F-1 OPT (Optional Practical Training) After Your Degree Program

Spring 2024 OPT Webinar

Did you miss one of our 3 OPT workshops this semester (or do you want to review it again)? Don’t worry! Watch as an ISSO advisor discusses the eligibility requirements and application procedures.

What is OPT?

OPT (Optional Practical Training) is a benefit and extension of F-1 student status that permits you to remain in the U.S. after you complete your academic program with permission to work in your field of study.

Post-Completion OPT extends your F-1 status although you are no longer an enrolled student, and also extends the F-2 status of any dependents who are with you.

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Learn more! Watch our short video, "What is OPT?"

New Post-Completion OPT Canvas Course

We know planning for Post-Completion OPT can be stressful and overwhelming. To help ease this stress and better prepare you for completing a successful application, the ISSO has designed a new online course exclusively for you. This course will give you the tools and resources you need to successfully complete your application for work authorization.

This online self paced Canvas course is HIGHLY SUGGESTED for any F-1 student applying for Post-Completion OPT. Anyone who submits our post-course survey will be entered to win a giveaway prize (sent to you after completion)!


Before You Apply

F-1 regulations require you to be in the U.S. in F-1 status at the time you apply for OPT.  Your  most recent I-94 arrival record is among the required documentation.

Employment on Post-completion OPT is paid or unpaid work in your field of study for at least 20 hours per week.

Learn about types of employment allowed:

A job offer is not required in advance of submitting an application which allows you more time to job hunt. However, you need to begin OPT employment within 90 days of the start date on your EAD.

The "clock" to count unemployment days begins on the start date of OPT on your EAD card

Be careful! If you accrue more than 90 days of unemployment, or if you forget to report and update your OPT to the ISSO, your F-1 SEVIS record may automatically terminate. A terminated SEVIS record cancels OPT authorization and requires you to leave the United States.

Your maximum amount of Post-Completion OPT is 12 months. If you had OPT previously authorized at the same degree level it will be deducted from the 12 month total. This includes:

Use your previously-issued EAD cards to calculate the number of days to be deducted.

The earliest you can apply is 90 days before your program end date on your I-20. For more detail on the application timeline, go to Application Process Step 1.

We  recommend that you maintain evidence — for each job — of the position held, the job title, contact information for the your supervisor or manager, a description of the work, and proof of the duration.

If possible, obtain a signed letter from your hiring official, supervisor, or manager stating how your degree is related to the work performed.

These records and letters are not part of your applications. It is useful to have them available in your personal files in case questions ever arise during OPT or in a future employment-based application.

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Application Process

Step 1.

Determine Your OPT Timeline

Plan Ahead

Your OPT approval may take more than three months to be processed by USCIS, so you need to plan ahead. Hopefully, you will receive an approval earlier than this.

Apply as early as possible

The earliest you can submit your application to the ISSO for your OPT I-20 is 90 days before your program end date. 

Use our OPT Calculator to determine:

  • When to apply;
  • How much OPT time you have left if you have used OPT at this educational level:
    • You will need to have your EAD Card(s) available to add together all the days to be deducted from the 365-day total;
  • OPT start and end dates

OPT timeline

As a doctoral student, you have some flexibility in determining your program end date for OPT purposes. You may use the defense date or the end of the term in which you complete requirements.

Note that after your program end date, you are no longer eligible to engage in on-campus employment as a student or receive funding from your department.  OPT employment can begin only after you have received your EAD card, and are within the dates printed on your EAD card.

We recommend consulting with your academic adviser to determine the appropriate program end date. Use the OPT Calculator to check your OPT timeline based on your program end date. Still need more assistance?  Schedule an appointment with ISSO.

Please ensure you are following GSAS registration guidelines regarding registration in the term you distribute.

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Step 2.

Choose Your OPT Start Date

Choose your OPT dates wisely

You get to choose the date you would like OPT authorization to begin, within the 60-day period following your program end date. This is not an easy decision if you don’t have a job offer at the time of application.

The latest date is not always best

You may want to maximize the time you'll have for job-hunting by choosing the latest possible date. The downside, however, is that you cannot begin employment until the start date on your EAD.

OPT dates cannot be changed

Once you choose your OPT start date and submit your application to us, you cannot change it.

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Step 3.

Pay the OPT Administration Fee to ISSO

Pay the $300 Administration Fee.

After payment, you will receive an email from Cybersource with your OPT Administration Fee receipt.

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Step 4.

Gather Documents and Information for ISSO Application

These are the documents you will upload when you log in to Compass to submit your application for the Post-Completion OPT I-20.

Download a PDF version of the list here

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Step 5.

Use Compass to Submit Your ISSO Application

The earliest you can submit your application to the ISSO for your OPT I-20 is 90 days before your program end date.

Please note: If you submit your application to ISSO in less than 10 business days prior to your filing deadline with USCIS, ISSO cannot guarantee your I-20 will be processed in time.

Click the appropriate link below to log in to Compass:

Not sure of your campus? Check our campus school list.
Need help using Compass? Learn more on our Compass User Guide.

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Step 6.

We Will Contact You

We will send a message to your Columbia email address when your digital OPT I-20 has been processed, which you will need for your USCIS application. Please note that 10 business days is the maximum processing time, not the average, and we will process your request as quickly as possible.

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Step 7.

Receive Your OPT I-20

  • Review page 2 to verify the OPT dates you requested, then print and sign on page 1.
  • You must submit your I-765 application within 30 days after the date this OPT I-20 was issued or it will be denied. Note: USCIS follows UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).
  • Always use your most recent I-20 when you travel. Be aware that the travel signature on page 2 is valid for six months (not 12) when you’re on OPT.
  • Keep all previously issued I-20s. You may need them for future applications.
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Step 8.

Submit your OPT I-765 application online through your USCIS account.

After you have your OPT I-20, the online application is easy to use. Watch this short video on the many advantages of filing online as compared to mailing a paper application. ISSO continues to highly recommend that you file online. 

The ISSO provides the following tips regarding the OPT application, however, please keep in mind that you are responsible for the accuracy of your application to USCIS and following their step-by-step instructions.

While not required for a successful application, USCIS offers premium processing (read the details).

  1. Follow instructions for creating a USCIS Online Account or log in to your USCIS account if you already have one.
  2. Select “File a Form Online” and choose “Application for Employment Authorization (I-765)”. 
  3. Follow the instructions and complete each step in the order they are presented to you. 
You will find that the online application is user-friendly, but come back to check if you're not sure about any of these questions.

“What is your eligibility category?”

  • Choose ONLY “(c)(3)(B) Student Post-Completion OPT”. 

“What is your reason for applying?”

  • Choose the option “Initial permission for employment”. 

“U.S. Mailing Address”

  • Your U.S. mailing address on the I-765 should be valid for at least four - five months. If you do not have an address that will be valid for four - five months, you can enter the name and U.S. address of a friend or family member under “In Care Of Name (if any)." You may also list a U.S. Post Office address (PO Box) if that is how you receive your mail.

“Previously Authorized CPT or OPT”

  • For CPT: Upload copy of your CPT I-20(s). 
  • For OPT: Upload copy of your EAD card(s). 
  • If you are missing I-20(s) or EAD card(s), upload a letter (template here). 

If you have never been previously authorized for CPT or OPT, then uploading documentation is not applicable or required. 

“I-94 Arrival and Departure Record”

  • Copy of your most recent I-94 arrival record (not your travel history). Make sure the record indicates “Class of Admission: F1" and “Admit Until Date: D/S,” which stands for duration of status.

“Status at last arrival”

  • Scroll down to “F1 - F1 - Student, Academic Or Language Program.”

“What is your A-Number?”

  • This number is listed on your most recent EAD card, under “USCIS #.” If you do not have one or lost it then click the box “I do not have or know my A-Number”. 

“What is your USCIS Account Number?”

  • If this is your first online application to USCIS, you will not have a USCIS Account Number yet. Click the box “I do not have or know my USCIS Online Account Number”.

“Application Fee”

  • Pay the required application fee. Remember that once you pay the fee, there can be no changes to your application as it will be considered submitted.

"Passport Photos"

  • Submit two passport-style recent photos (within 30 days) that have not been previously used on other documents.

“Review and Submit”

  • Check that you are within the 30-day window after the date your Post-Completion OPT I-20 was issued. USCIS uses UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Do not submit if it is outside this timeframe. Contact the ISSO for assistance.

After You Submit Your OPT Application

Follow USCIS guidelines for tracking EAD card delivery. Monitor your application status via your USCIS account and sign up for USPS informed delivery to track the delivery of your documents.

Normally, you will receive 2 updates from USCIS before the EAD. You do not need to contact us when you receive these two updates. If you receive other communication that requires follow up, contact the ISSO for assistance.

1.   I-797 Receipt Notice with a case number. You will receive a case number immediately after submitting the online application.Check for accuracy in case there’s an error in your name or other information that needs to be corrected.

2.   I-797 Approval Notice

USCIS Processing Time and EAD Delivery FAQs

The USCIS processing time of OPT applications can vary. Check USCIS Case Processing Times to find out how long I-765 applications are currently taking. 

If your case has been pending outside USCIS's listed case processing time for I-765 applications, submit an inquiry to USCIS via your online account.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to know exactly when your OPT application will be approved, and you need the EAD in hand to begin employment. You may need to be flexible in regard to your OPT start date.

Any activity that could be considered OPT employment cannot begin until you have your EAD card and are within the approved dates on the EAD card. You cannot work, paid or unpaid, for an employer until your EAD card arrives. Still job-hunting? Review the types of employment that are allowed for OPT.

The 60-day grace period no longer applies once you have applied for OPT before the deadline. You are able to stay in the US for as long as it takes USCIS to adjudicate your request.

Generally, USCIS will adjust the start date on your EAD card to the date that USCIS approved your OPT. 

Regardless of when you are approved, F-1 regulations limit the extension of your OPT end date to 14 months after your program end date.


Travel before OPT approval is not recommended. If you decide you must travel, check here for the risks involved and the required documents.

Try one of these two methods:

  1. Use USPS’ Missing Mail and Lost Package Form to locate your envelope.
  2. Visit your local US Post Office and ask them for detailed scanning information about where and when your package was scanned.

If USPS lost the EAD, attach a letter from the US Postal Service on official letterhead, stating that the USPS is responsible for the lost EAD, including the contact person from the US Post Office to send an email to the ISSO.

After You Receive Your EAD

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You should have already made a copy of your application materials before submitting your application to USCIS. Now add a copy of the EAD. You may need them for future immigration or visa applications.

If you do not already have an SSN, and didn't apply for one when you completed the I-765 OPT application, you are now eligible to apply on or after the start date on your EAD card.

Do not apply again if you have already done so.

Once you are on OPT, report employment and any other changes within 10 days. Review the types of employment (paid and unpaid) that are allowed. Visit our Reporting Requirements page to learn more.

In general, post-completion OPT cannot be extended, except in the following two situations:

  1. STEM OPT Extension: If you graduated from a degree program in a government-designated STEM field, you may be eligible for an extension for an additional 24 months of OPT. Read more about the STEM OPT extension.
  2. Cap-Gap Extension: If your employer files a change of status H-1B petition while you are on authorized OPT and it is selected by USCIS for processing, your OPT may be automatically extended during the period of time between the expiration of your OPT and the October 1st change of status to H-1B. Read more about the “Cap Gap” extension.

Learn more! Watch our Extending Your OPT video for more information.

While you are on OPT, you remain in F-1 status. If you have plans to travel abroad during this period, you need to know in advance which F-1 documents you need to have with you to return to the U.S. so you won't jeopardize your OPT authorization.

Do not come back to the U.S. in any status other than F-1!  Visit our Travel During F-1 OPT page for complete information. Our Travel Abroad on OPT video gives a great overview.

During OPT, you are not permitted to study toward a degree program. Study is limited to part-time non-degree classes.

If you decide to begin a new full-time program at:

When your EAD expires, you have a 60 day grace period in which:

You cannot work during the grace period, or leave and return to the U.S. in F-1 status. On the 61st day after the EAD expires, SEVIS automatically completes your F-1 SEVIS record.

If you decide to discontinue your OPT before the EAD expires, you do not have a grace period and must report your departure through OPT Reporting This will complete your F-1 SEVIS record.