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CPT vs OPT: Differences for international students in USA

CPT vs OPT DifferencesAfter spending lakhs of rupees on an international Masters degree in USA (such as MBA, MS), the biggest concern at the back of the mind for many students is whether they’ll be able to land a decent job.

With a huge loan hovering over their heads, the majority of the international (including Indian) students studying in the US would opt to continue living and working there at least for a few years after getting their Masters degree rather than return to their home country.

International students may find it more time-consuming and challenging to find a job than their American peers. This is because, in addition to the other criteria like getting the right job in the area of your interest with an appropriate job location, designation and salary, there’s an additional dimension that comes into the picture – the work visa (H1B) formalities.

So, while exploring the various job opportunities, you’d need to look out for companies which would be able to sponsor your H1B visa.

Even during the course of your study, there may be a period when you’d be working which may be a mandatory requirement of the course. If you’re an international students, working while studying would help you cover some of the expenses and this experience would be a good way to familiarise yourself with the international work environment and culture.

In order to be able to work while studying or after completion of your study, before you’re able to secure the H1B visa, you’d be required to apply for the CPT (Curricular Practical Training) or OPT (Optional Practical Training) as applicable.

In this post, we’ll cover all the various aspects related to OPT and CPT that’ll clear some ambiguity surrounding this topic.

What is CPT?

F1 visa holders who go to the US for full-time study for at least one academic year are eligible to take up employment or internship opportunities in their field once they complete nine months of their study.

Thus, you can use your CPT during your summer internship or to work during the second year of study. It would be a part of the course structure and curriculum. The CPT is offered through co-operative agreement between your school and the employer.

It can be used for both part-time (20 hours a week or lesser) work or full-time work (more than 20 hours a week). Under the CPT, if you’ve already used twelve months of full-time work, you’d not be eligible to apply for the OPT. This would not be true if you’re taking up part-time work under the CPT.

However CPT cannot be used once you’ve completed your course of study. This is when you’d be needed to use the OPT.

What is OPT?

OPT are of two types: pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT. Under the pre-completion OPT, you can work if you’ve not yet completed your degree course.

Once you’ve completed your course requirements, you may apply for post-completion OPT. Under the OPT, you are authorised to a total twelve month work period in your field.

Under pre-completion OPT, you can work for 20 hours a week while attending your college or full-time during your vacations. There is no separate time period for pre-completion OPT and it all adds up to your total 12 month OPT period.

If you’ve taken part-time work, your total OPT quota would be reduced at half-rate; i.e. for every two months of part-time work, you’d have one month of OPT work period reduced.

Students who’ve degrees in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics) field earlier had a 17 month OPT extension in addition to the 12 month OPT period.

As per the new proposal, this 17 month period may be extended to 24 months. Again, this extension is valid only for job offers from an employer enrolled in the E-Verify program.

Difference and similarities between CPT and OPT

1. As we’ve already seen, CPT is for work before graduation while you’re studying, whereas OPT is for work both before and after graduation.

2. You’d need to have a job offer before applying for a CPT whereas for OPT, it’s not necessary to have a job in hand. However, if you’re unemployed for more than 90 days of the 12 month OPT period, you’ll lose your permission to work and stand to lose your F1 status.

3. Now comes the similarity-CPT is part of the curriculum and related to your major or course of study. OPT too has to be related to the course of your study.

4. You’d be getting course credit for CPT whereas for OPT, it isn’t so.

5. For CPT, you have to complete the required documentation and the I-20 form processing which mentions the dates of the approved work period under the CPT. You can apply for it during your academic year.

In case of OPT, you can apply for it upto 90 days before the end date of your program and upto 60 days after the end date of your program. You can choose the beginning date for your OPT period. The day after your program end date is the earliest that you may request for.

However, you can begin working only after receiving the Employment Authorization Document (EAD). This document contains the start and the end date of your OPT period.

6. In case of CPT, the employer’s name is printed on Form I-20 and you are not authorised to work for someone else. In case of change of employer or multiple employers, you’d have to go through additional processing and get separate approvals in each case.

Under OPT, you are allowed to work for multiple employers, however the employment must be related to your degree course. Students are required to maintain a record of the various jobs taken up with information like job duration, job description and contact information.

7. You should apply for CPT at least two weeks before you wish to commence working. It may take around 7-10 working days for the processing through the SEVIS database and completion of the process. For OPT, you have to apply to the USCIS and the processing may take upto 90 days.

Have you ever got a chance to work under the CPT or OPT? Do you have any useful insights to share with our readers? If so, please feel free to leave your comments.

Note: As in Aug 2018, the policies mentioned above haven’t changed. However, considering all that’s happening in this domain, do check the official site regularly to stay up to date.

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About Swati
After working for over a decade in technical and managerial roles in the corporate world, Swati now works as a freelancer and writes on a variety of topics including education, career guidance and self-improvement.

8 thoughts on “CPT vs OPT: Differences for international students in USA”

  1. hey how tuff is it to find a employeer who will sponsor h1b ? will prior 4 experience in india in a company like amazon, netapp or vmware matter?

  2. I wanna go and do my master, but the fact that i might not get a job/visa after investing so much is deterring me. I have 2.5 years experience in R&D is a very good company. But wanna get into good r&d projects (like the IBM watson project) but its difficult here in India. am really confused. By the time i go for MS i would already have 4 yrs experience and not sure if MS by research is a good option then. ANd you just said its quite tuff. Very tuff means “very tuff” ? 🙁 considering the time and money investment am gonna make.

  3. Not sure how you’d want to categorise it (‘quite tough’ vs ‘very tough’), so I’ll just share the statistics.

    There are 3 applications for each H1B visa. So, roughly 33% folks who’ve got an in-principle job (i.e. have manage do get a company to sponsor their work permit application) will be successful.

    You can always try to manage the risks by targetting programs where you’ll get some scholarships. That way even if you are forced to return back to India, the international exposure and overall education experience can still be helpful,

  4. Any such programs you know of(MS programs)? plus i heard students who study their have 10000 h1b reserved fot them if Stem pass outs? Can you shed some light on that ?

  5. Hey guys,

    Can you update this according to the latest Visa rules. If there are no changes, then can you update the article timestamp?


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