if they are related to your studies. ISS advisers will update your SEVIS record with the job information you provide through our online OPT reporting form.

During the 12-month OPT Period

You should be employed at least 20 hours per week in activities directly related to your major. Regardless of your job title or how the position is classified, such as an “intern,” “temp,” “freelance contractor,” “post-doc,” etc., the following employment options are allowed:

  • Multiple employers: you may work in your field of study for more than one employer.
  • Short-term multiple employers (performing artists): musicians and other performing artists may work for mutiple short-term employers (gigs). Keep a list of all positions, dates, and duration.
  • Work for hire: contract employment in your field of study
  • Self-employment: you may start a business and be self-employed in your field of study. You must have a business license and document your active engagement in business related to your degree.
  • Employment in your field of study through an agency or consulting firm.
  • Volunteer service: you may work as a volunteer or unpaid intern in your field of study, as long as this does not violate any labor laws.

During the 17-month STEM Extension

You must work at least 20 hours per week for an E-Verify employer in a position directly related to your STEM degree. 

Employment may include:

  • Multiple employers: you may work in your field of study for more than one employer. Each employer must be enrolled in E-Verify.
  • Work for hire: contract employment in your field of study. The company for whom you are providing services must be registered with E-Verify.
  • Self-employment: you may start a business and be self-employed in your field of study. You must register your business with E-Verify and work full time. You must have a business license and document your active engagement in business related to your degree.
  • Employment in your field of study through an agency or consulting firm: you may be employed by an employment agency or consulting firm. The employment agency or consulting firm must be registered with E-Verify, but the third parties contracting with the agency of firm (for which you are providing services) need not be registered with E-Verify.
  • Volunteer service: you may work as a volunteer or unpaid intern in your field of study, as long as this does not violate any labor laws.

All of the combined employment above counts for purposes of maintaining F-1 status. Please keep documentation of working an average of 20 hours per week.  It is your responsibility to report any employment change.

During the 24-month STEM Extension

You must work at least 20 hours per week for an employer that a) participates in the E-Verify program and b) agrees to follow all the employer requirements in the 24-month STEM rule.

The government has new guidance about acceptable types of activity during the 24-month STEM Extension that is substantially different than the past guidance for the 17-month STEM Extension.

Multiple Employers

The Department of Homeland Security has commented that although working for multiple employers is not prohibited, each employer must employ the student for no less than 20 hours per week, and must fully comply with the requirements of the new 24-month STEM rule.

Start-Ups

The Department of Homeland Security has also commented that students may be employed by new start-up businesses as long as all regulatory requirements are met, including that the employer:

a) adheres to the training plan requirements

b) remains in good standing with E-Verify

c) will provide compensation to the STEM OPT student commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers

  • For instance, alternative compensation may be allowed during a STEM OPT extension as long as the F-1 student can show that he or she is a bona fide employee and that his or her compensation, including any ownership interest in the employer entity (such as stock options) is commensurate with the compensation provided to other similarly situated U.S. workers.

d) has the resources to comply with the proposed training plan.

Self-Employment, Work for Hire, and Employment through Agencies/Consulting Firms

The government has commented:

“There are several aspects of the STEM OPT extension that do not make it apt for certain types of arrangements, including multiple employer arrangements, sole proprietorships, employment through ‘temp’ agencies, employment through consulting firm arrangements that provide labor for hire, and other relationships that do not constitute a bona fide employer-employee relationship.. . . Accordingly, DHS clarifies that students cannot qualify for STEM OPT extensions unless they will be bona fide employees of the employer signing the (I-983) Training Plan, and the employer that signs the (I-983) Training Plan must be the same entity that employs the student and provides the practical training experience.”

Volunteer and Uncompensated Activity

The government has commented:

“DHS carefully considered whether to allow volunteer positions to qualify under the STEM OPT extension program but has decided against permitting such arrangements. … Requiring commensurate compensation for F-1 students — which does not include no compensation — protects both international and domestic students and ensures that the qualifying STEM positions are substantive opportunities. . . .”

EAD Errors

What happens if your EAD card has incorrect information on it?

  1. Wait to receive a job offer so you can show your EAD to your employer. The correction process may require you to mail the incorrect EAD to USCIS. Ideally, you should wait to request the correction after your employer has copied your EAD for hiring purposes.
  2. To correct the EAD, submit a request through the USCIS website to correct a typographic error.

Money Matters (Taxes)

You will need a Social Security number in order to receive payment from your employer.

In general, as an F-1 student you will be exempt from Social Security (FICA) taxes for your first five years in the U.S., as long as you continue to declare nonresident status for tax purposes. Unless you qualify under a tax treaty between the U.S. and your home government, your earnings as an F-1 student will be subject to applicable federal, state and local taxes, and employers are required to withhold those taxes from your paychecks.

To help make tax filing easier, ISS purchases an online tax preparation service designed for F-1 and J-1 nonimmigrants. This web-based program, GLACIER Tax Prep, provides step-by-step instructions and assistance with the preparation of the appropriate forms. If you still need help or need information regarding taxes, consult the Internal Revenue Service.

Health Insurance

Medical insurance is an extremely important consideration while you are on OPT. The cost of medical care for an accident or illness in the US can be more money than you earn in an entire year of OPT employment!

Additionally, health insurance in the U.S. is typically linked to your employer. If your OPT activity is not with an employer that offers insurance, or if your employer’s plan does not cover medical evacuation/repatriation for people living internationally, then you should purchase additional coverage.

Begin your health insurance research on our health insurance page. When researching plans, consult the insurance company to see if they provide coverage during OPT. Some companies only provide coverage while you are a registered student.

If you still have questions after researching your insurance options, UW’s ISHIP Counselor can advise about the following topics:

  • assistance comparing various insurance plans
  • understanding medical terminology/jargon (examples: deductibles, exemptions, in-network/out-of-network, preferred provider)
  • medical evacuation & repatriation coverage (very important, and not typically included in U.S. employer-sponsored health insurance plans)

Travel and OPT

Students have many questions about whether or not it is okay to travel while OPT is processing and/or during the OPT period. Here are the rules about travel and OPT, depending on your situation.

1. During your final quarter, after you submit your 12-month OPT application:

You can travel and reenter the U.S. as a student during your final registration quarter. You will use the new I-20 with the OPT recommendation printed on page 2, along with the other regular travel documents. If you plan to return to the U.S. before the expiration date of the new I-20 (your program completion date), it does not matter whether your OPT application is still processing or is approved, and whether or not you have a job offer yet.

2. After graduation, while your 12-month OPT application is processing:

After your final quarter ends, you can travel and reenter the U.S. while your 12-month post-completion OPT application is processing, with or without a job offer. You must carry your OPT receipt notice from USCIS, your OPT I-20, and the other regular travel documents. However, be aware of these risks:

  • USCIS sometimes sends a request to OPT applicants asking for more information or for you to correct a problem with your documentation. These requests are sent by postal mail, so it might be difficult for you to respond if you are not inside the U.S. It is your application, so ISS does not have the authority to respond for you.
  • After your OPT application is approved, you must also have proof of employment and your EAD in order to reenter the U.S. If the OPT application is approved while you are abroad, and if you do not yet have proof of employment or your EAD, this could jeopardize your return to the U.S.
  • You must have a valid F-1 visa to travel during the OPT year (except for short trips to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean). It is risky to apply for an F-1 visa while your OPT application is pending. If your current F-1 visa is expired, we recommend waiting until your OPT application is approved and you have a job offer before applying for a new F-1 visa.

3. After graduation, and after your 12-month OPT application is approved:

After graduation, if your 12-month post-completion OPT has been approved and your EAD issued, you can travel and reenter the U.S. only if you have proof of employment. If you are still looking for practical training opportunities, you should not travel internationally.

For travel, carry the following documents with you:

  • OPT I-20 signed for travel by an international student adviser within the last 6 months
  • Proof of employment in your field of study (letter of employment, written job offer)
  • EAD card (on the EAD card, there is a statement “Not Valid For Reentry.” This means the EAD card cannot be used by itself for reentry to the U.S.)
  • Valid passport
  • Unexpired F-1 visa (unless you are Canadian or are returning from a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, with some exceptions)
    You can apply for an F-1 visa during your OPT year. Follow the regular procedures to apply for an F-1 visa outside of the U.S. For the F-1 visa application, plan to provide the documents listed above, as well as proof of financial ability to stay in the U.S. and proof of continuing ties to your home country.

After the OPT approval start date, time spent outside the U.S. will count as unemployment against the 90-day limit.  However, travel while employed either during a vacation authorized by an employer or as part of your employment will not count as unemployment. Please keep your primary ISS adviser informed of any travel plans while on OPT that may affect your status.

If you have dependents in F-2 status who will travel without you, be sure they carry a photocopy of your EAD card and proof of your employment along with their updated F-2 I-20 that is properly signed for travel.

4. During your pending or approved STEM OPT extension period (if applicable).

If your STEM OPT extension application is already approved, the travel document requirements are the same as those required during the 12-month OPT period (see the list above in scenario #3)

If your STEM OPT extension application is pending with USCIS, is is okay to travel internationally. This is true even if your 12-month OPT EAD is already expired.

The preamble to the 24-month STEM OPT rule [81 FR 13103 par. 774] states:

“Students on STEM OPT extensions (including those whose application for a STEM OPT extension is pending) may travel abroad and seek reentry to the United States in F-1 status during the STEM OPT extension period if they have a valid F-1 visa that permits multiple entries and a current Form I-20 Certificate of Eligibility endorsed for reentry by the DSO within the last six months. The student’s status is determined by CBP upon admission to the United States or through a USCIS adjudication of a change-of-status petition.”

It is also possible to apply for a new F-1 visa during this time. The Foreign Affairs Manual, which instructs U.S. Department of State officials regarding visa issuance, states at 9 FAM 402.5-5(N)(6)(e)

“As the STEM OPT extension is automatic for the first 180 days following regular post-completion OPT (when the student has properly filed Form I-765), the student may not necessarily have a renewed EAD. Therefore, any students having automatically authorized employment through the OPT extension may not be able to present a valid EAD when they apply to renew their visa. However, F-1 students in this situation can request an updated I-20 from the DSO, annotated for the STEM OPT extension, as well as proof that the I-765 petition was filed in a timely manner. You must confirm that the student’s electronic SEVIS record contains the same information as the updated hard copy Form I-20 before issuing a visa.”

For reentry to the U.S. with a pending STEM OPT application, you should carry:

  • STEM OPT I-20 signed by an ISS adviser within the last six months
  • USCIS receipt notice for your STEM OPT application
  • Proof of employment
  • Valid passport
  • Unexpired F-1 visa (unless you are Canadian or are returning from a short trip to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean, with some exceptions)
    You can apply for an F-1 visa while the STEM OPT application is pending (up to 180 days pending status). Follow the regular procedures to apply for an F-1 visa outside of the U.S. For the F-1 visa application, plan to provide the documents listed above, as well as proof of financial ability to stay in the U.S. and proof of continuing ties to your home country.

Study While on OPT

While approved for OPT you may take recreational courses, but if you begin a new degree program, your OPT is automatically terminated.  Exchange students are not eligible to take courses at the UW while on post-completion OPT.

Grace Period

Students who do not exceed 90/120/150 days of unemployment and report employment to the ISS as required are automatically granted a 60-day grace period after the end date listed on the EAD (Employment Authorization Document). Within this 60-day grace period, you have the following options:

  • Depart the U.S. Once you leave the U.S. (including trips to Canada and Mexico) after completing your studies and OPT period, you are not eligible to reenter with your current I-20. The grace period is meant for travel within the states and preparation to depart the U.S.
  • Request a new I-20 if you will continue at the UW in a new degree program. If you are an undergraduate and will begin graduate studies, your new I-20 will be issued by Graduate Admissions.
  • Transfer your SEVIS record to a new school.
  • Apply to change status to another visa category.