OPT and CPT: Find Out the Difference Between OPT and CPT for International Students Image
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OPT and CPT: Find Out the Difference Between OPT and CPT for International Students

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Yocket Editorial Team
8 mins read
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There are many opportunities for international students to engage in meaningful, practical work in the US. These experiences, typically in the form of internships and job opportunities, enable students to apply what they have learned in their programs to real organizations, and gain valuable experience in different career fields and industries.

Employment Authorization Options for International Students

There are different types of employment authorization which international students may be eligible to use, in order to engage in these practical experiences.

Generally, unpaid work and internships are allowed in F-1 and J-1 student statuses and do not require any additional authorization. However, it is recommended that international students consult with their university’s international office to confirm any guidance they may have on how to avoid unfair or unlawful unpaid work arrangements.

Opportunities in which any type of work is performed or services are provided in exchange for money, tuition, fees, books, supplies, lodging, or for any other benefit, would be considered employment for the purposes of immigration law.

Before engaging in any type of employment, international students need to first ensure that they have authorization to do so. This authorization may be an automatic benefit of their status, authorized by their school’s international office, or authorized by USCIS (United States Citizenship & Immigration Services).

There are various forms of employment authorization that may be available to international students. A few of the most commonly-used forms of authorization are:

On-campus Employment

International students in F-1 and J-1 student status are generally permitted to work on-campus at their sponsoring school (the school that issued their I-20) throughout the duration of their program.

F-1 and J-1 students can work up to 20 hours per week on-campus while classes are in-session, and more than 20 hours per week during official school breaks and vacation quarters.

On-campus employment does not have to be related to the student’s area of study. However, it can certainly be used to gain experience in one’s field, build one’s professional skill set, or explore other interests.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

F-1 visa students may be eligible to participate in practical training programs that are an integral part of an established curriculum, and are directly related to the student's major area of study. This type of authorized employment is called curricular practical training, or CPT.

CPT rules for F1 visa allow it to be used for internships, practicums or other short-term positions. These must be required for the completion of a student’s degree, required for a particular course, or a part of a co-operative education program that the student’s university has with an employer or set of employers.

Because CPT is not an automatic benefit of F-1 status (like on-campus work), students must apply for CPT through their university’s international office.

The types of degree requirements, course requirements and co-operative educational programs vary widely across universities and the specific programs within each university. Therefore, students will first need to confirm that their specific program has a CPT-eligible element (practical experience tied to a degree requirement, course requirement or co-operative education), then apply for the CPT authorization per specific guidance given by their university’s international office.

Eligibility for CPT

In order to be eligible for CPT, students must:

  • Have a valid F-1 Status.

  • Be full-time enrolled for one academic year before the work is performed.

  • Be enrolled in a degree program at an accredited, SEVP-certified U.S. institution of higher education.

  • Have a specific job offer that meets the school’s requirements for the relevant course, degree, or co-operative opportunity.

Features of CPT

While CPT details, availability, and application process may vary by university, here are a few standard features of CPT:

  • CPT can only be used during one’s academic program (before the end date on one’s I-20).

  • CPT is authorized by the university’s international office, for a specific time period and for a specific employer.

  • There is no limit to how many times an eligible student can engage in either part-time (less than 20 hours per week) or full-time (more than 20 hours per week) CPT.

  • Students looking into CPT to OPT transition, must know that if they have used a total of 12 months or more of full-time CPT become ineligible for OPT (another type of employment authorization discussed further below) at the same degree level. Part-time CPT does not impact OPT eligibility.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

F-1 students may also be eligible to participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT).

OPT is temporary employment for practical training that is directly related to the student's major area of study. OPT can be used during as well as after one’s program (before and/or after the program end date on one’s I-20).

F-1 students are eligible to apply for an aggregate total of up to 12 months of full-time OPT, per degree level. OPT is recommended by the university’s international office but is reviewed and approved by USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services), and may generally take up to 3-4 months to be processed.

Eligibility for OPT

In order to be eligible for OPT, students must:

  • Have a valid F-1 Status.

  • Be full-time enrolled for one academic year before the work is performed.

  • Be enrolled in a degree program accredited, SEVP-certified U.S. institution of higher education.

  • Plan to engage in work that is directly related to their area of study (however, a job offer is not required to apply for OPT).

  • Not have used 12 months or more of full-time CPT.

  • Not have used 12 months of full-time OPT at the same degree level, nor have used any OPT at a higher degree level.

Features of OPT

Here are a few more key features about OPT:

  • If you are looking for CPT after OPT, you must remember that after the completion of the full OPT period, the students are not eligible to apply for the CPT.

  • Pre-completion OPT (OPT used before the end date on one’s I-20) can be part-time (less than 20 hours per week) or full-time (more than 20 hours per week).

  • Post-completion OPT (OPT used before the end date on one’s I-20) can only be full-time. F-1 students who finish the program are eligible to apply for post-completion OPT through USCIS. In most cases, students can apply for it as early as 3 months before course completion date up to a month after you complete your degree requirements. Also, if you have already participated in pre-completion OPT, USCIS will deduct your pre-completion OPT time from your post-completion OPT authorization time.

  • When a student is ready to apply for OPT, they can contact their university’s international office for further guidance on the process and application materials.

OPT STEM Extension

F-1 students working on OPT who have STEM majors (within the fields of science, technology, engineering and math) may also be eligible to apply for a 24-month extension of OPT, called the OPT STEM Extension.

The process of applying for the STEM extension is very similar to that of OPT, but the STEM extension application has additional requirements (such as a required training plan - called the I-983 - from the employer, and additional requirements regarding the employer).

Students interested in applying for the STEM extension should contact their sponsoring school to confirm their eligibility and obtain further guidance on the application process. They can also refer to U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement website to learn about STEM fields.

What is the OPT Cap-Gap Extension?

Some students may wish to extend their F-1 visa status beyond the end of their academic program or OPT if the employer is willing to employ the student for a longer time. In such cases, the student will have to transition from F1 visa to H1B visa.

A Cap-Gap extension is the provision that allows students to remain in the US during the gap between the end of F-1 OPT or OPT STEM work authorization and the start of H-1B status. Therefore, the students are allowed to stay even if their OPT authorization or the grace period for F-1 has expired before October 1.

The eligibility of the Cap-Gap Extension is as follows:

  • The student’s employer must file for an H-1B petition with USCIS to “change the student’s status” to H-1B.

  • The request should be filed on or after April 1 and must request October 1 as the change status date.

  • You are also eligible in case you are still under OPT authorization or a 60-day grace period after the expiration of your OPT while your employer has filed the H-1B petition for you.

Difference between OPT and CPT for International Students

Let us now understand the difference between OPT and CPT with the help of this comparative table below:

OPT

CPT

OPT is a temporary authorization offered to students on F-1 visa to work in their related field for a period of a total 12 months.

CPT is a temporary work authorization provided to the students on F-1 visa, which is directly related to their majors for a period of a total 12 months. 

The OPT work experience must be related to the student’s field of graduation but not necessarily the academic curriculum. A student need not earn course credit from this.

Working with CPT is required to be related to the student’s degree and if it is not, CPT work must receive course credit.

OPT is not employer specific and allows work, not an internship or co-op.

CPT is part of your major that allows students to work in a paid or unpaid internship, practicum, or cooperative (co-op) education program.

Students with OPT authorization can work with any employer across the USA.

Only those employers can participate in CPT who are on Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and I-20 list.

Can be completed before or after graduation

Must be completed before graduation.

Duration of OPT is 12 months and can be extended up to 24 months

CPT can be done for up to 12 months

In case of OPT authorization, students do not require any employment or job offer.

For CPT Jobs, students require an employment or job offer.

Navigating Experiential Opportunities through Campus Career Centers

For international students seeking US employment, a focus on US business norms and employment processes adds value to their search.

Campus career centers are key resources for international students who may face unique concerns during the US job and internship search.

Career development professionals bring subject matter expertise for all students on topics like developing job search strategies, writing strong resumes and cover letters, and networking and interviewing effectively.

In addition, career centers can offer students opportunities to develop English-language conversational skills and networking techniques, which can lead to greater confidence and articulation during interviews and employer interactions.

There is no standard formation on how a career center operates on a U.S. campus. However, some adopt a number of best practices to support international students, including:

  • Early outreach and education. Preparing U.S.- style resumes and application materials should be part of early career education. International students often bring adaptability, multilingual skills, and experience interacting with diverse populations - all strengths highly valued in the workplace. Career centers help students describe their experience or education in ways that provide context for US employers, as well as emphasizing the advantages of being an international student.

  • Training on Networking and Building Professional Relationships - An understanding of US cultural norms, along with skill in conversational English, are important for successful networking. Career Centers often partner with other resources to provide education and opportunities for international students to build proficiency and practice within a variety of forums, and also connect students to upperclassmen and alumni who can share lessons learned from similar experiences.

  • Preparing students and employers for experiential opportunities - Career centers can have dual roles of educating students about US employment processes, while also educating employers about misconceptions surrounding international student work authorization. Students should receive basic training on topics ranging from inappropriate interview questions to understanding their work authorization options. Resources like MyVisaJobs.com can help students to research employers who have hired international candidates.

Making the Most Out of OPT and CPT Opportunities

OPT and CPT provide excellent opportunities for international students to gain valuable work experience in the US. In addition to applying theoretical principles that they have learned and receiving on-the-job training, students can truly maximize the benefits of these two temporary work authorizations.

Employers will often use this time to evaluate performance and decide whether to offer full-time employment on a longer-term basis. Therefore, this phase is key for international students to display their talent.

In addition, they can learn first-hand about corporate culture and business etiquette, while also developing valuable networking contacts. Students are advised to attend all corporate events and professional development opportunities to which they are invited. They can also take advantage of any opportunities to volunteer for additional projects, which can expand their professional portfolio while also introducing them to more colleagues and potential hiring managers.

Since OPT is tied to the student, as opposed to the employer, it provides an easy opportunity to switch jobs and find the position and company culture that best fits an individual.

Work done under CPT and OPT rules is considered practical training, meaning students should not be afraid to make mistakes or ask for help. This period is also a great time for students to explore different roles and employer types that most appeal to them.

Note: Some important reference websites to learn about regulations while working on a student visa are

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