Eligibility for STEM Extension

Post-Completion OPT may be extended by 24 months for certain students based on the completion of a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctoral degree in eligible fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).  Students may be eligible for another 24-month extension of OPT if they obtain a degree at a higher educational level in a designated STEM field.

In order to be eligible for the 24-month STEM OPT extension, students must meet the following eligibility and employment requirements:

Student Eligibility Requirements

  • Must be in valid F-1 status
  • Must be in a valid (unexpired) period of Post-Completion OPT at the Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral level
  • Must have completed a qualifying STEM-degree:
    • The degree must be a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral degree.
    • The CIP code for the degree must be on the DHS STEM-Designated Degree Program List.  
    • The degree must be from a school that is accredited and SEVP-certified at the time the application is filed with USCIS.
    • The degree must have been earned within the last 10 years.
    • The student cannot have been granted a prior STEM Extension based on the same degree.
  • Must not have been granted more than one previous STEM extension (2 STEM extension lifetime limit)
  • Must have a job or a job offer (see more below)
  • Must complete Form I-983 with the employer and submit the form to ISSS in order to receive the STEM OPT recommendation

 

Employment Requirements

  • The job must be related to the STEM degree on which the extension is based.
  • The student must be working at least 20 hours per week in a paid position.
  • The employer must be an active participant in good standing with DHS’s E-Verify program. A searchable list of employers can be found on the USCIS E-Verify Employers Search Tool.
  • The employer must have an Employer Identification Number (EIN).
  • The employer must certify on the Form I-983:
    • The student will work at least 20 hours per week and the training opportunity is directly related to the student’s STEM field.
    • The student will receive formal training in their field of study.
    • The student will pursue and achieve identified goals and objectives.
    • The employer has sufficient resources and personnel to administer the training.
    • The STEM OPT student will not replace a full-time or part-time U.S. Worker.
  • The employer and student must agree to report any material changes to the student’s training plan to the DSO by completing a new Form I-983. Examples of material changes can be found here.
  • The employer must notify the DSO when the student’s employment is terminated before the end of the authorized extension period within five business days of the termination.

 

NOTE: A student is eligible for the STEM extension of OPT only if the degree on which they are basing the extension  has been assigned a Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code that matches one of the program codes on the current STEM Designated Degree Program List.  UNC CIP codes are determined by the UNC General Administration and cannot be changed. Students may find the CIP code of their program on page one of their Form I-20 under “Program of Study” (in the format xx.xxxx).

 

Application Process for STEM OPT

STEM OPT Application Overview 

The application process for STEM OPT is broken into three main steps:

  1. The student must request and receive a new Form I-20 with STEM OPT recommendation from ISSS.
  2. The student will submit an application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) requesting STEM OPT authorization.
  3. USCIS will review and adjudicate the application, and if approved, the student will receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

To see a list of documents required to apply for STEM OPT, please refer to the OPT STEM Extension Application Checklist.

STEM OPT Application Timeline

We recommend students submit the request for their new Form I-20 to ISSS as early as possible (three to four months prior to Post-Completion OPT end date) to avoid possible problems.

  • Students may submit their STEM OPT application to USCIS up to 90 days prior to the end of their Post-Completion OPT.
  • USCIS must receive the OPT application within 60 days of when the Form I-20 recommending STEM OPT has been issued by ISSS.
  • USCIS must receive the OPT application prior to the Post-Completion OPT end date.
  • Students may continue employment for up to 180 days with an expired Post-Completion OPT EAD while the timely-filed STEM extension is pending with USCIS.  If the STEM extension is denied by USCIS, the student must immediately end employment.

 

STEM OPT Application Process

STEP ONE: Issuance of New Form I-20 with STEM OPT Recommendation 

In order to begin this process, students must submit completed request forms to their International Student Advisor to request a new Form I-20 with STEM OPT recommendation.  Students may use the OPT STEM Extension Application Checklist to guide them through this process.

Students should take note to carefully complete the Form I-983, following the instructions provided by SEVP.  Incorrectly completed Forms I-983 are the main cause of delays in this process.

Students should allow 2-3 weeks processing time for ISSS to review the request and to issue a new Form I-20 recommending STEM OPT.  The student will be contacted via email once the document is ready.  The Form I-20 will be delivered to the student based on the delivery option indicated on the OPT Employment Reporting Form submitted with the student’s request documents.

STEP TWO: Submission of OPT Application to USCIS 

Once students have received their new Form I-20 with STEM OPT recommendation, they will compile their STEM OPT application (checklist available here) and mail their application to USCIS.  USCIS must receive the student’s application within 60 days of the Form I-20 issuance date and prior to the end of the student’s  Post-Completion OPT.

When compiling the application for USCIS, students should carefully consider the mailing address they choose to include on Form I-765. All correspondence from USCIS, including the receipt notice, requests for additional documents (if applicable), and the EAD (if approved), will be sent to the mailing address listed on Form I-765. Students should list an address at which they will be able to receive mail for at least three to four months.

Students are responsible for mailing the STEM OPT application to the appropriate USCIS Lockbox facility.  Students should check the USCIS website to verify the address that should be used to mail their application.

If unsure about where to mail the application or which mail/delivery service to use, students should contact their International Student Advisor.

STEP THREE: USCIS Review and Adjudication 

Once the application is received at the USCIS lockbox facility, the payment will be processed and the application will be forwarded to a USCIS Service Center for processing.  USCIS will send an official Form I-797 Notice of Action: Receipt Notice to the student approximately two to four weeks after receiving the application. This notice will confirm official receipt of the application by USCIS and indicate a case number which can be used to track the application.

NOTE: If an application is returned for any reason (e.g. payment could not be processed, I-765 missing signature, etc.), students should check with their International Student Advisor to ensure no additional action is required prior to refiling the application with USCIS.

During the adjudication process, students should be mindful of the following items:

  • Checking the Status of the OPT Application 
    Students may check their case status online at www.uscis.gov; they should click on “Check your Case Status” and enter the case number from the Receipt Notice. It may take up to 90 days or longer for USCIS to reach a decision on the case. If the application takes longer than USCIS’s published processing time, students may submit a case inquiry through USCIS’s e-request system.
  • Request for Evidence 
    In the course of adjudicating the application, USCIS may send a Form I-797 Notice of Action: Request for Evidence to an applicant if an item is missing or if USCIS requires additional information before making a decision on an application. Students who receive a Request for Evidence are advised to contact ISSS immediately for assistance with preparing the additional documentation.
  • Withdrawing the Application 
    Students who no longer wish to pursue STEM OPT may choose to withdraw their application, so long as the application is still pending with USCIS.  Students will need to correspond with USCIS to complete the withdrawal process prior to adjudication.

Approval 
Once the application is approved, USCIS will mail an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) to the applicant. Please note it can take two to four weeks for the EAD card to arrive once the online case status at uscis.gov is updated to “Approved”.

Upon receipt of the EAD, students should check the card for accuracy (they should check name spelling, date of birth, and OPT authorization dates). If there are any errors, students should notify ISSS immediately.

STUDENTS MUST SUBMIT A COPY OF THE EAD TO ISSS. 

Maintaining F-1 Status While on STEM OPT

Employment While STEM OPT Application is Pending

Students are allowed to work up to 180 days past the expiration of the Post-Completion OPT period, if the STEM application was timely filed and is pending adjudication at USCIS

Employment While on STEM OPT

Employment while on STEM OPT must meet the following criteria:

  • Must be paid employment of at least 20 hours per week
  • Must be in a position directly related to the student’s STEM degree
  • Must be a bona fide employer-employee relationship
  • Must be for an employer enrolled in E-Verify
  • Must be for an employer who commits to provide training objectives and a plan to meet those objectives by completing and maintaining the Form I-983

Students approved for the 24-month STEM extension can be employed by multiple employers, but the employment must meet the criteria listed above and each employer must complete and maintain a Form I-983.

Restrictions on Unemployment

Students approved for Post-Completion OPT may not accrue more than an aggregate of 90 days of unemployment during the 12-month Post-Completion OPT period. Students approved for the 24-month STEM extension are allowed an additional 60 days of unemployment; therefore, the limit of unemployment is an aggregate of no more than 150 days for the entire 36-month period.

Time spent outside of the U.S. while unemployed will count towards days of unemployment. Traveling outside the U.S. while employed as a part of the employment or during a period of leave authorized by the employer will not count as unemployment.

SEVIS Reporting Requirements

Students are required to update ISSS of any changes to their contact, biographic or employment information, including material changes to the Form I-983.  There are also increased reporting obligations for students during the STEM extension period. More information on reporting requirements can be found here.

60-Day Grace Period

Once students have completed their period of STEM OPT, they are permitted to remain in the United States in F-1 status for up to sixty days in order to prepare for departure from the U.S. Students are not permitted to continue employment during this period. Travel within the U.S. is permitted during the grace period, however, once a student departs the U.S., the remaining time of the grace period is forfeited, and the student may not re-enter in F-1 status.  By the end of the grace period students should do one of the following: depart the U.S., transfer their F-1 status to another school or process a change of education level to begin a new program of study at UNC.

SEVIS Transfer

Students approved for STEM OPT are eligible to transfer their SEVIS record to begin a new program of study at another institution at any time during the STEM OPT period. Authorization for STEM OPT is automatically terminated as of the SEVIS transfer release date.  Students must obtain a new Form I-20 from their new institution and must begin the new program of study within five months of the end of the STEM OPT period or their SEVIS transfer release date, whichever is sooner.

Beginning a New Academic Program at UNC

Students may continue their education at UNC-Chapel Hill, however, if a student begins a new program of study at UNC prior to the expiration of the STEM OPT, the STEM OPT period will automatically terminate as of the start of classes. Students must obtain a new Form I-20 for their new program at UNC prior to the end of their 60-day grace period and must begin the new program of study within five months of the end of the STEM OPT period.

Reporting Requirements While on STEM OPT

F-1 students who have applied for the STEM extension of OPT are required to notify ISSS about several types of events and/or changes that may occur during the STEM OPT extension period, and they must also report to ISSS on a periodic basis even if no changes have occurred.

Changes that must be reported to ISSS include:

  • Receipt of the new EAD card for the STEM extension (students must submit copy of the card to ISSS)
  • Change in U.S. residential address
  • Change in phone number or email address
  • Commencement of any new employment
  • Termination of employment
  • Change in job location
  • Any other material change to the information included on the Form I-983
  • Permanent departure from the U.S.
  • Change of immigration status (to a status other than F-1)

Periodic reports that must be submitted to ISSS include:

  • 6-Month Validation Reports: Students must submit a validation report every six months from the start of the STEM OPT extension period.
  • Evaluation of Student Progress:  Students must submit a self-evaluation on their progress using page 5 of the Form I-983. This will be submitted with the 12-month validation report and with the 24-month validation report.

Material Changes to Form I-983

The employer and the student must complete a new Form I-983 to inform ISSS of any material changes to the training plan. Material changes include, but are not limited to:

  • Any change of Employer Identification Number resulting from a corporate restructuring
  • Any reduction in student compensation that is not tied to a reduction in hours worked
  • Any significant decrease in hours per week that a student engages in a STEM training opportunity
  • Changes to the employer’s commitments or student’s learning objectives as documented on the Form I-983

Students should CAREFULLY REVIEW detailed information about the specific actions they should take in the STEM OPT Reporting Resource Guide. 

Travel While on STEM OPT

In order to re-enter the U.S. in F-1 status during STEM OPT, students will need the following documents:

  • Form I-20 updated with most recent employment information (if applicable) and with a travel signature that will be less than six months old at the time of re-entry
  • Valid F-1 visa
  • Valid passport
  • EAD
  • Employment offer or employment verification letter, if applicable

 

Students who are on STEM OPT and have a pending H-1B petition should be especially careful about travel. Students should consult with the employer before planning travel during this time.