Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT) help international students in the U.S. get work experience as part of their college studies. Learn the differences between the two and if either program is ideal for you.

What’s the Difference Between CPT and OPT

If you or someone you know is from a foreign country and wants to go to college in the U.S., they may be eligible for one or two work/study programs designed for F-1 Visa students.

One of the programs is called Optional Practical Training (OPT), and the other is Curriculum Practical Training (CPT). There are similarities between the two programs, but you should compare CPT vs. OPT rules before deciding on the program that's best for you.

OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) offers temporary work to F-1 students based on their majors. If you are eligible, you’ll receive up to a year of employment before graduation and a year of employment after completing your studies. The time spent in pre-graduation OPT is subtracted from available time for post-completion employment.

Apply for OPT by requesting the designated school official or DSO at your college recommend you for the Program. The DSO will endorse your Certification of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status, Form I-20, and note this endorsement in the database of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS.

Fill out and file the Application for Employment Authorization, Form I-765, along with supporting documents and fees. Once approved, you'll receive an Employment Authorization Document. Begin employment right away after receiving your EAD card. If you don't work for a total of 90 days during the EAD authorization period, your F-1 visa will be revoked.

Working for an E-Verify employer gives you OPT for up to 29 months if you choose. You must apply for an H-1B visa if you are employed in an Optional Practical Training program.

Rules for Pre-Graduation OPT  

Enroll for a full-time for an academic year at any university, college or conservatory. The educational institution must be certified to enroll F-1 students by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

It's not necessary to be an F-1 student for the full academic year. You'd meet the academic year qualification even if you were a non immigrant during the year.

If you are cleared for pre-graduation OPT, you can work 20 hours or less every week during school semesters. When school is on break, you can work full-time.

All schools have an office dedicated to international students, and you’ll need to contact that office before applying to find out if the school has additional requirements for OPT. At Temple University, for example, you need to contact the Office of International Student and Scholar Services.

Always contact a school rep before filling out forms.

Post-Completion OPT Rules  

If you're eligible for post-graduation OPT, you can work full-time or part-time.  USCIS deducts the amount of time spent in pre-completion OPT from post-completion OPT. If you worked for six months in post-grad OPT, you could only work for six months in the post-completion program.

General OPT Extension Rules

You may apply for 17 more months of OPT if you haven’t previously applied for a 17-month extension and are in the post-completion phase of OPT. File a Form I-765 electronically with the USCIS and pay the filing fee.

Your DSO will recommend you for the new job on page three of a new 1-20 form. You’ll get an EAD once your application is approved.

You can still work while you wait for approval of the new OPT extension for 180 days if you have an expired EAD as long as you filed your 17-month extension correctly. You must also be in the post-OPT completion period.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) OPT Participation

Students with STEM degrees are in demand, and if you’ve earned a degree in this field, you may be eligible for a two-year extension of OPT employment if you received a degree in one of the subjects on the list of STEM Designated Degrees.

You must have prior post-completion OPT authorization because of your STEM degree, and your current employer must be enrolled in the E-Verify program.

STEM fields are listed under the Classification of Instructional Program Codes (CIP) under physical sciences, (code 40), math (code 27), biological sciences (code 26), or engineering (code 14).

The eligible majors include Computer Science Specialist, Mathematics and Statistics, Engineering Design, Engineering, Horticultural Science and Biomedical or Biological Science. The complete list is located at ICE.GOV.

Science and  Technology

STEM Program

The STEM program offers a two-year extension to qualified students. An F-1 student with a STEM degree must participate in regular post-completion Optional Practical Training, usually for 12 months.

If you're still in the 60 day grace period following initial OPT participation, you can't apply for the STEM extension yet.  You must be an employee of the company, not a freelancer or contractor. You can be part of a start-up if the business meets federal requirements.

Employers must sign a Training Plan (Form I-983) for STEM OPT Extension students. The student and their soon-to-be employer must fill out different parts of this form. The formal Training Plan lists the student's objective and explains how the employer will help them achieve it.

The completed form is then submitted to the student's DSO. During the student's STEM OPT Extension, the student and the employer must fill out evaluations of the student's progress to present to the DSO.

You are eligible for 60 days of unemployment if you participate in the 24-month STEM extension.

Cap-Gap Extension  

You can extend your F-1 status and post-graduation OPT employment by filing an H-1B petition and change of status request promptly. The Cap-Gap extension lets you draw out your current employment and F-1 status until October 1 of the H-1B status year. (October 1 is the first day of the new fiscal year.)

Curriculum Practical Training, or CPT, must relate to your college major, and it is authorized for one employer and a specific period. You must contact the employer and secure the employment before the CPT is approved, and you can obtain more than one authorization simultaneously.

Your DSO must authorize CPT in the SEVIS database. The CPT must take place before the expiration date on the I-20 form, and you will receive an authorization printed on the form.

CPT is available while you are studying for your degree only, not after you have completed all courses.

You’re eligible for CPT if you’ve been enrolled for at least one academic year in a college, conservatory or university that’s SEVP certified. You are ineligible if you’re studying English as a Second Language. Graduate studies students with programs that necessitate early training may be exempt from the one-year rule. You need a letter from your employer or a signed co-op agreement to be approved for CPT.

CPT

If you participate in CPT for a year, full-time, you will be ineligible for OPT. Curriculum Practical Training is only available before you receive your degree. Part-time CPT won't disqualify you from participating in OPT. Two years of part-time work at 20 hours adds up to one year of full-time experience and will disqualify you from OPT.

planning for better education

Let's use a major university's requirements as a hands-on look at CPT. At the University of Michigan, like other schools, employment through CPT is considered to be an integral part of a major's curriculum. Employers sponsor the program through agreements with the school. The school's CPT requirements are similar to most other colleges and universities in the U.S. You must enroll in full-time studies during the fall/winter CPT program (12 hours for undergraduates and 8 hours for graduate students.

You need to put your studies first; your CPT employment shouldn’t prevent timely completion of courses. During the school year, CPT should consist of local or part-time remote jobs to prevent interfere with classes.

At the University of Michigan, there are two types of CPT – required and non-required. Some majors require students to work a job related to their studies to graduate. Students may choose to perform CPT work in a major that doesn't require it and receive credit.

Rules about CPT employment differ slightly depending on the college you attend and the subjects you study.

Differences

Here's a summary of CPT vs. OPT

You can finish an OPT before or after graduation, so it gives you more flexibility. You don't need to deal with a specific employer or get course credit with this program. An OPT allows work; you aren't restricted to co-ops or internships.

A CPT is part of a curriculum that lets you work as a paid or unpaid intern or employee. It also allows you to participate in a co-op education program or practicum. If your major doesn’t require CPT, you have to receive course credit, and you must choose a CPT-certified employer.

Which Program is Right for You?

Now that you know more about CPT vs. OPT, you’ll be better equipped to ask your DSO questions and make the most of your college education in the States. STEM students may want to take advantage of OPT and its extension period, but other students need to look at the requirements posed by their majors and educational institution to make a decision.

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