Travel Risks: Student & Post-Completion Employment
Travel after completion of your degree requirements is permitted, provided you can demonstrate that you are still eligible for the F-1 or J-1 category. Prior to the completion date listed on your I-20 or DS-2019, you are able to travel normally, even if you have submitted an application for OPT or AT. After the completion date has passed, your ability to reenter the United States is based on approval of the work permission. In addition to the standard travel documents, including a valid travel endorsement on your I-20 or DS-2019, students on post-completion employment must show that their work authorization is valid and their eligibility for student status is extended. You may also be asked to demonstrate that you are maintaining employment OPT appropriately during the authorization period. This is generally satisfied by a letter or pay stub from your current employer or an offer letter from an intended employer. Without these documents, travel is NOT advised.
Expired Visa Stamp
If your F-1 or J-1 visa has expired, you will need to apply for a new visa stamp, for which you must show that you plan to return to your home country upon completion of your employment or training activities (i.e. Nonimmigrant Intent). This can be especially hard to prove once you have work authorization and are successfully employed in the United States. You should consider your travel plans carefully and plan ahead for the possibility of a delay or denial. Be sure to discuss your travel plans and potential risks with your employer as well. Automatic Revalidation is still available during this time for short trips of 30 days or less to Canada, Mexico, or the adjacent islands.
F-1 OPT Considerations
Cap Gap Extensions: During a valid Cap Gap extension, the EAD card will have already expired and the ability to document and prove eligibility for continued F-1 status could be more difficult. Besides the risks associated with re-entry in the F-1 category, travel considerations should also be based on the type and status of the H-1B petition. Applications filed for a "Change of Status" are considered abandoned when the beneficiary travels while it is still pending. After the Approval Notice is issued, travel prior to the H-1B start date should not impact the Change of Status (provided you are able to return in valid F-1 status). Applications filed for "Consular Notification" require that the beneficiary obtain an H-1B visa stamp and enter the United States in that category, not more than 10 days prior to the authorized start date. Travel during the application period is possible, but the same issues remain in terms of documenting F-1 eligibility upon re-entry at a US Port of Entry. Additionally, the F-1 Cap Gap extension will only cover the remainder of the current fiscal year (September 30th), meaning that travel and re-entry with a valid H-1B visa will then be required to maintain work permission. If you wish to travel during the Cap Gap Extension of your OPT, please discuss your individual circumstances, timing, and documentation with your employer and the ISO before leaving the United States.
STEM Extensions: If you plan to travel while the STEM Extension is pending, you may use your initial EAD card, authorizing the 12-month OPT period. However, once that card expires, you should wait to travel until the new STEM Extension EAD card is received.