Optional practical training is an invaluable opportunity to earn employment in the United States that allows you to work legally as a noncitizen, but what comes after? F1 students can obtain OPT as a temporary solution, though it can be crucial towards getting permanent residency. Read on to find out how to transition from OPT to a more permanent, secure green card status.
Oftentimes F-1 students need to complete job training or internships outside of school as part of earning a degree, and the Optional Practical Training program is designed for these students. There are two types of OPT: pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT.
Pre-completion OPT is for students seeking employment or training while still enrolled and attending school. This OPT can apply for up to 12 months, though students cannot work more than 20 hours a week while school is in session.
Post-completion OPT is for students who have earned their degree, and seek to complete their study with a period of job training or employment. For non-STEM students, this period is 12 months, while STEM students may be granted a 24-month extension beyond the typical 12 months. This grace period allowing for work without citizenship or visa status is often vital for F-1 students to start their career or further their field of study.
Earning OPT is a significant opportunity, one that gives F-1 students a chance to earn their stripes in the workplace and get a solid footing in their field of study. Still, even for those who get OPT the question soon arises: what next? F-1 students typically seek an employer to sponsor them for an H-1B work visa, but there’s a strict limit on the H-1Bs granted every year and few are lucky enough to be given one on their first attempt. This is where the potential avenue of earning a green card to attain permanent status can be explored.
The feasibility of transitioning from F-1 OPT status to green card status in large part depends on the country of origin of the applicant. For some countries like India and China there are far more applicants for green cards than there are spots allotted, and thus there is a lengthy backlog of applicants that makes winning one an often years-long process. The glacial pace of the green card process for applicants from these countries renders the green card an unrealistic way to transition from OPT to permanent status since the period of OPT will have long expired before one can be obtained.
For applicants from countries without a backlog, though, applying for a green card can be a realistic path forward, especially if the applicant is still early in their OPT with plenty of time for processing. At this point, the most important factor for success is the motivation of the employer in processing the sponsorship and application quickly so that the card can be obtained before OPT expires. Next comes the question of how to apply for a green card.
OPT to Green Card: How to Apply
F-1 students applying for a green card need to be sponsored by an employer and must be deemed eligible for green card status through employment. The process begins with the sponsor applying for a labor certification from the Department of Labor, and then submitting a Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker) and potentially a Form I-485 (Adjustment of Status) to allow a transition from F-1 OPT status. The applicant is given a visa number and a priority date. As long as this priority date is within the OPT period then the applicant can wait out the process in the hopes of getting a card and can transition legally from OPT to green card status.
Winning permanent status in the United States is for many a long, tortuous process with plenty of ups and downs. Just earning F-1 student status and OPT is a victory in itself, but that’s small consolation to hopeful students and young professionals seeking to parlay their education into a career in America. Finding a way to transition from OPT status to permanent is the great challenge that many face, and applying for a green card straight from OPT is one avenue to do so. It may not be realistic for everyone depending on one’s country of origin, but if the applicant has solid employment from their OPT and an employer motivated to retain them in the long term, applying for a green card may be the way to go.