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How to get practical work experience on a US student visa

Job options are limited for international students, but there are some great ways to get work experience to round out your studies. Here are the basics on practical training
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   01-06-2016

Some of the best learning opportunities you get as an international student in the United States are through practical training – an internship at a research institute, perhaps, or a summer placement at a company. It’s the kind of training that complements your academic work. However, a student visa does not let you work anywhere you like, for as many hours as you like. The good news is that it doesn’t prevent you from taking advantage of such opportunities, either. The office of international student services (ISS) at your university is a crucial resource that lets you benefit from practical training opportunities while remaining on the right side of the law.

There are restrictions on how much and where international students can work, because the US, like any other country, wants to protect the jobs of its own citizens. Violations of these restrictions are extremely serious, and could result in deportation and a permanent blot on your record.

The two main ways you can gain work experience as a student are Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). CPT is for practical training, such as an internship, that you do before you complete your degree. OPT is only for practical training after completing your degree. Both require authorization to work, and you must apply formally through the ISS.

To apply for authorization, you should have completed at least two semesters as a full-time student. In other words, in most cases you can’t do CPT or OPT in the first nine months of your course. All full-time international degree students are entitled to CPT and OPT, regardless of university. So don’t fret about the nitty-gritties of practical training when choosing schools, during the application process, or even in your first semester.

CPT and OPT are not degree requirements, but they must be degree-related. They are meant to be opportunities to apply the knowledge gained as part of your degree. Working as a campus residence hall manager, for instance, does not count if your degree is in aeronautical engineering or European history. There is a possibility of earning academic credits with your CPT, but do not assume that the rules are the same everywhere – always check with your university department to avoid confusion. 

There is also the possibility of earning money through CPT and OPT. For example, you may get a paid internship with a company in your second year. However, unpaid opportunities can also count as CPT or OPT.

Your total CPT entitlement is 365 days. It doesn’t matter how this time is split up (for instance, three months a year over four years of your studies, or two semesters and a summer). The crucial thing is to carefully calculate your remaining days before signing up for an internship, so that you do not exceed your entitlement by even one day – that could get you into serious trouble with immigration authorities.

Now for the OPT, or the practical training you can do after completing your degree. This could be paid or unpaid work, and could be part-time or full-time. The first thing you should know is that if you do a full-time CPT for a year, you lose your OPT eligibility (part-time CPT is not a problem).

Your OPT entitlement is ordinarily for one year, but for particular fields in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM), it can be extended for another two years. The US Department of Homeland Security has a list of STEM subjects (PDF) that are eligible for extension.

It is important to time your OPT application carefully. You cannot apply on your own – you must do this through a designated school official. Typically, the procedure is that the ISS recommends you for OPT, and you are authorized by the US government. The earliest you can apply for OPT is 90 days before your graduation date, and the latest is four weeks before (don’t apply too late because processing applications takes time).  If you are 60 days past graduation, you can’t apply at all.

You don’t need a job to apply for OPT, but you do need one to start your OPT. Never work without authorization, and the only way to get authorization is through a designated school official.

Your ISS can guide you and clarify doubts. At every university, the ISS has regular and free seminars where international students can learn about the application process.

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03 June 2016


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