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Optional practical training (OPT) vs. STEM OPT

interstride logo by Interstride
March 20, 2024

As an international student, you’ve probably read or heard about Optional Practical Training (OPT) and maybe even STEM OPT. Both are work authorization programs for students in the United States on F-1 visas. But what’s the difference between OPT and STEM OPT?

In short, OPT allows international students to work in the US under certain stipulations. STEM OPT is a two-year extension of standard OPT for recent graduates who have completed their education in an eligible science, technology, engineering, or math degree program. OPT is open to all students on an F-1 visa, but only certain F-1 students qualify for STEM OPT. Let’s take a closer look at both programs, starting with standard OPT.

What is OPT

OPT is a 12-month work authorization program that permits international students to gain professional experience without having to apply for another visa. To qualify, you must work in a job that is directly related to your area of study. You are eligible to apply for work authorization while you are still in school through pre-completion OPT after your first academic year. You are also eligible to apply for OPT after you graduate through post-completion OPT. 

The government allows you to take advantage of both types of OPT, but there is a 12-month limit that includes both pre-completion and post-completion combined. The overwhelming majority of students wait until after graduation to take advantage of OPT. This strategic decision allows them to maximize their time in the US. Without post-completion OPT, international students must leave the US within 60 days of graduation.

Who is eligible for OPT?

All students are eligible to apply for OPT, regardless of their major. Most schools have staff and resources through their international centers to help students navigate OPT. Because OPT is a relatively short program, students should always think about what their options are for after their 12 months is over. Once your post-completion period ends, you need to seek alternative options for continuing your career or leave the US within 60 days of your OPT end date.

What is STEM OPT

The US government has a vested interest in ensuring there are enough people in the American workforce with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. These professionals are in high demand, and the US economy depends heavily on manufacturing, technology, and other industries that need STEM talent. The government launched the Optional Practical Training Extension for STEM Students program in 2008, and initially, it permitted 17 months of additional employment. In 2016, the government changed it to 24 months. In 2022, the program was further expanded when President Joe Biden announced he was adding to the list of academic fields that qualify as STEM degrees.

Who is eligible for STEM OPT?

There are over 400 different fields of study that qualify for the STEM OPT extension program including:

  • Agriculture and food sciences
  • Computer Science
  • Pharmacology and Toxicology
  • Ecology and other natural sciences
  • Various types of engineering 
  • Business Analytics
  • Management Science

To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, you must have already been granted OPT. Furthermore, the government will only grant STEM OPT to those who are in post-completion OPT. In other words, the program is for graduates, not current students. However, you can still do some pre-completion OPT as an active student as long as it’s less than 12 months. For example, if you did six months of pre-completion OPT, you could do six months of post-completion OPT and still apply for the STEM OPT extension during that time. 

Combining the full 12 months of post-completion OPT with the STEM extension allows you to stay in the US for three years after graduation on your F-1 student visa. This is particularly beneficial to graduates who plan to work in the US long-term because it also gives you multiple chances to apply for the H-1B visa lottery (you can apply each year on OPT). OPT to STEM OPT to H-1B to green card is a common pathway that many international students choose to pursue.

OPT vs. STEM OPT for recent graduates

For both post-completion OPT and the STEM OPT extension, you must work at least 20 hours per week and the job must be directly related to your academic major. However, these programs have many differences which are outlined below.

Open to students of all academic majorsAcademic requirements Only open to students with degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math
Can be used before or after graduationEmployment timingCan only be used after graduation
Any employer is allowed as long as the job is related to your majorEmployer requirementsEmployer must be enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify program

How to apply for OPT vs STEM OPT

The processes to apply to OPT and STEM OPT are very similar. The steps may vary slightly depending on your institution, but they are generally as follows:

  1. Contact your college’s Designated School Official (DSO) and ask them to recommend you for OPT or STEM OPT. Your DSO will update SEVIS and your I‑20 form with the appropriate recommendation.
  2. Complete Form I-765 and send it to USCIS with the required documents.
  3. Pay the $410 fee to USCIS online.

Even if you plan to continue working for the same employer on the STEM extension as you did on post-completion OPT, you still must reapply with your alma mater’s DSO and complete the above process again. 

The last part of the application process differs for OPT and STEM OPT. For OPT, after USCIS approves your Form I-765, they will send you an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). You can start working on or after the OPT start date on your EAD. For STEM OPT, you can continue working after you submit your new I-765 form until your application is approved or denied. The average wait time for both OPT and STEM OPT approval is 3-6 months. When approved for STEM OPT, you will receive a notification, but you will not receive a new EAD card.

Wrap up on OPT and the STEM OPT extension

OPT grants work authorization to international students for up to 12 months total which can be used before and/or after graduation. The OPT extension for STEM students adds another 24 months of work authorization to graduates. OPT is open to all international students after their first year of study, but STEM OPT can only be used after graduation by those with qualifying STEM degrees. If you are considering STEM OPT, you may be surprised at how many degrees are eligible from veterinary sciences to business analytics. The other important point to remember is that to get approval for STEM OPT, your employer must be part of the USCIS E-Verify program. Thankfully, it’s free and easy for employers to sign up.