Updates to the international student STEM OPT extension: What you need to know

Are you an international student studying in the United States? If so, you may be familiar with Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows F-1 visa holders to work in the US for a certain period of time after completing their college degree. Recently, there have been updates to the OPT program, specifically the STEM OPT extension. In this article, we will provide you with all the information you need to know about the new international student OPT extension.

What is the STEM OPT extension?

The STEM OPT extension is a 24-month period of temporary training that directly relates to an F-1 student’s program of study in an approved STEM field. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It allows eligible students to gain additional work experience and enhance their skills and knowledge further, making them more competitive in the job market. 

2023 STEM OPT updates

Recent updates have been made to the STEM OPT program to provide more opportunities for international students to gain valuable work experience in the US and potentially secure permanent residency. If you are an international student interested in the STEM OPT extension, it’s essential to stay informed about any updates or changes to the program and consult with an experienced immigration lawyer for personalized guidance. 

The 2023 updates include: 

Expansion of the STEM Designated Degree Program List

On July 12, 2023, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added eight new qualifying fields of study to the STEM Designated Degree Program List. They join the 22 qualifying fields of study added for STEM OPT eligibility in January 2022. The new qualifying fields of study are:

  • Landscape Architecture
  • Institutional Research
  • Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering Technology/Technician
  • Composite Materials Technology/Technician
  • Linguistics and Computer Science
  • Developmental and Adolescent Psychology
  • Geospatial Intelligence
  • Demography and Population Studies
  • Bioenergy
  • General Forestry
  • Forest Resources Production and Management
  • Human-centered Technology Design
  • Cloud Computing
  • Anthrozoology
  • Climate Science
  • Earth Systems Science
  • Economics and Computer Science
  • Environmental Geosciences
  • Geobiology
  • Geography and Environmental Studies
  • Mathematical Economics
  • Mathematics and Atmospheric and Oceanic Science
  • General Data Science
  • General Data Analytics
  • Business Analytics
  • Data Visualization
  • Financial Analytics
  • Other Data Analytics
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychology
  • Social Sciences
  • Research Methodology
  • Quantitative Methods

The list expansion provides opportunities for more international students to extend their stay in the United States. This is consistent with President Biden’s stated foreign policy goal to foster international education. 

More accessible pathways to Green Cards

The US government is making it easier for international graduates of STEM programs to obtain Green Cards via a national interest waiver. This provides international students with a pathway to permanent residency in the US.

Clarification of criteria for “extraordinary ability”

The “extraordinary ability” criteria have been clarified for international students in STEM fields. USCIS recently updated its policy guidance regarding criteria and evidence used to determine eligibility for O-1A nonimmigrants of extraordinary ability, with a focus on persons in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields. This change may provide more guidance to international students on what they need to do to qualify for the STEM OPT extension. 

Eligibility criteria for the STEM OPT extension

To qualify for the STEM OPT extension, international students must meet specific eligibility criteria:

  • Have been granted OPT and currently be in a valid period of post-completion OPT.
  • Filed the STEM OPT application with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during the final 90 days of the post-completion OPT authorization period.
  • Have completed a US degree program in a designated STEM field from a duly accredited school certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program at the time of application.

Eligibility criteria, limitations, and application process may vary depending on the academic institution and individual circumstances. 

Duration and limitations of the STEM OPT extension

The STEM OPT extension is 24 months long. This means qualifying F-1 students will be eligible for a total of 36 months of OPT employment authorization. However, it’s crucial to adhere to certain limitations to maintain your status:

  • Unemployment Time: During the entire 36-month OPT period, you should not exceed a total of 150 days of unemployment. Students on the STEM OPT extension are permitted to be unemployed for 60 days in addition to the 90 days allotted for Post-Completion OPT.
  • Employer Obligations: Employers who hire F-1 students during the STEM OPT period must meet significant new obligations. These obligations ensure that the employment complies with the regulations set forth by the USCIS. 

How to apply for the STEM OPT extension

To apply for the STEM OPT extension, international students must follow these steps:

  1. Obtain a recommendation from the current sponsoring academic institution. This recommendation is crucial and will be required during the application process.
  2. Submit a completed and signed Form I-983 Training Plan for STEM OPT Students to the International Services Office (ISO). This form outlines the details of your training plan and must be submitted along with your application.
  3. Prepare your application and file it with USCIS during the final 90 days of your post-completion OPT authorization period. Submitting your application within this timeframe is important to ensure a smooth transition from your post-completion OPT to the STEM OPT extension.

Students who receive a STEM OPT extension must report certain changes to their designated school official (DSO) within ten days of the change. 

These changes include:

  • Legal name
  • Residential or mailing address
  • Email address
  • Employer’s name
  • Employer’s address

In addition to these changes, students on the STEM OPT extension must also confirm with their DSO every six months that they continue to maintain their STEM OPT activity, even if nothing has changed. Failure to comply with reporting requirements may result in the loss of immigration status, so it’s crucial to stay on top of these changes and report them in a timely manner.

Your designated school official (DSO) can provide guidance on how to report changes and confirm your STEM OPT activity. Additionally, a reputable immigration lawyer can assist you in understanding your reporting requirements and ensure that you comply with USCIS regulations. 

Benefits of the STEM OPT extension

The STEM OPT extension provides several benefits to international students:

  1. Extended Work Authorization: With the STEM OPT extension, you can work in the US for an additional two years, gaining valuable work experience in your field of study.
  2. Increased Job Opportunities: The STEM OPT extension allows you to explore more job opportunities in the US. Many employers prefer hiring candidates with extended work authorization, giving you a competitive edge in the job market.
  3. Pathway to Permanent Residency: The STEM OPT extension can be a stepping stone towards obtaining permanent residency in the US. It provides you with more time to gain work experience and potentially secure sponsorship from an employer.

Considering the potential risks of the STEM OPT extension

While the STEM OPT extension offers exciting opportunities for international students to gain valuable work experience in the US, there are potential risks and drawbacks to consider before applying. By staying informed and seeking personalized guidance, international students can make the most of the STEM OPT extension and enhance their career prospects in the US.

Potential drawbacks or risks include:

  1. Delayed processing: As with any immigration case, there is a possibility of experiencing delays in processing your OPT application. This could result in a longer waiting period before starting your STEM OPT employment. Stay up-to-date with current processing times
  2. Issues with receipt notice: There is a risk of not receiving the I-797c Receipt Notice, which serves as proof that your OPT application has been received and is being processed. This can cause uncertainty and delays in the application process. The USCIS website offers tips on how to track your notice
  3. Challenges with employment: While the STEM OPT extension provides opportunities for work experience, finding a paid, full-time job or job offer from an employer enrolled in E-Verify can be competitive. Securing suitable employment within the required timeframe may take time and effort. Find participating employers
  4. Compliance with regulations: The STEM OPT extension has specific obligations and limitations for students and employers. It is important to ensure that you and your employer meet all the requirements, such as maintaining full-time employment, reporting changes, and adhering to the rules set by USCIS. Failure to comply with these regulations can result in the loss of immigration status.
  5. Limited eligibility: The STEM OPT extension is available to each student for two non-consecutive periods during their lifetime. If you have already used the STEM OPT extension in the past, you may not be eligible for it again. It’s essential to consider your eligibility and plan accordingly.
  6. Uncertainty in immigration policies: Immigration policies and regulations can change over time, which may impact the availability and terms of the STEM OPT extension. Staying informed about any updates or changes to the OPT program and consulting with a reputable immigration attorney is crucial to ensure compliance and make informed decisions.

Making the most of your OPT journey

The new international student OPT extension, specifically the STEM OPT extension, offers exciting opportunities for F-1 visa holders to gain valuable work experience in the United States. By understanding the eligibility criteria, limitations, and application process, you can make the most of this extension and enhance your career prospects. Remember to stay informed about any updates or changes to the OPT program and consult with your academic institution’s International Services Office for personalized guidance. Good luck with your OPT journey!

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