STEM OPT Extension 

OPT may be extended by 24 months for certain students who are in a valid period of Post-Completion OPT based on completion of a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree in eligible fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  Students may be eligible for another 24-month extension of OPT if they obtain a degree at a higher educational level in a designated STEM field.

A student is eligible for the STEM extension of OPT only if the degree on which they are basing the extension has been assigned a Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code that matches one of the program codes on the current STEM Designated Degree Program List.  UNCW CIP codes are determined by the UNC General Administration and cannot be changed. Students may find the CIP code of their program on page one of their Form I-20 under “Program of Study” (in the format xx.xxxx).

In order to be eligible for the 24-month OPT extension, numerous requirements must be met by the student, the employer.

Student Requirements

  • Must be in valid F-1 status and currently participating in an unexpired authorized period of Post-Completion OPT based on an eligible STEM degree.
  • Must have completed a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in one of the designated STEM Fields from a school that is accredited and SEVP-certified at the time the application is filed with USCIS.
  • Must have a job or a job offer from an employer registered in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) E-Verify program. A searchable list of employers can be found on the USCIS E-Verify Employers Search Tool webpage.
  • The job must be related to the STEM degree on which the extension is based.
  • Must be working more than 20 hours per week in a paid position.
  • Must not have received a prior STEM Extension for the same degree level (for a total of 2 lifetime STEM extensions possible).
  • Must complete Form I-983 with the employer and submit to ISSS to receive the STEM OPT recommendation.

Employer Requirements

  • Must be enrolled in the E-verify system and have an E-verify number.
  • Must have an Employer Identification Number (EIN) used for tax purposes.
  • Must certify on Form I-983:
    • the student will work more than 20 hours per week and the training opportunity is directly related to the student’s 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 STEM OPT student will not replace a full-time or part-time U.S. Worker.
  • Must agree to report any material changes to the student’s training plan to the DSO by completing a new Form I-983. Examples of material changes can be found here.
  • Must notify the DSO when the student’s employment is terminated before the end of the authorized extension period within five business days of the termination.

Application Process

When to Apply

  • Students may submit a STEM extension OPT application to USCIS up to 90 days prior to the end of his or her Post-Completion OPT. The complete application must be received by USCIS prior to the expiration of the student’s current Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
  • ISSS requests 2-3 weeks processing time to issue the new Form I-20 that will be needed for the extension application. If the student is not meeting with an ISSS advisor in person, the student must allow enough time for paperwork to be sent via regular U.S. mail.
  • USCIS must receive the OPT application no more than 60 days after the Form I-20 recommending OPT has been issued by ISSS.
  • It is recommended to apply early where possible; receipt of the new EAD before expiration of the original card may help avoid possible problems. However, students may continue employment for up to 180 days with an expired EAD while the STEM extension application is pending. If the STEM extension is denied by USCIS, the student must immediately end employment.

How to Apply

Students should submit the documents listed on the checklist below to ISSS online through the STEM Extension Application. After ISSS reviews the Memo of Understanding, Form I-983, and the OPT reporting form, as well as verifies the student has earned a STEM designated degree, a new Form I-20 will be issued recommending the 24-month STEM extension.

The student should prepare all documents on the “STEM OPT Checklist” and contact ISSS with any questions.  After the student has received, signed and made copies of the new I-20, the application may be mailed to USCIS. Students should also retain a copy of the application for their records.

Mail the Application

The student is responsible for mailing the application to the appropriate USCIS Lockbox Facility (as indicated in the Direct Filing Addresses for Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization). Applications must be received by USCIS no later than 60 days after the I-20 has been issued by ISSS and prior to the expiration of the student’s current EAD.

USCIS Processing Timeline

Form I-765 Address

All correspondence from USCIS, including the receipt notice, requests for additional documents if applicable, and the OPT card itself, will be sent to the address listed on Form I-765. Students should list an address at which they will be able to receive mail for at least three to four more months.

Receipt Notice

USCIS will send an official Form I-797 Notice of Action: Receipt Notice to the student approximately two to four weeks after receiving the application. This notice will confirm official receipt of the application by USCIS and indicate a case number which can be used to track the application.

Request for Evidence

In the course of adjudicating the application, USCIS may send a Form I-797 Notice of Action: Request for Evidence to an applicant if an item is missing, or if USCIS requires additional information before making a decision on an application. Students who receive a Request for Evidence are advised to contact ISSS immediately for assistance with preparing the additional documentation.

Checking the Status of the OPT Application

Students may check their case status online at www.uscis.gov; they should click on “Check your Case Status” and enter the case number from the Receipt Notice. It may take up to 90 days for USCIS to reach a decision on the case. If the application takes longer than 90 days from the date on the official Receipt Notice, students may contact ISSS to inquire about procedures to request information from the appropriate USCIS service center.

Cancellation/Amendment of OPT Application

Please be aware there is limited opportunity to amend or cancel applications after they have been mailed to USCIS. There is no provision for amending or canceling an OPT recommendation after approval by USCIS.

Approval

Once the application is approved, USCIS will mail an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to the applicant. Please note it can take up to two weeks for the EAD card to arrive once the online case status at uscis.gov is updated to “Approved”.

EAD (OPT Card)

Upon receipt of the EAD, students should check the card for accuracy (they should check name spelling, date of birth, and OPT authorization dates). If there are any errors, students should notify ISSS immediately.

STUDENTS MUST SUBMIT A COPY OF THE EAD TO ISSS. 

Maintenance of F-1 Status

OPT Employment Information

DHS requires F-1 students on OPT to report their employer’s name and address, as well as their employment status (change of employers or unemployment). If there is any material change to employment, the student and employer must submit a new Form I-983 to the ISSS office and a new Form I-20 must be issued. For more information, please see the SEVIS reporting requirements section below. Report the required information using the OPT Employer Update Form.

Address Information

All updates to your residential address should be reported through MySeaport under “Personal Information”. Students are able to continue maintaining information in Connect Carolina if the ONYEN password is still valid; otherwise students will need to request a guest ID on the ConnectCarolina login screen. For instructions on how to update this address, please see our Address update instructions

Employment while OPT application is Pending

Students are allowed to work up to 180 days past the expiration of the post-completion OPT if the STEM application is pending with USCIS.

Restrictions on Unemployment

Students approved for post-completion OPT may not accrue more than an aggregate of 90 days of unemployment during the initial 12-month OPT period. Students approved for the 24-month STEM extension are allowed an additional 60 days of unemployment; therefore, the limit of unemployment is an aggregate of no more than 150 days for the entire 36-month period.

Time spent outside of the U.S. while unemployed will count towards 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.

It is strongly recommended that students keep thorough and accurate records of their OPT employment in case they are ever required to show proof of their OPT activities.

Restrictions regarding OPT Employment

Students approved for the 24-month STEM extension are required to maintain paid employment of at least 20 hours per week in a position directly related to the student’s STEM degree for an employer enrolled in E-Verify.  Employers must also commit to provide training objectives and a plan to meet those objectives by completing the Form I-983 to ISSS.

Students approved for the 24-month STEM extension can be employed by multiple employers, but all employers must be enrolled in E-Verify.

Beginning a new program of study

Authorization for OPT is automatically terminated if the student officially transfers to another school or begins study at another educational level.

60-Day Grace Period

Once students have completed their period of OPT, they are permitted to remain in the United States for up to sixty days in order to prepare for departure from the U.S. Students are not permitted to continue employment during this period. While travel within the U.S. is permitted during the grace period, departure from the country and re-entry in F-1 status is not permitted during this time. Once a student departs the U.S., the grace period is concluded.

Change of Program Level

Students who intend to continue their education immediately following completion of OPT must obtain an I-20 for the new program of study within 60 days of the end of their OPT and must begin the new program of study within 5 months of the end of the OPT. If the program of study will begin more than five months after the end of the 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 to begin the new program of study.

Change/Adjustment to another Immigration Status

Students who intend to remain in the U.S. following completion of OPT and whose primary purpose will not be full-time study may qualify to apply for a change of immigration status.  

SEVIS Reporting Requirements

Validation Reports

Students who have applied or been approved for the 24-month STEM extension must confirm their residential address and employment information by submitting a validation report to ISSS every 6 months starting from the date the extension begins and ending when the student’s F-1 status ends.  This report must be submitted even if the information has not changed. It is the student’s responsibility to initiate these 6-month reports and to send them to ISSS to be updated in SEVIS.  Failure to comply with submitting these reports will result in automatic termination of the student’s SEVIS record.

Students must submit the required information by completing the STEM OPT Reporting Form online.

Evaluation of Student Progress

In addition to the validation reports, students must submit two self-evaluations to ISSS. The first one should be submitted to cover the first 12 months of the STEM extension period and must be submitted within 10 days of the 12 month reporting period. The second evaluation should be the final evaluation which should be submitted within 10 days of the end of the STEM Extension period. These assessments should be completed on Form I-983 and submitted to ISSS to keep on file. The employer must sign both evaluations to attest to the concurrence with the evaluation.

Material changes to Form I-983

The employer and the student must complete a new Form I-983 to inform ISSS of any material changes to the training plan submitted with the initial STEM Application. Material changes include:

  • Any change of Employer Identification Number 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.

Change of Employer

If a student changes employers, the student must submit a new I-983 form to the DSO within 10 days of beginning the new employment. The student should also submit the OPT reporting form with the I-983 form and must receive a new Form I-20 with the updated employer information.

Loss of Employment

The employer and the student must report to ISSS within 5 business days any termination of employment for any reason prior to the expiration of the STEM OPT EAD card.  Employers should consider that the student has departed if they do not report to the practical training site for five consecutive business days without the employer’s consent.  This information can be emailed to international@uncw.edu and must include the student’s full name (as listed in their passport), SEVIS Number and date of birth. 

Travel

Students should consult with an advisor at ISSS 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:

  • EAD
  • Form I-20 with the OPT endorsement
  • a travel signature on the I-20 less than six months old
  • valid F-1 visa
  • valid passport.
  • proof of employment or a job offer.

Students who are on OPT and have a pending H-1B petition should be especially careful about travel. 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).