Optional Practical Training (OPT) lets eligible F-1 students work in their field of study in the United States for 12 to 36 months after completing 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, which is very uncommon at Lehigh) 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 OPT and the OPT application process.
To learn more about OPT, review the information on this page or watch this video workshop from our immigration advisors (Lehigh log in required).
Before applyingOPT Eligibility
F-1 students must meet these eligiblity requirements to apply for 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 Post-completion OPT application with USCIS no earlier than 90-days prior to your Completion of Studies date (e.g. 5/15/2022), and must file no later than 60-days* (i.e. 7/14/2022) after your completion of studies date. OISS recommends filing your OPT application prior within the 90 days prior to graduation.
Completion of studies in the date that you complete the requirements to earn your degree, not your official graduation date. Completion of studies guidelines:
- Undergraduate Students: Last day of the Final Exam period
- Graduate Students:
- Coursework-based students: Last day of the Final Exam period
- Thesis/dissertation students: Decide with your Academic Authority in your department. Important note: “Completion of studies” is considered the date that all degree coursework has been completed. It is also not to be confused with the date the Graduate School officially “signs off” and administratively confirms completion of all thesis or dissertation formalities (these dates are unrelated). You may begin your OPT as long as your coursework is completed; remaining enrolled at Lehigh to finish your thesis/dissertation will not impact your OPT application.
Remember: You do not need a job offer to apply for OPT!
Once your OPT Request e-form (submitted via iHome in the F-1 Employment Autorization section) is complete, it will take 3 – 5 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 an OPT Start Date
Choosing an OPT start date for the OPT Request e-form can be confusing. As you are choosing your start date, keep these things in mind:
- 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.
- You can choose any start date in the 60-day period immediately following your completion of studies date. There is not “right” OPT start date – only the date that makes sense for your situation.
- If you have a job offer, your requested OPT start date should be on or slightly before the day your employer wants you to begin work.
- If you are looking for a job, a start date later in the 60-day period will allow more time for your job search.
- OISS will use the start date you enter on your OPT Request e-form to create your new I-20 with OPT Recommendation. After this, you cannot change your requested start date.
- USCIS generally takes approximately 90 days to approve OPT applications. Your application may be processed faster or slower, and your application cannot be rushed.
Before applyingOPT Considerations
- Do not wait for a job offer in order to start the OPT application process; you do not need one to apply.
- Do not submit your OPT application to USCIS prior to obtaining a new I-20 with an OPT recommendation from OISS. Review the OPT Application Process below.
- Do not submit in your application too early. If USCIS receives your application more than 90 days before your I-20 program end date/completion of studies date, it will be denied.
- Do not wait too long to apply! You application cannot be received more than 60 days after the I-20 program end date or it will be denied.
- If your application is approved after your requested start date, the start date will be changed by USCIS to the date they approved your application.
The most common reason for OPT appliation denial is:
- If applying by mail, you wait too long to mail your application. USCIS must receive the OPT application within 30 days of the date OISS issues your I-20 with OPT recommendation.
If you are applying online, you submit the application without your I-20 with the OPT recommendation. You must have attach your I-20 with OPT recommendation from OISS when you apply online and your application must be submitted within 30 days of OPT I-20 issuance.
- If your OPT application is returned to you, rejected or denied, contact OISS by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org immediately and before resubmitting the application. Your OISS advisor will review the rejection/denial with you and help you reapply.
- Unemployment is limited to a cumulative of 90-calendar days during the 12-months of post-completion OPT. Weekends, holidays, and vacations are included in the 90-day unemployment calculation.
- Internships, unpaid/volunteer positions, part-time positions (20 or fewer hours a week), or self-employment that is directly related to your field of study can count as employment as long as you report it using the OPT Reporting E-Form found in iHome in the F-1 Employment Authorization section.
- OPT is automatically terminated when a student transfers their SEVIS record to another institution to begin a new degree program.
Applying for OPT
In April 2021, US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that F-1 students seeking Optional Practical Training (OPT) can file their applications online. USCIS will continue to accept applications via mail for those who prefer this method. Lehigh students can apply with either method, but you should let your OISS Advisor know how you plan to apply when you meet with them. To learn more, watch this video from OISS (Lehigh log in required).
Whether you file online or using the paper I-765, 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 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 “OPT When to Apply” above to determine your completion of studies date. Then choose your requested OPT Start and End Dates. The OISS will review these dates in your OPT I-20 Request E-Form and will contact you if we have questions.
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 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 applying by mail, complete the 7 page I-765 form (USICS recommends that you type rather than hand write) and save a copy as you will upload it for OISS review in your OPT Request e-form.
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 OPT I-20 Request E-Form (log in to iHome, go to the F-1 Employment Authorization section, then select the OPT I-20 Request Spring 2022 Graduates and beyond E-form)
Step 5. Meet with your OISS Advisor and receive your OPT I-20 from OISS. Once your 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. Review the instructions below for you chosen method.
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 item #21a (paper)/the Your immigration information section (online). (Go to “Get My I-94” at the top and input your personal details).
- If using the paper application, for Question #27: write (c)(3)(B). Students applying for OPT do not need to complete #28-31.
- If using the paper application, Part 6: should have your name, even if there is nothing you need to add.
- Undergraduates and students in non-thesis Masters degree programs must be cleared for graduation through Registration and Academic Services before OISS can recommend OPT. Please visit the RAS Graduation webpage for a link to the graduation application and graduation application timelines.
- Doctoral students and thesis-based Masters students will list your academic authority on the OPT Request e-form. Generally, this is your thesis/dissertation advisor who can verify that you have completed your coursework and are on track to defend your thesis/dissertation. If you are unsure who your academic authority is, please contact your department. Submission of your E-Form request will be forwarded by e-mail to the academic authority you designate. Once your academic authority completes their part of the e-form, you will receive an e-mail notification and OISS will process your request within 3-5 business days.
- 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). All OPT applications are processed in approximately the same timeframe whether you file online or by mail. Online filing, like mail filing, 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.
If applying online, follow these steps:
Step 1. Receive the 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.
- 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 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. Create your USCIS account online
Step 4. 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 OPT I-20.
Please review the OISS’s tips for applying, to learn more, watch this video from OISS (Lehigh log in required)
Step 5. 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.
OPT ApplicationFiling your I-765 by mail with paper application
Step 1. Receive the OPT I-20 from the OISS by following the OPT I-20 Request Process above.
Step 2. Prepare your application and copies of all required documents to mail to USCIS.
- Complete and sign your I-765. Be sure to fully complete Part 3 (Applicant’s Statement, Contact Information, Declaration, Certification and Signature) and sign in ink.
- Prepare two passport-style photos. Instructions on photo size can be found on the I-765 instructions.
- Copy of your biographical page from your passport and copy of your F-1 visa stamp (it is ok if the visa is expired).
- New OPT I-20 attached to the “OPT I-20 is ready” email from the OISS (you must sign the I-20 with a pen prior to submitting to USCIS). Students are not permitted to sign the I-20 digitally or electronically.
- Previously Issued CPT I-20s. You can request these via iHome using the I-20 Reprint Request in General Services. The OISS cannot sign old I-20s nor will this be an issue for your OPT application.
- Copy (front and back) of your prior 12-month OPT EAD (if you have one from a previous OPT approval)
- Print out of your current I-94 record
- Fee: Include a check or money order written to U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the appropriate amount. USCIS’ fee website can be reviewed here.
Step 3. Assemble your documents. Print all documents one-sided and do not staple documents together. OISS recommends that your photos are placed in a separate small envelope, then your photos and check are paperclipped to the rest of your documents.
Step 4: Make a copy of your entire OPT application package for your records prior to mailing.
Step 5: Mail your OPT application to the appropriate address. Please check the mailing address prior to sending your documents, as addresses do change. Current mailing addresses for I-765 for OPT are:
USCIS Chicago Lockbox
U.S. Postal Service (USPS)
Attn: I-765 C03
P.O. Box 805373
Chicago, IL 60680-5374
FedEx, UPS, and DHL deliveries:
Attn: I-765 C03 (Box 805373)
131 South Dearborn - 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603-5517
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.
If you apply by mail, you will receive an I-797 receipt notice to the address listed on your I-765 within 2 – 4 weeks.
Next, you will receive your OPT Approval:
- USCIS processing time changes regularly and generally range from 2 – 4 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) once approved (usually 90-120 days after the case is receipted). 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.
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!
Once your OPT begins, report your employment to OISS. Keep reading for more details on how to report your employment.
Maintaining your F-1 Status while on OPT
OPT is a benefit of your F-1 status, and in order to maintain your F-1 status while on OPT, you must be engaged in Practical Training (i.e. employment). Post-completion OPT requires that you work at least 20 hours per week in a practical training position (or multiple positions) that is directly related to your field of study. Work can be paid or unpaid, and a number of different types of practical training opportunities may be considered employment while you are on OPT, includling, but not limited to:
- Regular, paid employment for one or multiple employers
- Short-term employment for one or multiple employers
- Consulting work/work-for-hire
- Work through an employment/temporary agency
- Paid/unpaid internship
- Volunteer work that is directly related to your field of study
To maintain your status, the combination of all employment must be at least 20 hours per week, and each job that you do must relate directly to your field of study. You can be unemployed while on OPT, but you cannot accrue more than 90 days total of unemployment or your F-1 status may be impacted. You must report each job to OISS following the OPT Reporting requirements explained below.