What You Need to Know about CPT and OPT: F1 Employment for International Students

Whether it’s for the ARAD internship requirement or for post-graduation career development, it’s helpful for international students to be familiar with the employment process in order to transition smoothly into professional life.

Fei Wang Photo

F-1 immigration regulations permit students to get paid, academically-relevant work experience, and professional training through F-1 practical training, which includes Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training(OPT).  

Our International Student Research Project Assistant, Fei Wang (ARAD ‘21) recently attended an OPT/CPT workshop offered through the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS and shares this important information.


Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is employment used to satisfy the requirements of a required or elective internship, practicum, or fieldwork course. As the ARAD program requires an internship elective as part of the degree requirement, CPT can be used to fulfill the three-credit internship course requirement. 

  • CPT is required if you are receiving compensation (salary, stipends, tuition credits). You do not need to apply for CPT authorization if you are doing an unpaid internship. There is no limit on part-time CPT, as long as it meets the requirements of being an “integral part of the established curriculum.” 
  • CPT of 20 hours or less per week is considered part-time and requires concurrent enrollment during the academic year.  However, CPT which exceeds 20 hours per week is considered full-time CPT. If you engage in one year or more of full-time Curricular Practical Training, you will not be eligible for Optional Practical Training. 
  • In order to qualify for CPT, you must be in valid F-1 status and must have completed at least one academic year (two semesters) of full-time study, including any time spent at another institution immediately prior to arriving at TC. 

CPT Process

  1. Find an internship →  obtain the academic advisor’s verification → register for internship fieldwork or practical course
  2. Bring the following documents to OISS
    • CPT Request Form, which must be signed by an academic advisor
    • Degree audit
    • Job offer letter on the employer’s letterhead with the following
  3. Get NEW CPT I-20 from OISS
  4. Show CPT I20 to Employer
  5. Start Working (See OISS if you need an SSN)

When do I need to start the CPT process? 

Contact OISS at least 10 business days before you need a new authorization every semester/summer term. Be careful to check the authorization dates closely and do not work past the date you are authorized to maintain your F1 status.

How long can I be authorized for CPT?

The authorization is on a semester-by-semester basis. As your employer’s letter may cover more than one semester, you must show evidence of course registration and 


F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) is an employment benefit that allows you to gain professional experience in your field of study for up to 12 months. Unlike CPT, OPT does not require you to register for a required or elective internship, practicum, or fieldwork course. Moreover, you may use OPT either before or after completion of studies, on a part-time or full-time basis. 

Pre-Completion OPT (before completion of degree requirements)

  • Part-time (maximum 20 hours per week) only during the academic year, while completing coursework requirements for the degree
  • Part-time or full-time during the summer vacation period
  • Part-time or full-time after completing all coursework requirements, but before completing the final thesis, master’s project, or doctoral dissertation requirement

Post-Completion OPT (following completion of degree requirements) 

You may file a post-completion OPT application up to 90 days before but no later than 60 days after completion of studies. The 12 months of OPT must still be completed within 14 months of completion of studies, and there are often delays in OPT processing. Students who apply during the 60 days after completion of studies risk losing part of their 12 months of authorized OPT employment. Only an aggregated 90 days of unemployment are allowed while on 12-month OPT.

Eligibility Requirements for OPT

  • You must be in valid F-1 status, with an unexpired I-20, electronic I-94 or I-94 card marked “F-1 D/S.”
  • You must have completed at least one academic year of full-time study by the time your OPT period starts.
  • You do not need to have a job offer to apply for OPT; however, you must have the intention of pursuing professional employment in your field of study. 
  • If you are applying for pre-completion OPT, you must continue to maintain full-time registration during the academic year and make full-time progress toward meeting your degree requirements during your OPT period.
  • If you are applying for post-completion OPT, you must apply before you complete your degree requirements. 

OPT Process

Step 1:

  • Request new I-20 by submitting OPT application and copy of I-765 form to OIS
  • Obtain new I-20 from OIS with OPT recommendation on page 2 (processing time: approx. 7-14 business days)

Step 2:

  • File OPT application and supporting documents to the USCIS Service Center (processing time: approx. 3 months)
  • Receive your Employment Authorization Document (“EAD Card” or “OPT Card”) card in the mail

For more detailed information on CPT, OPT and other F1 employment questions, please register for upcoming F1 workshops by OISS at https://www.tc.columbia.edu/international/events-and-programs/




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