26 Oct 2015

What is this fuss about STEM OPT extensions and should I be concerned?

Some students are concerned, some have panicked and some have even started questioning if they should still consider doing MS from a US university. The problem is that not many understand what these immigration terms are and if (or how) it affects them.

We are going explain the entire issue from a ten thousand foot view, so that you get the big picture of how your studies and stay in USA will be affected (or not affected) by these changes.

If you don't have patience to read all of this and just want to know it all in one sentence: It's not as bad as other blogs/articles make it look like. There is a good chance that the revoked OPT extension will be re-enacted before you graduate.

For others who want to know it all, here it begins:

What is OPT by the way?

OPT is Optional Practical Training. It lets students work in United States after they complete their studies and before they are on a visa that allows them to work (H-1B, L1 etc.). After they complete their studies, they can work for 1 year in USA, thanks to OPT. In this one year, companies generally apply for their H-1B visa.

Why do we need OPT?

Students need OPT because H-1B visa follows a yearly cycle and one cannot directly jump from a F1 visa to a H-1B visa. Companies apply for employee's H-1B in April, the results (based on lottery) come in May-July. The visa is granted in October. After you graduate, you are not on student visa anymore. You'll get your new visa only in October. You can work in this intermediate period by being on OPT. Students get a EAD (Employment authorization document) card which is essentially a substitute of their visa during this period.

All students get 1 year of OPT after their graduation and for most students it suffices. The following shows the transition workflow for most students:

OPT is the boat that lets you remain afloat (maintain your legal immigration status) while you are transitioning from F1 visa to H-1B.

Why do we need OPT extension and what is STEM?

Most students who intend to work in the US on the H-1B visa apply for an H-1B in april and get this visa in october. There is a small percentage of students who don't get selected in the lottery. They can't work after 12 months of OPT and should return back to their country.

Sometime in 2008, DHS (Department of Homeland Security) enacted a rule in which specific students could extend their OPT to another 17 months after their first lease of 12 months. STEM is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. All students from STEM fields can extend it if they are working for a E-verified company (lets ignore what is an e-verified company for now). This way they continue to work and re-apply for the visa next year.

Students who don't get H-1B approval in the first year can (until Feb 2016) apply for a 17 months OPT extension. There visa transition looks something like this:

Visa denied in first year. OPT extension helps students maintain their legal status and re-apply next year

So this extension was revoked, eh?

Yes, as a result of a lawsuit in 2015, it was determined that DHS didn't follow proper procedures when they proposed the rule in 2008. The extension was revoked. After February 2016, students will not able able to apply for this extension.

17 months OPT Extension rule was revoked in 2015

Does it affect me? When and how?

It affects students who don't manage to get visa in their first attempt i.e. they don't get selected in the lottery. Since they cannot extend their OPT to one more year to apply for the visa next year, they'll be out of status after their OPT validity ends and they might have to leave their job and possibly return.

How likely is that? Its not very likely. Generally MS students have a separate (less competitive) quota for lottery and its not very often that a graduate student doesn't get through the lottery.

The silver lining

There is a big news that is unfolding. DHS is re-proposing the extension via the proper channel. It entered into the 'comment period' on 19th October 2015. It will be formally proposed after the 30 days comments period.

If this gets enacted, the new students will not have 17, but 24 months of extension available to them. Keep checking this page for latest updates on the status of the new petition.

The new rule will be proposed, follow our facebook page to remain abreast with the latest on this news.


Until the new rule is in the state of flux, we can't say authoritatively if and when it will be enacted. However, even in the worst case scenario, students still get 12 months of OPT and they get one attempt at H-1B lottery. There is a different quota for graduate students - most students get it in first attempt and never extend their OPT. For students joining in 2016-2017, it'll be a while before they graduate. We hope that the new rule is in place by then.

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