There are special rules that act to automatically extend the US employment eligibility of qualified F-1 foreign student visa holders beyond the period initially authorized. The rule that relates to F-1 visa holders seeking to change to H-1B work visa status is referred to as “cap-gap” because it is intended to fill the gap between the date the OPT (optional practical training) period would otherwise expire and the date that the new H-1B employment authorization starts.

The H-1B allows employers to temporarily employ a foreign national in a specialty occupation. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) grants H-1B status. There is a limit, or “cap,” on the number of individuals who can receive H-1B status, and H-1B employment generally begins on October 1, the start of the federal government’s fiscal year.

OPT is an employment authorization for F-1 international students who have completed their studies. Typically, the OPT is granted for 12 months. STEM majors working for eligible employers may qualify for extensions totaling an additional 24 months. At the completion of the study program or the end of OPT, F-1 students have a 60-day grace period to take the steps necessary to either maintain their legal status or depart the US. For the non-STEM majors, that means their OPT status expires well before the October 1 start date of H-1B, hence the “cap-gap.”

To deal with this situation, USCIS’ OPT cap-gap rule automatically extends an eligible F-1 student’s status to bridge the gap between the end of F-1 status and start of H-1B status, thereby allowing the student to remain in the US during the “gap.”

The cap-gap extension applies if all three of the following conditions are met:

  • An employer timely files a Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, with USCIS requesting a change of the student’s status to H-1B. Note: A petition requesting consular process does not qualify.
  • The H-1B petition asks for an October 1 start date.
  • The student’s status, including any applicable grace period, ends between April and September 30.

How the OPT cap-gap protection is triggered by different events during the H-1B process

  • When an H-1B petition on behalf of the student has been filed with USCIS but not yet receipted, the student’s employment authorization automatically extends to June 1. While the extension is automatic, students can request from their school’s office of international students office an updated Form I-20 to serve as proof of legal status.
  • While the H-1B is pending with USCIS for processing, the student’s employment authorization automatically extends to September 30. Again, the student may, but is not required to, obtain an updated Form I-20 from the international students’ office.

If USCIS denies the H-1B, or if the H-1B petition is returned as “not selected,” then there is no longer any cap-gap employment authorization. If the F-1 student’s OPT already expired, then the student has 60 days to depart the US or take other steps to maintain lawful status.

Employers are advised to request updated Form I-20s from their employees on OPT status as proof of valid work authorization, and to take note of the expiration dates.

Note that if the student’s OPT expires before April 1 and the student is already in the 60-day grace period when the H-1B is filed, the cap-gap only extends the F-1 status, not OPT employment authorization. The student may remain in the US, but without OPT work authorization.

Employers must verify the employment authorization for all employees in the US. Failure to do so may result in monetary penalties against the employer. Please contact Dentons for more information.