For international students, finding an internship or job with a major company is one of the most appealing reasons for studying in the USA. While the United States is a great place to gain real-world experience, the complex immigration regulations and rules for international workers can make applying for an internship or job stressful. Our overview of optional practical training (OPT) status and curricular practical training (CPT) status options for F-1 Visa holders will give you a better idea of what to expect.
“In both cases [of OPT and CPT], you want to work with your school’s career services office, in addition to your school’s DSO [designated school official],” said Raven Tukes, director of Shorelight’s Career Accelerator Program. “Your career service advisors will help you search for a job or internship opportunity, while the DSO will help you gain approval for that job or internship. You are not alone in this!”
Remember, finding employment opportunities on a student visa requires planning and paperwork, but it’s worth it to gain professional experience in your field of study.
OPT vs. CPT: What is the difference for international students?
So, what does OPT mean? And CPT? OPT and CPT are the two types of temporary employment opportunities available to non-immigrant student visa holders. In most cases, the US government considers internships and employment for students on F-1 visas practical training.
OPT and CPT have specific regulations that differ depending on the situation. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the two primary paths you can follow when looking for employment opportunities as an international student studying in the US:
While there are many differences between OPT and CPT, it’s most important that international students know when you are eligible for each.
CPT must be completed before you graduate from your program.
OPT can be completed before or after you graduate.
“In addition to the government’s rules, make sure you are aware of your school’s CPT and OPT deadlines,” said Tukes. “Some schools have a specific time frame for which you can apply for CPT and OPT. So, in addition to the government’s rules, you’ll need to check with your school’s DSO to confirm all CPT and OPT application deadlines.”
OPT vs CPT - Which is right for me?
When reviewing the two different tracks for work or internship opportunities, it’s important to ask yourself the following questions:
Does my degree program require an internship to graduate?
If so, do I plan on having more than one internship?
For instance, if you are looking for a mandatory internship that counts as credit toward your degree, then a CPT qualification makes sense for you. It’s also worth noting that, if you are looking for a short-term job as an undergraduate student, then you most likely fall into the CPT category. If you are a graduate-level student or if you have recently graduated, you are most likely in the OPT category.
“The CPT application process is free and has a quicker approval turnaround than OPT,” said Tukes. “Because CPT is approved by your campus DSOs, they are generally able to let you know if you’ve been approved within a week. However, OPT is much more complex and involves the approval of USCIS, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
Note that 12 months of CPT will disqualify you for OPT, according to immigration regulations. In other words, if you use up your full 12 months of availability on a credit-based internship, you are not allowed to intern or work later, either in college or after graduation. However, if you have used all your allotted practical training eligibility as an undergraduate, you can qualify for 12 more months if you enroll in an accredited graduate-level program.
If you are unsure of your CPT status or OPT status, check in with your DSO to find out more.
Can I get a STEM extension for OPT?
Yes, a 24-month STEM extension may enable international students with STEM-related degrees to request up to two additional years of OPT. Your OPT status can also be extended to bridge the time period between the end of your F-1 student visa and the start of your H-1B visa, which allows employers to temporarily employ international workers in special circumstances, such as if you hold “theoretical or technical expertise” in a specialized field. This is called a Cap-Gap extension.
Keep in mind that OPT regulations can change, and it is up to you to check with your DSO to ensure you are in compliance.
What else do I need to know about optional practical training?
OPT relates directly to your major area of study.
Training can occur either before you graduate (called Pre-Completion OPT) or after (called Post-Completion OPT). In either case, you have to be enrolled in your American university for more than one year before you can start.
If you are applying for Pre-Completion OPT, you must complete your training before you graduate.
If you are applying for Post-Completion OPT, you must submit your request within 60 days of graduation and complete your training within 14 months of graduation.
With OPT, you can work full time or part time if you are still an enrolled international student, but you must work full time if you have completed your studies.
You are required to hold an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from the USCIS office to qualify for OPT. USCIS is one of the government organizations, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that manages international student affairs.
You cannot be currently studying English as a second language.
You cannot have used up all of your 12-month training credits at your respective degree level.
You can apply for 12 months of OPT at the undergraduate level and then again at the graduate level.
What else do I need to know about curricular practical training?
CPT relates directly to your major area of study.
Training is integral to your university curriculum—you must train to graduate.
Training must occur before you graduate and after you’ve been at your American university for more than one year.
CPT must be authorized by your DSO and authorization must be reflected on your I-20 form.
You must have an offer of employment or internship before you apply for authorization.
Depending on school policy, with CPT you can work full time or part time, but either way, you are only authorized for 12 months.
You cannot be currently studying English as a second language.
How can I learn more about OPT or CPT?
“Shorelight's Career Accelerator Program helps our international students find jobs and internships, while also helping you navigate the CPT and OPT process,” said Tukes. “Our mission is to help set you on a path to career success.”
Your fellow students are another great resource, they can help you answer questions about CPT and OPT processing times and how to check on your CPT or OPT application status. Also, each university has different requirements and regulations regarding internships and employment for international students. Be sure to discuss your school’s rules with your DSO before applying.
“To stay updated on all federal regulations pertaining to CPT and OPT, you can visit DHS.gov or the USCIS.gov. If you need a place to start researching CPT and OPT internship and job opportunities, you can visit myvisajobs.com and optnation.com,” said Tukes. “If you’re interested in Shorelight’s Career Accelerator, check out our student success stories and learn about how we help students achieve career success.”
For more information about internships for international students, contact a Shorelight education counselor.