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F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a 12-month work authorization available to F-1 international students who have been full-time students for at least one academic year and plan to seek employment in the United States in their fields of study.

Looking for information about the 24-month STEM OPT Extension? Go to the STEM OPT Extension page.

The Basics

OPT is a benefit of a student’s F-1 status. Students generally apply for OPT in their last academic term.

Eligibility

To be eligible for OPT, you must...

  • be in F-1 status at the time of OPT application.
  • be a full-time student for at least one academic year. 
  • be completing your program of study at Northwestern University.
  • Not have used more than 1 year of full-time CPT during your current degree level.
  • OPT is available once per academic level.
    • If you applied for OPT at the same academic level previously, but did not use your full 12 months of OPT at that time, please contact your OISS advisor to discuss your options.

Do I need a job offer before applying for OPT?

No, a job offer is not required to apply for OPT. However, during the 12-month OPT period, you will be allowed only a cumulative total of 90 days of unemployment. See more information below in the Employment Section. You must also report your employment in the SEVP Portal or the OISS Portal under the “alumni” tab. See Rules and Reporting Requirements while on OPT for more information.

When is the next OPT Workshop?

Check the OISS Calendar for upcoming OPT Workshops. View the slides from the OPT workshop.

What visa status will I have while my OPT application is pending and while I am working on OPT?

During your pending OPT application and after the OPT approval by USCIS, F-1 students will remain in F-1 status under the I-20 sponsorship of Northwestern University. OPT is a benefit of your F-1 status and extends your ability to remain in the United States for the purpose of seeking employment in your field of study. This means that you will continue to use your Northwestern University OPT I-20 and F-1 documents to travel and you will need to get travel signatures from OISS every 6 months. This also means that OISS is still responsible for reporting changes about your status to SEVIS and helping you maintain your F-1 status while you are on OPT.

Do I need an SSN (Social Security Number) to work in the U.S.?

Yes, a Social Security Number (SSN) is required for any paid employment in the United States. You can apply for an SSN as part of the OPT application to USCIS, but you will not receive the SSN card until after your OPT is approved.

Applying for OPT

The OPT application process involves both OISS and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and can take 3 – 5 months. OPT applications can be rather complex. We recommend all students attend an OPT Workshop. Once you are approved for OPT, you will receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD Card) and I-797 Approval Notice from USCIS. These documents do not necessarily arrive on the same date.

When to Apply

  • You can apply for OPT up to 90 days before and up to 60 days after the program end date on your Form I-20. If USCIS receives your application more than 90 days before your I-20 program end date or more than 60 days after your I-20 program end date, it will be rejected.
    Refer to the chart below for upcoming dates:
    2022 Term Program End Date Apply for OPT
    90 days before program end date

    (Earliest date USCIS will receive application)
    Earliest
    OPT 
    Start Date
    Latest OPT Start Date 
    (End date of grace period & last date USCIS will receive OPT application)
    Winter Quarter 03/19/2022 12/19/2021 03/20/2022 05/18/2022
    Spring Semester (Law) 05/05/2022 02/04/2022 05/06/2022 07/04/2022
    Spring Quarter 06/11/2022 03/13/2022 06/12/2022 08/10/2022
    Summer Quarter 08/27/2022 05/29/2022 08/28/2022 10/26/2022
    Summer Semester (Law) 08/19/2022 05/21/2022 08/20/2022 10/18/2022
    Fall Quarter 12/10/2022 09/11/2022 12/11/2022 02/08/2023
    Fall Semester (Law) 12/15/2022 09/16/2022 12/16/2022 02/13/2023
  • All OPT applicants must first obtain an OPT recommendation on a new I-20 (the OPT I-20). Before applying, submit your OPT Request at the OISS Portal. Students can submit their OPT Request in the OISS Portal up to 100 days before their I-20 program end date.
  • The program end date on your I-20 matches your final term of enrollment (excluding some PhD students). If you finish your program earlier than your I-20 end date, the OISS will shorten your I-20 end date to the final date of the term you are applying for OPT based on your OPT Request.
  • USCIS must receive your full and complete OPT application no more than 60 days after your expected program completion date (end date on your I-20).
  • In addition, USCIS must receive your application within 30 days of when your OISS Advisor recommends you for OPT in the SEVIS system and on your I-20. We recommend you apply as early as possible to ensure the maximum processing time available.

How to Apply

  1. Attend an OPT workshop – see the OISS Calendar for upcoming OPT workshops.
  2. Complete your “Optional Practical Training (OPT) Request” via the OISS Portal. The OPT Request includes several components including learning content, questionnaires, and recommendation for OPT that will need to be completed by your academic advisor, PI, or director of graduate studies.
    • You will need the full name, email address and telephone number of the academic advisor, PI or director of graduate studies providing your recommendation in the OPT request. OISS advisors are not your “recommender” in the OPT Request on the OISS Portal.
    • The OPT recommendation will be sent to your academic advisor, PI or director of graduate studies via email. The academic advisor certifies:
      • You have completed all your course requirements.
      • You are going to graduate in the term you have indicated on your OPT request. Please note, PhD students must be ABD before applying for OPT.
      • You are in good academic standing.
    • You should discuss this request with your academic advisor (not OISS advisor) before completing the request in the portal. We cannot process the OPT request until the electronic recommendation from your academic advisor has been received.
  3. Your OISS Advisor will review your request for OPT. If you are eligible for OPT, you will be issued an updated I-20 to submit with your OPT application. After the OISS receives your electronic recommendation, our office will take 1 week (5 business days) to process your updated I-20 with your OPT Recommendation on page 2.
  4. Prepare OPT Application Materials: While waiting for your new I-20 with you OPT Recommendation, prepare your OPT application documents as instructed on the OPT Application Materials Checklist. Review the OISS I-765 Sample for additional guidance on the paper I-765 form.
  5. Receive and sign your updated I-20 with OPT Recommendation

    You will receive an email notifying you when your updated I-20 with OPT recommendation has been processed and is ready for you to access via the OISS Portal. You will then be able to print your updated I-20 with OPT recommendation from your “Documents” section of the OISS Portal. You will need to sign in ink in the student attestation section of the document. This is the easiest and fastest way to receive your I-20.

    Alternatively, you can also request to pick up your new I-20 in person at the OISS Office.  Please send an email to intoff@northwestern.edu  if you prefer to pick up the I-20 in person.

    If you need the document shipped to you, please register and pay with eShipGlobal  so that the OISS can mail your I-20 directly to you.

  6. Review all your documents carefully before sending or submitting your OPT application: Check your major and degree level on page 1 of your I-20 and check your OPT recommendation on page 2 of your I-20. 
    • You are responsible for your OPT application and we recommend that you independently check dates, deadlines, addresses and the I-765 instructions OISS Advisors provide guidance on the OPT application as a courtesy to NU students. If you have any questions about your application process, you can schedule an appointment with your OISS advisor via the OISS Portal or send your advisor an email with specific questions. We recommend you photocopy and keep a copy of your FULL application.
  7. Refer to the one-page OPT Application Checklist to help keep track of your OPT application materials.
  8. File your COMPLETE application within 30 days of the date the OISS processed your OPT request. The OPT recommendation on the OPT I-20 is only valid for 30 days.

IMPORTANT: The application MUST be received by USCIS within 30 days of OISS recommending OPT in your SEVIS record and issuing your OPT I-20 or OPT will be denied. If it has been more than 30 days since your OPT I-20 was issued and you have not sent or submitted your application, please submit a new OPT request at the OISS Portal and email your OISS advisor.

Application Materials Checklist: Paper Application by Mail

This application materials checklist pertains to the paper OPT application filed by mail. If filing online, you can use this checklist to prepare, but the online application has prompts and information built in the system to provide more guidance on the required documents for that version of the OPT application.

  • Completed form I-765  (view a sample) PLEASE NOTE: the I-765 was updated 8/25/2020 and must include the barcode at the bottom of each page. The USCIS Form I-765 Instructions note that there should not be any blanks on the form. You should type or handwrite N/A (which stands for “not applicable”) for any blanks on the form. Make sure you open the form as a PDF in the most recent version of Adobe. Some browsers do not allow you to type into the form. Check the form after you print to make sure it is complete. Do not forget to sign (in black pen) your name and date the form on page 5 in the Applicant Signature box.
  • Copy of your first I-20 issued by NU
    • If you no longer have this I-20, send a copy of an I-20 that is more than 1 year old.
  • Copy of all CPT I-20s (at Northwestern and any other universities)
    • If you no longer have your CPT I-20s, you can request a SEVIS CPT printout from your OISS advisor by email.
  • Printed I-94 entry record
  • Copy of passport biographical page
  • Copy of most recent F-1 visa stamp
    • If your visa is currently expired, that is okay, you should still include a copy of your most recent F-1 visa stamp. Canadian citizens do not have an F-1 visa stamp.
  • Complete form G-1145; use this form to request a text message and/or email when USCIS accepts your form.
  • Payment to USCIS (as of November 2021 the fee is $410, but please check USCIS Filing Fees to verify)
    • Payment by check, cashier's check, or money order: payable to U.S. Department of Homeland Security. See a sample check.
  • Two identical passport style (2" x 2") color photographs taken within the last 30 days.  Write your full name and your I-94 number on the back of the photos. See Photo Requirements for more details.
  • If applicable, photocopy (front and back) of previously issued Employment Authorization Documents (EAD cards) or other USCIS approved employment authorization(s).
  • I-20 with OPT Recommendation on 2nd page 

Application Materials Checklist: Online Application

In addition to the paper version of Form I-765, USCIS is now accepting online Form I-765 applications for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the 24-month OPT STEM Extension. The online I-765 application is available ONLY for F-1 students applying for Post Completion OPT or the STEM Extension of OPT. The online I-765 cannot be used for any other type of employment authorization application.

See the following links for detailed instructions for filing the I-765 online application:

How to Submit your OPT Application to USCIS

To apply for OPT, you will need to send your application packet with the materials listed in the OPT Checklist directly to USCIS. This is called filing your OPT application (I-765). There are two ways to file your OPT Application: online or by mail.

  1. See detailed instructions for Filing Online Post-Completion OPT
    See detailed instruction for Filing Online STEM OPT Extension Application.
  2. File a paper application by mail
    Review everything under “How to Apply” and obtain your I-20 with OPT recommendation
  3. Be sure to check the The USCIS Direct Filing Addresses for Form I-765 page for the most up-to-date I-765 filing address. If the mailing address you use on your I-765 is NOT in Illinois, check the filing address on the USCIS website.

If you are sending your application with a mailing address in Illinois:

For FedEx, UPS and DHL deliveries:

USCIS
Attn: I-765 C03 (box 805373)
131 South Dearborn – 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603-5517


U.S. Postal Service (USPS)
Attn: I-765 C03
P.O. Box 805373
Chicago, IL 60680-5374 

The above addresses are accurate as of November 2021. Before sending you I-765 Application, be sure to check the USCIS Direct Filing Addresses for the most up-to-date I-765 filing address.

Be sure to obtain tracking with any mail service that you use.

FAQs about the OPT Application Process

What is the online Filing Option for OPT?

In addition to the paper version of Form I-765, USCIS is now accepting online Form I-765 applications for Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the 24-month OPT STEM Extension. The online I-765 application is available ONLY for F-1 students applying for Post Completion OPT or the STEM Extension of OPT. The online I-765 cannot be used for any other type of employment authorization application.

See the following links for detailed instructions for filing the I-765 online application:

  • Online I-765 Application for Post-Completion OPT
  • Online I-765 Application for STEM OPT Extension

What is the OPT filing fee?

The OPT filing fee as of November 2021 is $410. Please check USCIS Filing Fees to verify the correct current fee amount. Your OPT application must be accompanied by a personal check, Money Order, or Cashier’s Check in the correct amount payable to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A personal check must have YOUR name and U.S. address. Do NOT use a friend’s or family member’s personal check.

What are the requirements for the photos?

The digital photo requirements for filing online are different from the paper photo requirements for filing a paper application by mail.

Digital photo requirements for filing your OPT application ONLINE:

You must prepare a digital passport-style photo taken within the last thirty days and the photo must follow the U.S. Department of State guidelines. Please review the following resources:

Photo Requirements

Photo Composition Template.

Be sure to check that your photo file has an acceptable name that follows USCIS's file name formatting outlined in the instructions and is saved as either a .jpeg / .jpg or .png file type. The online OPT application has a photo tool you can use to check your photo.

Paper photo requirements for filing your OPT paper application by mail:

You must submit two identical color passport-style photographs of yourself taken recently (within 30 days of filing form I-765).

The photos must have:

  • A white or off-white background, be printed on thin paper with a glossy finish, and be unmounted and unretouched.
  • The two identical passport-style photos must be 2 by 2 inches (passport size).
  • The photos must be in color with a full face, frontal view, on a white to off-white background.
  • Head height should measure 1 to 1 3/8 inches from the top of your hair to the bottom of your chin, and eye height is between 1 1/8 to 1 3/8 inches from the top of your eyes to the bottom of photo.
  • Your head must be bare unless you are wearing headwear as required by a religious denomination of which you are a member.
  • Using a pencil or felt pen, lightly print your full name and SEVIS number on the back of the photos.

How do I choose my OPT start date?

As part of the OPT I-20 request process, you must request an OPT start date. This is the day on which you would like to start working while on OPT. Some things to consider when choosing your requested OPT start date:

  • The requested start date must be within 60 days of your program end date on your I-20. It can be as early as the day after your end date and up to 60 days after that.
  • It is not guaranteed that you will be approved for the start date you request. Your approved start date will appear on your Employment Authorization Document, or EAD card and may be later than your requested start date. Please note that you may not begin working until your approved EAD start date, regardless of the requested date on your I-20.
  • Do you have travel plans? If you plan to travel, especially internationally, you may not want to select a start date during your planned travel time.
  • If you have a job offer, discuss with your employer an appropriate start date based on when you have applied for your OPT (consider the 3-to-5-month processing time).
  • If you don't have a job offer, you should consider where you are in your job search and when jobs typically start in your field and make your best estimate of when you'd like to begin working.
  • Days of unemployment only begin after the approved start date listed on your EAD.
  • Weigh the pros and cons of an early vs. late start date. If you choose an earlier start date, you may be able to begin your employment earlier, BUT if you don't find a job, you will begin accruing unemployment days sooner. If you choose a later start date, your unemployment days will begin accruing later, BUT you'll have to wait longer to begin employment.

What is the usual processing time?

The average USCIS processing time to issue the OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) is 3 to 5 months.

What if I forgot to send my OPT application to USCIS within the 30-day deadline?

If OISS recommended you for OPT more than 30 days ago and you have not yet sent in your application to USCIS, you'll need a new OPT I-20 from OISS.

  • If you are still within your 60-day grace period and otherwise eligible to apply for OPT, submit another OPT Request in the OISS portal. This request is titled the OPT: Past 30 Days or Change Recommendation Dates. 
  • Do not send in an application if more than 30 days have passed. Your application will be rejected.

What if I applied for OPT, but did not complete my degree program as planned?

Please contact your OISS Advisor as soon as possible to discuss your situation.

While You Wait for Your OPT EAD Card

To verify the current average OPT processing time with USCIS, check the I-765 USCIS processing times.

What to expect after mailing your paper OPT application

After mailing your OPT application to USCIS, you should receive confirmation of delivery via text or email if you completed and included the G-1145 form in your application. This should also include your receipt number, which you can use to check your status online. 

Within 4 - 6 weeks: You will receive an I-797c receipt notice at your mailing address confirming the date of receipt and your receipt number. Keep this notice safe as it is your official proof that your OPT application was submitted. If there are any errors in the receipt notice in your name, address, or application type, contact your OISS adviser right away.

Around 3 – 4  months: You should receive an I-797 Notice of Approval letter and EAD card at your mailing address. These items may arrive separately or at the same time. Check your EAD card to make sure all information is correct. You can start working on your EAD start date! If there are any errors on the EAD, contact your OISS adviser right away.

Around 2 Weeks after receiving EAD card: You should receive your Social Security Card (if you requested one).

How can I check my OPT application status?

All students can create an online USCIS account to check their pending OPT case status and look for communications from USCIS. Whether you apply by mail or online, OISS recommends all students create this online account to monitor your application progress. You can link your USCIS online account to your pending OPT application by mail by including the receipt number listed on your I-797 Notice of Action (receipt notice). If you already have an online account because you filed for your OPT online, your case status will update in that system.

Alternatively, when you receive your USCIS I-797 Notice of Action (receipt notice), go to USCIS Case Status Online and enter your receipt number. Note that your application will most likely stay in received status for the entirety of the processing time until it is approved. 

Can I work on or off campus while waiting for my Employment Authorization Document (EAD)?

While waiting for your EAD card to arrive…..

  • And until the program end date on your I-20, you can continue working ON CAMPUS.
  • After your I-20 program end date, you cannot work anywhere until you have your physical EAD card in your possession; you may begin working on the first day listed in the “valid from” section of your EAD.

Travel Outside the U.S. While OPT is Pending

Travel during the OPT application process is allowed, but not recommended as it poses certain risks.

Consider the following:

  • You should include a different mailing address than your own with an “in care of” person designated in your I-765 if you plan international travel while your OPT is pending. The mail systems in Chicago area apartment buildings can be challenging and it is not guaranteed you will receive mail when you are not there.
  • If you receive a Request for Evidence, you will need to respond by a certain deadline and all mail to USCIS must be sent from within the U.S.
  • If you are denied for OPT while outside the United States, you will not be able to re-enter the U.S to reapply. If you are within your 60-day grace period when your denial is received, your only option is to refile online.
  • If you are approved for OPT while outside the United States, you will need to arrange for your EAD card to be sent to you abroad to re-enter the United States. USCIS only sends EAD cards to U.S. addresses and your name or your “in care of” designee’s name must be on the mailbox
  • If your F-1 visa is expired, you will need to reapply for an F-1 visa with your EAD card and I-20.
  • If you choose to travel while your application is pending, be sure that you are monitoring your mail.  

Problems With Your OPT Application

There are several types of problems that may occur during your OPT application:

  • Delayed processing
  • Not receiving your I-797c Receipt Notice
  • Not receiving your EAD (lost in the mail)
  • Request for Evidence or Denial
  • Incorrect EAD

If there is any problem with your OPT application, contact your OISS Advisor right away so we can provide guidance on your situation.

Employment & Unemployment on OPT

During the period of OPT authorization, a student should be working or actively seeking employment. There are limits to what jobs count as employment and to the number of days you may remain unemployed.

When can I start working?

On the start date of your approved EAD card. You must physically have the EAD card to start working. If your OPT approval or EAD card is delayed or lost, contact your OISS advisor to discuss your work options.

What counts as “employment” while I am on OPT?

Employment must be:

  • a job that is directly related to the student’s major area of study; if the relationship between the job and a student's field of study is called into question by USCIS in the future, the burden of proof is on the student to demonstrate the relationship.
  • at least 20 hours per week is considered full-time; if work is less than full-time, it counts toward a student's 90 days of unemployment.
  • paid or unpaid.

All students on OPT should keep all records of employment. You may be asked to provide employment records during future USCIS application processes. Per the SEVP OPT Guidance document, the types of employment allowed during post-completion OPT include (these DO NOT apply to the STEM Extension):

  • Paid employment. Students may work in a job related to their field of study at least 20 hours per week (if work is less than full-time, it counts toward a student's 90 days of unemployment).
  • Multiple employers or gigs. Students may work for more than one employer, but all employment must be related to the student’s major area of study. If a student is working with gigs, students should maintain a list of all gigs, the dates and duration.
  • Work for hire (commonly referred to as "1099 employment"). This is a type of employment where an individual performs a service based on a contractual relationship rather than an employment relationship. If requested by DHS, students must be prepared to provide evidence showing the duration of the contract periods and the name and address of the contracting company.
  • Work for yourself or self-employed business owner. Students may start a business and be self-employed. In this situation, the student must work full-time (at least 20 hours per week) and be able to provide proof that their work is related to their program of study at NU. The student must be able to prove that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in a business related to the student’s degree program.
  • Employment through an agency. Students must be able to provide evidence showing they worked an average of at least 20 hours per week while employed by the agency.
  • Unpaid employment. Students on post-completion OPT may work as volunteers or unpaid interns. The work must be at least 20 hours per week. These students must be able to provide evidence from the employer that the student worked at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment.

Unemployment 90-day Rule

During the period of OPT authorization, a student should be working or actively seeking employment.

  • Students on post-completion OPT may have up to 90 days of unemployment. The 90 days start counting from your approved OPT/EAD start date (not the recommended start date nor the program end date on your I-20) and are cumulative.
  • If you accumulate 90 days or more of unemployment, you are in violation of your F-1 status. You are expected to leave the U.S., transfer to another school, or change your visa status before the 90th day. See After OPT options below.
  • Students who are granted a 24-month STEM extension are given an additional 60 days of unemployment for a total of 150 days over their entire post-completion OPT and STEM OPT periods.
  • Approved vacation from a job does not count as "unemployment" if you are still considered an employee there. 
  • Jobs that are fewer than 20 hours per week will count towards the 90-day unemployment limit.

How do I know if my job is related to my degree and why is this important?

Federal regulations require that all employment that you engage in while on OPT be directly related to your major area of study.  As part of your OPT reporting requirements, you must provide a description demonstrating a logical connection between your regular job duties and your major area of study. Further information and sample descriptions are available on the SEVP Policy Guidance: Practical Training – Determining a Direct Relationship Between Employment and a Student’s Major Area of Study page.

If the relationship between the job and a student's major area of study is called into question by USCIS in the future, the burden of proof is on the student to demonstrate the relationship. OISS won't be able to advise you on specifically which jobs do/do not qualify as we are not experts in your field of study. If you need assistance determining the fit of a job offer, we recommend discussing this with your academic adviser, the Career Center, or others in your field.

What documentation do I need to maintain during my OPT employment?

It is recommended that students maintain evidence for each job:

  • the position held,
  • duration of the position (start date and end date)
  • the job title
  • contact information for the student’s supervisor or manager
  • description of the work

Students must always report employment changes within 10 days of any change.

While on OPT, you are required to keep your SEVIS record up-to-date and report certain information to maintain your F-1 status. To keep your SEVIS record updated, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) will email you a link to create a SEVP Portal account on or close to your OPT start date. You be required to use the SEVP Portal to:

  • Report your employment information within 10 days of starting or stopping a job.
  • Report how your job relates to your major area of study with a few sentences.
  • Update your address within 10 days of moving.

Changing Employers / Multiple Employers

Students may have multiple jobs and change jobs as many times as they wish during OPT, provided that all employment is directly related to their major area of study and the work is a minimum of 20 hours per week. No special permission is required to change employers. However, you must update your employer information in the SEVP Portal.

Rules & Reporting Requirements while on OPT

Rules to follow while on OPT

During the period of OPT authorization, a student should be working or actively seeking employment.

The top rules to remember while on OPT are:

  1. You may only work from the start date of your EAD card to the end date of your EAD card.
    The EAD card reads:          
    Valid From:_________ (start date)
    Card Expires: __________(end date)
  2. All employment must be related to your major area of study.
  3. You must report all employment and address changes to the SEVP Portal within 10 days of any change.
  4. You are limited to 90 days of unemployment during your OPT.
  5. The travel signature on page 2 of your I-20 is valid for 6 months while on OPT

Reporting Requirements

It is your responsibility to keep records of your employment, paid or unpaid. You may be asked about these records in the future (for example, if you apply for an H-1B, Legal Permanent Residency or other U.S. immigration status). Examples of records to keep include offer letters, contracts, payroll records, all job start/end dates, employer names, employer addresses and number of hours per week worked.

Once your OPT is approved and your start date has passed, SEVP will send you login information for your SEVP Portal account via email. If you do not receive this email within 1 week, contact your OISS advisor for help to gain access to the SEVP portal. Be sure to check your Northwestern Email (including your spam/junk folder!) for the SEVP portal account setup email.  

You must report any changes (in address, employer, name or status in the US) within 10 days. All reporting must be done in the SEVP Portal. If you are unable to report changes in the SEVP Portal, the OISS Portal will allow you to report any changes in your employment or personal details by using the Alumni tab.

Taking Classes While on OPT

While on OPT, your primary purpose is to maintain OPT by working.  

If you decide to return to school full-time, you will need to transfer your SEVIS Record to the new school. If returning to Northwestern University, you should submit the Change of Level request at the OISS Portal and then make an appointment with your OISS advisor to discuss the timing of your request.

Filing and Paying U.S. Taxes

While on OPT, you are subject to all applicable federal, state and local taxes and must file taxes. See more information on the OISS webpage about U.S. Taxes.

Health Insurance While on OPT

Students who complete a program of study are no longer eligible to purchase the NU Student Health Insurance Plan. However, all F-1 students are required to maintain health insurance in the U.S. whether the insurance is provided by your employer or you purchase on your own.

Traveling While on OPT

Remember that your status is still F-1 while on OPT. If you travel abroad while on OPT, you must have the following to re-enter the U.S.:

  1. Valid EAD card. This means you may not be granted re-entry to the US until your OPT is approved and you have your physical EAD card.  Please discuss your travel plans with your OISS advisor, especially if you plan to travel after your graduation!
  2. I-20 with travel signature (no more than 6 months old). Need a new travel signature?  Request an I-20 reprint through the OISS Portal.
  3. Valid F-1 visa stamp (Canadians are exempt from this requirement)
  4. Current passport
  5. Job offer letter (highly recommended, but not required)

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you do not apply for OPT but travel outside of the U.S. after the end date listed on your I-20 during the 60-day grace-period, you will have negated your eligibility to re-enter the U.S to apply for OPT. Your only option is to file online and there are some risks. Discuss your options with your OISS advisor if this is your circumstance.

Extensions of OPT

24-Month STEM Extension

Students who have received a U.S. Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) may be eligible to apply for a 24 Month STEM Extension of post-completion OPT (for a total eligibility of up to 36 months of OPT). You must apply for the STEM Extension before the end date of your EAD card.

Cap-Gap Extensions for Future H-1B Employees

"Cap-Gap" refers to the period of time between the official end-date listed on the OPT or STEM OPT EAD card and the official start date of an H-1B filed as a Change of Status.

The most common situation occurs when your OPT or STEM OPT ends in the spring or early summer,  leaving a gap in immigration status and employment authorization before your H-1B status begins on October 1.

The cap-gap OPT extension is the period in which an eligible F-1 student's status and employment authorization under OPT is automatically extended to bridge the gap in immigration status and employment authorization between the end of F-1 status (OPT end-date) and start of H-1B status. The student must not have violated the terms or conditions of his or her F-1 status to qualify for the cap-gap extension.

To qualify for the "H-1B cap-gap extension" you must be in valid F-1 status, and you must be the beneficiary of an H-1B petition that meets all of the following:

  • Has been timely filed
  • Requests an employment start date of October 1 of the following fiscal year
  • Requests a change of status (cap-gap extension does not apply to Consular filed H petitions)

The cap- gap extension is added to a student’s SEVIS record as a result of a pending Change of Status application to H-1B. Cap-gap extension cannot be used if you will be in H-1B status in a non-profit or research educational institution. The cap-gap OPT extension does not apply to Consular Processing H-1B approvals.

The cap-gap extension appears on a student’s I-20. To request your I-20 reflecting the cap-gap extension, submit an I-20 reprint request at the OISS Portal.

Travel while on the cap-gap is generally permitted if these conditions are met:

  • The change of status request to H-1B is approved
  • Re-entry to the U.S. is before October 1 or the date the H-1B employment begins
  • The student is otherwise admissible to the U.S., has a valid I-20 with travel signature reflecting the cap-gap extension, has a valid F-1 visa (Canadians are exempt from this requirement)

 For more information about travel or other details during the Cap-Gap Extension, please visit this USCIS page.

Options after OPT Ends

You are allowed a 60-day grace period following your OPT end date to leave the United States, change your immigration status, or transfer your F-1 record to a new school or begin a new program at NU. You may want to pursue these options before the end of your OPT. If you remain in the United States past the end of your 60-day grace period without transferring to a new school, beginning your new program or having applied for a timely filed Change of Status, you may begin accruing days of Unlawful Presence, which has serious consequences depending on the length of the overstay.

Leaving the United States

If your plan is to depart the United States after OPT, you must do so within your 60-day grace period. You must stop working by the end date (card expires date) on your EAD card.

If you are leaving the United States permanently before the end date on your EAD, you must report this to Northwestern’s OISS so we can complete your SEVIS record and F status. 

Changing Immigration Status

During OPT: If you are approved for a change of visa status during your OPT, you must report this to the OISS so we can update your SEVIS record.

After OPT: If you have a pending change of status when or after your OPT ends, check with the immigration legal counsel working on your change of status application to determine what options are available to you and if you may remain in the United States past the end of your 60-day grace period without a negative impact to your immigration status

H-1B: If you have a pending or approved change of status to H-1B, you may be eligible for a Cap-Gap Extension I-20. Please consult with your OISS advisor to determine your eligibility for issuance of an I-20 reflecting this extension.

Pursuing a New Program of Study in the United States

During OPT:
If you wish to start a new full-time academic program while on OPT, the remainder of the OPT must be forfeited before beginning classes with the new program. If you are beginning a program of study at another U.S. school, you must request a Transfer Out of your F-1 SEVIS record to another school. If you are beginning a new program of study at Northwestern University, you must request submit a Change of Level request at the OISS Portal.

After OPT:
If you are planning to go back to school after your OPT, you will need to request a Transfer Out of your F-1 SEVIS record to another school or request a Change of Level I-20 if returning to Northwestern University. This must be done before the end of the 60-day grace period following the OPT end date.

Students should keep in mind the following points when deciding on when to request a Transfer Out of their SEVIS record:

  • After the SEVIS transfer release date has passed, students may not continue working on OPT, even if the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) has not expired. The transfer release date, in effect, cancels the EAD.
  • The SEVIS transfer release date can be within the OPT period dates listed on the EAD or up to 60 days after the expiration date on the EAD.
  • Classes at the new school must begin within 5 months of the transfer release date or at the start of the next available term, whichever is earlier.
  • Students may request a transfer release date in the future and continue working on OPT until that date as long as the EAD has not expired, and the new program of study has not yet begun.
  • If the length of time between the OPT end date and the start date of classes at the new school will be more than five months, please meet with your OISS Advisor to discuss your options.

Disclaimer Statement

The Northwestern University Office of International Student & Scholar Services (OISS) offers guidance on Optional Practical Training (OPT) and OPT STEM applications as a courtesy to NU students. We make every attempt to ensure that we provide you with the most up to date information available. However, any advice provided to you by our office does not constitute legal advice. You should always independently check all deadlines and all OPT and STEM OPT application documents for accuracy before mailing them or submitting them online to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The OPT application is a personal application for which you are responsible. The application preparation and USCIS case decision will vary depending on the facts at issue in your particular case.  While OISS exercises best efforts to provide you with the most current guidance, please be aware that USCIS may change its interpretation of applicable policies, procedures, regulations, and eligibility requirements at any time.  OISS is not responsible for, and expressly disclaims liability for, any errors or omissions relating to your OPT application and any decisions made by USCIS.  For legal advice, students are encouraged to consult with a licensed and experienced immigration attorney at their own expense.