This blog post was co-authored by Interstride, a platform that provides support services, resources, and insights to international students in the US.
The STEM OPT visa is a temporary work visa that allows international STEM students studying in the US to remain in the US to work for up to three years after graduation. When a STEM OPT visa expires, international students who wish to remain in the US face a lot of uncertainty. Fortunately, there are several options to consider before or when your STEM OPT visa expires.
What is STEM OPT?
The majority of international students in the US have an F-1 visa which comes with the benefit of Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows students to work in the US for up to 12 months in a position related to their field of study. International students in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field have the option to extend OPT for an additional 24 months. That means with STEM OPT, an international student can remain in the country and work legally for up to three years.
What to do when your STEM OPT extension expires
The reality for international students who wish to continue to live and work in the US is that the US has challenging immigration laws compared to other countries such as Canada. The US rejects many highly-qualified work visa applicants despite the high demand for STEM professionals.
When your STEM OPT expires, you have just 60 days before you have to leave the country, and you cannot work during this 60-day grace period. Furthermore, many visas take more than two months to process, so if you wait until the last minute to seek out alternative ways to remain in the US, you may end up having to leave the country regardless. This could mean losing your employment in the US and having to restart the immigration process. To avoid this, research these four options before your final year of STEM OPT.
(1) Apply for an H-1B Visa
The H-1B visa is a temporary, nonimmigrant work visa. To qualify, individuals must have a bachelor’s degree or advanced certification and an employer sponsor. Workers on an H-1B visa can be employed full-time or part-time. The visa lasts three years with the possibility to extend to six years. If your goal is permanent residence in the US, you can begin the process of applying for your green card while on an H-1B visa.
Unfortunately, there are only 85,000 H-1Bs available each year. Due to the increased popularity of this visa, USCIS introduced a lottery system to select applicants. In 2022, only 26% of applications were selected in the lottery out of 480,000 total applicants. Those on a STEM OPT can enter into the H-1B visa lottery every year that their OPT is valid. This means that STEM OPT workers have three chances in the H-1B lottery, whereas regular OPT workers only get one chance before their OPT visa status expires.
(2) Enroll in Day 1 CPT to earn an advanced degree
The Day 1 Curricular Practical Training (CPT) program is an option for individuals who want to pursue a graduate degree and career in the US. The program allows students to begin working on the first day their graduate program begins. It must be renewed every year or every semester, depending on the university.
CPT can only be used for degree programs that require an internship or practicum as part of the curriculum. The work can be full-time or part-time; however, students may find it challenging to work full-time while completing an advanced degree program. This option could delay career advancement, but set international students up for higher-paying opportunities in the future. Master’s programs can be expensive, so be sure to weigh the pros and cons of graduate school to determine the return on investment for your education.
(3) Return to your home country
With the increased openness to remote work in recent years, some US companies may let you work remotely from your home country. This means you can stay on your current career path without losing any progress. However, the reality is that many companies do not allow remote work. Even if you are able to work, it will be challenging to work normal hours with your existing company given the time zone difference between your home country and the US.
If you are open to living in your home country, here are the steps you can take:
- Ask your current employer about work-from-home options before your STEM OPT expires.
- Specify that you will be working out of the country as some companies have laws requiring remote workers to remain in a certain area or nation.
(4) Relocate to a more welcoming country like Canada
The US has more challenging immigration laws than its friendly neighbour, Canada. The benefits of migrating to Canada include:
- Similar culture as the US – Most of Canada speaks English and shares similar values as the US, such as a strong sense of individualism.\
- Shares a border with the US – Canada is next door to the US, meaning travelling to the US is quick and easy. Time zones are the same, and the weather is fairly similar. Canada also benefits from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for economic stability and integration with the US.
- High quality of life – Canada boasts universal healthcare, high-quality public education, mandated paid maternity and paternity leave, and lower crime rates than the US.
- Open and welcoming to newcomers – Canada has long been recognized as one of the most welcoming and accepting nations in the world, with progressive immigration policies that encourage foreigners to call Canada home.
- Merit-based permanent residency process – Unlike the US, Canada does not have limits on the number of permanent resident candidates accepted each year from certain countries. Canada uses a universal point system that favours highly-skilled tech workers.
If you are working for a large company with operations in Canada, you may be able to apply for an intra-company transfer to Canada. However, if your current company does not have operations in Canada, you can work with MobSquad to act as a company’s “virtual” Canadian subsidiary. We help technology professionals continue working with their current US company, nearshore from Canada. We can help you obtain Canadian work permits for yourself and your family in as little as six to eight weeks, and Canadian permanent residency (the equivalent of a US Green Card in Canada) in about one year.
ABOUT INTERSTRIDE (interstride.com)
Designed for international students, by former international students. Interstride is a platform built to help international students navigate their student journey. From navigating the immigration journey, adapting to a new life in a new country, and finding jobs from international student-friendly employers, they provide access to support services, resources, and insights to help every step of the way. For more information, visit www.interstride.com.
ABOUT MOBSQUAD (mobsquad.io)
MobSquad helps technology professionals facing U.S. work visa challenges remain working with their current company, nearshore from Canada. They also help global technology talent looking for new opportunities find rewarding careers in North America. MobSquad can obtain Canadian work visas for technology professionals (and their families) in as little as six to eight weeks, and Canadian permanent residency in about a year. They manage all ongoing administrative processes, including immigration support, relocation and resettlement services, payroll, legal, offices, and accounting. For more information, visit www.mobsquad.io.