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Immigration Law Blog

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

F-1 and OPT Travel FAQs

General Comments about traveling while on F-1 or OPT
As an F-1 student you are required to have non-immigrant intent when you present yourself at a U.S. port of entry. Travel while on F-1 status or OPT, especially after you graduate, can raise the potential that you may be denied admission if you cannot sufficiently establish your non-immigrant intent.  . If you do decide to travel, you should prepare documents and be ready to answer questions at the consulate and / or the border about your intention and your ties to your home country.

Question 1: Can I travel during the 60-day “grace period” after program or OPT Completion?

No. An F-1 student travelling abroad during the 60-day period of time after program or OPT completion (also known as the “grace period”) will not be re-admitted to the U.S. This period is designated for preparing to leave the U.S. only.

Question 2: Can I travel while my OPT application is pending?

Yes. While it is possible to travel while the OPT application is pending there are certain inherent risks involved. For example, you may receive a Request For Evidence (RFE) while outside of the U.S. and it could be very difficult to respond to the RFE from outside the U.S.

You may travel and re-enter the U.S. while the case is pending and should provide proof that you have a pending OPT application when you seek re-entry.

If the case is approved while you are outside the U.S., you must have the card in-hand to re-enter (see question 3). For this reason, you should be sure that someone is monitoring your U.S. address of record and will be able to forward you any USCIS correspondence.

Question 3: Can I travel after my OPT is approved?

In general, Yes. To re-enter the U.S. after travel abroad, you will need:

-    Your EAD Card
-    A I-20, endorsed for travel by your DSO within the past 6 months
-    A valid passport with valid F-1 visa stamp
-    Proof of OPT Employment or Job Offer (a letter from your employer and paystubs)

3a. What if my F-1 visa has expired?
It depends on where you are going and for how long. In general, entry into the U.S. after travel abroad requires a valid visa stamp. Students who have completed their course of study and are actively using OPT are likely to face great difficulty when applying for F-1 visa stamps and should expect extreme scrutiny and a high chance of denial.  However, for certain trips to Canada and Mexico (or certain islands) of 30 days or less, F-1 students may qualify for “automatic visa revalidation”.

3b. What if I don’t have a job yet?
The likelihood of being re-admitted to the U.S. after OPT approval without proof of employment or written employment offer is not high. It is not recommended that you travel until you have secured a job offer or employment.

3c. How does timeout side the U.S. affect the 90/120 unemployment limitations?
Time spent outside the U.S. will be counted against the unemployment limitations unless you are able to document that you continued to be employed by the OPT employer or that the travel was required as part of your OPT employment. You should very carefully count periods of unemployment as your admission can be denied if the CBP officer believes you’ve gone over the unemployment limitations.

Question 4: Can I travel outside of the U.S. if my first period of OPT has expired but my 17-month STEM extension application is pending?

No. If your current OPT is expired and the STEM OPT has not been approved you must wait until your STEM OPT is approved.

Question 5: Can I travel outside of the U.S. if my 17-month STEM extension is approved?

In general, yes! See our answers to Questions 3.

Question 6: Can I travel outside the U.S. on F-1 status if my H-1B cap case is currently pending?

If the H-1B cap case was filed a change-of-status and you leave while the case is pending, USCIS may treat the travel as abandonment of the petition and could issue a consular approval notice (which would require travel to take effect) or even deny the H-1B petition. If USCIS approved the case for consular notification in order to work in H-1B status you would have to go abroad for H-1B visa stamping and re-enter the U.S. If you are in this situation, you can return to the U.S. on F-1 (before the cap-gap period has commenced) and even resume employment authorization if you have a valid EAD, employment offer letter, I-20, and valid F-1 visa, but your status will not automatically change to H-1B on Oct. 1st. If you know you will be traveling beforehand it is better for the H-1B to file as a consular case.  

Question 7: Can I travel outside the U.S. on F-1 status if my H-1B cap case is approved?

Yes. You can travel on F-1 status, presuming that you have a valid F-1 visa, an I-20, and if on OPT valid EAD, and employment offer letter, and your travel is before the cap-gap period has commenced.

Question 8: Can I travel during the cap-gap period?

No. A student granted a cap-gap extension who elects to travel outside the United States during the cap-gap extension period will not be able to return in F-1 status.  

Cap-gap is an automatic extension of status and / or work authorization extended to F-1 students who have pending H-1B cap cases. The automatic extension of status and / or work authorization is a benefit provided to students with pending H-1B applications that need coverage to bridge the gap between the expiration of their F-1 status and / or OPT work authorization and the first day of their H-1B employment (October 1).

If a student who is benefiting from this automatic extension travels during their cap-gap period, the benefit is rescinded and student will need to remain outside the U.S. until they are able to apply for an H-1B visa at a consular post abroad and re-enter the U.S. in H-1B status. Since work authorization for cap subject H-1B cases do not start until October 1, students should be prepared and adjust travel plans accordingly.


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