OPT and CPT Employment for F-1 International Students: The Complete Guide
Studying in the United States is often the first step in an immigrants path to a green card and, eventually, naturalization. However, too many international students every year jeopardize their career and immigration status by not understanding American immigration and employment rules. Avoid becoming one of them with this simple guide!
There are several ways for international students on an F-1 visa to legally work in the United States. Today, we will discuss the three most common ways: On-Campus Employment, CPT, and OPT.
The first way to work as an F1 student is On-Campus Employment, which includes most jobs you’d find on campus. You can become a research or teaching assistant, or work at the library, administrative offices, or the campus cafeteria. You can even accept jobs that are operated by other businesses on campus, like cafes and bookstores. However, this does not include jobs not directly related to campus life, such as construction work. When in doubt, check with your international students office.
You can’t work more than half-time (20 hours/week) during the school year, though you can work full-time (40 hours/week) during breaks.
Otherwise, there aren’t that many restrictions. You do not need any prior authorization for an On-Campus job if you are an F-1 student. Also, unlike CPT and OPT, there is no restriction that the job be related to your major in any way. Your ability to work in the U.S. in the future will not be affected.
Curricular Practical Training – CPT
The second way to work under F-1 through CPT, which is for off-campus work before you graduate. This category of work has more restrictions than on-campus work. The basic requirements are that:
- The job be related to your field of study;
- You have at least completed your freshman year (disregard this requirement for graduate students); and
- That you file the necessary paperwork.
The paperwork is simple. It usually involves giving your campus’s international student office a copy of your job offer letter, followed by filling out a form with some personal information. If everything looks good, they will issue you a new Form I-20 containing the CPT approval, which serves as your employment authorization.
One thing to note: this authorization will contain specific dates specifying the beginning and end of your CPT period. Make double-sure that both you and your new employer understand when these dates are, and that they are difficult to change.
You can work half-time (20 hours/week) while school is in session, and up to full time (40 hours/week) during breaks, just like On-Campus Employment.
In order to do CPT work, you have to demonstrate that the job is necessary for your education. This is done in one of two ways:
- You are enrolled in a program that requires an internship (common for many master’s and professional programs). In this case, you do not need to do anything else.
- For other programs, you need to be enrolled in a special “internship” course while you work. These courses are usually 0.5 unit or 1 unit courses designed simply to satisfy USCIS requirements. There shouldn’t be any actual classes, aside from maybe meeting with an advisor once or twice. These courses vary in name, but they should definitely exist at your university.
One last thing to keep in mind: if you somehow accrued more than one year’s worth of full-time CPT work, you become ineligible for OPT. This is not common because it would be quite difficult to achieve in reality: for a four year program, you’d have to work every summer break and every winter break allowed (you can’t work your first winter break) to come close.
Optional Practical Training – OPT
The final, and most important way to work under F-1 is OPT.
Let’s go over the basics: As an international student graduating from an American university, you are granted a period of one year, or three years if you majored in a STEM subject, of Optional Practical Training (OPT). During this time, you can work in the United States and earn money. You get an OPT period after every degree level (i.e., one for undergrad, another for grad school). The job needs to be related to your field of study.
OK, you probably already knew the basics if you are an international student, so let’s dive into the details.
First, let’s talk paperwork: as with CPT, your international student office at your university will take care of the boring parts. Some time during your final year or semester, the office will contact you (and, if they don’t go talk to them 3-6 months before graduation) about whether they should file for your OPT. After saying yes, they will file a few forms with the USCIS and your will soon have an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) card.
Unlike for the CPT, you do not need to have a job offer when you apply for an OPT.
The major consideration you will be asked when applying for OPT is: when do you want your OPT period to start? The earliest OPT start date is the day after your graduation, and the latest is 60 days after graduation. To answer this question, you need to understand two things: the 90 days of total unemployment allowed, and the grace period.
You are allowed 90 total days of unemployment during your OPT.
The most important thing to note is that there are 90 days TOTAL, for all unemployment during your OPT period. That means that if you get laid off or otherwise switch jobs during your OPT, you cannot accumulate more than 90 total days of unemployment. If you spent, say, 60 days at the start of your OPT looking for a job (and therefore were legally unemployed), and you spend 31 days between jobs when you switch jobs later, you will be in violation USCIS regulations, which could get you deported. Yikes.
You can choose to start your OPT up to 60 days after you graduate. This is known as the grace period. During this grace period, you are not accumulating any days against your total allowed unemployment time. Many people decide to take this time not just to job search, but to take a post-graduation vacation.
So, if you elect to have your OPT period start 60 days after graduation, and you have 90 days to find a job, that means you can have, at most, 150 days to start a job after graduation. So, why wouldn’t everybody take the full 60 day grace period?
The catch is that you cannot work until your OPT start date. Therefore, your prospective employer can rightfully rescind their job offer to find someone who can start sooner. Ouch.
So, when should you start your OPT period?
If you have a job offer before graduating (congratulations!), then you should start your OPT on the day you start your job. If you’d like some time off before you jump into your work-life, you can negotiate with your employer to start at a later date, up to 60 days. This is common and is generally not a risky thing to ask for. After all, if a company is proactively recruiting students before they graduate, that means they are thinking long-term: they already waited for you to graduate, they won’t mind if you spend another few weeks traveling. (You *could* start your OPT as late as 150 days after you graduate — but, as noted above, that would also use up your allowed unemployment time, so beware.)
If you haven’t found a job yet when you graduate, don’t worry — it’s called a grace period for a reason. When to start your OPT is ultimately a personal decision, but: Unless you are an engineering major from a top university, have good grades, AND are located in, or relocating to, a hub for your industry (Silicon Valley for computer science, New York for finance, etc), take the full 60 day grace period. It is likely your first ‘real’ job search and it will take more time than you expect. Yes, you’d have to find an employer willing to wait until your employment starts, but a company who can’t wait a few weeks is not an ideal company to work for.
What does it mean for a job to be related to your major?
For both the CPT and OPT, the job needs to be related to your field of study. There is no official definition of what it means for a job to be “related” to your major. In some cases, this is obvious: for example, if you majored in Computer Science and got a software job, or if you got a master’s in Nuclear Engineering and you got hired as a nuclear engineer.
However, if the connection is not immediately obvious to a layman, you still need to be able to explain it to immigration officials. Several documents may help you answer any questions that a USCIS agent may ask you:
- A signed letter on company letterhead from your supervisor stating how your degree helps you accomplish your job;
- A proof of employment, showing your job title;
- The original job description, preferably listing your degree as a requirement; and
- A description of your degree and required courses, provided by your university.
That’s quite a few things! However, if you have carry these documents and have them ready when you re-enter the US, then you should be well equipped to handle any questions.