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How to understand and use CPT and OPT

Foreign students often want to work while they’re studying with CPT, or curricular practical training. After graduation, they may begin their green card process using work through OPT, or optional practical training. 

While attending school, students are able to be employed in a field corresponding to their area of study through CPT, if the employer provides a signed cooperative agreement or letter and the student receives approval from the school with an I-20. Students may work part-time during the semester and full-time during break. But if a student works full-time with CPT for 12 months or more with CPT, then they become ineligible for OPT after graduation. 

Students may apply for OPT with USCIS from 90 days before graduation to 60 days after graduation; if they miss this window, they will be denied. OPT lasts for one year, but those in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) may extend their OPT twice, for a total of three years. Students may also do OPT while they are attending school, but their post-graduation OPT time allowance will be shortened. So it’s recommended that students apply for CPT while attending school, and OPT after graduation. 

Those who are looking to apply for an extension to their STEM OPT must already be employed and participating in OPT. Applicants must submit their request for extension 90 days before the end of their 12-month OPT period. The employer must be enrolled in the E-Verify program, in order for USCIS to be able to check the applicant’s status. If the employer is not in the E-Verify program, it is not possible to receive a STEM OPT extension. 

Those who have applied for an extension through USCIS may continue working up to 180 days after their OPT period expires. Students who have non-STEM OPT but majored in a STEM field in the past — and never applied for a STEM OPT extension — may request a two-year extension, but only if they graduated within 10 years of the request. 

Applicants may face a period of unemployment if they are job searching, terminated from their job or moving jobs. They are allowed 90 days of unemployment for non-OPT, and 150 days for a three-year STEM OPT. 

In many cases, people on OPT begin a green card process. Those doing STEM OPT who have three years do not need to apply for a separate employment-based visa, but those on non-STEM OPT could face difficulties completing a green card process in a period of just one year.

Though employment-based visas require close scrutiny, they are a recommended path to obtaining a green card if possible. Another method may be to go back to school before your OPT period runs out and work full-time on CPT while trying to obtain your green card.

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