PART 4: The OPT Mythbusting Project (Optional Practical Training Myths)

Welcome to the final post in the OPT Mythbusting Project! I hope you’ve already learned something about how to plan your future after graduating from MSU. Just two more myths to bust!

Before we approach these last two myths, please take a few minutes to review the first three posts in the series. Six big myths have already been busted – it’s worth your time to learn about them!

Post 1    Myth #1: I must have a job offer to apply for OPT & Myth #2: If I have a job offer, I can get my OPT faster.

Post 2    Myth #3: It’s better to apply for OPT later so that I can have more time to find a job & Myth #4: If I don’t have a full-time salaried job within three months of graduation, I will get kicked out of the US.

Post 3    Myth #5: OPT will start the day after I graduate & Myth #6: During OPT, all jobs must be paid.

Let’s get going with the seventh myth!

Myth #7
I can’t travel during OPT.

Truth: You CAN travel, however there are more requirements to worry about. Some people choose not to travel because of the additional requirements, while others have no trouble traveling during OPT.

There are two key issues that sometimes limit students who wish to travel internationally during OPT.

First Issue: Visa Applications

Visa applications (even renewals of previously approved visas) are never a guaranteed thing. During OPT, applying for an F-1 visa is even riskier.

It’s a little bit of a trap. If you apply for a visa during OPT, you have to show the officer that you are employed in order to demonstrate that you are properly maintaining F-1 visa status during OPT. However, if you show that you have a good job in the US, the visa officer is more likely to see you as an intending immigrant to the US, which increases the chances of visa denial. (You must prove that you do NOT have immigrant intent in order to get a new F-1 visa.)

If your F-1 visa stamp is expired during OPT, OISS advisors recommend that you only travel internationally under emergency circumstances. Unnecessary travel is not recommended for those with expired visas because we believe the risk of visa denial during OPT is too high.

There is one exception – those with expired visas may travel internationally within North America (Canada, Mexico, many Caribbean islands) under Automatic Visa Revalidation rules. For more information, please click here: http://oiss.isp.msu.edu/students/travel/autorevalid.htm

Second Issue: Proof of Employment

Federal regulations (the government’s visa rules) say that you may re-enter during OPT in order “to resume employment.” It is not entirely clear how this translates to your documentation requirements for successful travel and re-entry.

The government agency in charge of SEVIS has stated that students with pending (received but not yet approved) OPT applications may re-enter with:

  • Passport
  • Valid F-1 visa
  • I-20 with a travel signature
  • OPT Receipt Notice (proof of application)

The same government agency has stated that students with approved OPT applications may re-enter with:

  • Passport
  • Valid F-1 visa
  • I-20 with a travel signature
  • EAD (Employment Authorization Document; also called “OPT card”)
  • Employment offer letter

Many students wish to make a trip home shortly after graduation to celebrate their accomplishment with their family and then return to the US in order to look for jobs and engage in OPT. While this may work well for some students, it is somewhat risky for those who do not yet have job offer letters.

Clearly it is easier to re-enter the US while OPT is pending, however you can NEVER be sure this will be possible for you. USCIS will approve your OPT application on whatever date is best for them, not whatever date is best for you, and your approval date might be earlier than you expect.

You should plan to re-enter with your EAD and a job offer letter, even if your OPT is still pending when you depart the US.

If you are planning a trip during OPT and not sure if you will have a job offer letter in order to return, please visit an OISS advisor for a risk assessment.

Students who have valid F-1 visa stamps and job offer letters or employment verification letters generally do not experience any difficulty traveling during OPT.

OK – here we are! The Eighth and final myth, which is a special one just for PhD students.

Myth #8

I can get CPT until I submit my dissertation to the Graduate School, so I’ll delay my dissertation submission to maximize my CPT and OPT possibilities.

Truth: Sitting on your dissertation will not help you at all and increases your risk of future visa problems!

There are three reasons that delaying dissertation submission is not beneficial to you:

1) It does not extend CPT possibilities. Many PhD students do not realize that CPT eligibility ends at the dissertation DEFENSE, not at the dissertation submission. Once you have defended your dissertation, the only way you can work off-campus is with OPT work authorization, not CPT.

2) You must continue enrolling in order to maintain F-1 status while revising your dissertation. After a dissertation defense, there is a period of time during which the student revises his or her dissertation for final submission to the Graduate School. The time taken for revisions varies greatly from student to student and depends heavily on the type and volume of feedback received by the dissertation committee. Some students take as little as 1-2 weeks while others take 6 months or more.

The MSU Graduate School requires you to enroll for the semester in which you defend, but not after that. So for example, if you defend in the fall semester, the Graduate School would not require you to register for any credits in the spring semester, even if you take the whole spring semester to finish revising your dissertation. However, you cannot maintain normal (non-OPT) F-1 student visa status without enrollment. In this example, you would need to enroll for 1 credit in order to maintain F-1 visa status. Therefore, delaying dissertation submission would end up costing you almost $2,000 in tuition and fees, plus added living expenses.

3) It puts you at risk for a visa violation. US visa regulations require F-1 students to be “making normal progress toward completing a course of study” at all times (8CFR§214.2(f)(5)(i)). For this reason, an OISS advisor can never advise you to artificially delay your graduation for any reason as it would be a violation of visa regulations. Plus, when you consider the first two reasons, delaying graduation doesn’t make a lot of sense anyway!

I have helped hundreds of PhD students figure out how to arrange their CPT, graduation, OPT, and future visas and what I’ve found is that in almost all cases, students’ employment and visa needs can be met without stretching anything out.

My primary recommendation for PhD students is this: The semester before your dissertation defense, come and see an OISS advisor. Tell us approximate dates for defense and dissertation submission (precise dates are not needed). Tell us what you hope to do in terms of employment, training, and/or travel after you graduate. Let us help you design your future so that it can flow as smoothly as possible. We are available for consultations without an appointment every weekday between 1pm and 3pm in Room 105 of the International Center.

Well, that covers it! The eight most popular myths related to OPT, all of them busted. I hope you learned something that will help you make better plans for your future. Thanks for reading!

Have you heard an OPT myth that wasn’t listed here? If so, please send it my way! You can reach me at stokdyk@msu.edu.

Brooke Stokdyk is the Senior International Student and Scholar Advisor at OISS. She handles F & J visa +regulations, documentation (SSN, driver’s license, I-94, etc) and health insurance. Brooke enjoys making people smile, all things from the Hoosier state, and warm hugs from her husband and two small kids.

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