I have a question I’m a F1 student on a valid F1 visa & OPT (end date September 25 2018). I plan on applying for OPT STEM on Sept 19. I have an emergency back home & I was planning on coming back on the 18. Is it safe for me to go?
note: this answer may not apply as the student has a regular OPT that is ending and they are renewing as STEM OPT. This may be different from the F1->OPT transition.
You’re in trouble - not for your student visa which will still be valid when you return but you may not have enough time to get OPT status to remain.
Most campus foreign student offices should have notified you that you should apply for OPT at least 6-9 months in advance of your graduation or when you’ll change status. For example, Stanford warns that OPT processing may take 90-120 days and many places are much more cautious than this, given recent changes in the federal government and visa processing times.
You should go immediately to your campus foreign students office and ask their advice. Otherwise you may have to leave within 60 days of the end date of your F1.
According to the written rules, your plan should work. However, it would be a good idea to discuss your plan ahead of time with your university's international students' office to consider the possible risks. The possible risks could be:
- denial of reentry due to returning so close to the end of your current OPT (unlikely unless you have some other complication such as unemployment),
- delays in your travel causing you to be unable to return before the end of your current OPT, or
- errors in your STEM OPT application such as filing more than 60 days after your STEM OPT I-20 was printed, or
- delays causing your STEM OPT application not to reach USCIS before the end of your current OPT.
If any of the above happened, you would be unable to get STEM OPT. If none of the above happen, you should be fine. Here is the F-1 travel FAQ from Homeland Security which mentions the requirements to travel during OPT:
If USCIS has approved your OPT you will be expected to have your EAD in hand to re-enter the United States, in addition to your Form I-20, valid passport and visa, and a letter of employment if you have one. If you exceed the limits on unemployment while outside the United States, you will not be eligible to re-enter the United States in F-1 status.
Note: RoboKaren's answer suggests that you will have trouble due to USCIS's long processing times. Actually, since you already have OPT, if your STEM OPT application is properly filed and reaches USCIS on time, your work authorization will be considered automatically extended while waiting for USCIS to adjudicate it. This is explained in federal regulation 8 CFR 214.2(f)(11)(i)(C):
A student meeting the eligibility requirements for a 24-month OPT extension ... may request an extension ... up to 90 days prior to the expiration date of the student’s current OPT employment authorization. ... If a student timely and properly files an application for such 24-month OPT extension ... but the Employment Authorization Document, Form I-766 ... currently in the student’s possession expires prior to the decision on the student’s application for the OPT extension, the student’s Form I-766 ... is extended automatically pursuant to the terms and conditions specified in 8 CFR 274a.12(b)(6)(iv).