OPT/CPT Training for Foreign Nationals

By: Ramon E. Rivera

Foreign nationals enrolled in F-1 student status have the option of working in the United States by engaging in practical training during their academic program, or upon completing their program.  Practical training can provide valuable work experience by sharpening and adding to the skill set students acquire while enrolled in school.  There are two types of practical training available to F-1 students: curricular practical training (CPT), and optional practical training (OPT).

CPT is temporary employment authorization for practical training directly related to a student’s major field of study listed on the Form I-20.  Students receive authorization for CPT from their Designated School Official (DSO).  CPT can include employment, internship experience (paid or unpaid), cooperative (co-op) education experience, or practicum participation.

Students enrolled in a full-time program of study can apply for CPT during the regular academic year and/or during their annual vacation quarter.  CPT is limited to 20 hours per week during the academic year; however, full-time employment is permitted during vacation quarters.  Students must be careful not to accumulate 12 months of full-time CPT because doing so can result in loss of eligibility for OPT, another type of employment authorization available to students when they graduate.  Part-time CPT will not affect OPT eligibility.

CPT eligibility requirements include the following:

  • Students must be in current valid F-1 status.
  • Students must be enrolled at a college or university in the U.S. on a full-time basis for at least one full academic year.
  • Students must be enrolled in an academic major (Pre-major students, or students not yet admitted into a major, are ineligible for CPT.  CPT cannot be authorized based on an academic minor or certificate program).
  • Students must earn their degree from the accrediting academic institution.  Visiting exchange students are not eligible for CPT.
  • CPT requires a signed cooperative agreement between the academic institution and employer, or a letter from the employer.

The second type of practical training available to qualifying F-1 students is OPT.

OPT is a period during which undergraduate and graduate students with F-1 student status, and who have completed or have been pursuing their degrees for more than nine months, are permitted by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to work for 12 months on a student visa towards obtaining practical training to complement their academic field of study.  A degree in any academic field provides eligibility for the 12-month period of OPT.

OPT eligibility requirements include the following:

  • OPT must relate to the student’s major or course of study.
  • Students can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level, (i.e., students may have 12 months of OPT at the bachelor’s level and another 12 months of OPT at the master’s level).  The student’s DSO will provide them with a new Form I-20 that shows the DSO’s recommendation for this employment.
  • Students must apply for work authorization by electronically filing a Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and paying a filing fee.  USCIS will send them a Form I-766, “Employment Authorization Document,” (EAD) upon approving your Form I-765.
  • While school is in session, students may only work 20 hours per week.
  • Students must not work until receipt of their EAD.

On April 2, 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a 17-month extension to the OPT program for students in qualifying STEM fields. To qualify for the 17-month OPT extension a student must have received a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics degree in one of the following approved majors listed on the USCIS website.

This interim final rule provides a permanent solution to the H-1B “cap-gap” problem that occurs whenever an F-1 student’s status and work authorization expire before the start of any approved H-1B employment beginning on October 1st.  Previous cap-gap provisions extended only the stay but not the employment authorization of the F-1 student.

A student may qualify for an additional 17-month period of OPT under the following circumstances:

  • The degree related to the student’s current period of post-completion OPT is a bachelors, masters or doctoral degree in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) program.
  • The employer from which they are seeking employment uses the E-Verify program.
  • The student has not previously received a 17-month extension of OPT.
  • The student’s DSO provides them with a new Form I-20 that shows the DSO recommendation for the 17-month extended employment.
  • The student applies for work authorization by electronically filing a Form I-765 with USCIS and paying a filing fee.  USCIS will send the student an EAD upon approving their petition.
  • Students may continue to work on their expired EAD for OPT up to 180 days while their 17-month extension petition is pending provided that the student is currently in a period of post-completion OPT, and the student properly, and in a timely manner, filed their application for the 17-month extension with USCIS.
  • Students must report changes in name, address, employer and loss of employment to their DSO within 10 days of any change.

Please feel free to contact Ramon Rivera, Esq., at Mackenzie Hughes LLP if you have any questions or concerns regarding the CPT or OPT program.

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