You can apply without a job offer, and can start the OPT application process with as many as 90 days before your requested start date for your employment (even if you don’t have a job, yet). You can generally use your 12 months of cumulative OPT work time, either during official school breaks, during the academic year, or after you complete your studies. Post-completion OPT is the most common type, because there are often other options for students to work during the school year (such as Curricular Practical Training), so most students will probably want to save their OPT time for after graduation. Post-completion OPT work (after graduation) must be at least 20 hours a week. OPT is flexible and allows students to work anywhere in the U.S, though it’s generally limited to 12 months. If you’re in a STEM field (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics), you might be eligible for an additional 17 month extension (for a total of 29 months).
You do not have to take advantage of your OPT training, and you can actually apply to change your status directly from F-1 to H-1B. However, many F-1 Students find it prudent to take advantage of the OPT program, as it can be hard to find an employer to sponsor H-1B employment, immediately post-graduation.
You get 12 months of OPT after completion of each level of education, so you can kind of use it creatively or to “hedge your bets” in some cases. For example, you could apply to use it for the period after graduation from your four-year University Degree program, and you could then use it after graduation to work as an intern or something in your field, while simultaneously applying for Master’s Programs and permanent positions. Thus, you can use the OPT creatively in some cases to buy yourself time, while getting valuable work experience. If you get a good job offer (which would otherwise fulfil the requirements for an H-1B), or you get into a desirable Master’s Program, you could then make a harder decision and apply to change your status accordingly. You also get 90 days of unemployment on OPT for each educational level (also commutative). Thus, if you apply without a job offer, and you get your EAD (employment authorization document) authorizing OPT, but you don’t yet have a job, that is okay. As long as you find something in 90 days (ideally less), or successfully change your status (let’s say you decide to do a Master’s Program and get accepted), you’ll be okay. If nothing happens for you in those 90 days however, you’ll have to make arrangements to depart the United States immediately.
This discussion of OPT is just to get you thinking about all your potential options. You could in theory, string together an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree in the United States, followed by twelve months of OPT, followed by a Master’s degree and then an additional 12 months more of OPT (if you don’t yet have an H-1B eligible position lined up). OPT should be thought of as a diverse tool to be used, that also gives you valuable work experience.
That being said, if you have the right job offer, and it satisfies all the more stringent requirements of being eligible for the H-1B, you can go right from F-1 to the H-1B status. The important thing is that the position can be thought of as a “speciality occupation position,” for which you qualify for based on your educational credentials, and your employer is prepared to pay you the “prevailing wage” for that position in your geographic area. It is common for Universities to sponsor these types of positions, so that is a potential employer to think about. By no means however, is that the only employer for you to think about. For more information on H-1B Visas, as previously mentioned, please see our article: How does the H-1B Visa process work? Also, as previously mentioned, there is a limit to the number of H-1B’s issued by USCIS every year. HOWEVER, if you have a U.S. Master’s Degree, you may be in a much better position to get one. Why? Because the first 20,000 applicants with a U.S. Master’s degree are exempt from the 65,000 H-1B Visa limit. Thus, if you are thinking of pursuing a Master’s degree anyway, maybe it makes sense to take advantage of that OPT following your Undergraduate degree, and then pursue that advanced degree after that.
Ultimately, your journey as a student and a worker in the United States is up to you. There are many creative ways to do this, and generally there are favorable opportunities available under U.S. Immigration Law, for the F-1 Student Visa Holder; opportunities and options that aren’t available to others. Remember that the help of an experienced Immigration Lawyer will always be beneficial in assisting you with these very complicated matters. You don’t have to make this journey alone.