In general, foreign nationals in the United States on an F-1 student visa are not permitted to work in the U.S. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule, two of which are Curricular Practical Training and Optional Practical Training.
CURRICULAR PRACTICAL TRAINING
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is a type of employment authorization that allows an F-1 student to obtain employment in an area that is directly related to his/her studies. Also, the student must receive school credit for such work.
To be eligible for CPT, you must have been enrolled full-time in a U.S. academic institution for at least one full academic year. Therefore, you may not work pursuant to CPT during your first year of study. An exception exists for graduate students whose programs require immediate participation in an internship, a practicum, or other employment. CPT is not available for F-1 students in language learning programs.
The CPT program permits you to work for an employer within a field that is an integral part of an established curriculum and directly related to your course of study. Your employment must be pursuant to an internship, cooperative education program, practicum or any other type of arrangement where your course of study permits you to receive credit through employment.
Terms of Employment
F-1 students can engage in CPT on a part or full-time basis. CPT students who obtain part-time employment may not work more than 20 hours per week. As long as you maintain your F-1 status, there is no limitation on the length of time you may participate in part-time Curricular Practical Training.
F-1 students may work full-time pursuant to CPT during University breaks, including summer break and holidays. You may also engage in full-time employment under CPT during your dissertation or thesis stage of schooling or while taking a class where full-time employment is required for the completion of the course.
Full-time CPT allows you to work more than 20 hours per week, and there is no limitation upon the length of time you may participate in the full-time employment. However, if you participate in 12 months or more of full-time CPT, you will not be eligible for Optional Practical Training, which is explained below. The exception to the bar on Optional Practical Training after completing one year of full-time employment applies to F-1 students enrolled in graduate studies that require immediate participation in Curricular Practical Training.
OPTIONAL PRACTICAL TRAINING
F-1 students who participate in Optional Practical Training (OPT) may work in the U.S. in a field that is directly related to their course of study for a total of 12 – 29 months, depending on the student’s major.
Students Who Graduate with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (“STEM” Students)
Students who have received a degree in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (“STEM” students) may work in the U.S. under the OPT program for a total of 29 months. Non-STEM students may work in the U.S. under the OPT program for no more than 12 months.
Employment need not be for School Credit
The employment you obtain pursuant to OPT need not be pursuant to an internship, practicum, or anything to that effect. In fact, the employment may be totally independent of your schooling as long as it is directly related to your course of study. For example, an F-1 student studying business at a university in the U.S. may work part-time at a consulting firm during the school year, full-time at the firm during the summer, or full-time at the firm after graduating even though the work is not an internship and she is not receiving any credit for her employment at the company.
Duration of Employment
Optional practical training is available both during and after the completion of your academic program. However, the total amount of practical training permitted is 12 months (or 29 months for STEM students). For example, if, prior to graduation, you have worked for 4 months under the OPT program, and you are not a STEM student, you will only be eligible for 8 more months of post-graduation OPT work.
Also, work done under CPT counts towards your OPT period. Therefore, if you work for a total of 12 months under CPT while in school, and you are not a STEM student, then you will not be able to work under OPT upon graduation.
OPT As a Path to Obtaining an Employment Visa
One of the main benefits of the OPT program is that it can be used as a path towards obtaining an employment visa after graduation. For example, if an employer in the U.S. hires you to work in a field directly related to your area of study under OPT, the employer may also sponsor you for an H-1B, TN, or any other non-immigrant visa you are eligible for during the course of your employment.
Can I Change Jobs?
You may change employers while working in the U.S. pursuant to OPT as long as the new job is directly related to your field of study.
Can I Work at More Than One Job?
With OPT you may have as many jobs with as many employers as you wish.
Unemployment upon Graduation
F-1 students who wish to obtain employment in the U.S. under OPT, and who have thus obtained their OPT registration, have up to 90 days to find a job. Thus, upon graduating from a U.S. institution as an F-1 student, you may stay in the U.S. for an additional 90 days to look for work that is directly related to your field of study. STEM students have 120 days to obtain a job in the U.S. upon graduation.