If you’re an international student on an F-1 visa status in the US, and you’re planning to or have already applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT), you should know that there are many rules and regulations regarding this type of employment authorisation.
One important aspect that students should be aware of is about unemployment. What this means is there are rules that govern how many days a student is allowed to be unemployed during the period of authorised OPT.
Below are five important facts you should know about this subject:
1. Maximum days allowed
This will depend on the type of OPT you have been authorised for. Students on post-completion OPT have up to 90 days of unemployment. Note that those who have OPT extended due to the H-1B cap gap provisions are still subject to the 90-days rule and will continue to accrue unemployment time.
Those who have earned a degree in certain science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and have been authorised for a 24-month extension of post-completion OPT employment authorisation have an additional 60 days of unemployment and in total, 150 days of unemployment.
2. No qualifying employment = Unemployment
What qualifies as “unemployment”? Let’s start with what OPT “employment” means. “Employment” refers to any job or work opportunity that is directly related to your field of study and combines for an average of 20 hours per week.
According to the University of Southern Maine’s website, unemployment is described as “time spent without a qualifying job during OPT and each day that the student is not employed is counted toward the limit on unemployment time”. Unemployment time stats accruing on your OPT start date are listed on your EAD (the card you get with your OPT approval).
The period of up to 10 days between the end of one job and the beginning of the next job is not counted as unemployment.
3. Travel outside the US
Time spent traveling outside the US will count as unemployment against the 90 or 150-day limits.
However, if this travel time is during employment and authorised as a period of leave by the OPT employer or as part of their employment, the time spent outside will not count as unemployment.
4. Exceeding unemployment limits means violating visa status
Although schools are not required to alert the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), students should contact their international office to cancel their remaining OPT time if they’ve accrued more than 90 days of unemployment.
University of Chicago’s site states:
“USCIS keeps track of your unemployment days, based on the OPT Update Forms you submit. If you accrue more than 90 days of unemployment (or if you fail to update your employer information while employed), USCIS will automatically terminate your record, which will end your legal presence in the US and forfeit your remaining OPT time.”
There is no grace period after reaching the 90-day limit and you will be expected to leave the country. If you remain, it will be considered as unlawful presence and subject to negative immigration consequences, impacting future visa applications.
5. Volunteer or intern to stop the unemployment clock running
Working – even as a volunteer or intern – counts as OPT employment and will stop the unemployment clock as long as it is related to your field of study. Consider applying to non-profits or other volunteer positions while looking for something more permanent or paid.
It may not be your dream job, but it will help keep unnecessary trouble with US immigration at bay while you look for a better job.