Many international students in the U.S. participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training (CPT) to gain work experience in their chosen fields of study. In this guide, we explain the difference between the two programs and options if you intend to work during your stay in the U.S.
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What is curricular practical training?
Curricular practical training (CPT) is training that makes up an integral part of your degree program and is directly related to your field of study. The designated school official (DSO) at your school is responsible for authorizing your CPT, which can be paid or unpaid. You can start CPT before you graduate and types of eligible training include:
Unpaid or paid internships
Cooperative educational experience
Participation in a practicum
You can participate in CPT part- or full-time during the regular academic term as long as you're registered for full-time hours in your degree program, including during the summer months. If you complete less than 12 months of full-time CPT, you can still participate in OPT. Completing several part-time CPT programs, however, will make you unable to participate in OPT.
Who is eligible for CPT?
F-1 visa holders with at least one year of full-time academic studies at an approved U.S. university or college are generally eligible for CPT. A full academic year in the U.S. typically runs from fall to spring and may either be divided into two separate semesters or in three quarters, depending on the school.
There is an exception to the one year of study requirement: if you're a graduate student required to participate in CPT as part of your degree program (as listed in the program's curricular description) then you don't have to wait to complete one year of full-time academic studies.
The CPT program you participate in must be related to your field of study. If you're completing general studies before your major coursework, you may not be eligible to participate in CPT. You also can't take CPT for a minor field of study or a certificate program. You're also typically required to earn course credits from your school for CPT unless your chosen degree requires all students to complete internships to graduate. Lastly, you won't be able to start CPT before you obtain authorization or have secured an internship or job offer.
The requirement for course credit
To qualify for CPT, the training activity must be a requirement for all students enrolled in your degree program for graduation. If it is not a requirement for the degree program, CPT can be optional but must offer course credit.
Even if your department does not require that you earn course credits for curricular practical training, the immigration regulations do, especially if the training is optional instead of a requirement for all students. Credit can take the form of internship credits, practicum credits, or independent study credits, but you must earn the credit in the same academic term for which the DSO has authorized your CPT. If you're a graduate student, you can't use your dissertation or thesis credit to fulfill the credit requirement.
You'll need to meet with your department adviser when you apply for CPT as he/she will fill out the adviser section of the application. Before you apply for CPT with your DSO, you'll need to provide your adviser with the following information:
Your expected graduation date
The credit and course number for the CPT unless it is a requirement for all of the students in your degree program
How much credit you will earn each academic term for your CPT authorization
Specific terms towards which you will apply your CPT credit
Description of the work and how it will relate to your major field of study
Employer's physical address
Applying for CPT
After receiving an offer for an internship or job, your CPT will be authorized from your DSO who will confirm your eligibility by checking the following details:
The validity of your F-1 status
That you’re not studying English as a second language
You’ve completed one full year of study
The job or internship offered is directly related to your major field of study
You and your adviser will have to complete the adviser and student section of the CPT application and submit this to your DSO, who will then review the details and confirm your eligibility. Once the application is approved, your DSO will enter the approval into your record in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Afterward, you will be issued a new I-20 with an endorsement for CPT, which is a necessary document before you can begin your CPT program.
Changes to CPT
Any change to your CPT should be reported immediately to your DSO, such as extensions to your program's end date before the start of your next term. If the new end date is within your next academic term, you may need to submit a new CPT application. Other changes such as your CPT ending before the authorized end date should also be reported to your school's DSO. In any case, you'll still have to earn the CPT credit listed in your application.
What is optional practical training?
Optional practical training (OPT) is another form of temporary employment authorization that lets F-1 students work in a field that's directly related to their own major field of study. It allows you to work for up to 12 months either before or after you graduate, or both. There are two types of OPT: pre-completion OPT (occurs before you graduate) and post-completion OPT (occurs after you graduate).
Any period you spend to take pre-completion OPT will be subtracted from the available 12 months for post-completion OPT.
What is the difference between CPT and OPT?
While CPT and OPT are similar in some ways, there are a few key differences. CPT must be an integral part of the curriculum in your major field of study, meaning it must either be required or you must receive course credit for it. Moreover, CPT is employer-specific and can only be completed before you graduate, which is different from OPT which can be completed before or after your graduation. For OPT, you're not required to earn credit for it and it isn't employer-specific.
CPT and OPT eligibility
Once you're authorized for CPT, you can complete as much CPT as your degree program requires. However, if you're authorized to participate in 12 months of full-time CPT, you won't be eligible to participate in OPT. Part-time CPT, on the other hand, won't affect your eligibility for OPT unless you work multiple part-time and overlapping CPT programs.
The two types of OPT
Pre-completion OPT lets you work at a job that directly relates to your major field of study after you have completed one full academic year. If you're approved for pre-completion OPT, you can either work part-time while school is in session or full-time in between academic terms. With part-time OPT, you can work for 20 hours per week or less.
Post-completion OPT allows you to work in your degree field for up to 12 months after you graduate. Any pre-completion OPT that you completed will be subtracted from your post-completion OPT eligibility. For example, if you completed three months of pre-completion OPT, your post-completion OPT eligibility will be reduced to nine months instead of 12.
STEM OPT extension
If you graduated with a degree in specific science, engineering, technology, or math fields, you may be eligible for STEM OPT extension. This allows you to work for up to 24 additional months after you graduate in your field. The fields that are eligible for STEM OPT extension are found on the STEM list from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DOS).
Applying for OPT
To apply for pre-completion OPT, you must first ask the DSO at your school to recommend you. The DSO will first confirm your eligibility for OPT by checking that your F-1 status is valid and that you have completed a minimum of one year of full-time academic studies.
After the DSO enters the recommendation for pre-completion OPT into your SEVIS record and endorses your Form I-20, you will then need to file Form I-765 to apply for employment authorization with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). You cannot begin working in a pre-completion OPT position until your Form I-765 has been approved and you've received your employment authorization document (EAD). You may apply for pre-completion OPT up to 90 days before you finish your first full academic year.
To apply for post-completion OPT with a non-STEM degree, you can apply up to 90 days before the end of your degree program or within 60 days after you graduate. You must ask the DSO to enter a recommendation for post-completion OPT in your SEVIS record and to list the recommendation on your Form I-20. Afterward, you should submit your Form I-765 together with the required fees to USCIS. After your DSO enters your recommendation in your SEVIS record and updates your Form I-20, you will have 30 days to apply for your desired post-completion OPT.
To apply for a STEM OPT extension, you must have been approved for OPT, be currently working in your OPT position and have graduated with a Bachelor's, Master's, or Doctoral degree listed on the STEM list.
The application process starts with filing Form I-765 with USCIS and paying the associated fees. In the application, make sure to include your employer's name and E-Verify number as listed in the E-Verify system. Include a copy of your Form I-20 that's been endorsed by your DSO within the previous 60 days along with a copy of your qualifying STEM degree.
If you file your STEM OPT extension on time and your OPT authorization period expires before your application is approved, USCIS will automatically extend your employment authorization period for 180 days while your application is pending.
If you receive a STEM OPT extension for one qualifying STEM degree and later earn another STEM degree, you may apply for a second 24-month STEM OPT extension. As an example, if you received a STEM OPT extension for a Bachelor's degree in mathematics and later earn a master's degree in the same field, you may be eligible for another 24-month STEM OPT extension based on your newly acquired master's degree.
H-1B cap-gap extension
Some F-1 students decide to want to change their status to H-1B, a dual-intent visa. This classification means that you can use your H-1B status to apply for permanent residence in the U.S. after working for your H-1B employer for six years. F-1 students may apply to change their statuses to H-1B either directly from their F-1 status or while they're completing OPT.
To apply for an H-1B visa while participating in OPT, you'll need to find an H-1B employer willing to sponsor you. The employer will then have to apply on your behalf by filing Form I-129. In many cases, students finish their OPT authorization periods during the spring or early summer. Since students who complete their OPT are normally required to leave the U.S. within 60 days after their post-completion OPT ends, DOS has regulations in place to allow for a cap-gap extension.
The extension allows students to prolong their employment period under their OPT programs until Oct. 1, when the change of status will go into effect. To be eligible, your employer must timely file a petition for an H-1B visa on your behalf requesting a start date of Oct. 1. In such cases, your F-1 OPT status must also be scheduled to end between April 1 and Sept. 30. Once approved for the cap-gap extension, you (and any dependents) will be allowed to remain in the U.S. and your employment authorization will be extended until the start of your H-1B status.
Taxes when you participate in CPT or OPT
F-1 students don't have to pay Social Security taxes during the first five years of living in the U.S. as long as they declare their status as non-residents on their taxes. If you don't qualify for a tax exemption due to a tax treaty between your home country and the U.S. government, you may have to pay any applicable state, local and federal taxes. Your employer will withhold taxes from your paychecks.
You may also have to file a tax return on time each year. In cases where your FICA taxes are withheld from your paycheck, you may request a refund for the amount from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Will you receive an EAD?
If you are approved for CPT, you won't receive a separate EAD. The second page of your Form I-20, your CPT authorization, will serve as proof of your eligibility for employment. This will be used along with your I-94 record to complete Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, with your employer.
For approved OPT applications, you'll receive an EAD that includes information on the start and end dates of your authorized period of employment. This document will also be used to complete Form I-9 with your employer, along with your SSN.
Both the CPT and OPT programs offer international students with opportunities to receive valuable training in their major fields of study that can help them build a better foundation for their careers. While CPT is only available before you graduate, OPT is an option you have before or after completing your studies — both have their merits.
When you are preparing to move to the U.S. to study with your F-1 visa, consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment.
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