Lette Berhe

Lette Berhe

OPT vs. CPT: How International Students Can Work in the U.S

You may have heard that getting permission to work in the U.S. can feel like an impossible task. But you are about to learn how, as an international student, you can not only work legally but also in a field that you love. Yes, it still takes some time and effort, but the OPT and CPT programs will make the process a lot simpler.
You may have heard that getting permission to work in the U.S. can feel like an impossible task. But you are about to learn how, as an international student, you can not only work legally but also in a field that you love. Yes, it still takes some time and effort, but the OPT and CPT programs will make the process a lot simpler.

OPT and CPT are government programs sponsored by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS)  that are specifically aimed to help international students work off campus during and after their degree programs.

Now, you may be thinking, “Should I really work and study at the same time?”.

It is true that trying to balance a full class schedule and working 20 hours a week is not for everyone. But the important thing is that you know that you have the option to work if you want. If you’re still not sure that you want to work and study, no problem.

Luckily, you don’t have to choose. You have the option to work during school, on school breaks, and even after graduating.

There are many benefits to participating in these programs, and here are some for you to consider:
  • You get work experience.
  • You will learn what you like or don’t like in your field.
  • You can create professional connections.
  • You can make some extra money.

Although you can participate in both OPT and CPT, it is important to know the different requirements and limitations for each program.
 
What Is OPT?

Optional practical training (OPT) gives F-1 students the opportunity to work part-time (20 hours or less) or full-time (20+ hours) in a job related to their chosen major for a total of 12 months.

Students are eligible to work part-time while school is in session and full-time during vacations and after graduating.

To be able to apply for OPT, you have to complete the following:
  • Finish one academic year
  • Receive a recommendation from a designated school official (DSO)
  • Submit Form I-765

Types of OPT

There are two different types of OPT you can choose to apply for: pre-completion (before degree is completed) and post-completion (after degree is completed).


  • Pre-completion OPT: If you choose to apply for pre-completion OPT, you will be allowed to work part-time while classes are in session and full-time during school breaks (i.e. winter, spring, and summer vacation).
 
  • Post-completion OPT: Once you have met all your degree requirements for graduation, you can apply for up to 12 months of only full-time work.
 
  • OPT for STEM Majors: If you will study a major in the science, technology, engineering, or math fields, you will be eligible for an extension at the end of the original 12-month limit. The current extension is for an additional 24-months, which will give you the opportunity to work for a total of 36 months (3 years). To find out which degrees are currently approved, see the official STEM program list.

Keep in mind that any hours worked with pre-completion OPT will reduce your 12 -month eligibility of full-time work during post-completion OPT.

  • For example:
    1. Three months of full-time work during summer break will leave you with nine months of post-completion OPT.
    2. Four months of part-time work during the school year will leave you with 10 months of post-completion OPT (subtracted as two months, because part-time OPT is deducted at half-rate).


When to Apply for OPT

  • Pre-completion OPT

    1. If you have completed at least one academic year of study, you can apply up to 90 days before you want to start your OPT.

    2. If you have not completed your first year of study, you can apply up to 90 days before the academic year is over. But you cannot start your OPT until the after you have finished your first academic year.
 
  • Post-completion OPT
    1. You can apply as early as 90 days before your program end date and up to 60 days after the end of your program.

What Is CPT?

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is another option F-1 students have to work part-time or full-time. But CPT can only be used while studying (before graduating) and must be required by your degree program. This means that to be able to apply for CPT you must receive course credit or have it as a required course necessary to receive your degree.

CPT’s basic requirements are the following:
  • Finish once academic year
  • Have a job offer (with a signed letter/contract) before applying
  • Submit a CPT application for each new semester or term
    • There is no limit for CPT. You can apply all 4 years, as long as it is requirement for your degree.

Types of CPT

According to USCIS, CPT can be a/an:
  • alternative work/study program.
  • internship.
  • cooperative education program.
  • type of required internship or practicum.

When to Apply for CPT

You can apply as early as 90 days before the end of your first year of study.

What Are the Differences Between OPT and CPT?

Although both programs seem to have a lot in common, the differences will be important when deciding what will work best for you and your schedule.  

Below is a quick review of the major differences between the two programs.

 

OPT

CPT


Can be done before or after graduating


Can apply without job offer


Must be related to field of study


Must be done before graduating


Need job offer to apply


Must be required by degree (for course credit)



​​All F-1 students are allowed to apply for both OPT and CPT, but with the following limitations: 
  • You can participate in part-time CPT and still be eligible for 12 months of OPT.
  • But if you participate in full-time CPT (for a total of 12 months), it will affect your OPT eligibility.

If you have any doubts, it is always best to discuss your options with your academic advisor.  


Need some help with your application process or scholarship search? Find out how we can help with a free consultation!
 

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