Traveling as an F1 Student? Navigating OPT to H-1B Visas
Essential travel considerations for F1 students on OPT and transitioning to an H-1B visa. We highlighted potential risks and necessary requirements.
Travel During OPT and Change of Status
- During the Initial 12-Month OPT Period
If the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has given the green light to your request for an initial 12-month period of Optional Practical Training (OPT) after completing your studies, and if they have given you official permission to work through an employment authorization document (EAD), then you should be in a position to depart from and return to the United States.
This is applicable if you have a job or a job offer for your OPT period and if you don't currently have any ongoing applications that are being considered to change your immigration status to a different non-immigrant category.
In case you decide to travel, it's advisable to carry the following items with you:
- A valid passport;
- A valid F1 visa stamp. If the F1 visa has expired, you will need to apply for a new F1 visa stamp to reenter the United States as a student at the consulate;
- Form I-20 that has an OPT-endorsed;
- An unexpired EAD; and
- An Employment Verification Letter. If you do not have a valid job or job offer, you will not be readmitted and your OPT may be terminated.
- Travel During a Pending OPT
Traveling before your post-completion OPT request is approved can be risky, especially after completing your studies. If you have a pending request for a STEM OPT extension and are considering travel, please see below regarding travel while the application is pending.
- Travel During the 60-Day OPT Grace Period
If you haven't applied for Optional Practical Training (OPT) or a STEM OPT extension, and you also haven't joined another F1 student program, you won't be allowed to travel outside the U.S. during the 60-day OPT grace period and then return as an F1 visa student.
This 60-day period is given to you so that you have time to get ready to leave the U.S. after finishing your studies or OPT.
Now, if you're currently in this 60-day OPT grace period and someone has submitted an H-1B visa petition for you along with an application to switch your status to an H-1B visa, and you must travel outside of the U.S., you will have to apply for an H-1B visa to return, and will not be able to work in H1B visa status until the H-1B visa employment start date requested by your employer.
- Travel with an Expired F1 visa in your passport
Unless you are a Canadian citizen, you will normally need to obtain a new visa stamp at a U.S. consulate.
If, however, you are traveling to Canada, Mexico, or certain islands adjacent to the United States (other than Cuba), and staying for less than 30 days, you may be able to reenter the United States with your expired F1 visa stamp, a valid passport, your EAD card (if in OPT), and an I-20 that has been endorsed for travel by your DSO.
Qualifying adjacent islands include the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and certain other islands.
Travel During STEM OPT Extension
- Travel with Valid STEM OPT If the USCIS has given the thumbs up for your 24-month STEM OPT extension and has given you an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), you should be good to go for leaving and coming back to the United States, whether you're starting or resuming STEM OPT employment. You need to make sure you have all the documents mentioned above, including a valid passport, an F1 visa if you need one, a Form I-20 that's been approved for travel in the last six months specifically for STEM OPT, and a letter from your employer for your STEM OPT job. It's important to remember that if you don't have a proper job or job offer when you're trying to enter the U.S., they might not let you back in, and your OPT could be canceled. Also, the days you spend without a job outside the U.S. could be added up to the limit allowed by the rules during your OPT time. The current USCIS rules say that if you're on STEM OPT, you can't be without a job for more than a total of 150 days over the 36 months of OPT. And out of these 150 days, only up to 90 days can be during the first year of your OPT. This "unemployment" time counts whether you're in the U.S. or not, but it doesn't include travel related to your OPT job or vacations approved by your OPT employer.
- Travel During Pending STEM OPT Extension:
If your initial approval for OPT, the initial Employment Authorization Document (EAD) you received, and your F1 visa will all still be valid during your trip, then you should be able to travel out of the country and come back while your application for an extension is being reviewed.
Just make sure to have the documents listed above with you and show them when needed.
If your F1 visa has expired but your initial EAD is still valid, things get a bit more complicated. You will also face the potential risks of traveling and applying for a visa at a U.S. consulate. This could involve significant delays at the consulates, so you should consider this carefully.
Now, if your initial OPT period has ended but you're waiting for a decision on your STEM OPT extension, you should still be able to leave the country and return with valid F1 visa status. For this, you need to bring along the following items:
- A valid passport
- A valid F1 visa stamp, if needed
- A Form I-20 Certificate endorsed for STEM OPT travel by your school's Designated School Official (DSO) within the last six months
- Your expired EAD
- The receipt for your STEM OPT extension application and a copy of your EAD extension application
- A letter from your employer confirming your job
Traveling After H-1B Cap Lottery Selection and Change of Status Filing
- Impact of H-1B Cap Lottery: Getting entered into and possibly selected for the H-1B cap lottery won't, by itself, stop you from traveling while you're still in F1 student status. If you didn't get chosen in the lottery and you want to travel. If you're picked in the H-1B cap lottery and you want to travel before your employer puts in a request for H-1B visa status change on your behalf, you’ll need to see the above regarding which documents to take based on your current situation. If you choose to travel, you have to be physically in the United States when your employer sends in your H-1B visa status change request to USCIS. Keep in mind, for the cap-gap benefits to stay in effect, your status change request must reach USCIS while you're still officially in F1 visa status. To make your work authorization last longer with cap-gap, USCIS must get your request while your Optional Practical Training (OPT) is still valid.
Travel with Pending H-1B Change of Status:
- If you leave the U.S. before your change from F1 visa to H-1B visa status is officially approved by USCIS, you'll have to do extra stuff to make sure you're in H-1B visa status when you start your new job on October 1st (or later, depending on what your new employer wants).
- If you go out of the country while your H-1B visa paperwork is still being sorted out, the part of your case that's about changing your status will be seen as abandoned. The H-1B visa request might still get the green light from USCIS, but you won't automatically switch from being an F1 student to an H-1B visa worker on the date your H-1B visa approval begins. Instead, you'll have to leave the U.S. again and either apply for an H-1B visa at a U.S. consulate or, if it's allowed, get your employer to file a new request to change your status when you're back.
- If you try to get an H-1B visa outside the U.S., you might end up waiting for a long time during the visa application process, and that wait could make you late for starting your H-1B visa job in the U.S. Normally, you should be able to come back to the U.S. in your F-1 status before your H-1B visa job begins to continue your F1 visa activities. Just know that because you've applied for an H-1B visa, immigration folks might look at your intentions a bit more closely.
- Travel After H-1B Visa Change of Status Approval: Once your status change has been approved but before it's officially in effect, you should be allowed to travel abroad and come back, as long as you're not done with your studies and you're returning to the U.S. to continue your education. When you travel, remember to have a valid passport, a working F1 visa stamp (unless you're Canadian and don't need one), and a Form I-20 that is endorsed for travel. If your F-1 visa isn't valid anymore, you'll have to get a new one to come back in F1 visa status (unless you qualify for automatic visa revalidation).
- Travel After Finishing Studies: In the event that you've completed your studies and haven't sought Optional Practical Training (OPT), reentry into the United States under F1 visa status after international travel won't be an option. However, if you've submitted your H-1B petition along with an application for a change in status to H-1B visa prior to the expiration of your F1 visa status, you're permitted to stay in the U.S. during the period known as "cap-gap," which bridges the gap between the end of your F1 visa stay (including the 60-day grace period) and the commencement of H-1B visa employment on October 1. Should your H-1B cap petition and status change application still be pending with USCIS beyond October 1, you're entitled to remain within the country until these matters are decided upon, although you must refrain from starting work until your H-1B petition and status alteration are sanctioned and become effective. Should it become necessary for you to exit the U.S., securing an H-1B visa application becomes essential for your reentry, and engagement in H-1B employment is permissible only starting from the date specified by your employer.
- Travel During Cap Gap: USCIS allows for cap-gap travel under specific conditions. However, it's essential to ensure you possess the proper documentation and are ready to prove your commitment to abiding by F1 visa regulations. This includes demonstrating your nonimmigrant intent and your intention to return for legitimate F1 visa activities. This holds particular significance if you'll need to seek a new F1 visa to come back to the U.S. If you've submitted your application to transition into H-1B status before your OPT expires, and it has been approved, you'll receive a cap-gap extension that lets you stay and work until October 1, 2023. Moreover, you can travel abroad and reenter the U.S. under F1 visa status before October 1, even if your OPT Employment Authorization Document (EAD) has expired. However, make sure that your H-1B status change request is approved before you depart.
- Travel During Approved H-1B Visa and Valid OPT: If you're currently under a valid period of Optional Practical Training (OPT), whether it's the initial grant or an extension for STEM fields, and you possess a valid Employment Authorization Document (EAD), and if your change of status to H-1B visa has been approved before you leave the U.S., in most cases, you should be able to come back to the United States under F1 visa status. This is particularly true if your return happens before your H-1B status change becomes effective. But remember, you need to have the right documents on hand and be able to convince visa and immigration authorities that you're committed to following F1 visa rules, which includes showing your nonimmigrant intent. If your H-1B status change gets approved before you exit the United States, it will kick in on October 1, as long as you've returned to the U.S. before that date arrives.