If you’re an F-1 student, you can apply for a green card during your Optional Practical Training (OPT). This may be possible if you find an employer to sponsor you for an employment-based green card.
If the application is successful, you will become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Therefore, you won’t have to worry about leaving the country immediately after completing your studies and OPT program.
Besides employment, there are other ways to become a lawful permanent resident as a student visa holder. This article explores all these options to help you make informed decisions.
Let’s begin by understanding the privileges and restrictions of an F-1 Visa and the OPT program.
What Is an F-1 Visa?
The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows you to enter the U.S. to pursue an academic program. This visa can be valid for up to five years. However, you can only stay in the country for as long as your academic program lasts. For this reason, you’re required to travel back to your home country within 60 days after completing your educational program to avoid the consequences of overstaying a visa.
Even though the F-1 visa restricts your stay in the U.S., there are other ways you can stay longer after graduating from your program. This includes applying for OPT program and a green card.
What is OPT or Optional Practical Program?
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a program that helps international students in the United States to gain work experience in their area of study. It allows F-1 visa students to work for U.S.-based employers for up to 12 months.
To be eligible for the 12 months of OPT, you must have:
- completed at least one academic year of full-time study;
- maintained a valid F1 student visa status; and
- not used up your authorized OPT status at the same education level.
After meeting these eligibility requirements, you can apply for OPT through the following steps:
- Acquire an OPT recommendation from your school;
- Complete Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, also known as a work visa;
- Pay the required fees;
- File your OPT application with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
When to Apply for OPT Visa?
Student visa holders can apply for OPT before or after graduating with a degree but only once during their program. So, for example, if you enroll in a four-year degree program, you’ll get OPT authorization once during or after completing the four years.
Common Types of OPT
There are three common types of OPT:
1. Pre-Completion OPT
Pre-completion OPT is when you get your OPT authorization before graduating from your degree program. You can choose to work part-time during your semesters or full-time during your semester breaks.
Either way, your OPT period will accumulate to 12 months. You can work only 20 hours a week when your semester is still in session to avoid interfering with your coursework.
2. Post-Completion OPT
You can also choose to start your OPT after graduation. The post-completion OPT employment period may last up to 12 months. After this period, the USCIS allows a 60-day grace period for individuals to travel back to their home countries.
3. STEM (OPT Extension)
Suppose you received a degree in one of the STEM subjects (specific fields in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics).
In that case, you are eligible to apply for a STEM OPT extension – lasting up to 24 months.
What Is a Green Card?
A green card is also called a permanent resident card or a green card visa. It’s a federal-issued document that allows eligible foreign nationals to become legal permanent residents of the U.S. Green card holders can live and work in the U.S. permanently.
How to Get a Green Card During OPT?
Some F-1 OPT students apply for employment-based green cards during their OPT with the help of their employers. To do so, the employers must:
File PERM (Permanent Labor) Certification
The Permanent Labor Certification (PERM) is a certificate that allows an employer to hire a foreign national to work in the U.S. permanently. The employer must prove that they aren’t denying equally capable U.S. citizens a job opportunity by hiring a foreign national.
Employers get the PERM labor certificate from the Department of Labor (DOL) after attesting to the following requirements:
- The job listing was made available to capable U.S. citizens, but no qualified citizen was available;
- Hiring the foreign national won’t adversely affect U.S. employees;
- The job requires a degree higher than a Bachelor’s;
- The employer will pay the prospective employee a salary equal to or greater than the current DOL rates.
File Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker
After filing the PERM certification, the employer must also file Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker. The USCIS assesses this petition to determine whether the international student meets the requirements for the listed job and whether the employer can pay the corresponding wages.
Adjustment of Status
Lastly, the student files Form I-485, Adjustment of Status, and receives a visa number and a priority date for a green card. The priority date marks the student’s place in the green card application queue, which varies depending on their country of origin.
The USCIS receives thousands of employment-based green card applications every year. Additionally, it receives more applications from some countries than others. This is also the reason why USCIS accumulates huge backlogs from some countries and takes longer to process their employment-based green card applications.
It’s best to start your employment-based green card process sooner than later to avoid waiting too long for your green card.
Other Ways to Switch From Student Visa to Green Card Holder
There are other ways of switching from OPT to green card status. These options include:
Marrying a U.S. Citizen or Green Card Holder
When you marry a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, you can apply for the green card and gain permanent residence status. In this case, your spouse becomes your sponsor and must petition on your behalf by filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative.
On the other hand, you must complete Form I-485 correctly and pay the filing fees. If the USCIS approves your application, you may receive a conditional or a 10-year green card.
You must consider several factors when applying for a marriage-based green card as an F-1 visa holder. For example, you may have to wait several months or years to receive your green card, depending on whether you’re married to a U.S. citizen or a green card holder.
Additionally, you must prove to the USCIS that your marriage is based on a genuine relationship and not fraudulent intentions of switching from F-1 student visa to green card.
Adjusting F-1 OPT Status to Dual Intent Visa
A dual intent visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows you to work in the U.S. and apply for a green card after some time.
For example, suppose you qualify for the H-1B visa. In that case, you can work in the U.S. for up to six years in a specialty occupation or ten years in a special project in the Defense Department.
And because the H-1B visa is a dual intent visa, you may eventually petition for a green card.
Becoming an Investor
Although investing in the U.S. economy requires a lot of money, it gives you, your spouse, and children under 21 years the opportunity to apply for a green card and live permanently in the U.S.
Self-Petitioning as a Person with Extraordinary Abilities
Some F-1 students may be able to transition from OPT to green card because of their extraordinary abilities. This category includes:
- Students with extraordinary abilities in arts, science, business, athletics, or education;
- Exemplary researchers and professors;
- Executive managers who have worked for a firm or corporation outside the United States for at least one year in the last three years.
Read More: How to Self-Petition for a Green Card?
Applying for the Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery
You can participate in the yearly electronic diversity lottery to stand a chance of winning a green card. The electronic diversity visa (DV) lottery is an immigrant visa program that avails 55,000 green cards every year to foreign nationals. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive a green card and eventually become a permanent resident.
There’s no guarantee that you will win the DV lottery. The U.S. government restricts foreigners from certain countries from participating in this lottery. You must find out if your country is eligible for the green card lottery before participating in the program.
FAQs on How to Apply for Green Card While on OPT
What Should I Do When My OPT Ends?
When your OPT period ends, you’ll have a 60-day grace period to leave the country. You may enroll in a new academic program to extend your F-1 visa status. Alternatively, you may transfer from optional practical training to green card status. But because immigration processes are often too long, it’s best to start such processes before your OPT ends.
Can I Travel While on OPT As an International Student?
Yes, you can travel abroad if you have an approved OPT and Employment Authorization Card. You can use your F-1 visa to re-enter the U.S. after your trip abroad. Using another visa for re-entry automatically cancels your F-1 visa status.
Can I Apply for STEM OPT Extension After OPT Expires?
Unfortunately, you can’t apply for OPT extension after your authorized OPT expires or during the 60-day grace period after your OPT ends. If you wish to extend your OPT, you must send your extension application to the USCIS before the end of your 12-month OPT period.
How Long Does it Take for OPT Extension Approval?
Typically, the USCIS takes 90 to 120 days to process your application for the STEM OPT extension. However, this processing time varies. For this reason, it’s best to apply for STEM OPT extension at least three months before your OPT expires to avoid waiting too long to continue with your practice.