The Optional Practical Training (OPT) program allows foreign students on F-1 visa to work for 12 (or up to 29 months, for holders of STEM degrees). The 12 (or 29) month period allows many students to apply for an H-1B work visa. Many employers (and OPT holders alike) are unaware of what happens when the OPT document expires while the H-1B application is pending. This guide seeks to provide some answers.
The Cap Gap
If the employer employs an F-1 nonimmigrant student on post-completion (OPT) and that student is the beneficiary of a pending or approved H-1B petition, the student may be able to continue working beyond the expiration date on his or her employment authorization document (EAD). In recent years, the number of H-1B petitions filed per year has exceeded the annual cap. Due to demand, the annual cap of 65,000 H-1B visas has been met during the initial filing period, beginning on April 1. All cap-subject petitions filed during this initial filing period indicate a requested start date of October 1 (the start of the government fiscal year). In the past, F-1 students who were the beneficiaries of an H-1B petition often had their F-1 status expire before their H-1B status began on October 1 –- a period known as the cap gap. The most common situation occurred when a student’s OPT ended in the spring or early summer, and the student’s F-1 status expired 60 days after that, leaving a gap of several months before the individual’s H-1B status began on October 1.
The OPT Interim Final Rule
On April 8, 2008, the Department of Homeland Security published an Interim Final Rule (IFR) titled, Extending Period of Optional Practical Training by 17 Months for F-1 Nonimmigrant Students With STEM Degrees and Expanding Cap-Gap Relief for All F-1 Students With Pending H-1B Petitions. The changes made by this rule became effective upon publication of the rule.
One provision of the rule applies to F-1 students who are the beneficiaries of a pending or approved H-1B petition that is subject to the annual cap. The IFR automatically extends the F-1 status and, for students in a period of approved post-completion OPT when the H-1B petition is filed, the OPT employment authorization.
The cap-gap extension of OPT is automatic for eligible students. A student does not file an application for the extension or receive a new EAD to cover the additional time. The only proof of continued employment authorization currently available to an affected student is an updated Form I-20 showing an extension of OPT, on page 3. This document serves as proof of continued employment authorization. However, this automatic extension of an F-1 student’s duration of status and employment authorization is terminated upon the rejection, denial, or revocation of the H-1B petition filed on the F-1 student’s behalf.
A student who is eligible for the cap-gap extension must work with a designated school official (DSO) at the student’s school to receive an updated Form I-20. If a student is eligible for the cap-gap extension of OPT, the student can continue to work while the update to his or her Form I-20 is being processed. Because the cap-gap extension is automatic, the updated Form I-20 is not required for a student to continue working; it merely serves as proof of the extension of OPT employment authorization.
To assist a student in obtaining an updated Form I-20, the employer may need to provide the student with an I-797 receipt or approval notice issued by USCIS for the H-1B petition filed on the student’s behalf. This receipt notice serves as proof of filing the H-1B petition and may need to be submitted to SEVP in order to update a student’s Form I-20 to show eligibility for the cap-gap extension.