OPT procedures for international students to work in the US

For international students wanting to work in the US, the process can be time-consuming and frustrating writes student Adam Štorek

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Adam Štorek

January 7 2020
OPT visa for international students in the US


For every international student on an F-1 visa, Optional Practical Training (OPT) is the vehicle one uses to work legally in the US. It has just one downside: by the time you get your permit, it may too late for you to do your internship or work experience. 

It gets more complicated than that. You can only apply for an OPT 90 days prior to the expected work date of your internship. But sometimes (at my university, Columbia University for example) it takes the International Students and Scholars Office up to 10 business days to process your application.

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Then, after you get your OPT I-20 and you add your G-1145, your I-765, your I-94, your previous Employment Authorization Document (EAD), all your previously issued I-20s, your F-1 entry visa, your passport identification page, two passport-style photos and a $410 check, you have to send it off to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), The average processing time after this is between three and five months.

While the application process sounds like enough of a nightmare, when you add up the time it all takes it gets worse. Imagine you received an offer for a 10-week internship at a Silicon Valley technology firm. You apply for your OPT 90 days prior to the start date, receive your OPT I-20 in 10 business days (so 14 days), immediately attach all the documents and send them to USCIS. In five months, that is, 150 days, you get a notification that your application has been processed.

Then you wait 7-10 days for your EAD card to arrive. Final wait time: 14 + 150 + 10 = 174 days. Congratulations. Ninety-four days into your 70-day internship, you are now legally permitted to participate.

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This is, of course, the worst case scenario. Last May, universities such Stanford, Harvard, and NYU reported extended waiting times, now between 90-120 days, not including the 7-10 days before the EAD card arrives. Since this appears shorter than 174 days, it might be a relief for some; I disagree.

Because there is no information about the state of the application until it is processed, you are expected to sit at home, weeks into your internship, praying each day for your application to be processed. You might want to know that before you say yes to an internship in Silicon Valley, especially if you live in New York.

Thankfully, universities such as Yale and Columbia have recently devised a workaround: Curricular Practical Training (CPT). International students can now take a summer class, which allows them to do an internship for credit: to be eligible, a school only has to issue a CPT I-20, which takes a maximum of 10 days.

Sounds almost too good to be true? Well, it might be. That one credit course costs approximately $2,000. It is also necessary to attend the first class in July at the university in person. 

The struggle of international students to get their internships authorised in the US typifies a grander theme. Few US companies nowadays are open to hiring international students, as they must prove there is no qualified American for the job.

Likewise, this year’s rejection rates for H-1B visas (the vehicle that allows a foreigner to work in the US after their OPT) have skyrocketed, peaking at 32 per cent compared with 5 per cent in 2012. This also impacts internships: unless US companies see international students as their potential future workforce, they have little incentive to provide them with additional training.

At the same time, the US economy greatly benefits from attracting international talent. Willam R Kerr, a professor at Harvard Business School, argues that it is more critical than ever for the US knowledge-based economy to attract highly skilled foreign talent.

Kerr highlights that the US’s most renowned, innovative, and profitable economic hub, Silicon Valley, employs “56 per cent of STEM workers and 70 per cent of software engineers…born outside America.” Kerr also further emphasises the importance of F-1 OPT and H-1B visas as one of the main ways the US can and does acquire highly skilled labour.

There also seems to be a consensus among Americans regarding the benefits of attracting highly skilled labour. A 2017 Politico poll found that across all major indicators such as party allegiance, age, gender, level-of-education, religion, employment, and income, about 40 per cent of respondents believe the US accepts too few highly skilled legal immigrants.

A year ago, President Trump announced on Twitter that changes are coming to streamline and simplify the visa process, with a potential path to a citizenship: “We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the US,” he said. 

One way for the most talented international students to improve their chances of working in the US after school is to get a summer internship. Nevertheless, that option is now strangled by bureaucratic efforts to close off the US to any immigration.

It is important that international students in the US and students considering studying in the US are aware of this process. Unfortunately, most of us get to find out only after we manage to secure an internship. 

Read more: Which visa do you need to stay in the UK after university?


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