Changes In US Visa Rules To Help Students Get OPT Work Visa


A significant change in US visa rules allowing international students to stay on and work in the United States for an extended period of 24 months brings welcome relief to hundreds of thousands pursuing programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). While the students stand to gain from exposure to actual work environment for a longer period, companies welcome the diversity of profiles and talent available for hire across a wide spectrum.

A US visa is a tough preposition at best of times, more so if you are seeking to work through college. While the F-1 visa is meant for full time students with sufficient funds for self-support, the M-1 visa (Vocational Student) is for those in vocational or other non-academic programs, other than language training. Both the visas are in the non-immigrant category.

F-1 students, while not being allowed to work off-campus during the first academic year, may accept on-campus employment subject to certain conditions and restrictions. Afterwards, they could accept jobs under Curricular Practical Training (CPT).

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion). However, all periods of pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT.

For both F-1 and M-1 students, any off-campus employment must be related to their area of study and must be authorized prior to starting any work by the Designated School Official (the person authorized to maintain the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The new rule coming into force from May 10 replaces the STEM Optional Practical Training Program and allows students to stay for three years in the US for on the job training. It is seven months longer than the existing rule dating back to 2008.

Misuse of the old rule by certain Universities that acted more like visa shops in allowing ineligible candidates to stay on in the US led to adoption of more stringent steps like only students of accredited institutions being eligible to apply for OPT. While the extended period of stay would be helpful for those planning to stay on and work in the US after graduation, the Universities themselves benefit in attracting technical and engineering talent that are in high demand among various industries also.

The Universities are also not unhappy over the growing number of students seeking higher education in the US, most of them paying full fees and not opting for scholarships.

It also allows students more time to try for the H-1B visa for skilled foreign workers. There is a cap on the number of visas in this category, currently set at 65,000 with an additional 20,000 for graduates with advanced degrees.

However, not all are happy at the change in rules. Workers Unions in several sectors fear that their jobs could be lost to foreigners, especially when cost to company would be lesser since the students would not be covered by the social security net.

However, the authorities say the new rules directly states that a STEM OPT student would not replace a full- or part-time, temporary or permanent US worker and that the salary offered would be commensurate to American workers. Training programs were to be tightened along with mandatory oversight of employers and ensuring that the students were only from accredited universities.

As far as applying for OPT is concerned, USCIS specifies that the student should request the designated school official (DSO) at the academic institution recommend the OPT. The DSO will make the recommendation by endorsing Form I-20 and making the appropriate notation in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). A properly filled Form I-765 along with Application for Employment Authorization with USCIS, accompanied by the required fee and the supporting documentation are to be submitted.

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