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 Employment Before Graduation PowerPoint Spring 2014

F-1 Curricular Practical Training

F-1 Optional PT Before Degree Completion

F-1 Optional PT After Degree Completion

Post-Completion OPT PowerPoint

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

To Be Eligible to Engage In OPT:

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

Procedure: Obtaining authorization for OPT is a two-step process. Your first step in obtaining an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) is to receive a recommendation for OPT from the International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) and then authorization for employment from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The ISSO cannot authorize OPT—only USCIS can do so by issuing you an EAD.

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.

Please Note: Any part-time OPT that is granted will be deducted at half the full-time 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: Obtain the ISSO Recommendation

You may apply without a job offer. The ISSO recommendation requires 10 working days and you should make every effort to apply in a timely manner

  1. Complete the fillable I-765 Form in PDF format online and print it. Be sure to enter your name EXACTLY as it is on your I-20. Use a laser printer only. Sign the print out, making sure not to write outside the allotted area. We do not advise it but if you choose not to type, please make sure you use BLUE ink only. 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:"
      If you do not check the appropriate box, USCIS will return your application to you for correction before beginning to process it.
    • Question 3, Address. The address you put on the I-765 has to be one at which you can reliably receive mail up to 4 months from the time you mail the application. An "undeliverable" address is the major source of problems with OPT applications.
    • Question 10 asks for your Alien Registration number or Admission I-94 record number. This is the number printed at the top of your I-94 card (white card usually stapled in passport or admission record printed from the electronic I-94 web site at http:www.cbp.gov/I94 if your most recent entry was on or after May 1, 2013).
    • Question 16 asks for eligibility categories. The code for pre-completion OPT is (c)(3)(A).
    • Question 17--do NOT complete as it does not apply to pre-completion OPT.
  2. Download and complete page 1 of the OPT Recommendation Request Form to bring to the ISSO. Please come to the ISSO with your desired employment start and end dates.
  3. If you are applying based on completion of all degree requirements except thesis or dissertation ("ABD"), your academic adviser, department chair or program coordinator must complete page 2 of the OPT Request Form and you must bring both completed forms to the ISSO when you come to apply for OPT.
Bring to the ISSO:
a) Your current I-20 and all previously issued I-20's
b) Passport
c) I-94 card (white card usually stapled in passport or printed from the electronic I-94 web site at http:www.cbp.gov/I94 if your most recent entry was on or after May 1, 2013)
d) I-765 Form
e) OPT Recommendation Request Form(s)

The International Students and Scholars Office staff will

  1. Review your application for eligibility.
  2. If you are eligible, process a new SEVIS I-20 with the OPT recommendation and the requested dates of employment.
  3. Notify you by email when your completed forms are ready for pick-up.

Step 2: Mailing your OPT Application to USCIS:

  1. Sign and date the new I-20! (section 11) This sounds obvious but many OPT applicants have had their applications returned for an unsigned I-20 and/or an unsigned check.
  2. Photocopy the entire application before you send it so that you have a complete copy for your records.
  3. Send your application to the USCIS by certified mail, return receipt requested or by a courier service such as FedEx so you have proof that your application was timely in the event that the application is lost.
  4. Send your application quickly as it must be received by the USCIS Service Center within 30 days of the date of the OPT recommendation.
  5. All applications are 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)
    PO Box 660867
    Dallas, TX 75266

    Courier service (FedEx, UPS, DHL)
    Attn: AOS
    2501 S. State Hwy. 121, Busines
    Suite 400
    Lewisville, TX 75067

    If you use a mailing address in another state, please refer to page 10 of the I-765 instructions 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 Original Form I-765. If you do not use the G-1145 form, the I-765 form should be on the top of your application materials for prompt identification purposes at the USCIS Service Center. We recommend you use blue ink.
  3. Required $380 fee payable to the Department of Homeland Security by:
    • personal check, write "USCIS I-765" in the memo line of the check
    • 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 including the photo, biographical information, and current expiration date
  6. Photocopy of your F-1 visa (if any) OR photocopy of I-797 Notice of Approval of change of status to F-1
  7. Photocopy of both sides of the I-94 card (white card usually stapled in passport or printed from the electronic I-94 web site at http:www.cbp.gov/I94 if your most recent entry was on or after May 1, 2013)
  8. Photocopy of both sides of any previous 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 on the back of each picture in pencil or felt pen. 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 in the mail:

Address: The address you put on the I-765 has to be one at which you can reliably receive mail up to four months from the time you mail the application. An “undeliverable” address is the major source of problems with OPT applications.

  • USCIS will send all mail related to the EAD to the address indicated on the I-765 form, even if you later update your address with the ISSO and in SEVIS. U.S. government mail will not be forwarded to another address, even if you change it with the postal service. The address must be within the jurisdiction of the USCIS Regional Service Center to which the application is being submitted or the application will not be processed.
  • If you are using an 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. Follow this example:
    Mary Smith (your name)
    c/o Linda James ( friend’s name)
    5 Apple Street  #20
    New York, NY 12345

Processing time: The USCIS can take from 6 to 12 weeks (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 webpage. Contact the ISSO if your application has been pending for more than 90 days since the date of receipt on the Notice of Action.

Special Considerations:

  • 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 or canceling the request. 
  • 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: 18 September 2014 Last modified: 18 September 2014
Columbia University International Students and Scholars Office