Student Immigration Definitions

Obtaining F-1 Student Status at Columbia

Important Information for Students Fully Funded
by Columbia University

Transfer of F-1 Supervision

Change of Status to F-1

Message for Canadian Students

Potential Delays in Visa Issuance


Student Tax Information

Maintaining F-1 Status

Academic Certification for Travel

F-1 Travel Information

Govt Q & A for F-1 Travel

DHS Information on Arrival Problems

F-1 Extension of Stay (Current Program)

F-1 Extension of Stay to Begin New Program

F-1 Reinstatement

F-1 Work Opportunities

F-1 Practical Training (PT) Overview

F-1 Curricular Practical Training

F-1 Optional PT Before Degree Completion

F-1 Employment Before Graduation PowerPoint

F-1 Optional PT After Degree Completion

Post-Completion OPT PowerPoint Slides (PDF format)

STEM 17-month OPT extension

F-1 Internship with an International Organization

F-1 Leave of Absence, Suspension or Withdrawal

Student Departure Information

F-1 Reduced Course Load Request

Inviting Relatives/Friends to Visit You

Address Change Form

Applying for a Social Security Number

Optional Practical Training (OPT) Before Completion of Degree Requirements

Definition: Employment related to your field of study before completion of all degree requirements.  It is also referred to as Pre-completion OPT. OPT is authorized by USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) through the issuance of an EAD card (Employment Authorization Document). OPT is permitted for a period of up to a maximum of twelve months per educational level (Bachelors, Masters, etc.).

Pre-completion OPT can be authorized under any of the following conditions:

  1. Following completion of all degree requirements except the thesis or equivalent
  2. During the annual vacation
  3. Part-time (up to 20 hours per week) during the academic year

Eligibility: You must meet all of the following conditions:

  1. Must be a registered student in F-1 status physically in the United States at the time of application
  2. Must have been enrolled-recognized degree or certificate program in lawful student status on a full-time basis for at least one full academic year
  3. Have not used twelve months full-time curricular practical training

Procedure: Obtaining authorization for OPT is a 3-step process:

  1. Complete required application documents and submit to ISSO either in person or by email to isso-opt@columbia.edu
  2. The ISSO will review your application and issue you an I-20 with OPT recommendation.
  3. Mail a complete OPT application to USCIS

Apply not more than 90 days prior to being enrolled for one full academic year AND not more than 90 days prior to the requested employment start date that you select

Example:  A student is in a two year program and has almost completed her first academic year.  She wants to work in the summer and would like to start June 1st.  The earliest she can apply is March 3rd, which is 90 days before the June 1st OPT start date and within 90 days of the end of the academic year in mid-May.

Note: Any part-time OPT that is granted will be deducted from your total 12 months of OPT at half the rate. For example, 4 months of Part-time OPT will be counted as 2 months.

You should apply for OPT as early as is permitted because approval of your application by USCIS may require 6 to 12 weeks. You may not begin employment until you have the EAD in hand and you can only work during the time period indicated on the EAD.

How to Apply

Step 1: Submit the documents listed below to isso-opt@columbia.edu as a single PDF file attachment

Email instructions: Scan your documents into ONE file in PDF format only. Submissions in any other format will not be accepted and reviewed. Do not send individual files (I-765 as one file, OPT request form as another file, etc.). Do not take photos with your phone and send .jpeg or .tiff files. Do not email a link to Dropbox, Google Drive or any other cloud site. You will receive an automated reply from the ISSO confirming that your email was received. This email address is only for document submission. We do not reply to any messages included with your documents or to any other messages sent to this email address. Do not send your documents to any other email address; they will not be accepted and reviewed

Required application documents:

  1. I-765 Form
  2. OPT Recommendation Request Form
  3. I-94 from the electronic I-94 web site at "https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov
  4. If you applied for OPT before, send copies of any previously issued EAD cards
  1. Complete the fillable I-765 Form. We recommend typing it. Be sure to enter your name EXACTLY as it is in your passport. Print it and sign it in BLUE ink only, making sure not to write outside the allotted area. Scan and email a copy of the signed form along with the necessary documents to ISSO. USCIS has some helpful form completion and filing tips on their website at http://www.uscis.gov/lockboxtips.

    We strongly recommend that your I-765 be submitted in paper form. Submitting the I-765 as an online web-based form requires submission of biometrics after your application has been received by USCIS.

    • On the top of the I-765, before question 1, you must check the correct box for "I am applying for: Permission to Accept Employment"
      If you do not check the box, USCIS will return your application to you.
    • Question 3, Address. The address you put on the I-765 has to be valid up to 4 months from the time you mail the application. An "undeliverable" address is a major source of problems with OPT applications.
      If you are using the address of a friend, your name should be indicated somewhere on the mail box. If the mail carrier does not recognize your name, the envelope with the EAD card will be returned to USCIS. Use "C/O" (care of) the name of your friend in the address to help avoid confusion. You may need to hand-write this address as the I-765 does not have enough room to enter it on the online form. Use the format below:
      c/o [your friend's name]
      5 Apple Street, #2D
      New York, NY 12345
    • Question 10: Enter your 11-digit I-94 number retrieved from the electronic I-94 web site at http:www.cbp.gov/I94.
    • Question 11: Only check “Yes” if you have ever received an EAD.
    • Question 16: The code for pre-completion OPT is (c)(3)(A).
    • Question 17: Leave blank as it does not apply to pre-completion OPT.
  2. Complete page 1 of the OPT Recommendation Request Form. You must fill in your requested employment start and end dates. These dates cannot be changed after the application has been processed.

Step 2: The ISSO will review your application and issue you an I-20 with OPT recommendation.

  • The ISSO recommendation takes 10 business days
  • We will notify you by email when your new I-20 is ready to pick up.

Step 3: Mail your OPT Application to USCIS:

  1. It is ESSENTIAL that the USCIS Service Center receives your application within 30 days of the date that the OPT I-20 is issued. If it is not received within 30 days of the issuance date, your application will be denied by USCIS and your $380 fee will not be returned or refunded to you.
  2. Remember to sign and date the new I-20 in BLUE ink only! (section 11) Your application will be returned for an unsigned I-20, an unsigned check or an unsigned I-765 form.
  3. Photocopy the entire application before you send it so that you have a complete copy for your records.
  4. Send your application to the USCIS by a courier service such as FedEx to provide you with proof that your application was timely in the event that the application is lost.
  5. All applications must either be filed at the USCIS Dallas or USCIS Phoenix Lockbox facilities. Students who list a mailing address on the I-765 in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, or Pennsylvania must send the application to:

    U.S. Postal Service (USPS) Priority Mail Express

    Courier service (FedEx, UPS)

    PO Box 660867 Attn: AOS
    Dallas, TX 75266 2501 S. State Hwy. 121, Business
      Suite 400
      Lewisville, TX 75067

    If you use a mailing address in another state, go to Lockbox Addresses on the USCIS I-765 site to find out where to file your application.

OPT Application Checklist

  1. Form G-1145 This form should be on the top of your application if you want USCIS to notify you by email and/or text message that they have accepted your application.
  2. Completed Form I-765 - Original-NO PHOTOCOPIES. We strongly recommend completing the fillable pdf online at http://uscis.gov/files/form/i-765.pdf but if you choose not to do so, use blue ink.
  3. Required $380 fee payable to the B>Department of Homeland Security/B> by:
    • personal check, write "USCIS I-765" in the memo line of the check
      See How to Write a Check or the step-by-step online demonstration at The Beehive
    • a bank check
    • money order; please note, a money order is more difficult to track than a check
  4. Photocopies of pages 1 and 3 of all I-20s issued to you since you first entered in F-1 status, including the I-20 with the OPT recommendations. DO NOT send originals of any I-20. Be sure you have SIGNED AND DATED all your I-20s on page 1. Note: The USCIS wants to see all your I-20s starting from the one marked "initial attendance". If you do not have all your I-20s and are unable to obtain copies from the appropriate school, you should attach a brief explanation of your F-1 status history.
  5. Photocopy of your passport ID page
  6. Photocopy of your F-1 entry visa (if any) OR photocopy of I-797 Notice of Approval of change of status to F-1
  7. Photocopy of your most recent I-94 retrieved from the electronic I-94 web site at http:www.cbp.gov/I94
  8. Photocopy of both sides of any previously issued EAD cards
  9. Two U.S. passport style photos. The USCIS requires that the photos meet the specifications for the full frontal/passport type of photos and not be more than 30 days old when the applications is filed. Go to the Department of State website for photo standards. Write your name lightly on the back of each picture in pencil. Passport photos can be taken at the following location:
    • The UPS Store, 603 West 115th Street (just west of Broadway, same building as Morton Williams supermarket)

Step 3: Receiving your EAD Card:

  • Processing time: The USCIS can take up 90 days or more to process an EAD application. After you receive the "Notice of Action" with the 13-digit receipt number, you can check the status of your pending application online on the USCIS web site at https://egov.uscis.gov/cris/Dashboard.do. Contact the ISSO if your application has been pending for more than 90 days from the date of receipt on the "Notice of Action receipt" form.
  • USCIS will send all related mail including the receipt notice, the approval notice and the EAD to the address indicated on the I-765 form
  • If you change your address during the processing time, there is a way to update USCIS online using the USCIS Change of Address site but we cannot guarantee its efficacy. U.S. government mail will not be forwarded to another address, even if you change it with the postal service.
  • Contact the ISSO if you receive any correspondence such as a Request for Evidence (RFE) (not the receipt or approval notices or the EAD), from USCIS about your application.
  • The employment authorization start date on your EAD will be the date you requested or the date the EAD is processed, whichever is later.

    Special Considerations:

    • If you have any dependents, they will also receive updated I-20s. However, you do not need to submit their documents with your OPT application.
    • If you decide that you do not want OPT, contact the ISSO immediately for guidance on your situation.
    • Any employment done under pre-completion OPT is deducted from the 12 month period. If you use practical training under this option you will not be eligible for the full 12 months of practical training following the completion of all degree requirements. Each day used under full-time optional practical training is deducted from the 12 month allotment. Part-time practical training is deducted from the available practical training at half the full-time rate.
    • Please note that once your OPT application has been sent to the USCIS, there is no provision for changing the dates. 
    • You are not allowed to work until you receive the EAD from USCIS. If you do not work during the authorized period of time granted to you, that time is still deducted from the total 12 months.  You cannot recover this time for later use.
    • You are required to be a full-time student at all times while pursuing a course of study in F-1 status except during annual vacation periods.

    Contact an ISSO advisor if you have questions about the procedure or if you receive any correspondence about your application. Students whose I-20 was issued by the International Affairs Office (IAO) at the Medical Center should contact the IAO for specific procedures.

    Last reviewed: 21 September 2015 Last modified: 21 September 2015
    Columbia University International Students and Scholars Office