Working in US – CPT, OPT and H1-B

In the final lesson of this course, we will look at both gaining practical industry experience and finding employment on a work visa (H1-b). The chance of finding permanent jobs and getting a green card is a major reason for international students to study in the USA.

There are only four legal ways for any F-1 student to work during their study in USA:

  • Part-time campus jobs – up to 20 hours a week
  • Assistantships (Research and Teaching)
  • Work on Curriculum Practical Training (CPT) permit
  • Work on Optional Practical Training (OPT) permit/visa

After graduating (and completing the OPT), H1-B visa is required to work in the USA legally. A Green Card is the permanent resident visa and path to US citizenship.

For applying for both the H-1 B visa and the Green Card, you will need a sponsor to apply on your behalf.

The H1-B visa program has become very competitive and complex over the past decade. Also, the H1-B visa is a very controversial topic in US politics. Concerns of the local population on the lack of jobs and misuse of the program by various companies have made H1-b visa very controversial. The H1-B visas are also dependent on the President in the Whitehouse and the administration in power.

Irrespective of the status of H1-B visas, an education in the USA provides a lot of opportunities for students to gain practical knowledge and Industry exposure through the OPT and CPT programs.

Curriculum Practical Training (CPT)

CPT, as the name suggests, is a temporary authorization for you to work in the USA in your field of education. It has to be work that directly helps with your course and sometimes counts towards some credits.

It is mainly designed to gain practical knowledge by working part time (up to 20 hours a week) or full-time during vacations. You have to be registered as full time student while working on a CPT authorization.

If you use your CPT for working full-time for more than 12 months, you cannot apply for an OPT work authorization after you complete your graduation.

For applying for a CPT, you will need to get a job/internship offer from an employer first. Using this letter, your University DSO can apply for a CPT authorization. Do not apply for CPT till you finish at least six months of education. Read this FAQ for more information on CPT.

Finding an employer to work on CPT is the most difficult part for most students. Your professors or placement department of the University might be able to help find employers. Find out where past students found employment and contact those employers. Also try to find opportunities through your friends and alumni connections.

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

OPT is a temporary work visa (also called authorization) designed to help students gain practical Industry knowledge and experience. As the name indicates, this is optional. You can choose not to apply for OPT authorization and return to your country.

The major differences between CPT and OPT are :

  • While CPT is designed for working while still studying your degree, OPT is primarily for working after graduation.
  • You do not need an employment offer to apply for an OPT authorization.
  • You are not required to be enrolled full-time at the University while working on OPT.

The length of the OPT authorization is dependent on the type of degree you study:

  • All F-1 bachelor’s and master’s students are eligible for a 12 month OPT authorization.
  • Students with a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) degree can apply for a 24-month extension of OPT. This gives them a total of 36 months (or 3 years) of working time in the USA.

Some management courses also qualify as STEM programs. To know which degree is considered a STEM degree, check this list or check with the University admissions officer.

OPT is great opportunity to put the knowledge you gained during your education to practical use and gain valuable experience for future jobs. The 24-month extension gives students to apply for H1-B visa multiple times.

Read this page on OPT for more information and this page on OPT extension for STEM degrees.

During your OPT, you have to inform your DSO of all employment and address changes. Also, you are supposed to use the OPT to work in a field related to your field of study.

Finding an employer who will hire you during your OPT is again a major challenge for International students. Work with the placement officers at the University to identify companies that might be interested in you. Start planning for this early:

  • Create a list of leading companies in your field of study
  • Companies which work with your university
  • Companies where past students are working
  • Companies where your friends and family can recommend you
  • Openings on Job portals like,
  • Use your connections on professional networking sites like LinkedIn
  • Attend & Join industry specific meet-ups in your area

H1-B Visa

H1-B visa program is designed for US Companies to recruit people with extraordinary ability or knowledge from outside the country. The employer has to prove that they cannot find a US citizen with the same skills before hiring an employee on a H1-B visa. The primary intention of the program is to make US companies competitive by hiring the best talent.

While the H1-B program was supposed to make US companies more competitive, some companies have used the program to hire cheaper workers from abroad to save money. This has led to a lot of distrust about the whole program.

There are a total of 85,000 H1-B visas available per year and of this 20,000 are reserved for people with a Master’s degree from a US university. The competition for these is intense. In 2016, 244,000 applications were filed on the first day. It meant that only 1 in 3 applications were picked for processing!

If you are a STEM course student, you can try for the H1 visa each year during your OPT stay. Finding an employer who is willing to sponsor your H1-B visa quickly, will give you multiple chances at applying for H1 visa.

The maximum duration for which a person can work on an H1 visa in the USA is six years. At the end of 6 years, you will have to leave the USA unless your green card application is pending in the advanced stages.

Green Card and US Citizenship

Like a H1-B visa, a Green Card application also needs an Employer as the sponsor for continued or future employment. Green Cards are issued based on a Quota system. Each country, based on its population, is allotted a limited number of green cards per year.

People born in India and China have the longest wait times because of this Quota system. The Green card process is much faster for people born in other countries.

Once you receive a Green Card, you can apply to become a US citizen after five years of continuous stay in the USA.

A word of Caution

During both the H1-B and Green Card processing, all your past stays in the country and records are checked. Your application might be rejected because of past criminal records or illegal visa stay. It always helps to keep your records properly.

Hope this e-course helped you gain some valuable information and prepared you well for the future.

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