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The optional practical training (OPT) program allows international students to remain in the U.S. for practical training that is directly related to their area of study. It is available to F-1 and M-1 visa holders for up to 12 months, with some extensions available. F-1 visa holders in certain STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, for example, can apply for a 24-month extension.

In the past, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services virtually guaranteed processing of OPT requests within 90 days. If the request was not processed within 90 days, the applicant could go to a local office for immediate approval.

That is no longer the rule, and many OPT visas now take five to seven months to process. That, unfortunately, is keeping many international students from moving on to the next stage in their credentialing.

Consider recent medical school graduates from Harvard. Medical students rely on OPT to allow them to remain in the United States while they complete their residency programs.

"Without their visa being approved by the federal government, they are not allowed to move through the next stage of credentialing," explains the residency director at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard's largest teaching hospital. "If you're not credentialed, you can't take care of patients, and that has an immediate effect on our hospital."

According to Massachusetts General, over 900 international students at Harvard applied for OPT visas over the winter. As of now, less than 400 have been approved, according to administrators.

The problem isn't only at Harvard but nationwide.

The USCIS says that there has been a recent surge in applications that has created a backlog. The agency says it has a plan in place to return to standard processing times soon.

Academics are skeptical that the problem is related solely to a momentary backlog. They point to the fact that established scholars have been facing visa delays, as well. The problem is not limited to OPT.

What can I do to minimize any delays to my application?

Processing delays do occur, and there is little an individual applicant can do about them. What you can do, however, is file as early as possible and work with an immigration attorney to ensure that your application is accurate and complete.

If you would like more information about student visas or the OPT program, contact Yew Immigration Law Group. We have years of experience helping international students train in the U.S.

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