F-1 Students: Be Prepared While Traveling on OPT

The Murthy Law Firm has received reports that some F-1 students holding optional practical training (OPT) have experienced difficulties when returning to the United States after travel abroad. These problems have arisen due to questions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the U.S. ports of entry (POEs) regarding the specific nature of the OPT work of the students. Foreign students with OPT should be careful when traveling abroad because some OPT holders are being refused readmission to the United States based on review of how closely their OPT work is related to their degree programs.

CBP at POE Cannot Guarantee Admission with Documents

When F-1 students with OPT return to the United States, they are inspected by CBP officers at POEs. As with any immigration category, having the right documents is vital, but documents alone do not assure that one will be admitted to the U.S. The CBP officers can ask questions to determine whether the individual is really eligible to enter the U.S. in the requested category.

CBP officers may choose to ask students on OPT questions about their OPT employment. It is important that students explain clearly and simply how the OPT employment is directly related to their F-1 fields of study. It may not be enough to verbally explain this to CBP, as CBP officers are generally not experts in each academic discipline and occupation.

Students Need to Document Details of OPT Employment

There are several ways for OPT students to document how their work is directly related to the field of study of their last degree program. Students may utilize the guidance provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in its Supplemental Questions and Answers, Extension of Optional Training Program for Qualified Students (23.May.2008).

In the context of seeking an OPT extension, the USCIS suggests that students keep documents that show the kind of positions held during their OPT, proof of the duration of employment, their job titles and descriptions, and contact information for their supervisors. The same documentation can be helpful if questioned by the CBP.

Additional Documents to Show Employment and Eligibility

In addition to the employment authorization card (EAD), such students should carry their most recent I-20 forms, showing the recommendation for OPT, the name of the employer, and the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code for the primary majors of each student's last degree program.

All of this documentation would be helpful if the CBP questioned a student's OPT work during an attempted return to the United States. The USCIS also suggests students obtain letters signed by their  supervisors and describing how the work is directly related to the most recent degree program.

Job Familiarity is Key

Even with the documents described above, it is necessary for traveling OPT students to understand how their OPT relates to the most recent degree earned and be able to confidently explain this to CBP officers. Students may want to consider speaking with their DSOs or qualified immigration lawyers before traveling outside of the United States, to be properly prepared for reenter and resume their OPT work.

Conclusion

Any time foreign national steps out of the United States, it is not guaranteed s/he will be able to return safely. CBP officers have the right and ability to examine every applicant for admission at airports and other U.S. ports of entry. This includes students who may incorrectly assume that readmission to the U.S. is a mere formality. As the above example illustrates, being on OPT for a number of months does not automatically grant a student a return to the work or training position.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.

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