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
In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued some conflicting guidance on this issue, stating that you can leave the U.S. while your OPT is pending and re-enter to search for employment, but if your OPT is already approved and you leave the U.S. without a job offer, your OPT is cancelled. However, if you do have a job offer, you can use the OPT to come back and work. This guidance is still being discussed with DHS.
The State Department has informed its consular officers that students may present an EAD (OPT card) as proof of eligibility for an F-1 visa.
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 travelling abroad.
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 he/she didn’t 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 (OPT 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 hasn't started yet.
The best case scenario for travel 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 not a bad idea to carry proof of that employment (e.g. job offer or internship letter, invitation to an interview or career fair) even though the immigration officers may not ask for it.
You will notice that your EAD says "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 the embassy does not grant you a new F-1 visa, you cannot come back and work on your OPT. That being said, in the past 3 years a few of our students have applied for visas while on OPT and all of them obtained one. 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. It may not occur often, but it is a possibility, especially if the student has not been employed for a while and has no prospects of employment, leaves the U.S. and wants to return. It is recommended that students who have no employment but need to travel abroad anyways carry with them some proof that they are looking for a job (e.g. dates of careers fairs, etc). Additionally, students who have exceeded the 90 days of unemployment are not considered to be maintaining status and should consider that carefully.
- Change of Status Filed /H-1B Pending /Green-card Application Pending
If any of these apply, then 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.
- All the Above
If all these risks apply to your situation, then it is recommended that you not travel abroad unless absolutely necessary, or you have spoken with your immigration attorney (e.g. for your H-1B or Green-card application).