STEM OPT: How to work in the USA for three years with an F-1 visa

by Jessica Pedraza, Esq.

For F-1 students studying in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), there is now a way to extend your work permit even further. In March 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a new rule for F-1 students studying science, engineering, technology or mathematics. F-1 students are normally eligible for a post-graduation work permit called Optional Practical Training (OPT). For STEM students, before March 2016, they were eligible for an additional 17 months of OPT work authorization. This was an enormous benefit for students seeking employers who are willing to sponsor them. In March 2016, the Department of Homeland Security published a final rule changing the OPT extension for STEM students from 17 months to 24 months. In essence, the new 24 months extension rule will be replacing the 17 month extension rule indefinitely. Please note: eligibility for post-graduation OPT comes with certain requirements. Please see Attorney Jessica Pedraza’s article on OPT here.  

For STEM students this added time has enormous benefits. Students on an F-1 visa and who are studying in the STEM areas of study can now potentially stay and legally work in the U.S.A for three years following graduation. This amount of time can prove crucial for students seeking more work experience or students seeking a more permanent status in the U.S.A. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in order to qualify for the 24 month extension, F-1 students need the following:

  • Have been granted OPT or currently enrolled in an OPT program - they can’t give you an extension without having OPT in the first place. Once you complete your first year doing OPT you can apply for the extension. 
  • Earned a doctorate, bachelors or Masters degree from an accredited university AND one that is certified by Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). 
  • Work for an employer who meets the STEM OPT employer responsibility guidelines - this includes having the employer be registered with E-Verify. 
  • Submit the Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization up to 90 days before your current OPT employment authorization expires, and within 60 days of the date your DSO inputs his approval of OPT into your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record. 
  • Plan to work a minimum of 20 hours per week with designated employer.
  • Submit form I-983

I-983 Form

As part of the new regulations, students seeking the 24 month OPT extension will need to submit form I-983 to their Designated School Official (DSO).Students must submit a completed Form I-983 Training Plan for STEM OPT Students to the DSO before the DSO can recommend the STEM OPT extension in SEVIS.  The form must be completed by the student and his designated employer. On the I-983, the student and employer need to develop a training plan and adhere to it during the 24 month extension period. If at any point, the student deviates from the training plan and/or does not inform DHS of any material changes, DHS reserves the right to terminate or revoke the OPT extension period. The form requires both the student and the employer to certify the I-983 training plan and conditions. The training plan will include the tasks and assignment the student will be responsible for during the employment, timelines, specific skills needed and how they relate to their STEM degree, and how the employer will provide oversight and supervision. Students may not work for more than one employer but can change employers provided they inform DHS and comply with the requirements. 

It is also important to note that students who graduate from a non-STEM field can qualify for a 24 month OPT extension if: 

  • They have previously received a STEM degree - for example if you are doing a masters in business but previously received a bachelor's in mathematics, you can still get the 24 month extension;  AND
  • The employment is related to the STEM degree - in the previous example, the job would have to be related to his mathematics degree and not his business degree. 

Similarly, you can qualify for two 24 month OPT extension if you receive two qualifying degrees. For example, you can get a 24 month OPT extension following your bachelor’s STEM degree and then another 24 month extension after you complete a Master’s STEM degree. USCIS highly recommends sending transcripts with the STEM OPT application if the extension is based on a prior degree. Students who wish to complete both a bachelor's and a Master’s or doctorate should be aware of their STEM OPT extension options when planning out their schooling in the U.S.A. 

For students who are currently in their 17 month STEM OPT extension, you can apply for an additional 7 months. If you fall within this category, you must have a minimum of 150 calendar days left on your EAD (Employment Authorization Document) and you must file your EAD between May 10, 2016 and August 8, 2016. For more information on this, follow this link: SEVP DHS Guidelines.

For F-1 students studying science, mathematics, technology or engineering, this rule can provide more opportunities for advancement and can prove beneficial for those seeking a full-time position and sponsorship. For more information, the DHS website and guidelines can be found here

Jessica Pedraza, Esq. is an immigration attorney for Global Immigration Solutions Law Firm. She can be contacted at jessica@gislawfirm.com

Please note: this article is provided to the Study in the USA community and is meant to provide information but does not constitute legal advice. Even though we strive to provide accurate and detailed advice based on the current immigration laws of the United States, all legal advice must be tailored to specific facts and laws are constantly changing. Nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for the advice of an experienced immigration attorney.

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