Optional Practical Training (OPT) Overview

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Pre-Completion OPT

Post-Completion OPT

STEM OPT Extension

Cap-Gap Extension


Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a benefit of F-1 status that permits off-campus employment for the purpose of gaining practical experience in the student’s major field of study as indicated on the Form I-20.

OPT authorization allows a student to work for any employer in the United States, as long as the job duties are directly related to the student’s major area of study and commensurate with the student’s educational level.  Practical training experiences that are unpaid are also permitted within certain limitations.

OPT is recommended by an OISS advisor, however authorization is granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Official work authorization is issued in the form of an ID card known as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), or EAD card.  It may take USCIS 3-5 months or longer to approve OPT and issue an EAD card. Students must have the EAD card in hand and must wait until the start date of the EAD to begin work.

An F-1 student completing a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree in the U.S. is eligible to apply for a total of 12 months of full-time OPT at that degree level. Once a student has been authorized for 12 months of OPT at one educational level, that student only becomes eligible for another 12 months of practical training when they change to a higher educational level. For example, students who use 12 months of OPT during a master’s program are eligible for another 12 months of OPT if they advance to a doctoral program, but not if they enroll in a second master’s program or bachelor’s program.  Students who have been authorized for 12 months of OPT based on terminal degrees, such as a PhD, are not eligible to receive additional OPT since all terminal degrees are considered equivalent in level.

OPT work authorization may be used either before or after degree completion, or a combination of the two. Students are limited to a total of 12 months of OPT authorization, including pre-completion (during degree program) and post-completion (after graduating) OPT.

To be eligible for OPT, a student:

  • Must be maintaining lawful F-1 status.
  • Must have been enrolled as a full-time degree-seeking student for at least 9 consecutive months or one academic year (fall and spring semester).
  • Must be in good academic standing with UNCW. Students who are currently on a leave of absence are not eligible.
  • Must be making normal progress towards their degree or have completed it.
  • Must not have already engaged in post-completion OPT for that particular level of study.
  • Must not have worked 12 months or more on full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT). If a student has engaged in a total of 12 months of full-time CPT during a program of study, the student is not eligible for OPT at that degree level.
  • Must file their application for OPT with USCIS while they are physically present in the U.S.
  • Can only engage in employment that is directly related to their major field of study.

A job offer is not required to apply for OPT. However, any OPT period approved by USCIS will count against the total standard 12-month period of OPT allowed per educational level, regardless of whether the student ever secured employment.

There are two types of OPT:

  • Pre-Completion OPT is training that is completed before a student completes their degree program, either during the academic year or during summer or winter break. When classes are in session in the fall and spring, a student may be authorized for part-time pre-completion OPT to work 20 hours or less per week. During summer or winter break, a student may be authorized for full-time pre-completion OPT, 20 hours or more per week.

  • Post-Completion OPT is full-time training, at least 20 hours per week, that will begin after the student has completed their program.

Post-Completion OPT may be extended beyond 12 months in two ways:

  • STEM OPT Extension: Students with a degree in an eligible STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) may be eligible to apply for a 24-month extension of OPT. See the Study in the States website for a list of eligible CIP codes (majors).

  • Cap-Gap Extension: Students with a receipted or approved H-1B change of status application filed with USCIS by a cap-subject employer may be eligible for an extension of OPT from their original OPT expiration date to the effective date of their H-1B status.

Please review detailed application information for OPT using the links above and speak to your F-1 advisor in the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) if you have any questions.