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What is the Difference Between CPT & OPT?

If you are a non-U.S. citizen planning on attended school in the United States by obtaining an F-1 Student Visa, then knowing the difference between CPT and OPT is important. If you are an F-1 student, you have the option of training in the United States by engaging in practical training during your program or after it ends. There are two types of practical training available for F-1 students: Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT).

Both CPT and OPT require you to work with your designated school official (DSO). The DSO will help you gain approval for the job or internship. However, it may also be helpful to additionally work with your school’s career services office to search for the job or internship opportunity.

The main difference between the two practical training programs is that CPT must be completed before you graduate from your program, whereas OPT can be completed before or after you graduate. 

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

CPT allows F-1 students to gain work experience through employment training and internship programs directly related to their major area of study. 

  • CPT is integral to your major and the experience must be part of your program of study. 
  • When you enroll at the graduate level, your designated school official (DSO) may authorize CPT during your first semester if your program requires this type of experience. Ask your DSO for details.
  • Your DSO will provide you a new Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” that shows that the DSO has approved you for this employment.
  • You can work on CPT either full-time (20 hours or more per week) or part-time.
  • CPT requires a signed cooperative agreement or a letter from your employer.
  • If you have 12 months or more of full-time CPT, you are ineligible for OPT – but part-time CPT is fine and will not stop you from doing OPT.
  • You must complete your CPT before graduation.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. Eligible students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies (pre-completion) and/or after completing their academic studies (post-completion). However, all periods of pre-completion OPT will be deducted from the available period of post-completion OPT.

  • OPT must relate to your major or course of study.
  • You can apply for 12 months of OPT at each education level (i.e. you may have 12 months of OPT at the bachelor’s level and another 12 months of OPT at the master’s level).
  • Your DSO will provide you with a new Form I-20 that shows the DSO recommendation for this employment.
  • For work authorization, you must mail a completed Form I-765, “Application for Employment Authorization,” to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and pay a filing fee. USCIS will send you a Form I-766, “Employment Authorization Document,” (EAD) upon approving your Form I-765.
  • Wait to start work until after you receive your EAD.
  • While school is in session, you may only work 20 hours per week.

As an F-1 student, you can be eligible for OPT in two different ways:

  • Pre-completion OPT: You can apply to pre-completion OPT after completing one academic year at a Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-certified college, university, conservatory, or seminary. Pre-completion OPT authorizes you to work part time (20 hours or fewer per week) or full time before your program end date.
  • Post-completion OPT: You can apply to post-completion OPT after completing your studies. If you are eligible for post-completion OPT, you may work part-time (20 hours or fewer per week) or full time. However, if you are a student who already participated in pre-completion OPT, USCIS will deduct your pre-completion OPT time from your post-completion OPT authorization time.


Who can apply?

  • CPT: International students on an F-1 visa who have enrolled for at least one full academic year.
  • OPT: International students on an F-1 visa who have enrolled for at least one full academic year.

Do you need to have a job lined up before your DSO authorizes or recommends practical training?

  • CPT: Yes.
  • OPT: No, you do not need to commit to a job before your DSO recommends OPT.

Who authorizes your practical training?

  • CPT: Your DSO authorizes your CPT.
  • OPT: After your DSO’s recommendation, will authorize your OPT.

Which document do you need for eligibility?

  • CPT: Form I-20 (provided by your DSO).
  • OPT: Employment Authorization Document (EAD) (sent by USCIS).

When can you participate?

  • CPT: CPT occurs during your study program.
  • OPT: OPT occurs before or after your program end date.

Is it employer-specific?

  • CPT: Yes, and it is a part of your course curriculum.
  • OPT: No.

Is it eligible for STEM extension?

  • CPT: No.
  • OPT: Yes, STEM degree graduates can apply for a 24-month OPT extension.

If you have any questions about CPT or OPT, contact our office today to set up a consultation with one of our attorneys today!