A guide to international student work authorizations

International Student Work Authorization Options

CPT – Curricular Practical Training

CPT is a temporary work authorization for international students on F-1 student visas that may be issued BEFORE students complete their degree program. There is no limit to the amount of CPT a student can use, but employment cannot delay a student’s degree progress and if a student is authorized for 12 months or more of CPT, that student loses eligibility for OPT. CPT is employer-specific (the student can only work for the authorized employer) and the employment authorization is issued by the sponsoring institution through the SEVIS database (Student Exchange Visitor Information System), the Department of Homeland Security international student/scholar tracking database.

CPT can be authorized for internships or co-ops that are either required for degree completion or deemed “integral” to a student’s degree program. Each institution defines “integral” differently, thus the documentation required for approval varies between schools. Please note that some colleges and universities interpret CPT regulations very conservatively, which may prevent students from obtaining CPT work authorization in some circumstances. When CPT approval is possible, authorization can be obtained relatively quickly . Typical processing time ranges from 1 day to 2 weeks.

In order for a school to authorize CPT, the student must already have a job offer and provide an offer letter on company letterhead that includes the following information:

  • Dates of Internship/co-op
  • Name of Company
  • Address where the student will be physically located during employment
  • Job title/description

OPT – Optional Practical Training

OPT is temporary work authorization for international students on F-1 student visas, generally used AFTER a student graduates. (OPT is sometimes used prior to graduation in lieu of CPT, but this is rare). All international students are eligible for at least 12 months of OPT after completion of a US degree program. International students who complete a degree with a major in a federally designated STEM field and who work for an employer that is enrolled in the E-Verify system are eligible to apply for 17 additional months of OPT, thus making them eligible for up to 29 total months of work authorization after degree completion.  For information on how to E-Verify your company, click here.

Sponsoring schools can only recommend OPT, not approve it. Students must apply for OPT by preparing an I-765 Application for Employment Authorization and send it to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for processing. Approval generally takes about 2-3 months. The application window extends from 90 days prior to graduation until 60 days after graduation, though most students find it favorable to apply as early as possible. OPT work authorization extends a student’s F-1 student visa status and allows the student to work anywhere in the US as long as they work a minimum of 20 hours per week and all employment is related to the student’s field of study. OPT is not employer-specific, so international students can change employers anytime during OPT without sponsoring school or USCIS permission.

In order for a student to maintain legal immigration status while on OPT, the student must report employer information and employment start date to their sponsoring institution and must not be unemployed for a cumulative total of 90 days during the initial 12 months of OPT. (The unemployment limitation raises to 120 days for students who are approved for the 24-month STEM extension of OPT.)

AT – Academic Training

Academic Training is temporary work authorization for students on J-1 student visas. J-1 students may be enrolled in a degree program in the US or may be exchange students studying in the US on a non-degree basis, typically for one or two semesters. AT can be used for internships/co-ops during a student’s degree/exchange program and/or after completion.

Students graduating with bachelor’s or master’s degrees are eligible for 18 months of work authorization. Students finishing a doctoral degree are eligible for a second 18-month segment of AT, totaling 36 months. Exchange students are eligible for a segment of AT equivalent to the length of the academic program; i.e. a one-semester exchange student would be eligible for approximately 4 months of AT.

AT work authorization time can be split pre- and post- graduation or saved and all used after graduation. AT is employer-specific and authorized by the sponsoring institution through the SEVIS database system. The job responsibilities must be directly related to the student’s degree/exchange program. Authorization can be issued relatively quickly. Typical processing time ranges from 1 day to 2 weeks.

In order for a school to be able to authorize AT, the student must already have a job offer and provide an offer letter on company letterhead that includes the following information:

  • Dates of employment
  • Name of Company
  • Address where the student will be physically located during employment
  • Job title/description

Important note: Some students on J-1 visas may be subject to a two-year home residence requirement. A student who is subject to the requirement would be unable to transition to an H-1B employee visa or Permanent Residence until s/he has returned home for at least two years. Of those who are subject, some may be eligible for a waiver. Any J-1 student who believes they may be subject should consult with an immigration attorney in order to identify all available visa options.

Download the Student Work Authorization Quick Reference Guide HERE!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much paperwork is involved in hiring an international students?

A: The employer needs to complete minimal paperwork. The international student is responsible for securing the necessary paperwork from their University, which in turn assists them in obtaining their work authorization.

Q: Is there a cost involved in hiring an international student during CPT or OPT?

A: No. There are no employer fees involved.

Q: When can students begin their internships?

A: Students may begin their internships on the start date listed on their immigration documents. For CPT the start date is listed on p. 3 of their I-20, which they obtain from their university. For OPT the start date is listed on their Employment Authorization Document or “EAD card” issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Q: Do I need to sponsor a student for a work visa to offer an internship?

A: No. Most students are eligible for CPT. The majority of students use CPT for internship positions unless the internship is post-graduation, in which case they need OPT, which does not require .

Q: How much time does it take for a student to get their work authorization for CPT?

A: Usually 1-2 weeks depending on the University’s internal process.

Q: How much time does it take for a student to get their work authorization for OPT?

A: It can take up to 3 months for USCIS to process an OPT application from the date it is received.

Q: Do internships for international students have to be paid?

A: No.

Q: Do international students need work authorization if they are not being paid?

A: Yes. Any time there is an employer/employee relationship, international students must have work authorization. Working without the proper work authorization is a violation of the student’s immigration status.

*Disclaimer:   The information contained on this page is not to be construed as legal advice. Legal questions should be directed to a qualified immigration attorney.