Eligibility for Pre-Completion OPT
Pre-Completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a benefit of F-1 status that permits off-campus employment in the student’s field of study to begin prior to the student’s program completion date.
Students are eligible for 12 months of OPT at each degree level (e.g. Bachelor’s, Master’s, Doctoral). OPT work authorization can be used either before (pre-completion) or after (post-completion) degree completion. Any time used prior to degree completion is subtracted from the 12-month total. Students become eligible for another 12 months of OPT when moving to a higher degree level (e.g. Bachelor’s to Master’s, Master’s to Ph.D.).
In order to be eligible to apply for Pre-Completion OPT, students:
- Must have completed 1 academic year of full-time study before the intended OPT start date
- Must be in valid F-1 status at the time of application and must maintain status during the OPT authorization period, including maintaining full-time enrollment when required
- Must not have engaged in 12 months or more of full-time Curricular Practical Training (CPT) at the current degree level
- Must have OPT time remaining at the current degree level
Additionally, students planning to apply for Pre-Completion OPT should note the following:
- Students may only be authorized for part-time work (up to 20 hours/week) during the academic year (fall and spring semesters)
- Students may be authorized for full-time work (more than 20 hours/week) during the summer and winter break
- Graduate students who have been advanced to candidacy by The Graduate School may be authorized for full-time work any time prior to program completion
- Employment during OPT must be directly related to the students’ major area of study
- Students may not be authorized for Pre-Completion OPT beyond the program end date on the Form I-20
A job offer at the time of application is not required. However, any Pre-Completion OPT period approved by USCIS will count against the 12-month period of OPT allowed per educational level, regardless of whether the student ever secures an employment position.
NOTE: F-1 exchange students and other non-degree students at UNC-Chapel Hill are not eligible for OPT.
Application Process for Pre-Completion OPT
OPT Application Overview
The application process for Pre-Completion OPT is broken into three main steps:
- The student requests and receives a new Form I-20 with OPT recommendation from ISSS.
- The student submits an application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) requesting Pre-Completion OPT authorization.
- USCIS reviews and adjudicates the application, and if approved, issues the student an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
To see a list of documents required to apply for OPT, please refer to the Pre- and Post- Completion OPT Application Checklist.
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 in advance of the intended OPT start date) as it may take over 90 days for USCIS to reach a decision on the application. Please check current USCIS processing times.
- Students may request a Form I-20 recommending OPT up to 110 days prior to fulfilling the one full academic year requirement.
- Students may submit their OPT application to USCIS up to 90 days prior to fulfilling the one full academic year requirement.
- USCIS must receive the OPT application no more than 30 days after the Form I-20 recommending OPT has been issued by ISSS.
- When timing submission of the application students should be aware they may not begin employment until they have received the Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and until the start date indicated on the EAD.
OPT Application Process
STEP ONE: Issuance of New Form I-20 with OPT Recommendation
In order to begin this process, students must submit a completed Academic Advisor’s Certification Form and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ISSS to request a new Form I-20 with OPT recommendation. The MOU will require students to select requested start and end dates, and whether they are seeking part-time or full-time employment. When completing the MOU, students should take the following items into consideration:
- The requested employment start date must be after the date that the academic year requirement is met.
- Students may only select one type (part-time or full-time) of employment. If a student wants to obtain full-time employment for the summer and then part-time employment for fall, the student will need to submit two separate applications to USCIS.
- Once an application is submitted to USCIS, it is not possible to change the requested start and end dates without withdrawing and resubmitting a new application. Students should carefully choose dates of employment and be certain of those dates before submitting the request for the Form I-20 to ISSS.
Students can submit the two request forms to the ISSS front desk or via email to the student’s International Student Advisor. Students should allow 2-3 weeks processing time for ISSS to review the request and to issue a new Form I-20 recommending OPT. The student will be contacted via email once the document is ready and should come to ISSS in person to pick-up and sign the new Form I-20.
STEP TWO: Submission of OPT Application to USCIS
Once students have received their new Form I-20 with OPT recommendation, they will compile their OPT application (checklist available here) and mail their application to USCIS. USCIS must receive the student’s application within 30 days of the Form I-20 issuance date.
When compiling the application to 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 OPT application to the appropriate USCIS Lockbox facility. Currently all OPT applications should be mailed to the USCIS Chicago Lockbox facility, but as this designation by USCIS can change at any time, students should always 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 speak with 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 must stop by ISSS and speak with an advisor prior to refiling the application
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.
- Impact of Long Processing Times
If a student’s OPT application is approved after the student’s requested start date, USCIS will give the student a new start date. Therefore, students with applications pending beyond their requested start date should plan accordingly.
- Withdrawing the Application
Students who no longer wish to pursue Pre-Completion 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.
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”. Students may not begin employment before receiving the EAD and before the start date on the card.
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 on Pre-Completion OPT
Students commencing Pre-Completion OPT employment must keep in mind the following regulations and guidelines in order to maintain status throughout the OPT authorization period.
Students may only work after receipt of the EAD, only for the dates as specified on the EAD, and only in positions directly related to the field of study and degree program for which the OPT was recommended.
A student engaged in Pre-Completion OPT must continue to enroll full-time during the fall and spring semesters. Students using Pre-Completion OPT during the summer must be enrolled full-time for the following fall semester.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) requires students to report changes in name or address to ISSS throughout a student’s stay in F-1 status, including periods of OPT. Failure to report these changes within 10 days of the change is considered a violation of F-1 immigration status.
All updates to your residential address should be reported through ConnectCarolina by updating the Immigration Reporting Address. For instructions on how to update this address, please see our Address update instructions.
Additionally, students should report all employment while participating in Pre-Completion OPT to ISSS by submitting the OPT Employment Reporting Form.
Restrictions on OPT Employment
- Students authorized for part-time OPT must limit work hours to 20 or less per week. OPT employment hours may not be changed after the EAD is issued.
- Students may only work after the EAD is received and only within the dates specified on the EAD.
- Students must work in a job related to their level and field of study as indicated on their Form I-20.
It is strongly recommended that students keep accurate records of their OPT employment as they may be required by USCIS or the Department of State to show proof of their OPT activities.
Reporting Requirements on Pre-Completion OPT
F-1 students participating in Pre-Completion OPT are required to notify ISSS of any employment activities they engage in during the OPT period. Students should contact their International Student Advisor directly to provide information about the following events and/or changes that may occur before or during the period of Pre-Completion OPT:
- Receipt of the EAD card (students must submit copy of the card to ISSS)
- Commencement of any employment activity, paid or unpaid
- Termination of any employment (students must report a specific employment end date)
- Change in employment details such as job location or job duties
Reporting OPT Employment Information
For all jobs held while on OPT, F-1 students must report the employer’s name and their physical location of work, the start date of employment and (when applicable) the end date of employment. Students must also provide an explanation of how each job held is directly related to their major and program of study at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students must report all changes in employment information directly to ISSS by submitting an OPT Employment Reporting Form.
Other Reporting Requirements for F-1 Students
Students must continue to fulfill all obligations of their F-1 student status during the OPT period such as reporting changes in address and other contact information. Students should visit the Current Students section to review information about all of their responsibilities as an F-1 student and be sure to contact an ISSS advisor if there are any questions.