Are you planning to come to U.S.A. for studies ? Or have you just shifted to U.S.A. for studies? Then how well aware are you about F-1, I-20, CPT, OPT, SSN, EAD and I-94 ? Do you know what is DHS, USCIS, SEVIS, CBP ? Each and every international student must know about these in details because these are the documents that authenticate your presence in this foreign country. Lets tackle each one by one.
It is no new thing that if you are not an U.S. citizen and you want to study in any university in U.S.A. then you must have an F-1 visa. It is a non-immigrant student visa issues by U.S. embassy or consulates in your country. There are lots of restrictions when it comes to working with this visa. But before that, what you must know or should take care of is –
- you must ensure that your passport is valid six months in future.
- You can not arrive in U.S.A. with F-1 visa more than 30 days before your first class in your university.
- And lastly, you must maintain your student status in order to keep your visa valid. What does this mean is you must enroll to minimum required course load and complete minimum required course units in a semester and must score GPA of 3 or above. For me, I had to complete minimum 9 units in a semester (except Summer semester) to maintain my student status.
This document again is what everyone’s well aware of. Whenever your application gets accepted by any university, they provide you with an I-20. I-20 is known as a certificate of eligibility for non-immigrant students. Why you need an I-20? Well, this is the document that tracks your record under Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). It is needed to pay your I-901 SEVIS fees. When you pay these fees that means you have accepted the corresponding university. And this fee receipt and your I-20, you need these for your Visa interview.
Current I-20 format contains three pages. First page has your SEVIS ID, your information, your school information, your course information/ program of study and your fee structure. You must (must!) sign the first page, under student attestation, as soon as you receive your I-20. You must ensure that the school attestation is signed by your school official. This page normally remains the same.
The second page is just information page.
Third page is what keeps changing. This page contains your employment authorizations details (company name, start date, end date etc.) and its history (CPT, OPT). Also, this is the page of travel endorsement. Whenever you are planning to travel outside the country during your F-1 status, if you want to enter the country again without any trouble, you must get signature from school official under this section before your travel. You may get more than one I-20 during your studies. Every time you do internship or full time, you get new I-20. You must not loose any I-20 as they are required for H1 visa processing and EAD (which we will see later).
Before we go to CPT and OPT, lets see first what is SSN. It stands for Social Security Number and it is again a well heard terminology. Whenever you will start working, be it on-campus or off-campus (internship or full-time), you have to get your SSN first. This is a 9 digit number assigned by U.S. government to track individuals for social security purposes. It is your identity. As we are not residents, our SSN mentions “VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION” on it. DHS – Department of Homeland Security. You must by-heart this number and never reveal this number to anyone, not your friend, not your relatives, no one. Identity theft! Your credit history is tracked with this number. Whenever you want to open a bank account or apply for a credit car, for loan, buying car, renting house, you need this number all the time. You better be very careful about this number.
Now the obvious ones are out of our way, lets get into the stuff that really matters. CPT and OPT. I will be honest, although I knew that there’s something called CPT and OPT and we can do internship while studying, my knowledge was that much before I came here and went through it all. And I think that was a mistake. You must know about these things and you should be considering these aspects while choosing your university. Most universities allow full time internships in summer, some (not all) allow part-time internships in spring and fall semester, some universities allow co-ops. You must know which university offers what and what suits you best.
So, lets start with CPT. It stands for Curriculum Practical Training. What this means is, since you are on F-1 visa, you are not allowed to work here. But, if you find an internship which will provide you some practical training related to your area of study then you can ask your university for permission to pursue that internship. You have to give valid reasons as to how and why working with that internship will add up value to your graduate studies. If your university accepts your request, they will allow you a CPT. That means they will make note of your work (training) under your SEVIS record, which intern means you will get a new I-20. And second page of your I-20 will be updated with details of your employer. In my university, we were asked to submit a CPT report in last week of each internship, where we had to explain the project we completed, what we learnt and how that helped in our studies.
Now some rules –
- You can start your first CPT after completing 12 months in U.S.A. not before that.
- CPT period generally is around 12 weeks.
- In case if your company extends your internship, you must apply for new CPT, and wait until you receive your new updated I-20. It is not advised to work after your CPT ends.
- If your university allows, you can do full time internship for 12 months, but at the cost of OPT. If you do 12 months of full time internship on CPT, then your OPT laps, you no longer eligible for OPT.
For master’s studies, generally people do one full time internship during summer, and then two part time internships during spring and fall semesters or do co-ops.
Full time internship: 20-40 hours per week.
Part time internship: up to 20 hours per week.
Co-op: Cooperative Education, where you can alternate your semester of study with full time employment. (Click here to know more about co-op)
Each can be paid or unpaid.
OPT, Optional Practical Training, comes in picture after you graduate. Once you graduate you are no longer a student. So, technically your visa period has ended and you must go back to your country. Unless, you decide to do an optional training with a full-time employment in United States. What this means is, you are allowed to get the full-time work experience for one year on your student visa. Now there are lots of restrictions on this. OPT period is strictly 12 months. You have to apply for OPT in your last semester and when your OPT is accepted, your university gives you a new I-20 (remember the SEVIS record update?). Your work domain must be related to your area of study.
This is clear and simple, but now what is pre-OPT and what is STEM extension? Some students finish their course load early and if you are one of such and you have only one course in last semester, you can start working full-time on your OPT before your graduation. This is nothing but pre-OPT. But as soon as you start full-time work, your 12 months period starts clicking. It is better to start your OPT as late as possible to get the maximum time advantage for H1-B lottery process. You can opt for pre-OPT if you are confident about your visa status.
Now to the STEM extension. If your study domain falls in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, you get 24 months extension of your OPT (as of 2017). Wohoo! So basically STEM students can work on OPT for 36 months. If you want to continue working here for more than this period, you must acquire H1-B visa during this three years time.
And to work full-time you need an EAD card along with your OPT. so to the next point.
When you decide to opt for OPT and start full-time work experience after graduation, SEVIS is not the only department where your record needs to be tracked. Now your record is tracked by USCIS as well. USCIS – United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. You have to apply to USCIS for an Employee Authorization Document (EAD) and pay fees which are $410 as of now. You can not start working without this document. And you can not start working before the start date mentioned on this document. Moreover, you must renew this along with your OPT, in case you decide to get STEM extension. To get EAD, you have to fill up form I-765 on USCIS website and courier the form to USCIS office with other requested documents.
Last but not the least, this document is the one no one tells you about but is required everywhere all the time. This is your arrival and departure record issued by Customs and Boarder Protection office (CBP) which is a part of DHS. You can download your I-94 from i94.cbp.dhs.gov . You have to give your details, name, birthdate, passport number and then you get your latest I-94. Here you can view your last entry date in the country and your travel history. You need to submit this document to your employer, internship/ co-op and full time, you need this while applying for state id or license.
Phew! A lot to take in. But genuine piece of advice – don’t be ignorant about these seven, never lose them, be very very careful about expiration dates and be prompt to renew whichever required. A small mistake with these may cost you big.
- CBP – Customs and Boarder Protection
CPT – Curriculum Practical Training
DHS – Department of Homeland Security
EAD – Employee Authorization Document
OPT – Optional Practical Training
SEVIS – Student and Exchange Visitor Information System
SSN – Social Security Number
- USCIS – United States Citizenships and Immigration Services
Is it too overwhelming or manageable ? Do you have any questions around these? Do drop me a comment if you are still confused about anything, I will be more than happy to explain at my best.