If you are an international student who is interested in working in the US after graduation, you may be able to qualify for a non-immigrant OPT visa. While this visa is not as long duration as an H1B work visa, it does offer an interim way to remain in the US and look for employment, either part-time or full time. You can also obtain the OPT before graduation so that you are prepared for the need to convert your visa status.
Are You an International Student With an F-1 Non-immigrant Visa?
Students are often attending a college or university in the US on an F-1 visa, which allows them to stay in the country for the time span of their education. However, once a student graduates, the F-1 visa is no longer valid, and some type of new visa is required. This is where the OPT visa becomes useful for recent graduates looking to quickly enter the US workforce, and avoid the H1B visa application process.
Requirements to Obtain an OPT Visa
To obtain the OPT visa a student will need to have attended an approved school full time for at least one academic year. Part-time enrollment or English language training courses will not qualify for the OPT visa.
Since the OPT is really a student work visa, the job must be related to the student’s field of study, but can be used for any employer in any location in the US. This is similar requirement to the H1B visa, where a job must pertain to the kind of educational degree held by the applicant.
The application may take up to 90 days to process, so any student contemplating an OPT for work should plan well ahead of their graduation date or the employment start date.
Restrictions and Limitation on OPT Visas
The OPT visa can only be used for one initial 12-month period. Some types of degrees can make you eligible for a 17-month extension, giving you 29 months maximum total. After that, an H1B or other work visa must be obtained.
The OPT visa can be used to work during school holidays or breaks if the student has not yet graduated, however the work is limited to 20 hours per week. After graduation, OPT visa holders can work standard 40 hour work weeks.
Can an OPT Visa Help the Approval of an H1B Visa?
Once the OPT visa has expired, the only option is to obtain a different type of work visa such as the H1B. Many students opt to go straight from an F-1 visa to the H1B, but the OPT is another available path. Many students assume that having an OPT visa will make the application for an H1B easier, and that may be true in some cases.
Naturally, being in the US and working is an advantage for the OPT visa holder over other applicants, and the transition to any H1B requires a company sponsorship. Usually, that will be the current or prospective employer.
The good news is that there is a separate visa quota for international students that may make the process more successful. Also, since many students may seek employment in a university, there is an exemption from the quota for some planning to work at learning institutions. See our blog post on the H1B visa rules for a more detailed explanation of the requirements for that non-immigrant visa, or contact us if you have questions about working in the US and your visa status.