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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

Application for OPT is a two-step process:

STEP ONE: Issuance of New Form I-20 Student submits completed F-1 OPT Request through the ISSS Portal. Students will be asked to select the requested start date and end date of their employment authorization and provide the name and email address of their academic advisor and/or appropriate academic program representative since a part of the request is sent to them for verification of academic information.
STEP TWO: Submission of OPT Application to USCIS Student receives new Form I-20 and submits application to USCIS (either online or via mail) within 30 days of new I-20 issuance. Review the 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.

Requesting a Form I-20 with OPT Recommendation

  • Students may request a Form I-20 recommending OPT up to 110 days prior to fulfilling the one full academic year requirement.
  • 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 should allow 2-3 weeks processing time for ISSS to review the request and to issue a new Form I-20 recommending OPT. Students will receive the new Form I-20 via email.
  • Upon receipt of the Form I-20, students should:
    • carefully review the document for accuracy
    • confirm that the requested OPT dates are reflected on page 2
    • print out and sign the form at the bottom of page 1

Filing the OPT Application with USCIS

  • Students should NOT file an OPT application with USCIS before having received a new Form I-20 recommending OPT. If an application is received by USCIS prior to the issuance date of the new I-20, the application will be denied.
  • Students must meet the following USCIS filing deadlines:
    • Students may submit an application for Pre-Completion OPT to USCIS only up to 90 days prior to fulfilling the one full academic year requirement.
    • The OPT application must be received by USCIS no later than 30 days after the Form I-20 recommending OPT is issued.
  • 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.

USCIS Filing Tips

  • Students may now file the OPT application (Form I-765) online with USCIS.
  • Students may still file a paper application by mail if they prefer. If mailing the application, students are responsible for sending the OPT application to the appropriate USCIS Lockbox
  • Students choosing to file online should review information about this option on the USCIS website.
  • In order to get started, students will need to create a USCIS Online Account.
  • Review the Form I-765 Instructions for more information before filing.
  • When completing the Form I-765, carefully consider what mailing address to include. Important correspondence from USCIS, including the EAD (if approved), will be sent to the mailing address given to USCIS at the time of filing. Students should list an address at which they will be able to receive mail for at least three to four months.
  • If there is a problem with the application, or if a mailed application is returned for any reason (e.g. payment could not be processed, I-765 was missing signature, etc.), students should contact their International Student Advisor at ISSS prior to refiling the application with USCIS.

USCIS Processing

Once the application is received by USCIS, the payment will be processed and the application will be forwarded to an adjudicator.  USCIS will generate an official Form I-797 Notice of Action: Receipt Notice for the case.  This notice will confirm official receipt of the application by USCIS and indicate a case number which can be used to track the application.  Receiving this document by mail may take two to four weeks.

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 through their USCIS account if filed electronically or through by clicking on “Check your Case Status” and entering 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.  The end date will also be adjusted to 12 months after the new start date or 14 months after the student’s program end date, whichever is earliest.  Students are permitted to remain in the U.S. beyond their grace period if they have a pending OPT application with USCIS.
  • Withdrawing the Application 
    Students who no longer wish to pursue Post-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 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.


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.

OPT Employment

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.

Full-Time Enrollment

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.

SEVIS Reporting

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.