Please also refer to the COVID-19 FAQs for International Students for additional guidance on traveling abroad.
The following information deals with F-1 students traveling after graduation and while on OPT. Please be aware that federal regulations and official policy do not always match practice, so hopefully this discussion will assist you in planning your travel.
Federal Regulations [8 CFR § 214.2(f)(13)(ii)]
"An F-1 student who has an unexpired EAD issued for post-completion practical training and who is otherwise admissible may return to the United States to resume employment after a period of temporary absence. The EAD must be used in combination with an I-20 endorsed for reentry by the DSO within the last six months."
This means that you should be able to return to the U.S. after traveling while on OPT as long as you have the required documents:
- a valid EAD (OPT card)
- valid passport
- valid F-1 visa
- I-20 with a travel signature signed within the last six months
- employer or job offer letter (not required but recommended)
- you meet the immigration admission requirements for F-1 status (i.e., you have the required documents - passport, F-1 visa, I-20 and EAD, you are not inadmissible due to commission of a crime, etc., you do not have immigrant intent)
- you have not been out of the U.S. for more than 5 months
- you are coming back to resume employment
IMPORTANT: Students who have an OPT STEM Extension application pending, should wait till their request is approved and have received the new Employment Authorization Document (EAD) before traveling abroad.
The original federal regulation states that “An F-1 student who has an unexpired EAD issued for post-completion practical training and who is otherwise admissible may return to the United States to resume employment after a period of temporary absence.”
However, based on the experience of previous students, discussions with advisors at other universities, and a meeting with CBP (Immigration) officials, immigration officers seem to be somewhat lenient with regard to students on OPT. No one knew personally of a student who had been refused entry to the U.S. because the student did not have a job offer. Immigration officers have some discretionary authority and it seems that students who meet the documentary requirements for admission (I-20 with recent travel signature, EAD card, valid passport and valid F-1 visa) have not had a problem reentering the U.S., even if they didn't have a job yet (assuming they had not exceeded the 90 days of unemployment) or their OPT has not started yet.
The best case scenario for traveling abroad while on OPT is that you have a valid passport, valid F-1 visa, valid EAD, and I-20 with a recent travel signature, and you are coming back to work on your OPT. It is recommended that you carry proof of employment or that you are actively seeking employment (e.g., job offer letter, invitation to an interview or career fair).
You will notice that your EAD will say "Not valid for re-entry to the U.S." on the bottom; this means that this card alone will not enable you to return to the U.S. You must also have the other documents listed above.
Of course, the only way to be 100% sure that you will be able to stay in the U.S. during your OPT is to not leave. However, we understand that this is not always practical or desirable. You should not be afraid to travel while on OPT but there are risks you have to be aware of:
- Expired Visa
If your F-1 visa is expired, you will need to apply for a new one at a U.S. embassy abroad before you can come back to the U.S. If you are only traveling to Canada, Mexico, or the adjacent Caribbean islands for 30 days or less, you may be able to re-enter the U.S. even with an expired F-1 visa.
- No Employment Upon Return
If you have no employment to return to, an officer can legally refuse your entry to the U.S. If you need to travel abroad, we recommend that you carry with you proof that they are looking for employment (e.g., interview offers, registration to attend a career fair, etc.). Additionally, students who have exceeded the 90 days of unemployment are not considered to be maintaining status and might be denied re-entry into the U.S.
- Change of Status Filed /H-1B Pending /Green-card Application Pending
If any of these apply, you need to be very careful about traveling abroad because doing so can void some of these applications and/or make you ineligible to return to the U.S. on your OPT. Talk to the attorney or office that is assisting you with these applications before traveling abroad.
- Expired EAD
If your OPT period has expired and you are now in the 60-day grace period and you leave the U.S., you will need a different visa (e.g., tourist visa, H-1B work visa if you were approved) to return.