Foreign students studying towards a degree program in the U.S. and maintaining a valid F-1 status can apply their theoretical knowledge and gain invaluable experience in their respective fields/major of study through training periods both during and after completion of their studies. These opportunities can be achieved by Curricular and Optional Practical training programs, which allow them to work and/or receive training off-campus in their respective majors for a specified period.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) can be obtained by students who are currently enrolled in their study program. Their work must be integral to the student’s major and completed prior to the completion of the degree. CPT allows students to work in a paid or unpaid internship, practicum, or cooperative (co-op) education program. The program must be required by the major of the student and, if it is not, the student must receive course credit. This type of training requires a signed cooperative agreement or a letter from the employer to be provided to the Designated School Official (DSO), who then endorses the student’s Form I-20 with the name of the employer and time period for which employment is granted. Students may use as much CPT as is needed for a degree program; however, when authorized for a total of 12 months of full-time CPT, students are no longer eligible to obtain Optional Practical Training (OPT).
Optional Practical Training (OPT) is what it exactly states – it is optional for any student who wishes to apply for training/work authorization after completion of each education level. Like CPT, the OPT program must relate to the student’s major course of study. A student in F-1 status can apply to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as early as 90 days before or 60 days after completion of program for 12 months of OPT.
In addition, some students may be eligible for an extension of their OPT. After the completion of the initial 12-month training, students who graduated with a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degree may qualify for an additional 24 month extension of the OPT. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had originally designated four core areas of STEM for extension, which included Engineering, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics and Physical Sciences, or a related field that generally involves research, innovation or development of new technologies using engineering computer science or natural sciences. On January 2, 2022, however, DHS expanded the STEM list by adding 22 additional fields of study that include Forestry, Social Science, Bioenergy, and various other fields. A complete list of the newly-added fields to be included in the STEM OPT program is provided in the Federal Register.
A student may qualify for the 24-month STEM OPT if the following conditions are met: a) the individual is currently participating in a regular period (12 months) of OPT; b) they received a qualifying STEM degree from an accredited Student Exchange and Visitor Program certified college or university; and c) the prospective employer uses the E-Verify program and has completed and signed Form I-983, “Training Plan for STEM OPT Students.” A student may continue to work on an expired OPT authorization up to 180 days if the STEM 24-month extension is timely filed with the USCIS prior to the expiration of the 12-month regular OPT.
CPT and OPT are valuable avenues by which a foreign student can acquire critical knowledge and experience in their respective fields through actual employment with a U.S. employer. This employment can then lead to a pathway towards obtaining lawful permanent residency through an offer of a permanent job offer. By hiring new graduates, employers also benefit by having workers with the most up-to-date knowledge and skills, thus making their products and services more competitive in the market. Employers with questions about these programs should consult knowledgeable employment counsel.