F-1 Students: Be Prepared While Traveling on OPT

It is important that F-1 students working pursuant to optional practical training (OPT) present proper documentation to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at U.S. ports of entry (POEs) to demonstrate that they can resume employment when they return. Additionally, they should be prepared to answer questions 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.

Required Documentation

An F-1 student who is engaged in post-completion OPT and who travels outside the United States temporarily (less than five months) can be readmitted to resume employment for the remainder of the period authorized on his/her employment authorization document (EAD). In order to do so, the student should present:

1) a form I-20 endorsed by the designated school official (DSO) within the preceding six months.
(The student’s I-20 forms should show 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. If it has been more than six months since the I-20 has been endorsed, the student should request a new I-20 from the DSO.)

2) an unexpired EAD or I-765 receipt notice.
(While an OPT student with an EAD must present the card at the POE when seeking readmission to the U.S., a student may also be readmitted without an EAD, provided that the form I-765 is still pending. Under these circumstances, a student who has applied timely for post-completion OPT may be readmitted with a copy of the I-765 receipt notice in place of an EAD card, as long as the other documentary requirements have been met. This option is considered riskier than reentering with an approved EAD, and some students utilizing this method have reported problems.)

3) evidence that the student will be resuming employment and how that employment relates to her/his degree program.
(This is discussed further below.)

CBP at POE Cannot Guarantee Admission with Documents

When an F-1 student with OPT returns to the United States, the foreign student is inspected by a CBP officer at a POE. As with any nonimmigrant category, having the right documents is vital, but documents alone do not ensure that one will be admitted to the U.S. The CBP officer can ask questions to determine whether the individual is really eligible to enter the U.S. in the requested category. A CBP officer may choose to ask questions about the OPT employment. It is important that the student be able to clearly and simply explain to the officer how the OPT employment is directly related to the field of study.

Students Need to Document Details of OPT Employment

Verbally explaining to CBP how the position is directly related to the field of study may not be sufficient, as the CBP officer cannot be expected to have expertise in each academic discipline and occupation to make this determination. Therefore, carrying documents to help evidence this may prove helpful.

In the context of seeking an OPT extension, the USCIS suggests that an F-1 student keep documents that show the kind of positions held during OPT, proof of the duration of employment, the job titles and descriptions, and contact information for the supervisors. The USCIS also suggests that the student obtain a letter, signed by the supervisor, describing how the work is directly related to the most recent degree program. This same documentation can be helpful if questioned by the CBP.

Job Familiarity is Key

Even with the documents described above, it is necessary for a traveling OPT student to understand how the OPT relates to the most recent degree earned and be able to confidently explain this to a CBP officer.


Any time a foreign national steps out of the United States, there is no guarantee that the individual will be able to return. CBP officers have the right and ability to examine each and 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. Prior to traveling, the student may wish to consider speaking with a DSO or knowledgeable attorney, to be properly prepared for any questions that may arise when requesting readmission.

Originally posted 07.Dec.2012, this NewsBrief has been updated for MurthyDotCom readers.


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