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OPT Unemployment Days – Best Tips to Avoid Them 

 October 30, 2021

By  Chuky Ofoegbu

HourGlass

COVID19 Update: Due to the effects of the pandemic on the US job market, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) currently allows F1 students to maintain their OPT even if they work less than the minimum 20 hours per week requirement. Nevertheless, this modification is subject to change at any time in the future. 

Are you an F-1 international student on post-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT) or STEM-OPT with no job offer and worried about accruing OPT unemployment days? In this article, you will learn all about the OPT unemployment days and most importantly what you can do to stop accruing any more OPT unemployment days, if you are already unemployed on OPT or STEM OPT.

By following these best tips, you can completely avoid accruing any OPT unemployment days altogether, while actively seeking employment for the job you truly desire.

What are OPT Unemployment Day Limits?

As an F-1 student with a valid post-completion OPT work authorization, beginning from the start date shown on your OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card, you cannot accrue more than 90 cumulative calendar days of unemployment during your 12 months of OPT. 

In the case of STEM OPT extension, you must not accrue more than 150 cumulative calendar days of unemployment during the total 36 month period of OPT and STEM OPT. 

These limits also apply to the duration of time an F1 student participates in OPT using the Cap Gap Extension

As an F1 student engaged in optional practical training, you are required to report your days of unemployment to the US Department of Homeland Security's SEVP program. Once these OPT unemployment day limits are reached, your OPT or STEM OPT would effectively be terminated.

Exceeding 90 days of unemployment during the initial OPT or 150 cumulative days of unemployment during STEM OPT will not only result in a violation of your immigration status - for which you would need to depart the US immediately - but you may also be denied other US visa applications in the future.

How F1 International Students Accrue OPT Unemployment Days

Aside from the unfortunate circumstance of getting laid off from a job, a very common reason why F1 international students accrue OPT unemployment days is because they lack the knowledge of what is considered employment under OPT. 

In many instances, F1 international students who have applied for OPT and have received EAD cards remain idle while waiting to receive the “job offer they desire”.

When you have not received any good job offers - or even no job offers at all - and you look around and see your friends/graduating classmates receiving job offers with high starting salaries from reputable companies, it’s easy to feel down on yourself. 

So it becomes natural for you to keep holding out for that job offer that you can compare with those from your graduating class.

The problem with this job search strategy is that as an international student who has completed your program, you do not have the luxury to sit idle at home while you continue job searching for your ideal job, like your American classmates can or even worse, sitting at home doing nothing.

Once you receive the OPT EAD card and the OPT start date becomes valid, your 90 day limit of OPT unemployment starts counting down. Therefore, time is of the essence.

What Can I do to Stop Accruing OPT Unemployment Days?

In the unfortunate circumstance that you have not received any job offer(s) - or a job offer that you really desire - or in the scenario where your OPT employment is terminated, these are all the employment options you should strongly pursue to avoid accruing unemployment days.

USCIS BROAD DEFINITION OF EMPLOYMENT ON OPT

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), employment on OPT is generally defined as a paid or unpaid activity in the student’s field of study in which the student engages for at least 20 hours per week

Activities considered as OPT employment by USCIS include:

  • Standard paid employer-employee relationship with an employer
  • Working for several employers
  • Working for employer through a third party agency
  • Work for Hire or Independent contractor
  • Unpaid Employment: Volunteer or Unpaid Intern (Must be done without violating labor laws)
  • Self-employment business owner
Like a ticking clock the countdown to your OPT unemployment day limit begins once you're in possession of a valid OPT EAD card

Like a ticking clock, the countdown to the OPT unemployment day limit begins once you're in possession of a valid OPT EAD card.

Important Note: These qualifying OPT employment options are only applicable to the initial 12 months of OPT and do not apply to the STEM OPT Extension. Employment during STEM OPT must be a paid position with an E-verified employer(s) where a direct employer-employee relationship exists.

For all these types of employment, the work performed must be related to your field of study.

With the knowledge of the eligible OPT employment options, it’s clear that the reason most students remain unemployed during their OPT is because they focus exclusively on the first option (a standard paid option with a single employer). And rightfully so, we all want to get one job that pays well, rather than multiple jobs or jobs without a steady income.

But if your OPT has already started, rather than accruing unemployment days while waiting or job searching for a job that pays well, you should seriously be considering these last three options ASAP!  

Working as an Independent contractor

Pursuing contract worker jobs is a great way to avoid accruing OPT unemployment days.

As opposed to working with a company under an employment relationship, you can provide services on a contractual basis to firms. This is also known as 1099 employment. For example, you can find jobs on websites like Indeed or LinkedIn for independent contractors. These jobs could be part-time or full-time.

man drawing with a ruler

F1 students on OPT may also pursue jobs as independent contractors also known as work for hire.

The benefit of including jobs as an independent contactor in your OPT job search strategy is that you would effectively be increasing the pool of potential employers to work for. As opposed to exclusively searching for jobs as a full-time employee.   

Unpaid Employment (Volunteer or Unpaid Intern)

Volunteering on OPT

When it comes to volunteering, the US DOL has a very strict definition of what volunteer work means. You may volunteer services without pay for non-profit organizations but not for-profit organizations. These services are expected to be part time and should be of a humanitarian, religious or civic purpose and must be done with no expectation of pay before or after the completion of the service. 

For example, let’s say you have a degree in accounting. You can start by performing a search for non-profit organizations in your city using websites such as GreatNonProfits, where you can find organizations with causes that are of interest to you.

You can then look up the contact information of these nonprofit organizations and offer to help them manage their financial records, or to perform other finance-related tasks. Similarly if you have a technology degree, you can search for causes in technology and do the same. 

Where appropriate, pursing volunteer opportunities where you provide services related to your field of study could be the fastest way to stop accruing OPT unemployment days.

Working as an Unpaid Intern on OPT

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) mandated by the US Department of Labor, a for-profit employer can hire trainees or interns without pay only if the nature of the job satisfies what’s called a “primary beneficiary test”.

a male intern working on a desk with a laptop

An unpaid internship not only allows you to avoid accruing OPT unemployment days but could also open doors to a paid position within the company.

The main points in this test are that the training is for the sole benefit of the trainee with no direct advantage for the employer, the trainer must not be displacing a regular employee, and there must be an understanding between the employer and the trainee that there will be no compensation of any kind for time spent in training.

So what this means for you is that as long as you make it clear to your prospective employer that you will be seeking employment under these conditions, many employers will be willing to accept you as a trainee or unpaid intern. And in many cases, working as an unpaid intern could potentially open doors for a full-time position within the company.

This way you would not only have stopped accruing OPT unemployment days, but you would also be lining up a job offer with a better pay. At the very least, you would have relevant work experience that would make you more competitive in the job market.

Pursuing Self-Employment

While on OPT, you can set up and run a business, as long as you have obtained the appropriate business licenses. For example, if you have a computer science degree, you can render your services as a web or software developer on Upwork or Fiverr.

Unlike working as an independent contractor where you received a 1099, freelance jobs on Fiverr and Upwork may not provide 1099s. So you are solely responsible for tracking and reporting all your earnings to the IRS for tax purposes. 

With the option of self employment, you can stop accruing OPT unemployment days while continuing to job search for the ideal job you desire.

Documenting Evidence of Your OPT Work 

Regardless of the employment option you choose to pursue, it is important that you timely report the nature of your work to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This is your primary responsibility as an F1 student on OPT. 

It is a best practice that you document evidence for each OPT job you've held, where you describe the nature of the work, the contact information of any supervisors or clients you worked for, the duration of employment/training, and any compensation received.

While you may not be required to submit these documents to your Designated School Official or to DHS during the duration of your OPT, you never know when they might come in handy.

Exceeding OPT Unemployment Days - Alternative Options To Consider

In the very unfortunate event that you are close to exceeding the allowable number of OPT unemployment days, and you don’t want to risk violating your status, then your options will be the following.

Man standing watching an airplane take off

Departing the US might be your last resort to if you want to stop accruing OPT unemployment days.

Enrolling in an Educational Program

You can stop the OPT unemployment day clock from ticking altogether by getting accepted into a university program and requesting that your SEVIS information be transferred to the new university or program.

In this case, your OPT will automatically end once your SEVIS information is transferred and you will stop accruing OPT unemployment days

Changing Nonimmigrant Status

You might also stop the OPT unemployment day clock from ticking by changing your non-immigrant status from F-1 student status to B2 visitor status. To do so you will need to submit a change of status application to USCIS.

Departing the United States

Ultimately, you can inform your designated school official that you plan to cancel your OPT - thus stopping the accruement  of OPT unemployment days - and depart the United States. Once your OPT is canceled you will be allowed 60 days to prepare for departure from the US. 

I truly hope you found this information helpful.

I wish you the very best of luck in your OPT/STEM OPT job search endeavors!

If you've got questions or feedback for me, follow me on LinkedIn @SojourningScho1 and let's chat!

DISCLAIMER: The content in this blog and on this website is presented as general information only and is NOT legal advice. I am not a licensed attorney, and so the information presented in this blog and anywhere else on this website should not be construed to be formal legal advice. If you need personalized legal advice, you may contact a licensed attorney.

Chuky Ofoegbu


With almost a decade of experience pursuing higher education in the United States, I fully understand the pain points foreign students endure. I created this website to help foreign students successfully navigate their way through the challenges they will face while living in the United States.

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