As a foundation for next week’s post about founding a startup while on F-1 status, this week I’d like to begin with an explanation of the various ways that F-1 students can work.
1. On-Campus Employment: An F-1 student can work on campus or at an off-campus location affiliated with the school without special authorization. This includes things like working in the school bookstore, or being hired as a research assistant through the school. Unlike CPT and OPT, on-campus employment can begin immediately–there is no one-year waiting period. You may work on-campus for 20 hours a week while classes are in session, and 40 hours a week during summer and breaks. Time spent in an on-campus job does not affect the amount of time you may later work on CPT or OPT.
2. Curricular Practical Training (CPT): CPT is work directly related to your major study area that is carried out before graduation. It may be paid or unpaid, and may start only after you have been in F-1 status for at least one academic year. There is one exception to this restriction: if your course of study requires starting an internship before you’ve been on F-1 status for one year, the CPT may start sooner. A student must have a job offer to apply for CPT, and self-employment is not allowed.
Unlike on-campus employment, you must get special authorization from your school to start CPT. A student normally may work in CPT for 20 hours a week while classes are in session, and 40 hours a week during summers and breaks, although under certain circumstances, you may work 40 hours a week while classes are in session. Part-time CPT never affects future eligibility for OPT. Full-time CPT, on the other hand, has an all-or-nothing effect on OPT. If over the course of your studies you work for fewer than 12 months on full-time CPT, your OPT eligibility will not be affected at all. If you work for 12 months or more, however, you will not be eligible for any OPT. For instance, a student who has worked 11 months of full-time CPT and 30 months of part-time CPT remains eligible for a full 12 months of OPT upon graduation, but a student who worked for 12 months of full-time CPT during her studies is not eligible for any OPT.
3. Optional Practical Training (OPT): OPT is work directly related to your major area of study and may be carried out during your studies or up to 14 months after graduation. Every F-1 student gets 12 months of OPT, and those in STEM fields are eligible to apply for an additional 17 months (for a total of 29 months). Like CPT, OPT may only be started after you have been enrolled in F-1 status for at least one academic year. Note that while OPT may occur before or after graduation, any OPT you use before graduation will be subtracted from the total amount available to you. So, if you are applying to work before graduation, try to apply for CPT instead of OPT to preserve as much of your OPT time as possible for post-graduation work.
OPT may be paid or unpaid, and unlike CPT, you can apply for OPT before receiving a job offer (you can’t have more than 90 days of unemployment during your OPT period, however). One of the biggest perks of OPT for many students is that it allows self-employment, meaning you can start and work for your own business in the US while on OPT, as long as it is related to your major field of study. Check back next week for my post about founding a startup while on F-1 status.