Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

This site used cookies to offer you a better experience. By continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

Skip to content

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

work visa usa
student visa
internship
By Shorelight Team
Last updated on April 15, 2021

If you are planning to get an internship in the US, 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? For international students, the difference between OPT and CPT is an important question before finding an internship or job. While the opportunity to work with a top employer is one of the most appealing reasons for studying in the US, the complex immigration regulations and rules for international workers can make applying for an internship or job challenging. Read our CPT vs OPT guide to learn everything about optional practical training (OPT) and curricular practical training (CPT) including the difference between OPT and CPT, OPT CPT meaning, and more.

“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, former director of Shorelight’s Career Accelerator. “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 is worth it to gain professional experience in your field of study. 

What Is Curricular Practical Training (CPT)?

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) status allows international students with a F-1 student visa to gain work experience through employment training and paid internship programs directly related to your major area of study. When you attend your degree program, your designated school official (DSO) will authorize CPT in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIS) and it will be printed on your I-20 form — it is your proof to show that you are eligible for CPT employment. For more information, you can contact your DSO.

Remember, your CPT will require a letter from your employer, and your employment will be applicable only for a specific period. However, you are also required to complete your CPT before graduation.

With CPT, you can work:

  • Full time for 20 hours or more per week

  • Part time for 20 hours or fewer per week (if you work full time for 12 months with CPT, you will not be eligible for OPT)

What Is Optional Practical Training (OPT)?

Optional Practical Training (OPT) status helps international students with a F-1 visa gain work experience after graduation. Your Designated School Official (DSO) will recommend OPT in SEVIS and provide you with a I-20 form with the DSO’s recommendation. OPT applies for both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.

To be authorized for your employment, you are required to mail a completed “Application for Employment Authorization,” known as Form I-765, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If your Form I-765 is approved, USCIS.gov will send you an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). You will not be allowed to work until the start date on the EAD.

As a F-1 student, you can be eligible for OPT in two different ways:

  1. Pre-completion OPT—You can apply to pre-completion OPT after completing one academic year at a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified college, university, conservatory, or seminary. Pre-completion OPT authorizes you to work part time (20 hours or fewer per week) or full time before your program end date.

  2. Post-completion OPT—You can apply to post-completion OPT after completing your studies. If you are eligible for post-completion OPT, you may work part-time (20 hours or fewer per week) or full time. However, if you are a student who already participated in pre-completion OPT, USCIS will deduct your pre-completion OPT time from your post-completion OPT authorization time.

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. 

  • 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.”

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?

Yes

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?

No

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?

No

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 for work or internship opportunities, it is important to consider 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 is 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 OPT CPT status, check-in with your DSO to find out more.

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, so make sure to apply as soon as possible!

Here are the main OPT steps you must follow:

  1. Speak to your student advisor 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?

“The Shorelight Career Accelerator 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 vs OPT, CPT and OPT processing times, how to check on your CPT or OPT application status, and F-1 and OPT visa extensions after graduation. 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. 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.” 

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

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