OPT: Working Permission in the USA by finishing a college degree

To my German readers: This post is in English, because many international students – also those that can’t speak German – want to know how to work in the U.S.; that’s why the blog post is in English.

I experienced a real lack of shared knowledge online about how to get work permission in the US after finishing a degree here, so that’s why I’d like to share my gathered knowledge with you. In this post you will learn the terms you need to know and the process you need to follow in order to work in the US for one year – legally.

OPT. Before I came to SMC, I had never heard of that word before.
The nice abbreviation stands for Optional Practical Training, which in Essence means to practice what one learnt at college in the real world – the working world. In the last decade, immigration has become increasingly tougher and US-visas became less obtainable; the bureaucratic wait times make things even more complicated. Studying here is great, and you meet many people and cultures you wouldn’t have experienced if you stayed home.

But … studying in the US means spending a lot of money, and it’s usually not your own money, but from a federal grant/loan from your home country or from your parents. Someone at the US immigration and education departments was nice enough to notice that, and devised a very clever way to permit international students to work.

There is actually five options to work and earn money as a student in the US:

Economic Hardship, On-Campus Employment, Internships, CPT and OPT

Economic Hardship
When I was studying at SMC, the Tsunami catastrophy of 2010 happened in Japan. Many of my friends at Santa Monica College were Japanese and some of them came from areas affected by the Tsunami. Some of their parents’ work places were destroyed, hence the money source for these international students disappeared.
Now, the US government is nice enough to not tell you to just go back to where you came from – if you, for some unforseeable reason, get into a position where you source of money is no more (temporarily, there are some lax restrictions) – you get a work permit, just like someone seeking asylum.
With this work permit you can work as anything – as manager of a company, as something within your major, or a McDonalds-Job. Your pay rate is unlimited. You get the work permit because you need to create income for yourself in order to survive – granted that you really need to do that.

The other four, less dramatic options, become available to you one year after starting your college studies in the US and are training-related.

On-Campus Employment
You will work in the library, in the language lab, the counseling complex, the international student counseling office, for a professor as an assistant etc. etc. – all these jobs pay $8 per hour and are limited to 20 hours of work per week. Me, coming from a graphic design background where I can earn $100/hour, didn’t consider that option because of the extremely low pay. I also wanted to work within a field of my interest, less a job that’s “just for the money”. There is plenty of students that work on campus though, and I heard from many that they have a lot of fun doing it. So, if you didn’t teach yourself graphic design for 7 years prior and want to collect some work experience, talk to the career center, they are the ones who can give you more information on On-Campus Employment.

Paid Internships
You can enroll  in an internship class, which is an empty hull with a 1.5-hour introduction about what to look for in an internship – the rest is up to you. You will have to find an employer that – if you have the skillset – hires you as a paid intern. You can work a maximum of 20 hours per week, but you pay rate is unlimited. The employer needs to prove that you learned something on the job, and you need to make regular reports to the internship  coordinator at your college, as well as writing a final report.
The nice thing about an internship is that it requires nothing of your resources, apart from your time and commitment. It can be a learning experience, and you can earn money just like anyone else. The internship position has to do with your major – if you study film, you could work in a camera store and learn about the equipment, or you might as well be hired as a director and learn the workings of advertising agencies (which is less likely). Also, an Internship is employer-bound, so you can’t work for multiple companies at the same time.
The thing is though, if you don’t know an employer personally that can custom-create an internship for you, you can only apply to positions that ask for an intern. Also, your internship can only be as long as a semester (you could theoretically re-apply in the next semester though).

The OPT Form at SMC - your Application Packet gives you a great checklist of the necessary forms and documentation you need to apply for OPT at Santa Monica College.

The OPT Form at SMC - your Application Packet gives you a great checklist of the necessary forms and documentation you need to apply for OPT at Santa Monica College.

CPT – Curricular Practical Training
CPT stands for Curricular Practical Training, which means that you practice what you learned while  you are still learning it. This qualifies you to apply to any job – not just internships – which requires you to work less than 20 hours a week. You will still have to be enrolled in at least 12 Units (the full-time international student minimum) at your college, but your options are wider. Your pay is again unlimited here. You can work for different employers on CPT, as compared to an internship. The only problem: the CPT eats away your OPT limit.
CPT and OPT share a time budget. If you work 6 months on CPT, 3 months of your OPT limit is gone, meaning that you multiply the CPT time by 0.5 and subtract that amount from the 12 month limit. I don’t recommend CPT; much you can do in CPT you can do as an internship without eating your OPT budget, which is worth gold.

OPT – Optional Practical Training
As the name implies, Optional Practical Training is optional. That means, nobody will offer you to start an OPT, you have to do it yourself – the college provides you with everything you need, and knows nearly everything – but they don’t know everything, which I will mention later. Basically, an OPT is a 12-month period after finishing a degree in the US, in which you can work. Not just at one employer, but at as many as you like – which enables you to freelance. You can found your own company and work for yourself. You can work as an unpaid intern, but only if you want to waste your time. Your time is limited: 12 months, one year of work in the US, without any other responsibilities. You can work 40 hours a week, 10 hours a week, 280 hours a week – it’s up to you.
In a nutshell, OPT is a gift from the gods – a one-year wannabe-greencard that lets you work within the field of your major. So, no McDonald’s jobs (unless you study business and get hired there in an office job).
Your OPT is precious.

How to apply for OPT

Each university/college might have slightly different processes and paperwork, but generally, the process is the same. For OPT, you don’t need to find an employer before you apply (unlike an internship), but you have to find work within 90 days. Each college will have an OPT request form, which is your starting base. All the steps needed can also be found in the OPT Application Packet Form / Instructions.

Keep in mind that applications for your OPT must be received by USCIS no earlier than 90 days before you graduate, and no later than 60 days after. There is about a 2-3 month wait until you get your EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card, so plan ahead: After you submit your paperwork, you will have to wait two or three months until you can start working.

The i-765 form, which you fill out so the Department of Homeland Security knows you are asking for OPT Employment Authorization as an F1-Visa student.

The i-765 form, which you fill out so the Department of Homeland Security knows you are asking for OPT Employment Authorization as an F1-Visa student.

So, what you’ll need all along is:

  • Your passport
  • Your I-20 (the form the school gave you as an addition to your F1-Visa)
  • Your I-94 (that’s what they staple to your passport when you enter the US)
  • A filled out I-765 form, in which you request employment authorization to the USCIS: www.uscis.gov/i-765
  • Two photos of yourself complying with the passport photo standards
  • The OPT Request Form where you request permission of the college
  • A check or money order for $380, payable to “Department of Homeland Security” (hopefully you’ll earn that money back on your OPT)

At SMC, you’ll have to first go to the international student counseling center and get half of the OPT Request Form approved. Now you’ll have to meet with the person responsible to granting OPTs. There are usually two meetings – go one time to make sure you understood everything, and a second time to show everything. They will take really good care of you having everything complete – so don’t worry, you will be babysat a little bit here because it’s absolutely crucial that everything is filled out correctly.

The person responsible for OPTs will then change your status in the USCIS system as “applying for post-completion OPT” or something along these lines. They will put everything in one big envelope – including your check/money order, close the envelope, write the address on there for you and give you the envelope.
All you have to do now is go to a post office and send it off – it’s a foolproof process from then on. The address you have to send it to is:

USCIS
P.O. Box 21281
Phoenix, AZ 85036

Now you’ll have to wait

After you submit your precious envelope, you will have to wait. At SMC, there is a post-submission OPT checklist / reminder sheet that informs you further for the waiting period. After about a week  I got a receipt, which meant that my application was received by the USCIS – they have a gigantic hub somewhere in the middle of the USA where tens of thousands of submissions go through hundreds of desks – its an enormous operation,  so processing times can take a while – imagine it like a big postal service hub.

The receipt of your EAD application - you'll get that in the mail, which means, your application has been received.

The receipt of your EAD application - you'll get that in the mail, which means, your application has been received.

Then you’ll have to wait for two to three months to receive your EAD card. On the card, there is an official start date for your OPT – and after that date, you can start working wherever – within the industry that corresponds to your college major.

Also, pretty much parallel to applying for OPT, you should apply for health insurance coverage; since you don’t pay for classes any more, the mandatory health insurance won’t be attached to the classes – you have to file it seperately. At SMC, there is an OPT Health Insurance Form.

My EAD Card arrived! I’m excited as hell! What now?

This is your official permission to work, your EAD card. My god, was I excited, like running up a wall and defying gravity! If an employer asks you if you can work in the United States, you can show them this card... it's been a long way to get it!

This is your official permission to work, your EAD card. My god, was I excited, like running up a wall and defying gravity! If an employer asks you if you can work in the United States, you can show them this card... it's been a long way to get it!

As you can see, my EAD card is valid for one year – that’s the only limitation the OPT has. That, and not working at Burger King – you have to find a job / many jobs in the field of your major and be unemployed for less than 90 days within that year.

Now you have to get a social security number – you simply go to a Social Security Office – they are really nice there – and fill out a form. Bring your passport, I-20 and your EAD card, and fill out the Social Security form. Actually, this form is probably the most foolproof form ever made – even someone who can’t read can fill it out.

The Application for a Social Security number - sorry, the form crumbled on transport, but as you can see, you will have no trouble filling it out - finally something that's made easy for you in order to work legally!

The Application for a Social Security number - sorry, the form crumbled on transport, but as you can see, you will have no trouble filling it out - finally something that's made easy for you in order to work legally!

The rest … well, the rest is up to you. If you find a job, if you work freelance, if you found your own company (you can do that too, yes!), if you just sit at home and wonder how fast the one year of OPT will be over again – it’s all your decision!

Further Links

About the Author

Tobias Deml is an Austrian Filmmaker and Visual Artist. 2012 Cinematography Reel: http://vimeo.com/53973421 Tobias Deml ist ein österreichischer Filmstudent und Möchtegernregisseur in Los Angeles. Er arbeitet derzeit als Kameramann in Los Angeles und popelt in seiner Nase.