International students who graduate from a U.S. college or university can stay in the U.S. in F-1 status to participate in up to 12 months of optional practical training (OPT). Post-completion OPT must conclude within 14 months from the end of the degree program. To participate, F-1 students file a Form I-765 with USCIS and—if approved—receive an employment authorization document (EAD) that allows them to begin OPT employment.
USCIS is experiencing significant backlogs in processing benefit requests, which have led to months-long delays for F-1 students to receive receipt notices, approval notices, and EAD cards. On February 26, 2021, USCIS announced certain flexibilities that it would extend to students negatively affected by these processing delays.
These accommodations—described below—apply to those F-1 students whose I-765 applications for OPT or the STEM OPT extension were received at USCIS between October 1, 2020 and May 1, 2021, inclusive:
- To permit a full 12 months of participation in post-completion OPT, USCIS will allow the 14-month period that normally begins at degree completion to instead begin from the date of approval of the I-765 application.
- Beginning February 26, 2021, USCIS will issue approvals with validity dates that reflect the full amount of time recommended on Form I-20.
- Students who receive an OPT EAD with a shortened validity period due to the 14-month requirement should follow instructions on the USCIS website for EADs containing incorrect information. Upon request, USCIS will reissue the EAD with a new end date to cover the full amount of OPT time originally sought.
- Applications for OPT or STEM OPT that were rejected may be refiled by May 31, 2021, and USCIS will honor the original submission date.
- If applications for OPT or STEM OPT are submitted with deficient signatures and accepted rather than rejected (which is normal policy), USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence rather than deny the application.
On February 18, 2021, USCIS sent an email alert to registered stakeholders with an update on lockbox receipt delays. This notice reiterated that F-1 students who applied for STEM OPT timely—that is, prior to the expiration of post-completion OPT—have their employment authorization automatically extended for 180 days while the STEM OPT application is pending. Even without a receipt notice, these students are employment eligible on the basis of their expired EADs and an endorsed I-20 recommending STEM OPT.