STEM OPT Extension 

A student's eligibility for the STEM OPT extension depends on their degree, their job, and employer. Students applying for the STEM extension must be on active 12-month post-completion OPT and cannot have exceeded 90 days of unemployment on OPT.

Students are eligible for the STEM OPT extension once per STEM degree and may be eligible for a second STEM OPT extension only after completing another qualifying degree at a higher level. Students may not receive the STEM OPT extension more than two times across all degrees earned.

Degree Requirements

  • The degree on which the student is basing their application for the STEM OPT extension must be included in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s STEM designated degree program list. Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) codes for UNCW degrees are determined by the UNC General Administration and cannot be changed. If you have questions about your correct CIP code, confirm with your academic advisor or OISS F-1 advisor.
  • Students may apply for the STEM extension based on either:
    • the degree for which they are currently working on post-completion OPT
    • a degree earned within the last 10 years from an accredited and SEVP-certified U.S. educational institution
  • The student cannot have already received a STEM OPT extension for the same degree level.
  • The student must be maintaining lawful F-1 status and currently participating in an unexpired authorized period of Post-Completion OPT.

Job Requirements

All STEM OPT employment must be directly related to the student's STEM degree and must be at least 20 hours per week. The following types of employment are allowed on STEM OPT:
  • Paid Employment: Unpaid internships and volunteer work are not permitted on STEM OPT. Students cannot be self-employed on STEM OPT as the student cannot represent themselves as both employer and employee on the Form I-983.
  • Multiple Employers: Students can work for more than one employer on STEM OPT, however all employment must meet the STEM OPT requirements. Each STEM OPT job must be at least 20 hours per week.
  • Bona fide Employer-Employee Relationship: For employment to meet the requirements for STEM OPT, there must be a bona fide employer-employee relationship between the student and employer. The employer that signs the Form I-983 must be the same that provides the practical training experience for the student. A student on STEM OPT must be supervised by the employer's own personnel. Please see the STEM OPT Employer Requirements and Responsibilities on the USCIS website for more details on this requirement.

Some employment opportunities, such as through a staffing agency, may not meet the requirements for STEM OPT. Please see the DHS website for clarification on bona fide employer-employee relationships.

Employer Requirements

All employers providing practical training for students on STEM OPT are required to:

  • Be enrolled in the E-Verify program. Students may need to confirm this information directly with their employer. If an employer has questions about this requirement, they should visit the E-Verify for Employers website or consult with their HR department.
  • Have an IRS Employer Identification Number (EIN).
  • Complete the Form I-983 STEM OPT training plan with the student, including annual evaluations. Please see the DHS Employers and the Form I-983 website for more details.
  • Certify on the Form I-983:
    • The student will work at least 20 hours per week and the training opportunity is directly related to the student’s degree in a STEM field.
    • The student will receive formal training in their field of study and obtain learning objectives.
    • The employer has sufficient resources and personnel to administer the training.
      • The training must be provided by the employer who signs the I-983. The training cannot be delegated to a third party such as a client or customer of the employer.
    • The STEM OPT student will not replace a full-time or part-time U.S. worker.
  • Update the I-983 training plan with any material changes in collaboration with the student and report changes to OISS within 10 days. Examples of material changes can be found on the DHS Study in the States website.
  • Notify OISS within 5 days if a student’s employment is terminated before the end of the authorized extension period or the student otherwise ends employment. If a student fails to report to the practical training site for five consecutive business days without the employer’s consent, the employer must notify OISS immediately.  Email international@uncw.edu and include the student’s full name.

Application Process

When to Apply

It is recommended to submit your application for the STEM OPT extension to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) as soon as you are eligible. USCIS may take 3-5+ months to process the application and issue the EAD card for the STEM extension. Check current processing times on the USCIS website.
  • OISS requests 1-2 weeks processing time to issue the new Form I-20 with the recommendation for STEM OPT extension.
  • Keep in mind the following STEM OPT filing deadlines:
    • USCIS must receive your application for the STEM extension before your current post-completion OPT EAD expires, but no sooner than 90 days before that date; and
    • USCIS must receive your application within 60 days of the date your F-1 advisor recommends the STEM OPT in SEVIS.
  • As long as USCIS receives your application before your EAD expiration date, your F-1 status and work authorization are automatically extended for 180 days or until a decision is made on your application.

How to Apply

1. Complete the Form I-983 with your STEM OPT Employer

Follow the steps on the DHS Study in the States website to complete the Form I-983 with your STEM OPT employer. The Form I-983 training plan is required to establish the STEM OPT extension as an integral part of a student's practical training experience. Students are required to review and update their Form I-983 with their employer every 12 months throughout the STEM OPT. Please see the DHS Study in the States website for more details.

  • Pages 1-4 of the I-983 must be completed and signed in ink by the student and employer.
  • Page 5 of the I-983 must be completed and signed in ink by the student and employer for the annual and/or final evaluations.

2. Request a New I-20 with STEM OPT Recommendation

Students must receive a new I-20 from OISS recommending the student for STEM OPT before they can submit their application to USCIS. Apply for the new I-20 for STEM OPT through the OISS portal and upload the I-983 (pages 1-4) completed and signed by you and the employer.

Your OISS advisor will review the I-983, verify your degree is eligible for the STEM OPT extension, and issue a new I-20 with the recommendation for the STEM OPT extension.

Students should plan for 10 business days for OISS to process your request for the new I-20. You will receive an email when the new I-20 has been processed. You can then mail a copy of the new I-20 to USCIS with the other documents required to apply for STEM OPT.

3. Prepare your Application for the STEM OPT Extension

  • Complete the USCIS Form I-765 - Make sure you submit the correct edition date of the form. 
    • Note: You will need to provide your employer’s E-Verify number on the I-765. The E-Verify number is different than the Employer Identification Number (EIN) used for tax purposes. Confirm the E-Verify number with your employer.
  • Review the STEM OPT checklist and collect the documents you need to submit to USCIS. Do NOT include a copy of your I-983.
  • Contact OISS with any questions about your I-765 and application for the STEM OPT extension.
  • Make a copy of your complete application for your records before mailing it.

  • Information regarding employment authorization is subject to change. Students should confirm the application requirements, fees and process with USCIS. Visit the USCIS website for current instructions regarding the Form I-765.

4. Mail the Application to USCIS

The student is responsible for mailing their application to the appropriate USCIS Lockbox Facility.

  • Keep in mind the following STEM OPT filing deadlines:
    • USCIS must receive your application for the STEM extension before the expiration of your current post-completion OPT EAD, but no sooner than 90 days before that date; and
    • USCIS must receive your application within 60 days of the date your F-1 advisor recommends the STEM OPT in SEVIS.
  • You must be physically present in the U.S. when you mail your application to USCIS and must remain in the U.S. at least until you receive your I-797 receipt notice. Contact OISS before making any travel plans while your application for STEM OPT is pending at USCIS.

On the day of mailing your application, check the I-765 website to confirm you are sending the correct filing fee and edition date of the form. Also verify the correct mailing address for the USCIS Lockbox Facility. USCIS sometimes updates their forms, fees, and mailing addresses, so it's important to confirm this information before mailing.

It is recommended to mail your application with tracking so you can verify when it is received by USCIS.

USCIS Processing

USCIS may take 3-5+ months to process the application and issue the EAD card for the STEM extension. Check current processing times on the USCIS website.

As long as USCIS receives your application for the STEM OPT extension before your post-completion EAD expiration date, you may work for the STEM OPT employer while the STEM extension application is pending for up to 180 days past the expiration of your post-completion OPT EAD. If a STEM OPT application is still pending more than 180 days beyond the expiration of the post-completion OPT, the student must stop working.

Form I-765 Mailing Address

All correspondence from USCIS including the receipt notice, requests for evidence (RFE) or additional documents, and the EAD card, will be sent to the mailing address listed on Form I-765. Students should provide an address where they will be able to receive mail for at least 3-5 months after submitting their application to USCIS.

Receipt Notice

If you submitted the form G-1145 with your application, you should receive a text message or email from USCIS within a few days of USCIS receiving your application.

Within 30 days after USCIS receives your application, you should receive a paper Form I-797 Notice of Action: Receipt Notice in the mail indicating your application has been accepted for processing. This notice will confirm official receipt of the application by USCIS and will include a case number which can be used to check the status of your application.

Contact OISS if it’s been more than 30 days since USCIS received your application and you have not received a receipt notice.

Request for Evidence

In the course of adjudicating (processing) the application, USCIS may send a Form I-797 Notice of Action: Request for Evidence (RFE) if they require additional information or documents before making a decision. Students who receive a Request for Evidence should contact their OISS advisor immediately for assistance preparing the additional requested documentation.

Application Rejection

If something is missing from your application, such as a page of the I-765 form or signature on the form, USCIS may reject your application instead of receipting it. If USCIS rejects your application, the entire application will be returned to you, along with a rejection notice. USCIS does not offer refunds for rejected applications.

Please contact OISS immediately if your application is rejected. If it is rejected too close to or after your post-completion EAD expiration date, you may not be eligible to re-apply.

Checking the Status of the OPT Application

After receiving a receipt notice, students may check their case status on the USCIS website. It may take up to 90 days or longer for USCIS to reach a decision on your application. Students may contact USCIS directly to ask questions regarding pending applications. Contacting USCIS is only recommended sparingly when you have a specific concern about your application, and not about the processing time if your application has been processing less than the published processing times.

Approval

Once the application is approved, USCIS will mail an approval notice and the Employment Authorization Document (EAD card) separately to the student. It can take up to two weeks for the EAD card to arrive once the online case status is updated to “Approved.”

EAD Card (OPT Employment Authorization Document)

When you receive the EAD card, check the card for accuracy: spelling of your name, date of birth, and STEM OPT authorization dates. If there are any errors, contact OISS immediately. Students must submit a copy of the STEM OPT EAD card to OISS.

Maintenance of Lawful F-1 Status

Students on STEM OPT are required to continue following all applicable F-1 regulations and must report certain information to OISS to remain in lawful F-1 status. Note that there are significantly more reporting requirements for students working on the STEM OPT extension. All updates on STEM OPT must be submitted to OISS within 10 days of a change. See the SEVIS reporting requirements section below for additional details.

Unemployment Limit

Students approved for post-completion OPT cannot accrue more than 90 days total of unemployment for the duration of their approved OPT period. Students approved for the 24-month STEM OPT extension are allowed an additional 60 days of unemployment. In total, students may not accrue more than 150 days of unemployment for the entire 36-month period of OPT.

Time spent outside of the U.S. while unemployed will count toward days of unemployment. Traveling outside the U.S. while employed as a part of the employment or during a period of leave authorized by the employer will not count as unemployment.

SEVIS Record Transfer or New Academic Program at UNCW

Students approved for STEM OPT are eligible to transfer their F-1 SEVIS record to another institution to begin a new program of study during OPT. OPT authorization is automatically terminated on the SEVIS transfer release date.

Students may also continue their education in a new degree program at UNCW. However, OPT authorization is terminated when the I-20 for the new program is processed in SEVIS. Students should plan accordingly and work with their OISS advisor on the timing of the new I-20.

If beginning a new program after the STEM OPT end date, whether completing a SEVIS transfer to another school or continuing at UNCW, students must obtain a new Form I-20 within the 60-day grace period. You must begin the new program of study within five months of the end of the OPT period. If the program of study will begin more than five months after the end of OPT, the student will need to leave the U.S. within the 60-day grace period and request a new “initial attendance” I-20 in order to re-enter the U.S. in F-1 status to begin the new program of study.

60-Day Grace Period

Students have a 60-day grace period after their STEM OPT ends to remain in the U.S. Students cannot continue employment during the grace period. Travel within the U.S. is permitted during the grace period; however, departure from the country and re-entry in F-1 status is not permitted. Once a student departs the U.S. after the STEM OPT end date, their F-1 status and grace period ends.

The Importance of Documenting OPT Employment Activities

It is strongly recommended that students keep detailed and accurate records of all OPT employment. USCIS may request a student to show proof of their OPT activities. These documents may include:

  • job postings and descriptions of job duties
  • timesheets or paystubs
  • job offer letters or employment verification letters confirming start and end dates of employment

Documentation of all employment on OPT and STEM OPT is extremely important for individuals considering long-term employment in the U.S. USCIS may request this information with future immigration applications such as an H-1B work visa petition or application for U.S. permanent residency (green card).

SEVIS Reporting Requirements for STEM OPT

Students on STEM OPT are required to continue following all F-1 regulations and must report certain information to OISS to remain in lawful F-1 status. Note that there are significantly more reporting requirements for students working on the STEM OPT extension. See the Study in the States STEM OPT Reporting Requirements website for additional information. All updates on STEM OPT must be submitted to OISS within 10 days of a change.

Personal Information

Students on STEM OPT are required to report all changes to the following information to OISS within 10 days:

  • U.S. residential address or permanent foreign address
  • Change of your legal name
  • Change of your email address or phone number
  • Changes to employment (see details below)

Email your OISS F-1 advisor with any changes to your personal information.

STEM OPT Validation Reports - Every 6 Months

Every 6 months, STEM OPT extension students must confirm that the information in their SEVIS record accurately reflects their current circumstances.

In the 6-month reports, students must confirm:

  • Legal Name
  • Residential and mailing address
  • Employer name and address
  • Status of current employment

Reports are due no later than 10 days after the reporting date. This information must be submitted to OISS even if the information has not changed, and even if you are temporarily unemployed at the time the report is due.

If this information changes between reporting periods, including any loss or change of employment, students must report the change to OISS within 10 days of the change.

It is the student’s responsibility to initiate these 6-month reports and to send them to OISS to be updated in SEVIS within the reporting deadlines. Failure to comply with submitting these reports may result in termination of the student’s SEVIS record.

Evaluation of Student Progress - Every 12 Months

Using Form I-983, students on STEM OPT must submit a self-evaluation 12 months after the STEM OPT start date and a final assessment at the conclusion of a training opportunity. The 12-month assessment must be submitted to OISS no later than 10 days following the 12-month mark of STEM OPT employment.

A final assessment that recaps the training and knowledge acquired is due at the conclusion of the training opportunity. Usually, this is a final assessment due at 24 months, but is possible any time during the period of authorized employment when employment ends. This final assessment must be submitted within 10 days of the conclusion of the training opportunity.

It is not necessary to redo pages 1-4 of the Form I-983 unless there has been a material change to your training plan. The Form I-983 with your evaluations must be signed by you and your employer. See the DHS Study in the States Students and the Form I-983 website for more information.

At the 12 and 24 month marks, both the STEM validation and evaluation reports are due. 

Material changes to Form I-983

If there are any material changes to a STEM OPT student's I-983 formal training plan submitted with the initial STEM Application, the employer and the student must complete a new Form I-983 to inform OISS of the changes. The new training plan must be submitted to OISS within 10 days of a change.

Material changes may include but are not limited to:

  • Any change of Employer Identification Number (EIN) resulting from a corporate restructuring.
  • Any reduction in student compensation that is not tied to a reduction in hours worked.
  • Any significant decrease in hours per week that a student engages in a STEM training opportunity.
  • Changes to the employer’s commitments or student’s learning objectives as documented on the Form I-983.

As long as the STEM OPT student and employer meet the regulatory requirements and the modified Form I-983 meets the specified requirements, the student’s employment authorization will not cease based on a change to the plan.

Change of Employer

When a STEM OPT student changes employers, the new employer must be enrolled in E-Verify before the student begins work. When adding a new employer, you must submit a new Form I-983 signed by you and your employer to OISS within 10 days of starting the new employment. You must also complete a final self-evaluation on the I-983 with your previous employer if ending employment.

In cases where the period of time between employers is longer than 10 days, the student must first report the loss of employment to OISS and later submit a new Form I-983.

After submitting the new I-983 form, the student will receive a new Form I-20 with the updated employer information.

Ending Employment

STEM OPT students must report the termination of their practical training experience to OISS within 10 days of employment ending for any reason. Ending employment includes completing your STEM OPT period early or changing your visa status. Students ending employment must submit a final evaluation on the Form I-983 for the training opportunity.

Travel

STEM OPT student should consult with their F-1 advisor in OISS before traveling outside the U.S. In order to re-enter the U.S. in F-1 status during the 24-month STEM extension of OPT, students will need the following:

  • Valid Passport
  • Valid F-1 Visa Stamp
  • Valid STEM OPT EAD Card
  • Valid Form I-20 with the OPT information
  • A travel signature on the I-20 less than six months old at the time of re-entry
  • Proof of employment or job offer

Students who are on OPT and have a pending H-1B petition should be especially careful about traveling outside of the U.S. Students should consult with the employer before planning travel during this time.

Note on Extended Absence from the U.S. or Entry to the U.S. in a New Immigration Status: Authorization for OPT is automatically terminated if the student is physically absent from the U.S. for more than five months or if the student is admitted to the U.S. in another temporary non-immigrant status (such as entry as a B-2 visitor).