Optional Practical Training (OPT) lets eligible F-1 students work in their field of study in the United States for 12 to 36 months as a part of their program.
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is defined as “temporary employment for practical training directly related to the student’s major area of study.” Practically, this means that OPT is a type of employment authorization that is designed to allow students to put their degree to use in a practical, yet temporary, way. OPT can be used prior to graduation (pre-completion OPT) or after graduation (post-completion OPT). All students have access to 12 months of OPT per program level (Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctorate). Students in designated majors (STEM majors) may be eligible to extend their post-completion OPT for an additional 24 months provided they meet certain criteria. OPT is a benefit of F-1 status, and students continue to report to Lehigh’s OISS for the duration of their OPT. J-1 students are not eligible for OPT, but may be eligible to request Academic Training. Continue reading below for details about pre-completion OPT and the application process.
What is Pre-Completion OPT?
Pre-completion OPT is work authorization that occurs prior to a student's program completion date. While much less common than post-completion OPT, pre-completion OPT will be used by students who are in major that does not have curricular options for completing an internship. It may also be used by a student whose major does offer an internship course but that student does not want to enroll in that course associated with the internship or work experience. Any work done while on pre-completion OPT must be directly related to the major field of study. Pre-completion OPT is approved by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) for a specific period of time, and is either approved for part-time (20 hours or less) or full-time (more than 20 hours per week). Continue reading for more infomation about eligibility and how to apply.
Before ApplyingOPT Eligibility
F-1 students must meet these eligibility requirements to apply for pre-completion OPT:
F-1 students must have been enrolled full-time for 9-months (the equivalent of two full semesters) before becoming eligible
F-1 students are eligible for a total of 12-months of OPT per educational level (BA/BS to MS/MA to PhD). If you previously applied for OPT for a “lower” academic level, you are eligible to apply for additional OPT if you have completed a “higher” academic degree (i.e. Master’s or PhD.)
12-months or more of previous FULL-TIME Curricular Practical Training (CPT) at the same academic level will eliminate any future OPT eligibility. Part-time CPT does not impact OPT eligibility. Any previous part-time CPT or full-time CPT less than 12-months in duration will not be subtracted from your 12 months of OPT.
BEFORE APPLYINGWhen to Apply
You can file your pre-completion OPT application with USCIS no earlier than 90-days prior to date you want to begin your pre-completion OPT. OISS strongly recommends filing your pre-completion OPT application as soon as you know you want to apply – ideally about 90 days before you wish to start working.
Once your Pre-completion OPT Request e-form (submitted via iHome in the F-1 Employment Authorization section) is complete, it will take 5 - 7 business days for OISS to review it. Once your application has been reviewed, you will receive an e-mail to schedule an appointment with your OISS Advisor.
Before ApplyingChoosing a Pre-completion OPT Start and End Date
Because you are applying for pre-completion OPT to complete an internship for a defined period of time, you will be asked to provide a start date and an end date. Time that you use during pre-completion OPT is deducted from the 12 months that you are allowed for OPT. If you use full-time pre-completion OPT for two months, this will deduct 2 months from the amount of time available to you for post-completion OPT. If you use part-time pre-completion OPT, time will be deducted at half (for example, 12 weeks of part-time pre-completion OPT would deduct 6 weeks from the time available to you for post-completion OPT).
Generally, you will request a pre-completion OPT start date that corresponds with the start date of your internship. You will request a pre-completion OPT end date that corresponds with the end date of your internship. Remember – you will only be able to work off-campus during the dates of your pre-completion OPT, and these dates cannot be changed after you submit your pre-completion OPT application!
- You cannot begin work (or volunteer in any capacity) until your OPT has been approved by the USCIS, you have your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) in your hands, and your start date has arrived.
- Processing times for OPT applications (Form I-765) change regularly. Current processing times are in the 4 – 8 week range. You can find average processing times on the USCIS website.
- Effective April 7, you can request Premium Processing of your I-765 for an additional filing fee of $1,500. If you apply in a timely manner, you should not need to use Premium Processing, but it will guarantee a response to your application within 30 days.
Applying for OPT
USCIS encourages applicants to file applications online whenever possible. The agency implemented on online I-765 Application for Employment Authorization in 2021, and most students applying for OPT file online. Please note that, per OPT application instructions, you must be physically in the U.S. at the time you submit your application to USCIS. If you choose to travel after this, please review our OPT Travel information below.
*The OISS will create a new OPT I-20 for your pre-completion OPT application. You should NOT submit your application to USCIS until you have completed all the application steps below and received the OPT I-20.
Step 1. Review “Pre-completion OPT - choosing a start and end date” above to determine the start and end date that will appear on your pre-completion OPT I-20. The OISS will review these dates in your Pre-completion OPT I-20 Request E-Form and will contact you if we have questions. Please keep in mind that these dates cannot be changed after your I-765 has been submitted.
Step 2. Review this guide before you begin your online application.
Step 3. Fill out the I-765.
If you are applying online, you should start the online I-765 and complete all fields in the "Getting Started" and "About You" sections. You will then go down to Review and Submit, click “Next” and then click “View Draft Snapshot”. Save this document as you will upload it for OISS review in your Pre-completion OPT Request e-form. DO NOT submit your online I-765 at this time. It will be saved as a draft when you log in next.
If you submitted the OPT application to USCIS (either online or via mail) without the OPT I-20, contact your OISS by e-mail immediately.
Step 4. Complete the OISS’s Pre-completion OPT I-20 Request E-Form (log in to iHome, go to the F-1 Employment Authorization section, then select the Pre-completion OPT I-20 Request E-form)
Step 5. Meet with your OISS Advisor and receive your Pre-completion OPT I-20 from OISS. Once your Pre-completion OPT I-20 Request e-form has been reviewed, you will receive an e-mail to schedule an appointment with your OISS Advisor.
Step 6. Submit your OPT Application to USCIS.
OPT applicationTips for completing your I-765
- Your I-765 does not need to be signed for submission to the OISS.
- The mailing address on the I-765 should be valid and able to receive your mail for 3-5 months after submitting your application. If you are using a friend or relative’s address, add your name to the mailbox. If you choose to use OISS as a mailing address, use the following address (the #s are for the paper I-765, the words are what you see in the online I-765 mailing address section):
#5.a/In Care of: OISS, Lehigh University
#5.b/Address Line 1: 32 Sayre Drive, Coxe Hall
#5.f/Zip Code: 18015
- NOTE: If you use the OISS’s address to receive your I-797 and EAD, we will request permission to open your mail in the OPT Application E-Form. OISS is not responsible for lost or damaged mail, nor is the OISS responsible for postage errors or undeliverable mail. OISS will contact you when your documents are received.
- If you move while your OPT application is still pending you must change your physical address directly with USCIS and update iHome. Please note that USCIS might not make the change in time and your card may not be delivered correctly. Consider using the OISS’s address if you might move prior to your approval.
- Download your most recent I-94. You will need the I-94 number for the Your immigration information section of your I-765. (Go to “Get My I-94” at the top and input your personal details).
- Once OISS has received your OPT Request e-form, your OISS Advisor will contact you via e-mail to schedule an appointment to go over the application.
OPT applicationFiling your I-765 online
The online filing system is user-friendly, convenient, and overall a very efficient process. It is a centralized hub where you will be able to submit forms electronically, check the status of your case, and receive updates and any requests for evidence from USCIS online instead of waiting to receive them in the mail. The benefit is that this is a completely paperless process (no money orders or paper checks needed as payments can be made online, by credit card or electronic check). Simply filing an OPT application does not guarantee approval. You must still meet all of the requirements to qualify for OPT.
If you apply online, you will see collection of biometrics (fingerprints, eye scans, etc) mentioned. Biometrics have not traditionally been required for OPT applications, and we have not seen Lehigh students be asked to submit biometrics as part of their OPT application. However, it is important to note that USCIS has discretion to request biometrics on a case by case basis. This means there is a chance that you will be required to appear for an interview or be subject to additional background checks (in person fingerprints, photograph, signature, etc.) before USCIS makes a decision on your application. If you are required to attend a biometric services appointment, you will be notified in writing of the date, time, and location. You will be responsible for appearing for the appointment at the USCIS office and due to COVID-19 restrictions, this could significantly delay your application process.
WHEN APPLYING ONLINE, FOLLOW THESE STEPS:
Step 1. Receive the Pre-completion OPT I-20 from the OISS by following the OPT I-20 Request Process above.
Step 2. Prepare your application documents to upload to the USCIS Portal. The I-765 application will be submitted entirely online. The following evidence must be clear and readable and must be uploaded in one of the acceptable file formats: JPG, JPEG, PDF, TIF, or TIFF.
- One 2” x 2” photo of you. Instructions for the photo and a photo composition tool can be found within the online I-765 in the Evidence section.
- Print out of your current I-94 record
- If you were issued an EAD previously, upload a copy (front and back)
- Copy of your biographical page from your passport. If you have a copy of a previous EAD, you are not required to upload a copy of your passport, but we recommend that you do.
- Copy of your most recently issued F-1 visa stamp. If you upload your passport, this is not required but is highly recommended.
- Proof that you have been enrolled full-time for at least 1 academic year (2 semesters) - this can be a copy of your unofficial transcript
- Previously issued I-20s with CPT or OPT on P. 2. If you do not have Lehigh-issued I-20s, you can request them via iHome (I-20 Reprint Request in General Services). OISS cannot sign old I-20s nor will this be an issue for your OPT application
- New I-20 with Pre-completion OPT recommendation on P. 2 attached to the “OPT I-20 is ready” email from your OISS Advisor. You should print all three pages, sign the bottom of P. 1 in ink, then scan and save Pages 1 and 2 to upload to your online I-765. Students are not permitted to sign the I-20 digitally or electronically. DO NOT submit your application without this new I-20.
Step 3. Apply for OPT using USCIS’ online application
NOTE: Submitting your fee will be the last thing you do as part of your online application. USCIS’ fee website can be reviewed here. Once the USCIS fee is submitted online, you have applied for OPT and no changes can be made to your application. DO NOT PAY THE FEE UNTIL YOU HAVE UPLOADED ALL REQUIRED EVIDENCE, including your new Pre-completion OPT I-20.
If you wish to use Premuim Processing, you will be able to file an I-907 Request for Premium Processing online at the same time that you submit your I-765. You can also upgrade to Premium Processing at a later time. Please note that Premium Processing will guarantee a response to your application within 30 days. Current OPT processing times for I-765s without premium processing are in the 4 - 8 week range.
Please review the OISS’s tips for applying, to learn more, watch this video from OISS (Lehigh log in required)
Step 4. Receive I-797 Receipt Notice for Your Pending OPT Application
Your receipt will be created almost automatically and uploaded to the “Documents” tab of your online account.
After applyingNext Steps
After your OPT application is submitted, you will receive several important documents:
First, you will receive I-797 Receipt Notice for your pending OPT application.
If you apply online, your receipt will be created almost automatically and uploaded to the “Documents” tab of your online account.
Next, you will receive your OPT Approval:
- USCIS processing time changes regularly and generally range from 1 - 3 months. You can find current processing times on the USCIS website by selecting the form type (I-765) and Service Center listed on your receipt notice (generally Potomac Service Center).
- You will receive a I-797 approval notice and your employment authorization document (EAD) in the mail once approved. The hardcopy approval notice and EAD will be sent to your mailing address on your I-765.
- If you used the OISS’s address: Once the OISS has received your EAD and approval notice, you will receive an email notification from us. Please be mindful that while tracking may say it’s delivered, that doesn’t mean the OISS has it in our possession yet. Please wait until we contact you with next steps.
- Check your EAD very carefully to make sure that it is accurate. If the dates are different than the requested dates on your pre-completion OPT I-20, please contact OISS.
If you receive anything other than an Approval notice and your EAD, please contact OISS immediately. If anything is incorrect or incomplete with your application, you may receive a Rejection Notice, a Request for Evidence (RFE) or a Denial Notice. If you receive one of these, it is essential that you contact OISS right away! Do not start working until you have your EAD in hand and the start date listed has passed.
While reporting your employment to OISS is not required for pre-completion OPT, we stongly encourage you to provide OISS with a copy of your EAD and information about your employer.