CPT vs OPT: What Is the Difference and How to Apply

work visa usa
student visa
Let us help you find your best fit university!Find your school
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on August 3, 2023

Here is what you need to know about CPT and OPT as a student on a F-1 visa.

A female student deciding between OPT or CPT holds up a tablet to show a male student and a female advisor the screen.

CPT vs OPT? Read our CPT vs OPT guide to learn everything about optional practical training (OPT) and curricular practical training (CPT).

Quick Definitions

  • A Designated School Official (or DSO) is an official US term for anyone who officially represents an American college or university in matters dealing with F-1 (visa category for foreign students to enter the United States) affairs.

  • The Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (or SEVIS) is the web-based system that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uses to maintain information regarding Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified schools.

What Is Curricular Practical Training (CPT)?

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is an alternative work/study, internship, co-op or other type of required practical training that a sponsoring employer offers through cooperative agreements with your college or university. CPT must be integral to your program of study. CPT can be full time and is not restricted by a weekly 20-hour work limit.

*In order to qualify for CPT, you must be an F-1 student and have completed one full academic year of study at an SEVP-certified school, unless you are a graduate student whose program requires immediate CPT.

Shorelight Career Services’ experienced advisors work with international students to build pathways toward successful careers. Explore your potential and learn from experts while you study as you work toward your dream job.
Learn more

Start of Sticky Service Ad

General Eligibility for CPT

  • Training relates directly to the student’s major area of study

  • Training is an integral part of the school’s established curriculum

  • The DSO authorized CPT in SEVIS and the authorization prints on the student’s Form I-20

  • Occurs before the student’s program end date on the Form I-20

  • Authorization is for one specific employer and for a specific time period

  • Student must secure the training opportunity before CPT can be authorized

  • CPT must be authorized before the student can begin work

  • Student can have more than one CPT authorization at the same time

  • One year of full-time CPT eliminates a student’s eligibility for OPT

What Is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a form of training, often paid, that directly relates to your program of study. You can apply for OPT during your program, which is known as pre-completion OPT, or after you finish your program, known as post-completion OPT. Talk to your DSO about which would be right for you.

*You can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level (undergraduate, masters)

**If you are an F-1 student earning a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM), you may be eligible for the STEM OPT Extension

General Eligibility for OPT

  • Training relates directly to the student’s major area of study

  • DSO recommends OPT in SEVIS

  • Student does not have to secure training before the DSO can recommend OPT

  • Authorized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and the student is issued an Employment Authorization Document (EAD)

  • Allows the student to work for any employer as long as the training relates to the student’s major course of study

  • Can occur before or after the student’s program end date

  • Periods of OPT cannot overlap

  • Students are eligible for an additional 12 months of OPT authorization when they change to a higher educational level

What Is 24-Month STEM OPT Extension?

If you are a student who obtained a degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field approved by DHS.gov, you can request an extension of 24 months for your OPT.

You can apply for the 24-month OPT extension if you meet the following conditions:

  • Currently working in a Post-Completion OPT period

  • Obtained a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level STEM degree from a SEVP-certified college or university

  • Wish to work (or are currently working) for an employer who uses the E-Verify program

  • You and your employer have signed Form I-983, “Training Plan for STEM OPT Students”

Refer to the 24-month STEM extension guide to learn more.

What Is Cap-Gap Extension?

As a F-1 student, if you wish to maintain your F-1 visa status after the completion of the academic program or OPT, you can request to extend the period to bridge the gap between the end of F-1 status and the start of your H-1B status.

The H-1B status is a temporary employment authorization that allows you to work in the US for up to six years. To grant the H-1B status, your employer may submit a petition to USCIS on your behalf.

Refer to the Cap-Gap Extension guide to learn more.

What Is The Difference Between CPT and OPT?

While there are many differences between OPT and CPT, it is most important that international students know when they are eligible for each. Talk to your International Student Office on campus to determine your eligibility.

  • CPT must be completed before you graduate from your program.

  • OPT can be completed before or after you graduate.

What is the difference between CPT and OPT? Our chart below offers an at-a-glance guide to understand the OPT CPT difference.

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Who can apply?

International students on a F-1 visa who have enrolled for at least one full academic year

Do you need to have a job lined up before your DSO authorizes or recommends practical training?


Who authorizes your practical training?

Your DSO authorizes your CPT

Which document do you need for eligibility?

I-20 form (provided by your DSO)

When can you participate?

CPT occurs during your study program

Is it employer-specific?

Yes, and it is part of your course curriculum

Is it eligible for STEM extension?


Optional Practical Training (OPT)

Who can apply?

International students on a F-1 visa who have enrolled for at least one full academic year

Do you need to have a job lined up before your DSO authorizes or recommends practical training?

No, you do not need to commit to a job before your DSO recommends OPT

Who authorizes your practical training?

After your DSO’s recommendation, USCIS.gov will authorize your OPT

Which document do you need for eligibility?

Employment Authorization Document (EAD) (sent by USCIS)

When can you participate?

OPT occurs before or after your program end date

Is it employer-specific?


Is it eligible for STEM extension?

Yes, STEM degree graduates can apply for a 24-month OPT extension

Here are a few commonly asked questions about CPT and OPT.

Does CPT Affect OPT?

Generally, your CPT will not affect OPT if CPT is authorized for less than 12 months of full-time work (i.e., more than 20 hours per week). If your full-time CPT duration is 12 months, you will not be able to apply for OPT. However, part-time CPT (20 hours per week or fewer) will not be deducted from OPT.

Can You Apply for CPT and OPT at the Same Time?

Yes, you can. However, remember that if you work for 12 months on full-time CPT, you will not be able to apply for OPT. Part-time CPT will not affect your eligibility for OPT, even if you work for more than 12 months.

How to Choose Which is Right for You

When reviewing the CPT vs OPT visa authorizations for work or internship opportunities, it is most important to work with your international student services office/DSO on campus, as they will assist you in answering the following questions:

  • Does my degree program require an internship to graduate?

  • What are the campus policies and requirements around international student internships, OPT or CPT?

  • What paperwork do I need to complete?

  • What deadlines do I have?

How to Apply for CPT

While several steps are required for the CPT application, they will vary depending on your college or university. Here are the general CPT steps you have to follow:  

  1. Contact your student advisor at your university to find out which CPT programs are available at your institution, eligibility requirements, and sponsoring employers.

  2. Acquire an employment offer letter from your employer with all required details (e.g., workplace address, etc.).

  3. Apply to the CPT program through your college or university. Your CPT authorization may take time, so make sure to plan as early as possible and prepare requested documents (e.g., proof of university registration/enrollment).

  4. After your CPT application is approved, you will receive a document with CPT start and end dates. Make sure to sign and have a copy of the CPT document with you.

  5. Talk to your employer and send relevant CPT documents, if requested.

  6. Attend your CPT program on the start date.

How to Apply for OPT

The OPT application process tends to be long (90+ days!), so make sure to apply as soon as possible!

Here are the main OPT steps you must follow:

  1. Speak to your student advisor or DSO at your university and request information about applying for OPT.

  2. Request your DSO at your college or university to recommend you for OPT. Your DSO will update SEVIS and I‑20 form with the recommendation.

  3. Complete Form I-765 and send it to USCIS with required documents outlined on the application. You also need to pay the required fee.

  4. Once the USCIS approves your Form I-765, obtain your Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

  5. Start your OPT program on the start date as mentioned on your EAD.

How Can I Learn More About OPT or CPT?

Attend information sessions on campus with your International Student Services office or Career Center, or work with Shorelight Career Services and our expert advisors. Also, each university has different requirements and regulations regarding internships and employment for international students. Be sure to discuss your school’s rules about CPT vs OPT with your DSO before applying. 

To stay updated on all federal regulations pertaining to CPT and OPT, you can visit DHS.gov or USCIS.gov, or check in with your DSO.

If you have questions about CPT vs OPT, our advisors are here to provide international student services like visa assistance and more.

End of Sticky Service Ad

For more information about internships for international students, contact a Shorelight education counselor >