Travel tips for F-1 students

Posted on Sep 6, 2023 by Chris Prescott

Travelling should be a fun experience.  However, returning to the U.S. and navigating the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) process usually isn’t.

This article is intended for F-1 students wanting to travel on OPT, STEM OPT or Day 1 CPT.

OPT

Travelling on post completion OPT (initial 12 months) should not be problematic if your OPT has already been approved.  When travelling we recommend that you carry the following items:

  • Valid Passport.
  • F-1 visa.  If your current F-1 has expired, you will need to obtain a new visa before returning to the U.S.
  • Form I-20.  This must be endorsed for travel within the last 6 months and confirms your eligibility to travel.
  • EAD card.
  • Job Offer letter from your OPT employer showing that you have a position to return to.
  • Evidence of financial support.

Bear in mind that OPT students are limited to having 90 days of unemployment and time spent outside of the U.S. will count towards this.  It is not recommended to travel while your OPT is pending.  If the OPT is denied during your travel returning to the U.S. will not be possible.

Travel without a valid F-1 visa

Students travelling outside of the U.S. generally require a valid F-1 visa.  However, those travelling to Mexico, Canada or an adjacent island for 30 days or less are permitted to travel under the automatic revalidation provision.

STEM OPT

If your STEM OPT has been approved (24-month extension) then you can travel.  Please refer to the above list of documents for a list of items to carry.  Although a job offer is not technically required for OPT it is for STEM OPT.  If you do not have a job to return to you will not be readmitted.  For both OPT and STEM OPT the job must be related to your major field of study.

STEM OPT students are allowed a maximum of 150 days of unemployment and travel outside of the U.S. will once again count towards the unemployment days.

It is not recommended to travel while your STEM OPT is pending unless your initial OPT remains valid during your travel.  

F-1 students travelling with a pending H-1B petition

If you are one of the fortunate candidates selected in the H-1B lottery you may be wondering whether you can travel while the H-1B is pending.  

If you are in the US in F-1 status your employer will most likely submit the H-1B application requesting a change of status.  Meaning, once the case is approved (usually with an October 1 start date) you will automatically switch from F-1 to H-1B.  However, as with most change of status applications, travelling will abandon the change of status request, meaning that your H-1B will no longer be approved in the U.S.  Travelling while a change of status application is pending will require you to obtain an H-1B visa at the Consulate and return in H-1B status on Oct 1 (or up to 10 days before).

Therefore, travelling when the H-1B petition is pending is not recommended.  If the H-1B is approved, you can travel and return on F-1 prior to the H-1B start date to either resume studies or continue your OPT/STEM OPT employment.  If your studies are completed and you do not have OPT/STEM OPT you will not be permitted to return to the US until your H-1B employment begins.

Special cap-gap considerations

Students with a pending or approved H-1B petition subject to the cap are permitted to remain in the U.S. to maintain their F-1 status throughout the cap-gap period, i.e., the period between the end of their F-1 status and the beginning of their H-1B status.  

If an F-1 student’s OPT expires before their H-1B status takes effect on October 1st of the fiscal year, the Cap-Gap extension allows the student to maintain their lawful status in the United States and continue working, provided the petition is filed prior to the expiration of the OPT. 

If your H-1B is pending and you are in cap-gap we do not recommend travelling.  However, if the H-1B and request for change of status is approved, even though your OPT may have expired you are still permitted to travel and return to the U.S. before the H-1B employment begins.  In addition to the documents listed above you will need a copy of your H-1B petition and original approval notice.

Day 1 CPT

Day 1 CPT allows students to work simultaneously while studying for a second master’s or PhD.  This has become a popular option for those not selected in the H-1B lottery.  For further details regarding Day 1 CPT check out our previous article:

https://patel-law-group.local/not-selected-in-the-h-1b-lottery-is-day-1-cpt-the-only-option/

While USCIS appears not to have a problem with those who take Day 1 CPT, (regularly approving change of status applications from Day 1 CPT to H-1B or green card), the Consulates often take a different view.

It’s generally advisable for individuals on Day 1 CPT not to travel. Most individuals on Day 1 CPT need to obtain a new F-1 visa and the few candidates we have spoken to who have left the U.S. and tried to travel have been denied F-1 visas at the Consulate.  The Consulate knows that individuals are using Day 1 CPT as a last resort to remain in the U.S. and refuse the visa based on a lack of strong ties to their home country.  Put another way they simply don’t like Day 1 CPT.

Unless you have an urgent need for travel, we don’t recommend travelling, especially if you need to obtain a new F-1 visa stamp.

Conclusion

This article is intended as guidance only.  If you are an F-1 student who needs to travel, we recommend consulting with an experienced Immigration Attorney.  If you have questions or wish to schedule a consultation, please contact PLG Partner Chris Prescott at cprescott@patellegal.com.