Get into university in the US with Interstride's course on US Admissions and Applications
Interside mobile menu

CPT vs OPT: Choosing the right work authorization option

interstride logo by Interstride
March 5, 2024

Are you an international student looking for work experience in the US? You may have heard the terms CPT and OPT thrown around at orientation or among other international students. While both OPT and CPT provide off-campus work authorization for international students to gain experience in their field of study, these two programs differ in fundamental ways. Learning the ins and outs of CPT vs OPT can help you make the most of your college experience in the US.

What is CPT and who is eligible?

Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is a temporary work authorization for international students on F-1 visas. It allows eligible students to work off-campus during their academic program after one year of full-time study. CPT is a great option for international students to participate in an internship during the academic year or the summer. Many international students can also earn college credit for their CPT internship, depending on what their school offers. 

The CPT program qualifications are as follows:

  • Students must have completed at least one full academic year of school
  • Students must have a valid job or internship offer before applying for CPT
  • Job must be related to the student’s field of study
  • Job must satisfy an integral component of the student’s academic program
  • Job must start and end before the end of the student’s academic program
Interstride Tip! Graduate students whose programs require an internship, practicum, or other work experience in their first year can apply for CPT before they have completed a full year of study. Day 1 CPT is often misunderstood, so read the full blog for more info.

The duration of your CPT internship will be determined with your employer and academic program. There is no limit to CPT, and it is possible to have multiple part-time CPT jobs at once. However, the amount of CPT you can do depends on what your school, academic program, and the potential employer’s offer. Part-time CPT is up to 20 hours per week, and full-time CPT is up to 40 hours per week. Students who engage in full-time CPT must still be full-time students during the academic year. 

Interstride Tip! Keep in mind that 12 months of full-time CPT makes you ineligible to work on OPT before or after graduation. Part-time CPT does not affect OPT eligibility.

What is OPT and who is eligible? 

Optional Practical Training (OPT) is a temporary work authorization that allows F-1 students from accredited colleges or universities to gain practical work experience related to their field of study. Eligible students can use pre-completion OPT to work off-campus during their academic program or use post-completion OPT once they graduate. 

You do not need a job offer to apply for OPT at your school. You can apply and look for a job while you are waiting for OPT approval. The OPT program qualifications are as follows:

  • Students must have completed at least one full academic year of school
  • Job must be related to the student’s field of study
  • Students can only work part-time for up to 20 hours per week while school is in session (pre-completion OPT)
Interstride Tip! OPT can be used for up to 12 months total at each education level (e.g., once for a bachelor’s degree program and once for a master’s degree program). For example, if you are earning a second master’s degree in the US, you will not be able to use OPT again.

International graduates who received a qualifying STEM degree are eligible for a 24-month STEM OPT extension. This means as a STEM major, you can work and stay in the US for up to three years after you graduate. The STEM OPT extension is a huge bonus for international students. Only international students currently on post-completion OPT can apply for the STEM extension. Your employer must be enrolled in the USCIS E-Verify program, and you must be working full-time to qualify.

Differences and similarities between CPT vs OPT

There are several similarities between CPT and OPT. Both provide off-campus work authorization to international students on F-1 visas. Both OPT and CPT require that the job relates to the student’s academic major and that the student completes at least one academic year of school before applying. Despite their similarities, these work authorization pathways differ in key ways outlined in the table below.

Must be related to your major and approved by your academic programAcademic requirementsMust be related to your major but does not need approval from your academic program
May be available for CPT depending on your school and programCollege credit for workNo college credit is available for OPT
Valid job offer required to applyJob requirementsNo job offer is required to apply
Part-time during semesters and full-time when classes are not in session, such as summer break, until graduationEmployment timingPre-completion can only be part-time during school; post-completion must be at least 20 hours per week
Your college’s Designated School Official (DSO)Authorizing officialUSCIS
I-20 form with CPT approvalProof of authorizationEmployment Authorization Document (EAD) card
NoneApplication fees$410
2 weeks Average approval waiting time6 months

How to apply for CPT vs OPT

Because CPT and OPT are completely different programs, the application processes are different. Below are the general steps for each, but they may vary depending on your institution’s policies and procedures.

How to Apply for CPT

  1. Contact your school’s international student services office and ask what CPT programs are available to you and if there are any relevant employers that the school has partnerships with. 
  2. Get an official employment offer letter that includes the employer’s information and your workplace address.
  3. Apply for the CPT program through your college or university.
  4. When you receive your I-20 form with CPT approval, sign it, and send a copy to your employer. You should also always have a copy for yourself. 
  5. Start working on your approved CPT start date.

How to Apply for OPT

The OPT application process differs from CPT in that in addition to applying through your school, you must get approved for OPT by USCIS and there is an application fee. OPT approval also takes much longer than CPT approval, so make sure you plan accordingly.

  1. Contact your college’s Designated School Official (DSO) and ask them to recommend you for OPT. Your DSO will update SEVIS and your I‑20 form with the recommendation.
  2. Complete Form I-765 and send it to USCIS with the required documents.
  3. Pay the $410 fee to USCIS.
  4. After USCIS approves your Form I-765, they will send you an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
  5. Start working on or after the start date on your EAD.

Wrap-up on CPT and OPT rules and guidelines

While some international students may mistakenly think CPT and OPT are interchangeable, that is not the case. CPT can only be used before graduation whereas OPT can be used before and/or after. There is no set limit on how much CPT a student can use, but OPT is limited to 12 months total. For international students hoping to do an internship, CPT or OPT could work, but the vast majority of students prefer to use CPT for internships when possible to save OPT for after graduation. Instead of CPT vs OPT, many students actually strategically use both to maximize their work experience in the US and extend the length of their F-1 visa.