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Optional Practical Training (OPT) Travel Checklist
Traveling Abroad While Application is Pending
Prior to Graduation
You may travel abroad and reenter while your I-765 OPT application is pending without your departure canceling your OPT application. You must reenter the U.S. before the graduation date on your I-20.
To reenter you must have the following documents:
- Valid passport.
- Valid visa stamp. If you have one already, you do not need to go to the consulate for a new one. If you need a new visa stamp, then present the other documents in this checklist to the consular officer as well as a current Duke transcript.
- Valid I-20 with a signature that will be less than one year old on the day you plan to enter the U.S. Verify the signature date before you leave.
The regulations do not have a provision dealing specifically with travel and reentry while an I-765 for post-completion OPT is pending. Advisors and the government traditionally look to 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(13)(ii) which refers only to situations where an OPT EAD Employment Authorization Document (EAD) has already been issued as a point of reference. Advisors have explained to students that it is risky to attempt to reenter before receiving the EAD.
Recently, the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of State (DOS) have agreed that an F-1 student who has properly filed for OPT to begin after graduation may travel outside the United States while the OPT application is pending. A DOS cable was sent to consular officers instructing them that applicants for new F-1 visa stamps may present either an EAD or, if the OPT application is still pending, the original I-765 receipt notice (that you must obtain from DVS) as proof of eligibility for the visa. It also has been confirmed that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors at the ports of entry are aware of these new procedures and will review return documents accordingly.
While it now may be possible to travel out AND reenter the country before the OPT is approved, there is a new challenge that we believe makes this a poor decision.
For all students who have their OPT applications approved, they now cannot travel out and reenter the U.S. during the OPT period unless they actually are returning to a job. As of December 15, 2004, SEVP has issued an interpretation of 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(f)(13)(ii) making it clear that after your OPT is approved and the EAD issued, you only can reenter the U.S. to resume employment. SEVP further clarified that the student need not have already commenced the actual job before leaving, as long as s/he has a firm job offer to return to.
The problem with traveling after graduation before you have your work permit is that you have no idea when the OPT application will be approved. If you are out of the country when this happens, it will be possible for us to send the EAD to you and work with you to obtain the necessary documents to issue you a new I-20. BUT, none of this will be of any good if you don’t yet have a job! In the past, students could return to continue their job search while on OPT. This no longer is possible.
No Job, No Re-Entry, and No OPT
Our office always has warned students that traveling on OPT without a job was a risky thing to do. OPT is authorization to work full-time, just as F-1 students are expected to be enrolled in their academic programs full-time. The later into the OPT period that students traveled without having a job begged the question, "what are you doing in the U.S.?" It now is clear. You cannot travel during OPT and reenter unless you are coming back to an actual job.
Another reason to wait in the U.S. until the OPT is approved is in case there is an unanticipated delay in processing your application.
It also is not an option to exit the U.S. and then reenter as a tourist if your OPT has not yet been approved. This will break your F-1 status and make it impossible for us to issue you a new I-20. Don’t even think it unless you are ready to abandon your OPT benefit!
If you know you need to travel soon after graduation, apply for OPT early enough to have a good chance of having your work permit by graduation. For example, May graduates who filed by the first of March, there is a good possibility of this happening! If you do leave, please know you cannot get back unless you have a job offer letter in your hand. We also cannot guarantee that you won’t have trouble reentering on just an I-765 Receipt Notice. To be in the strongest possible position, we recommend that when you leave the U.S. after graduation, you have:
- Your EAD in hand.
- Your new I-20 from Duke in hand.
- Your job offer letter in hand. Be sure to provide your DVS advisor with your employment information so your SEVIS file will be up to date when you reenter the country.
- A valid passport.
- A valid F-1 visa stamp.
- A valid I-20 (you left the U.S. with it).
- A valid EAD (you left the U.S. with it).
- Your job offer letter (you left the U.S. with it).
Any student who has both the EAD for post-completion OPT and a job or job offer letter should not experience difficulty reentering the United States with these items and the usual valid immigration documents to support their reentry.