A blog about U.S. immigration matters by Paul Szeto, a former INS attorney and an experienced immigration attorney and counsel. Contact Info: 732-632-9888, http://www.1visa1.com/ (All information is not legal advice and is subject to change without prior notice.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

OPT extension for foreign students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields

Foreign students in the U.S. inevitably face this question: What do I do after my OPT ends?  There are different visa options that they may consider including the H-1B Visa, TN Visa (Canadians and Mexicans), E-3 Visas (Australians), Aliens of Extraordinary Ability Visa (O-1), Investors (E-1/E-2), etc.  For those students who have earned a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, they actually have another option:  apply for a 17-month STEM OPT extension.

Requirements for STEM OPT
To apply for a STEM OPT extension, a student must be in post-completion 12-month OPT and has earned a designated STEM degree.  Employment must be directly related to the field of study. Further, the employer must be registered with the DHS E-Verify employment verification system, and agree to report any termination or changes in employment status within 48 hours.

Advantages of STEM OPT
The obvious advantage of obtaining a STEM OPT extension is the additional 17 months of employment and stay in the United States.  As long as work is related to the STEM field of study, students may work as employees, contractors, interns, or volunteers.  Foreign students may also start a business and be self-employed.  In this situation, the student must work full-time and establish that he or she has the proper business licenses and is actively engaged in business activities that relate to the STEM degree.  Most importantly, the additional 17 months will accord students more time to explore other visa opportunities such as H-1B employment.

Things to know about STEM OPT
Students may apply for STEM OPT 120 days before the regular OPT expires by filing the I-765 form. Once an application is submitted, a student is allowed to continue working for up to 180 days or until the USCIS makes a decision. However, if extension is denied, a student should leave the country within the regular 60-day grace period unless he or she is able to obtain another visa status.

For students on regular post-completion OPT or cap-gap automatic extension, they are allowed to be unemployed for 90 days. Students with an approved 17-month extension will be entitled to another 30 days of unemployment time for a total of 120 days over the entire period of post-completion OPT.

STEM OPT is not without limitations.  It is a one-time extension which starts the day after the regular 12-month OPT period and ends 17 months later, regardless when the application is approved.  It cannot be broken down into smaller periods of employment.  Further, a student on STEM OPT must report any changes of legal name, address, employer, employer address, employment, immigration status, etc. to the school's DSO within 10 days of the change by submitting the Post Completion OPT Reporting Survey.  The survey must be submitted every 6 months even if there are no changes.

How do STEM OPT students travel?
For international travel, students on STEM OPT must have a valid F-1 visa stamp, a passport valid for at least six months, the STEM Extension EAD card, and an employment verification letter from their employer. Finally, they should also obtain an I-20 with travel endorsement from their school. Travel endorsement cannot be more than six months old.

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