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What is OPT?
OPT (Optional Practical Training) is a benefit of F-1 student status that allows you to work off-campus in your field of study to gain practical experience.
Before You Apply
Part 1. Submit an online application to the ISSO to obtain a new I-20 with the OPT recommendation printed on it.
Part 2. Send your OPT application with fee to the immigration agency USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services). It may take USCIS three months (or maybe more) to process your OPT authorization, so you need to plan ahead--and mail the complete application as soon as possible. See "When to Apply" below.
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 admission record is among the required documentation.
You do not need a job offer to apply for OPT but if you don't work you forfeit the authorized OPT time.
If you find on-campus employment, you don’t need to apply for OPT. Your F1 status allows you to work on-campus, regardless of whether it’s related to your field of study, and is not deducted from the time you’re allowed to work under OPT. Review our information on On-Campus Employment.
You may use OPT during and/or after your degree program if it is longer than one academic year (2 semesters). OPT during your program is referred to as Pre-Completion OPT.
OPT during the academic year is limited to part-time (20 hours or less per week).
OPT during a summer vacation period may be part-time or full-time (more than 20 hours per week), but you must specify which one.
You get 12 months of OPT for each higher degree level you complete (Bachelor's, Master's, and PhD Degree).
If you’re a student in in certain STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), you may be eligible for an extension of OPT for an additional 24 months.
Pre-Completion OPT is deducted from the 12 month total at graduation.
Part-time OPT is deducted at half the rate.
By, regulation, the earliest you may apply for pre-completion OPT is 90 days before your requested OPT start date. Due to the unpredictable processing time of the EAD by USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), you may want to consider using a start date a few weeks earlier than the actual date you want to begin employment to allow more time in case of delays.
We encourage you to apply to the ISSO as early as possible for the OPT I-20 because it is needed for the OPT application you will send to USCIS.
Gather Your Documents and Information
These are the documents you will upload when you login to Compass to submit your application for the OPT I-20.
We Will Contact You
Allow up to 10 business days for us to review and process your application. If your request is approved, we will email your new digital Form I-20 for you to print with additional instructions.
Receive Your OPT I-20
Review page 2 to verify your requested OPT dates, then sign and date page 1. Always use your most recent I-20 when you travel. The travel signature on page 2 is valid for 12 months or until your program end date, whichever is earlier. Keep all previously issued I-20s. You may need them in the future.
Mail Your Complete OPT Application With Fee To USCIS via FedEx or UPS
First, complete the I-765 (# 4 on the checklist). Watch this short video and use our sample form as a guide to complete your I-765 Application for Employment Authorization. Always download the I-765 from this link for the current version. USCIS will reject applications with older versions of the form. When you’re finished, print and sign it with black ink.
Want a printable version? Download our USCIS Application Checklist.
Send all the required documents!
USCIS can deny your application if you're missing any required documentation. Use the checklist to make sure it is complete, and organize your application materials in the same order (#1 on top).
- Use paper clips, not staples.
- Copies may be black and white, or color
- Make single-sided, rather than double-sided, copies.
Send it on time
Send your complete application to the correct USCIS address:
1) no earlier than 90 days before your requested start date, and
2) in time for the USCIS to receive it within 30 days after the date your Pre-Completion OPT I-20 was issued. If USCIS receives it outside this timeframe, they will deny your OPT application, without returning or refunding your USCIS fee.
Be sure your address on the I-765 will be valid for four months after mailing
Government mail is not forwarded to another address. If you change your address during the processing time, you can use the USCIS Change of Address site but we cannot guarantee its efficacy.
Sign all forms in ink
Make sure all your forms are signed! Your application will be rejected if you don’t sign your I-20, I-765 form, or check.
Make a copy of your entire application for your records
You may need a paper or scanned copy in the future.
UEMS Discount Shipping Option
UEMS (also known as eShip Global) offers discounted rates to ship your OPT application to USCIS by FedEx, UPS, or USPS. Follow eShipGlobal instructions to get your shipping label.
USCIS Mailing Address
To avoid mailing problems, send your application by FedEx or UPS.
Attn: I-765 C03
131 South Dearborn - 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603-5517
The USCIS processing time of OPT applications can vary. According to USCIS Case Processing Times, it can take 3 - 5 months. Unfortunately, they are not required to adjudicate OPT applications within a specific timeline, nor is there a way for the ISSO to inquire about pending cases. We understand that the waiting period can be very difficult.
We recommend the following actions:
1. Track your case status by using your receipt number on USCIS Case Status Online.
4. If USCIS case status indicates that your EAD card is delivered but you did not receive it, try one of the following methods:
- Use USPS’ Missing Mail and Lost Package Form to locate your envelope.
- Visit your local US Post Office and ask them for detailed scanning information about where and when your package was scanned.
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 an email to the ISSO that serves your campus.
5. Enter your information in the USCIS E-Request online "Case Outside Normal Processing Time" option, but you may receive a standard response if you are within the 5-month window.
6. Contact the ISSO if you receive a Request For Evidence, Denial Notice or if your OPT application has been pending for 5 months. To calculate USCIS processing time, refer to the receipted date located on the upper left corner of your I-797 receipt notice.
7. Speak with your prospective employer early in the process to inform them of USCIS processing times or updates.
Contact Us If Needed
Normally, you will receive 2 documents from USCIS before the EAD. You do not need to contact us when you receive these two documents.
- I-797 Receipt Notice with a case number. It's important to check the Receipt Notice for accuracy in case there’s an error in your name or other information that needs to be corrected. * 1/21/21: Note that the USCIS lockbox in Texas has had significant delays in processing and sending receipt notices since November 2020. USCIS changed the address to the Chicago lockbox on 1/8/21 for all types of OPT applications. See our FAQs on OPT/STEM Delays.
- I-797 Approval Notice. The EAD card is mailed separately. See "USCIS OPT Processing Time and EAD Delivery" above in Step 5.
- Contact us immediately for assistance if:
- your application is returned to you with instructions to resubmit
- you see errors in your I-797 receipt notice
- you receive a Request for Further Evidence (RFE)
- you see an error on your approval notice or on your EAD
- you receive a Denial Notice
- you realize you have made a mistake on your application or failed to include required document(s) even if you have not yet heard from USCIS
After You Receive the EAD Card
You should have already made a copy of your application materials before sending to USCIS. Now add a copy of the EAD. You may need them for future immigration or visa applications.
Travel During Pre-Completion OPT
Since you are currently enrolled and will return to the U.S. as a continuing student before the program end date on your I-20, your OPT application has no impact on your travel. It makes no difference whether the OPT application is pending or has already been approved. You need the usual documents that an F-1 student needs to return from a trip abroad. See our Documents Needed to Travel page for F-1 students.