12 Month OPT Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

The following resource is meant to answer some of the most common questions that students have regarding regular, initial 12 Month OPT. If you have a question about initial 12 month OPT, it is most likely covered here in one of the subcategories.

Also, feel free to type key words into your browser’s Control-F or search function to find your question and answer faster. For example, if your queston is about “How to Pick a Start Date,” key in Ctrl-F, then type “Start Date” in the search box.

what is opt, when do i apply, and when can i begin working?

What is F-1 Optional Practical Training?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is the opportunity to apply knowledge gained in your degree program, to off-campus work in your field of study. OPT is authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The maximum amount of time granted to work on F-1 OPT status is 12 months per degree level, plus a possible 24 month extension for those who qualify in STEM fields.

What is pre-completion Optional Practical Training?

Pre-completion OPT is employment that is authorized before the completion of a student’s program of study. These periods of OPT used before you graduate will be deducted from the total allowable period of 12 months. Part-time OPT will be deducted at one half of the full-time rate. If you use 12 months of pre-completion OPT, then you lose post-completion OPT.

The use of pre-completion OPT is rare, as Curricular Practical Training may accomplish a similar goal without resulting in time deducted for post-Completion OPT.

What is the difference between Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training?

CPT is employment that is an integral part of your major curriculum and allows you to participate in an internship or cooperative education program; CPT may only be done before you graduate. 

OPT is an optional work authorization for students who meets specific eligibility requirements. OPT may be performed before your program end date (pre-completion OPT) or after your program end date (post-completion OPT), but is mostly used for post-Completion. 

When can I begin my full-time OPT?

Undergraduate students may begin fulltime OPT upon successful completion of their degree program.
Graduate students may begin fulltime OPT upon successful completion of all required coursework.
• For certain graduate students, your thesis/dissertation may still be in progress while on OPT; however, the final defense must be completed within 6 months of beginning your OPT period. No extension of the I-20 may be granted if you do not graduate within that time.

Why should I apply for OPT?

There are two things to consider:

According to the regulations, you may submit an OPT application to USCIS up to 90 days before your graduation date and NO LATER THAN 60 days after your graduation date. 

However, to account for the time needed for the ISSO to issue an OPT-recommended I-20, we often open up the OPT I-20 request application around 100 days before the graduation date, so that’s really the earliest possible that someone can “start the process”. 

The ISSO strongly recommends applying early within the time window, as mail and USCIS processing times can be slow. In addition, you may lose some of your 12 months of work authorization if you submit an application to USCIS towards the end of your 60 day grace period. Remember: You can’t work until your OPT is approved and you have received the EAD card.

choosing a start date

Can I change my OPT start date?

If you’ve already submitted your I-765 and materials to USCIS, then no, you cannot change your Start Date–there’s simply no way to make the change once the government has your I-765. 

If you have not submitted your I-765 materials to USCIS yet, you may be able to change your OPT start date only if 1) the job offer upon which you selected your start date originally was rescinded by the employer, through no fault of your own AND 2) if the new proposed start date is more than 2 weeks from the original date. This type of “redo” is up to the discretion of the ISSO, is subject to a new I-20 5 business day processing timeline, and not all requests may be granted. This request may also delay your overall timeline. Students must meet both of the requirements above. Merely wanting a different date is not an acceptable reason, and ISSO staff will not honor these requests. 

This “re-do” policy is in place to ensure that students think carefully about selecting a start date, to prevent duplication of the OPT workload, and to prioritize the processing of first time applications over “re-do” applications during peak OPT season. 

How do I choose my start date for OPT?

There is no “best” start date, and a “good” start date will depend on your personal situation. That said, here are things you want to consider when selecting an OPT Start Date:

  • Median USCIS processing time for an OPT I-765 is ~90 days.
  • Consider your job interview timeline and any vacation time, if desired, before your OPT begins. 
  • If you’d like to begin working immediately after graduation, then choose a date just after your program completion.
  • If you’d like a moderate start date in order to have more time to find a job, visit with family (in the U.S.), etc., then choose a date somewhere in the middle of your 60-day beyond graduation window.
  • If you want the maxiumum amount of time to find a job or relax, then choose a date towards the end of your 60 day Grace Period.

When you select a start date, please understand that you cannot predict the future. For example, if you selected a relatively late Start Date, then end up receiving a job offer faster than anticipated, you MUST wait until the start date on your EAD card before you may begin work. Also, you cannot work until you have EAD card in hand, even if you have a job offer to start sooner. 

eligibility requirements and academic information

Are graduate certificate programs eligible for Post-Completion OPT?

Yes, if the graduate certificate program is the highest level of study completed by the student (meaning the student has not already obtained a master’s level or Ph.D. level degree), then the student would be eligible for 12 month post completion OPT. However, graduate certificates are not eligible for the 24 month Stem Extension.

I heard that if I use CPT, I lose some OPT — is this true?

A lot of students hear rumors that sound something like this: “If you use CPT, that time gets deducted from your OPT time.” 

That’s not really true. The actual regulation is this: if you use more than 12 months (365 days) of full-time CPT before you graduate, only then will you lose all of your OPT eligibility.

Part-time CPT does not count towards the 365 days maximum. Very few students even come close to using 12 months of full-time CPT before they graduate, and hence, their OPT is usually preserved. For example, if you do a 3 month, full-time summer CPT, then a full-time CPT in your final semester for 5 months, even then, you’re only at 8 months total of full-time CPT, which is less than 12 months/365 days. 

To conclude, while it is possible to use so much full-time CPT that you lose your OPT, the trigger threshold for that is quite high–365 days or more of full-time CPT.

If I complete one degree program, take 12 months of OPT, and then begin a second course of study, am I eligible for an additional 12 months of OPT?

You are eligible to apply for another 12 month period of OPT only after completing an academic program at a higher degree level.

What are the eligibility requirements for F-1 Optional Practical Training?

To be eligible to apply for OPT you must: (1) have been in full time student status for at least one academic year (fall and spring) prior to graduation, and (2) be maintaining valid F-1 status at the time of the application.

What if I do not graduate as anticipated, and I have already filed my OPT request with USCIS?

This is a complex situation that is best discussed with an ISSO advisor. Our Advising Hours info can be found on our main page: https://isso.charlotte.edu/.

opt employment clarifications

Can I apply for CPT in my final semester after I have already applied for OPT?

Appyling for CPT is possible after a student has applied for OPT, but it is important to remember a few things:

1. CPT authorization ends by the end date of the final semester.

2. While technically allowed, applying for CPT after applying for OPT could, at least theoretically, cause an issue such as an RFE, Rejection, or Denial with the OPT petition with USCIS. The ISSO has not seen or noticed that applying for CPT after OPT causes any specific issues for students, but be forewarned that any change after an OPT petition is submitted to USCIS could be interpreted with discretion by the USCIS officer. Different universities have differing takes on this, because the actual Federal government regulations surrounding this issue are, unfortunately, not clear. Some schools, like UNC Charlotte, allow students to take the chance and apply for CPT after OPT, whereas other schools may forbid it entirely.

Given the complexity of the issue and vague regulations, the decision to apply for CPT after applying for OPT is largely up to each UNC Charlotte’s student’s individual tolerance for risk. 

Before deciding, you may want to ask yourself the question, “Is the chance of doing a 4-6 week internship towards the end of my final semester worth jeopardizing 12 months (more with STEM-eligibility) of OPT, even if the chance of anything bad happening is extremely small?”

Can I begin working before I receive the Employment Authorization Document?

No, you may NOT begin employment before you receive your EAD from USCIS.

Working before OPT has been authorized by the USCIS, before you have the EAD card in-hand, and/or before the start date has arrived are all major violations of visa status, and will jeopardize your legal status in the U.S.

Can I study part-time (or full-time) while working on OPT?

This one is a hard “No”. Academic study is incompatible with being on OPT. You simply cannot work on OPT and study at the same time. Doing so, whether attempting to study part-time or full-time, will result in your EAD card automatically becoming invalid, and any employment undertaken will be considered unauthorized employment, which is a violation of your visa status.

If you wish to start a new program of study, you must stop OPT employment and transfer your record to the new university to get a new I-20 for your academic program, or apply for a Change of Level (if the new degree level will be studied at UNC-Charlotte). 

The only exception to this is taking recreational classes that do not further your career prospects, such as taking swimming or tennis lessons at a local YMCA, a basketweaving or cooking course at an adult recreation center, or taking a philosophy course at a continuing education center (when your career has nothing to do with philosophy). If the experience is really and truly “just for fun,” does not advance your work skills, and is not offered by an SEVP-certified school, it may be possible to do without violating the terms of your OPT. 

Do I need to have a job to apply for Optional Practical Training?

No, you do not need to have a job offer before applying for Optional Practical Training. This is different from CPT, were a job offer letter is required,

Do I need to have a job while I am on Optional Practical Training?

For the most part, yes. You should always strive to have a job in your field of study during OPT, since OPT regulations require that students be employed during the post-completion OPT period.

That said, the regulations do allow for a limited amount of unemployment time for time spent between jobs, searching for a job etc.: you are allowed a total of 90 days of unemployment during your 12 month period of OPT for these purposes.

How many jobs can I work on OPT? And is there a maximum number of hours I can work?

“The wise rest at least as hard as they work.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

That said, per the F-1 regulations, you may work more than one job while on OPT. You could, theoretically work 2, 3, 4, 5+ jobs on OPT. However, all employment must be 20 or more hours per week to qualify as “full time” and must always be related to the field of study.

Similarly, there is no maximum number of hours per week that a student can work on OPT (unless you count 168 hours–the number of hours in a week–as a maximum). A student could work an 80 hour week, for example, split between two 40 hour per week jobs.

What is considered “employment” while on OPT? Does the work experience have to be paid?

A student who is employed, self-employed, interning or volunteering at more than 20 hours per week in a position directly related to the field of study and at the level of study, is considered “employed” for the purpose of OPT regulations.

For regular, 12 month post-completion OPT, the employment does NOT have to be paid employment. Students interested in non-paid employment for OPT should also read this section of our website

Will I have to pay taxes on OPT?

It depends. Generally, U.S. employment is subject to all federal and state taxes, unless exempt under certain country tax treaties. Employment is not subject to Social Security Tax if residency in the U.S. has been for less than five (5) years; for more information about the latter point, click here for the IRS tax guide on this issue

uscis processing

How do I know that my application with USCIS is processing?

First, if you completed and submitted the optional form G-1145 (recommended) with your mailed I-765, you will receive an email or text message from USCIS stating that your application was received; this message will also include your case number/receipt #, which can be used to check the case status. Note: it can take 10-15 days from the day you mail off your application to when you receive the notification. 

If you’ve applied for OPT via the online I-765, you will receive your Receipt # immediately after submitting your request, and you can use this to check your case status (see link above).

Next, between 1-2 months after you’ve submitted your application, you will receive a form I-797 (receipt notice) indicating that your application is processing. This formal, written notice also contains the case #/receipt #. Basically, this is just a more official notification than the G-1145 provides.

How long does it take to get the EAD card for OPT?

Final authorization for OPT by USCIS is just one part of the overall process (See “When to Apply” here), but it has the longest duration of all the stages. 

The median time it takes for USCIS to fully process an I-765 and issue an EAD for 12 Month OPT is around ~90 days. For those of you who are mathematically inclined, the “median” means that some applications will be done before 90 days, and some may take longer than that. The upward limit for processing times is published by USCIS, and can be found here by selecting your form type (I-765) and Service Center: https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/. A USCIS inquiry for a case “taking longer than usual” cannot be made by a student or the ISSO until a case passes the published upward limit. 

In sum, it is important that you apply for the authorization in advance of the date you wish to start working, as most authorizations from USCIS take nearly three months.

I have an OPT-recommended I-20 from the ISSO. How long can I wait before mailing USCIS my I-765 application?

OPT-recommended I-20s are only valid for 30 days from the date they were issued; you can find the issue date on Page 1 of the I-20, next to the DSO signature.

In practical terms, this means that USCIS MUST receive your I-765 (whether submitted online or via mail) before the 30th day from when the form was issued. This is a very serious issue: if USCIS receipts the application even one day late, your application will be denied and your payment will be cashed–very sad! While a student in that situation may still be able to re-apply for OPT depending on where they are in the Grace Period, paying another I-765 fee for such a mistake is a major bummer. In a worst case scenario, a student will lose the money and not be able to re-apply for OPT (if they are outside the Grace Period) and will need to depart the U.S. immediately. 

Therefore, after receiving the OPT I-20 and attending an OPT Review session, the ISSO urges students to submit their I-765 applications soon thereafter. Do not wait until the last minute or trust in overnight delivery; even mailing off 5 days before the 30th day is too much of a gamble, as even the fastest, most reliable shipping companies sometimes encounter unexpected delays in delivery. Even those filing online must be aware that online I-765 payments are drawn the next business day after online submission–if you file the night before the 30th day from when your I-20 was issued, it may be too late if you’ve filed on a weekend or Federal holiday.

If you are nearing the 30th day of your OPT I-20’s validity, and still haven’t submitted your I-765 application yet, you’ll want to speak with an ISSO Advisor as soon as possible to determine your next steps. An ISSO advisor may need to “re-do” your OPT recommendation to refresh your 30 day counter before you can mail off. 

I received a Request for Evidence (RFE) — what does this mean?

An RFE is USCIS’s way of gathering more information before making a final decision on your OPT application–importantly, it is not an denial. If you have received an RFE and have additional questions, contact an ISSO advisor.

What if I do not receive the EAD within the 90 day processing time?

As we noted in another FAQ, the median time it takes for USCIS to fully process an I-765 and issue an EAD for 12 Month OPT is around ~90 days. Since 90 days is the median, that means that some applications will be done before 90 days, and some may take longer than that. The upward limit for processing times is published by USCIS, and can be found here by selecting your form type (I-765) and Service Center: https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/. A USCIS inquiry for a case “taking longer than usual” cannot be made by a student or the ISSO until a case passes the published upward limit. 

If your case passes the upward limit and you have a job offer, then you may need to submit an inquiry. Contact the USCIS help desk for further instructions on how to submit an inquiry, or click here

u.s. postal service issues

How can I track the delivery of my EAD via USPS?

Please visit the USCIS website on this topic for the latest information: https://www.uscis.gov/forms/forms-information/how-track-delivery-your-green-card-employment-authorization-document-ead-and-travel-document

Applicants can also sign up for USPS Informed Delivery to receive delivery status notifications.

USPS lost my EAD card or says they tried to deliver my EAD, but could not — what do I do?

First, call or go to your local USPS to attempt to have the EAD package located and re-delivered. If USPS claims that the card was indeed delivered, check with your neighbors to see if mistakenly received your EAD card. In most cases, one of the preceding actions will result in the card being located and secured.

However, if your card was sent back to USCIS due to non-delivery, tape a small piece of paper with your name, address, and apartment # on the inside of your mailbox, especially if you live in a large apartment building complex with a central mailroom–this will prepare your mailbox for the re-delivery attempt. Afterwards, if the USPS already sent your EAD card back to USCIS, you’ll want to speak with an ISSO advisor about your next steps.

In a worst case scenario, if USPS confirms that they lost the card completely (which is different from USPS sending the card back to USCIS due to non-delivery), a student may need to apply for a Replacement EAD card. Contact an ISSO advisor if this is the case, and we can walk you through the process. 

changing your address and employer while on OPT

Can I change employers during OPT?

Yes, you may change employers after you have begun authorized OPT employment provided that the new job is: 1) directly related to your major field of study; and 2) appropriate for someone having your level of education.

You will need to report an End Date for the old employer and the Start Date for the new employer in your SEVP Portal within 10 days of starting the new job.

How do I report my employer or address changes to the U.S. government? To the ISSO? Do I do anything with a job offer letter?

Alumni on 12 Month OPT are required to notify the U.S. government (in particular, ICE/SEVP), within ten days whenever a student begins employment, changes employment, or if an employer undergoes any address or name changes. Additionally, students on OPT must report their address and contact info, along with any changes that may occur, within 10 days. 

The way that students on 12 Month OPT report this information and any changes within 10 days is through a SEVP tool called the SEVP Portal. The portal can be found here: https://sevp.ice.gov/opt/

Since the Portal was created in 2018, it has undergone consistent functionality upgrades, and because of this, 12 Month OPT students no longer need to report employment information or updates to the ISSO, except in the cases where 1) the student failed to report new employment within 10 days of starting work (see FAQ “I failed to report my employment on time–what now?” below) or 2) the student wishes to change their SEVP Portal-associated email. 

Currently, students reporting employment in their SEVP Portals do not need to upload or otherwise turn in a job offer letter to the ISSO or to the US government, though you may want to keep an offer letter for your own records or in the event of travel. 

I didn’t report my employment on time. What now?

Oh no! Reporting your employment in your SEVP Portal within 10 days of starting a job is one of your most important responsibilities on 12 month OPT, and failure to report in a timely manner can have negative consequences for your SEVIS record.

If you’ve forgotten to report, you will need to:

1. Enter the employer in your SEVP Portal with a false start date (a date from within the last 10 days, since that is all that the Portal will allow you to enter).

2. Once you’ve entered the employer info with the false start date and saved it, email the ISSO, including your SEVIS ID #, the name of the employer, and the correct start date.

A DSO can manually change the start date to the correct date for you, but…this is up to our discretion. Failure to report on time is 100% on you. Typically, if this is your first employer and you’ve failed to report, we’ll help you and change it. If it’s your second employer and you’ve been on OPT a while–you should know better, and your record may be left inaccurate. 

I have updated/changed my employer — will I, or can I receive a new I-20?

No. The ISSO does not issue I-20s to reflect 1) an ‘approved’ OPT notation 2) updated address or 3) updated employer. This is because the valid EAD card serves as your work authorization approval for the OPT period, and nothing more is needed.

However, students still must report employer info in their SEVP Portal accounts. 

When will I get access to the SEVP Portal?

Students who have applied for OPT will receive an email invitation from “do-not-reply.SEVP@ice.dhs.gov” to create an SEVP Portal account after the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. The student’s EAD card has been approved and issued
  2. The student’s OPT Start Date has arrived or passed

Once both of these conditions are met, students should expect to receive the portal invitation emails within 1-2 days of the OPT Start Date as noted on the EAD. If you do not receive your Portal account creation email within 1-2 days of your EAD start date, email the ISSO.

Where can I learn more about my SEVP Portal and get help?

This user guide can be very handy: https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/assets/sevp_portal_student_user_guide.pdf

Students who are experiencing certain access problems with their SEVP Portal accounts, such as never receiving their Portal invite link, inability to log in, or who wish to change the email address associated with their Portal should email ISSO.

traveling while on opt

Can I travel outside the U.S. with a pending OPT EAD application?

The answer to this question depends on two things: 1) when you intend to travel and 2) your tolerance for risk. 

In general, travel is not recommended when an individual has a request pending with USCIS. This is because being outside the U.S. during the processing of a benefit could be considered abandonment of your petition. Additionally, the I-765 Form itself says that a petitioner should be in the U.S.: Part 3, Applicant’s Statement, Contact Information, Declaration, Certification, and Signature states, “Note: […] You must file Form I-765 while in the United States.”

This makes travel with a pending I-765 inherently risky and not recommended. 

That said, if you must travel, consider the timing:

For travel outside the U.S. before you graduate, you should be able to get back in to the U.S. without the EAD card as long as it is still long enough in advance of your graduation (at least one month). If you have to travel, talk to an advisor at the ISSO before leaving. 

After you graduate, once your OPT is approved you will NOT be able to re-enter the U.S. without your OPT EAD card in addition to your valid passport, current F-1 visa stamp, job offer letter / proof of employment, and your I-20 signed for travel within the last six months.

Can I use my valid tourist (B) visa to make things easier for myself while on OPT?

If you leave the U.S. and re-enter with a B visa, you will have an I-94 record that shows that you have been admitted under B status, and you will have LOST your F-1 status. Hence, your OPT application and card will be invalid. If you intend to start or continue working on your OPT, NEVER re-enter the U.S. in any other immigration status except F-1.

I got a D.U.I. while on OPT or had one before starting OPT — can I travel?

Alcohol-related arrests or conviction may trigger a finding of inadmissibility under INA 212(a)(1)(a)(iii), a section of U.S. goverment law. In addition, nonimmigrants with a DUI who already have a visa may be subject to revocation of that visa. The Foreign Affairs Manual allows consular officers to “prudentially revoke” a visa based on DUI arrests on convictions.

If you are in this situation and are thinking about traveling outside the U.S., speak with an advisor at the ISSO for an honest discussion of the visa implications. 

It has been over six months since my last travel signature on my I-20, how do I request a new signature?

Click here for the latest information on obtaining a travel signature. 

The visa stamp in my passport has expired, but I need to travel outside the U.S. while on OPT. Do I need to get a new visa stamp at an embassy?

In the vast majority of cases, yes, you will need to apply for a new U.S. F-1 visa stamp at an Embassy or Consulate in your home country before you can re-enter the U.S.. You can read more about that process here: https://isso.charlotte.edu/future-students/resources/visa-information-newly-admitted-students/applying-us-visa-stamp.

Visa regulations allow for two very specific exceptions to the rule above: if you are going to Canada or Mexico, and staying for less than 30 days, you could re-enter the U.S. on your expired F-1 visa stamp using a special provision called “automatic visa revalidation”. This provision can be used IF, in addition to only traveling to Canada or Mexico for less than 30 days: you have an expired F-1 visa stamp, a valid passport, your EAD card, a valid I-94 record, an I-20 that has been signed by the ISSO within the last 6 months, and your job offer letter or proof of employment. This provision cannot be used by nationals of Iran, Syria, Sudan, Cuba or North Korea.

What documents do I need to re-enter the U.S. while on OPT?

To travel abroad and successfully re-enter the U.S. while on OPT, you will need:

  • your I-20 that has been endorsed on the travel line by the ISSO P/DSO within the last 6 months;
  • the Employment Authorization Document (EAD card) from the USCIS;
  • your passport valid at least 6 months into the future;
  • a current F-1 visa stamp;
  • your job offer letter or proof of employment.

applying for a new visa while on opt

How is my application to the embassy for a new visa stamp affected by being on Optional Practical Training?

While applying for a new visa always presents a risk, being on OPT and applying for a new visa further complicates the situation. 

Depending on your personal situation (e.g. you’re engaged to marry a U.S. citizen/Permanent Resident) and/or your employer’s situation (e.g. your employer is considering sponsoring you for an H-1B), the risk of denial of an application for a renewed visa stamp for Optional Practical Training may be higher than it was when you were in your degree program, as you may run afoul of the concept of non-immigrant intent. The F-1 student visa requires that the applicant must intend to return to the home country at the end of the program, and if the embassy official is not convinced of your intention to return home, the visa application could be denied. 

If you think you may have a conflict between your desire to get an F-1 visa and immigrant intent associated with another petition, you may need the assistance of a competent immigration attorney to coach you through the visa process. ISSO staff are not legally able to help you navigate this contradiction.

What documents do I need to show at the embassy for a new visa stamp under OPT?

You need to take a valid passport, the EAD card or receipt notice for your application, an I-20 created by the ISSO for your OPT application, AND your job offer letter or proof of employment. The official job offer letter should state that the job is truly temporary and will end before or by the end of your practical training time. You should also be prepared to discuss how this job experience will apply to the job market in your home country, and how you intend to apply it there.

ending your opt authorization period

My OPT EAD card is expiring — what are my options?

Students reaching the end of their 12 month OPT period may be interested in pursuing one of the following options:

  1. Use some or all of your 60 day Grace Period, before returning to your home country. After OPT, you have 60 days to go back to your home country unless your status has been changed or extended. You may NOT work during these 60 days nor should you travel outside U.S and re-enter during this time.
  2. Consider applying for a STEM OPT extension, if eligible. Read more here: https://isso.charlotte.edu/current-students/employment/f-1-opt-stem-extension
  3. Transfer out to a new university to pursue another degree. Read more here: https://isso.charlotte.edu/current-students/how-transfer
  4. Apply for a Cap Gap I-20 extension of work authorization and/or F-1 status, if you have a pending H-1B petition (restrictions apply).