When international students arrive in America on an F1 visa, they usually start to work in on-campus jobs. Usually, after a couple of semesters, you would be eligible to work on practical training…sometimes, you can work even before that, depending on the program and school. These work options are broadly classified under practical training. The goal is to provide training opportunities in the US for international students to gain on-the-job learning.
There are primarily two options that most F1 students use: Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). Also, some may be eligible for STEM OPT. This article covers all the basics and looks at the differences.
What is Curricular Practical Training ( CPT)?
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is primarily given to F1 Visa International students to work and gain experience in their field of study when they are studying. CPT is usually part of the program and you get credit for working on CPT. The credits you did for CPT would also be counted towards your degree. This is the reason, CPT is only done by students before they graduate.
Most of the standard good schools allow students to work on CPT after 2 semesters or 9 months( one academic year i.e, Fall & Spring) after entering the US. To use CPT, you need to work with the academic department or your specific career services and international student advisor within the university to get CPT.
When employers offer a job, they call it a Co-op or Internship. But, for F1 students, on their course record and immigration status perspective, it is classified as CPT. You can look at CPT as legally working for a potential employer who is giving you an opportunity to prove yourself, while you are studying. Also, you get paid when you work on CPT.
How long can you work on CPT?
Usually, you can work up to 20 hours on CPT during the regular semester as a full-time student. During summer, you can work for up to 40 hours on CPT. It is suggested that you do not work on CPT for more than 12 months (full time) on CPT. If you do so, you will not get your OPT. Also, you can only work on CPT, until you graduate. CPT is considered part of the program and you cannot work on CPT after you graduate.
How to get CPT approved?
You will need to work with the DSO ( Designated School Official) or International student Adviser and your academic department to process your CPT application. DSO would issue you a new I-20 indicating the CPT approval. Also, You might have to work with the career services at your school sometimes for the processing of the paperwork. Also, some schools do not allow CPT if you do not have a job offer in the local city. So, you need to make sure and check with the school on the CPT requirements to get approval.
What is Day 1 CPT? Issues?
Sometimes, based on the program, the Designated School Official(DSO) at the university may authorize working on CPT during the first semester. If they authorize F1 students to work on CPT from Day 1 ( meaning starting of school), then it is classified as Day 1 CPT.
Day 1 CPT is not common in most schools in America. Only a few of the shady schools/universities, which are technically degree mills kind of schools, offer Day 1 CPT. There is a lot of fraud around Day 1 CPT schools. Many students, without this knowledge, fall into the trap and end up in situations like arrests, and deportation as in the Univ of Farmington Day 1 CPT scandal. With Day 1 CPT, you may not even get H1B approved with Change of Status(COS) as USCIS usually treats Day 1 CPT status as not legal.
Also, if you going for a second Master’s degree, you are not eligible for CPT from Day 1, it is a misconception that you have already been in the US for two semesters. All the standard rules of CPT apply, read Can you work on CPT from Day 1 in Second Masters in the US.
What is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?
Optional Practical Training(OPT) is a form of practical training that is given to international F1 students to work in their field of study. It is typically given to gain on-the-job experience and practical experience for the academic knowledge gained in the degree program. It is usually given for 12 months for all degree holders, with an option to extend it for 24 months for STEM ( Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics ) Degree holders. This used to be 17 months, but a new rule was passed in 2015 to extend 17 months to 24 months OPT.
Unlike CPT, OPT is not part of the curriculum and you do not get any credit for your degree. There are two types of OPT, called pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT.
Pre-completion OPT is to work in the student’s area of study before F1 student graduation. You need to be enrolled in the degree program as a full-time student for one academic year to participate in pre-completion OPT. You can work part-time up to 20 hours when school is in session and you are enrolled full time. You can work for up to 40 hours or full time during summer breaks.
If the student chooses to use pre-completion OPT, the respective amount of time is deducted from 12 months OPT time period. For instance, if you work on Pre-completion OPT for 5 months, then you will be eligible only for 7 months of post-completion OPT.
Post-completion OPT is to work in the student’s field of study after the F1 student graduation. Typically, most students use OPT after graduating from school. So, if you hear students or anyone referring to OPT, they mean post-completion OPT. They usually do not use “post-completion” as this is the common way of calling and it is how many use it.
General rules of OPT like working in the same field of study apply here as well. General OPT is given for 12 months duration if you have not used it before graduation and have not worked on CPT full time for 12 months. You may be eligible for 24 month extension of OPT if your degree falls under the STEM category.
To utilize OPT and get Employment Authorization Document (EAD), you will have to fill EAD application (I-766 form) and send it to USCIS. As per the USCIS OPT application process, You can apply for OPT up to 90 days before you graduate and no longer than 60 days after you graduate.
You need to plan your OPT and apply on time so that you are in OPT after you graduate. You will lose your status in the US if you don’t have OPT started within 2 months grace period. You can work for anyone in OPT, there are no restrictions, but it must be related to your degree area of study.
What is STEM OPT?
STEM OPT is nothing but OPT given for certain F1 holders, who are eligible based on their degree category. In 2015, USCIS announced a new set of rules stating that if your degree belongs to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) degree fields, you are eligible to apply for STEM OPT Extension. You get another 24 months if STEM OPT is approved.
To avail the 24-month OPT, you need to be part of the listed STEM Designated Degrees by DHS by having the right CIP Code for your degree to qualify for a STEM Degree. To get STEM OPT approval, there are certain rules like you can work for only an e-verified employer and training reporting guidelines that are set forth by USCIS that a student need to follow during the STEM OPT period. If that is not followed properly, then USCIS can question your status details during your H1B period, so all care need to be taken to be in proper status.
When you work on STEM OPT, you need to inform your DSO about the employers you are working with, so that they can keep your employment status in SEVIS. When you are on STEM OPT, you are still on an F1 visa and you need to comply with all the F1 visa-related rules. You need to have a valid I-20 and keep close contact with DSO for any travel as well.
Now, that we know all three, let’s compare OPT and CPT.
Differences between OPT vs. CPT
|Primary Purpose||Provision to work in a company as an F1 student to get practical work experience during studying for a degree, before graduation||Provision to work in a company on F1 status after graduation to gain experience in the same field of education|
|Typical Student Status||Full-time F1 student in school.||In general, students graduated with a degree and on F1 status in the US, with exception of students leveraging pre-completion OPT,|
|Course Fee||Need to pay the school for the course credit. Usually, 1-course credit.||No need to pay the University, but need to file an application with USCIS and pay the application fee.|
|Degree Requirements||Working on CPT will be part of degree requirements and directly related to the student’s area of study||Not related to degree requirements. Pursued after graduation in the same field.|
|Approved By||CPT is approved by Department in University, Career Center, and DSO authorizes it in SEVIS, gives New I-20||OPT is approved by USCIS. DSO issues I-20 in support of the OPT application and student files application with USCIS|
|Employment Duration||Can be done for up to 12 months. But, if you work in CPT for 12 months full time, you will not be eligible for OPT||The typical duration of 12 months after graduation and can be extended by 24 months if part of a STEM Degree and qualified for it.|
|Employer Info||An employer needs to provide training related to study, their name is printed on I-20. Student submits CPT report in School for credit award for degree||It is students’ responsibility to get training work in OPT in their related field. There is no report submitted to the school. Only DSO is informed of the school and details are printed on I-20.|
|EAD||A student does not get Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS||Student gets EAD from USCIS after approval of OPT|
|How long to Process||Few days. Anywhere from a week to 10 days depending on the school, department workload.||Can take anywhere from 60 to 90 days or more depending on the USCIS workload.|
|Application Fee||No application fee, only course credit fee paid to the school||An application fee of $410 USD is paid to USCIS|
|Working Full time or part-time||Can be either full-time (40 Hours) CPT or part-time. Usually done 20 hours part-time during school and 40 hours during summer||Usually done full time after graduation. If leveraging pre-completion OPT, then is part-time during classes and full time during summer|
There are many rules that are outlined by DHS to make sure you are using your OPT and CPT properly. You will need to work with your DSO and make sure you follow those rules and use them without violating any status.
Did you work on OPT or CPT? What has been your experience? Any thoughts to share on these?