Optional Practical Training (OPT) Overview

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Pre-Completion OPT

Post-Completion OPT

OPT checklist

STEM Extension

STEM OPT checklist

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 the student to work for any employer in the United States, so 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 ISSS advisor but authorization is granted by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Official authorization comes in the form of an ID card known as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).  It may take up to 3 months or longer for USCIS to issue an EAD (OPT approval). Students may not begin employment until they have received the EAD and until the start date indicated on the EAD.

An F-1 student completing an Associate’s, 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 a particular educational level, that student only becomes eligible for another 12 months of practical training when he or she changes 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 move on to a Doctoral program, but not if they move on to 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 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, but eligibility for Pre-Completion OPT and Post-Completion OPT combined is limited to a total of 12 months of authorization.

To be eligible for OPT, a student:

  • Must be in valid F-1 status at the time of application.
  • Must have been lawfully enrolled as a full-time degree-seeking student for at least one full academic year (9 months).
  • Must be in good academic standing with UNCW. Students who are currently on a leave of absence are not eligible for OPT.
  • Must not have engaged in 12 months or more of 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 for that program.

A job offer at the time of application is not required. 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 an employment position.

There are two types of OPT:

  • Pre-Completion OPT is training that will be completed before graduation, either during the academic year (fall and spring semesters, when a student may be authorized to work 20 hours or less per week) or during school vacations such as summer or winter break (when a student may be authorized to work full-time).
  • Post-Completion OPT is full-time training that will commence after the student has completed their program.

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

  • STEM Extension: Students who have graduated in eligible STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) may be eligible to apply for a 24-month extension of OPT.
  • 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 application information for OPT using the links on this page and speak to an advisor at International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) if you have any questions.

Please refer to the OPT checklist or STEM OPT checklist in preparing your OPT application.