F-1 Regulations allow students participating in OPT to travel abroad, but there may be additional risks and/or additional documentation to prepare. OIE is unable to guarantee that students will be granted admission by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) upon return to the U.S or that the Consulate will renew an F-1 visa at a consulate abroad. Although not common, there are reports of students on OPT having problems at ports of entry as well as being denied visas or experiencing significant visa delays. The decision to travel abroad must be made by the individual student with an understanding of the preparations that should be made and the risks involved.
Pre-completion OPT Students:
You are currently still an enrolled student so you’ll follow the same procedure for visits abroad and re-entry as enrolled F-1 students. Additional documentation is not required for reentry beyond a valid I-20 signed for travel, unexpired passport and unexpired visa stamp.
Post-completion OPT Students:
You are eligible to travel abroad on a temporary basis (less than 5 months) and re-enter the U.S to continue employment. F-1 regulations require that the student present the following documents to CBP upon reentry:
- Passport valid at least 6 months into the future from the date of reentry
- Valid F-1 Visa stamp
- I-20 containing the OPT recommendation and a travel signature less than 6 months old. Students requiring an updated travel signature should complete the “Travel Signature Request” e-form in iStart to request a new signature.
- Unexpired EAD work permit
- Proof the student is returning to resume employment. This can be in the form of a job offer letter or a letter written on letterhead from the student’s supervisor confirming employment. However, a paystub or other documentation showing intent to return to work may be sufficient for a CBP officer.
Travel While OPT Application is Pending:
According to Student Exchange Visitor Program’s guidance, students participating in post-completion OPT may travel abroad while the OPT application is pending. However, travel during this period of time should be undertaken with caution for the following reasons:
- If a request for more evidence (RFE) is issued by USCIS: An RFE requires immediate attention by the applicant.
- If the application is approved while the applicant is abroad, the student will be required to present the EAD upon return.
Students who decide to travel while the OPT application is pending are highly discouraged from leaving the U.S until the application has been received by USCIS and the I-797 receipt notice has been issued. Students should bring the receipt notice with them as proof that an application has been submitted. Although the receipt notice is a good substitution, admission into the U.S. is up to the discretion of the CBP officer, and there have been reports of students without their EAD work permit having problems at the port of entry.
Special Issues in Travel on OPT
Visa Renewal while on Post-Completion OPT:
OPT is a benefit of the F-1 status. Therefore, students traveling while on OPT and have an expired F-1 visa are required to apply for a new F-1 visa. Although the U.S. consulates/embassies are permitted to grant visa renewals to students participating in OPT, these students may be subject to additional scrutiny. The F-1 visa is a non-immigrant intent visa. Therefore, applicants are required to provide proof of “binding ties” to their home country. This may be more challenging for some students on OPT.
Procedures and requirements for visas can vary between countries and are often subject to change. As such, reviewing the visa requirements on the website for the appropriate U.S. Embassy/Consulate is the best way to prepare you for the visa application process. Visit www.travel.state.gov to determine the procedures for applying for a visa at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate in the country in which you’ll be traveling.
For general guidance and information on visa renewals please visit the OIE’s Visa Renewal website.
Automatic Visa Revalidation for OPT Students:
F-1 students participating in OPT traveling to Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean (except Cuba) for less than 30 days are eligible to reenter the U.S with an expired F-1 visa as long as they qualify for automatic visa revalidation. Citizens of Syria, Sudan, Iran and Cuba do not qualify. For more information visit ICE’s Reentry for F-1 Nonimmigrants Traveling Outside the United States.
Accrual of More Than 90 Days of Unemployment’s Impact on Travel:
Students who accrue more than 90 days of unemployment while participating in post-completion OPT will likely be deemed not eligible for reentry into the U.S. by a CBP officer. Students who have/will accrue more than 90 days of unemployment and have decided to leave the U.S. are advised to complete the “Intent to Depart/End I-20 Status” e-form in iStart. An International Student Advisor will review the e-form and complete the SEVIS record which will stop the accrual of unemployment days and end the student’s SEVIS record. Students are advised to leave the U.S as soon as possible after the SEVIS record is ended and will not be eligible to return to the U.S to continue to use their OPT.
Time Outside the U.S and Unemployment:
Time spent outside the U.S during a period of post-completion OPT counts as unemployment against the 90 day limit, unless the student is either:
- Employed during a period of leave authorized by an employer; or
- Traveling as part of his or her employment.
Change of Status and Travel:
Students who have/will apply for a change of status to H1B, permanent resident or any other immigration status should speak with their immigration lawyer prior to making travel plans. Students utilizing the Cap-Gap extension should not travel abroad during the period of time between the end of the EAD and the start of the H1B unless they are eligible to return to the U.S. with the H1B visa stamp.