As graduation gets closer, many international students have already filed their Optional Practical Training (OPT) status with Duke Visa Services. Here is what I have found out about OPT and what it can do for me:

Let’s say I got a full-time job offer and my employer requires that I start working prior to October 1, which is the start date of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) fiscal year, which is also the start date of any newly granted H-1B visas. So there is a gap in my visa coverage between graduation in May and October 1. OPT is here to fill the gap, with a slight twist, however. Since H-1B visas are in high demand, once they are open for application in early April, they are gone usually before the end of summer (this year the cap was reached in just 5 days after USCIS started to accept new H1-B fillings). In this case, I will need to be on OPT for one year. During OPT, my H-1B application should be prepared for the next year’s filing. So, for example, if I get an offer in 2013, stay on OPT for 2013 – 2014, then apply for the H-1B in April 2014, and change my visa status from F-1 with OPT to H-1B on October 1, 2014. Even though there is another gap between 2014 summer (end of my OPT) and October 1, 2014, my OPT should still be valid since USCIS has recognized this issue and fixed it with “Cap Gap,” which provides student work authorization until the H-1B takes affect.

If I don’t have an offer by the time of OPT application, I can use OPT as a buffer to continue job search after graduation. Since the grace period after graduation for every F-1 student is 2 months, with or without OPT, a student can theoretically stay in the U.S. for up to 5 months after finishing his/her program. This is because OPT grants students 3 months to continue job search. If I find a job within 3 months of receiving the Employment Authorization Document (EAD), I may continue working until exactly 12 months after getting the EAD. However, if I can’t find a job or internship within those 3 months, my U.S. visa status will expire.

Duke Visa Services is an extremely helpful and trusted resource. The staff members there have assisted Duke international students, workers, and scholars for many years, and thus have seen all types of passports, visas, and “weird” visa situations. Check out the visa office’s website. Going over FAQs is what I found the most useful.

Remember: Each international student may have his/her own unique situation, and it may not fall into the aforementioned scenarios (for example, you have used part of your OPT time). For the latest and most accurate information, please refer to the Duke visa office website and the USCIS website.