We are writing to respond to multiple questions we have received in recent days regarding F-1 student eligibility for curricular practical training (CPT) and post-completion optional practical training (OPT) rules for Summer 2021. Many students are asking whether they would qualify for CPT or OPT next summer if they were to take on-line classes, defer their attendance, or take a leave of absence for the Fall 2020 semester.
The rules concerning OPT and CPT are complicated, and what makes it challenging to advise in the current environment is the fact that schools are still waiting for the US federal government (Department of Homeland Security) to issue its final rules for Fall 2020 and beyond. Until this guidance comes out, there are certain situations that may be less definite than others. Please read through the following information to help you understand your options more clearly.
What are the normal OPT / CPT eligibility requirements?
As a rule, F-1 students must study full-time in a valid student immigration status for at least one academic year (two semesters) before they are eligible for either curricular practical training (CPT) or optional practical training (OPT). The one exception is for students in graduate programs that require first-year academic internships or practicum experience as a degree requirement. Otherwise, students have to complete the full year while in the US before they can engage in CPT or apply for OPT. See our F-1 employment page to access more detailed information about CPT and OPT.
Any F-1 student who is planning to study on-campus on a full-time basis for both Fall 2020 and Spring 2020 would typically be eligible for CPT or OPT by Summer 2021 (keep in mind that CPT is a pre-completion option used for off-campus internships and practicums; most students use OPT for employment after completion of degree requirements).
I am a new student. What happens if I defer (delay) the start of my studies until Spring 2021?
If you are a new student outside the US and you are deferring (delaying) the start of your program until Spring 2021, then you would not qualify for CPT or OPT by Summer 2021. The standard rule requires two semesters of full-time study; if you start in Spring 2021 you would only have finished one semester of full-time study. In addition, this holds true even if you start your program on-line, outside of the country, in Fall 2020. To qualify for practical training, you must have been in valid status for at least one academic year. If you start your program outside the US, you have no valid US visa status at that time - you only get valid status once you enter the US using a student visa.
What happens if I take a leave of absence during Fall 2020?
If you are a continuing student and you take a leave of absence from school during Fall 2020, this means you will be outside the US and will not have an active I-20 or F-1 SEVIS record. (The primary exception is for students on an approved medical leave from their school and an approved medical reduced course load). In such situations, the International Center is required to terminate your I-20 for authorized early withdrawal, causing a break in your status. The termination of your I-20 in this case is a standard procedure for anyone taking a break from studies.
What happens after that will depend on when you are planning to return:
If your leave is one semester only, we may be able to ask the Department of Homeland Security to reactivate your current I-20 for Spring 2021. If they agree to reactivate the I-20, then we will consider you eligible for OPT or CPT for Summer 2021. Reactivation is often decided on a case-by-case basis, but in any case it cannot be done if your leave is more than one semester.
If the Department of Homeland Security does not reactivate your current I-20, or if your leave is more than one semester, you will need to apply to the International Center to apply for a new initial attendance I-20 with a new SEVIS ID number and SEVIS fee (you may use your existing visa as long as it is not expired). You will then need to use the new I-20 (rather than your previous one) to return to the US. After that, you will need to complete the standard two semesters of full-time study before you would be eligible for OPT or CPT. If you are completing your program in less than two semesters after your return, you will not be eligible for OPT / CPT.
We are waiting for updated regulations from the Department of Homeland Security regarding I-20 reactivation rules. We will update our information once those regulations become available. As mentioned, we will attempt to reactivate your I-20 if possible, but the decision is ultimately up to the Department of Homeland Security. We unfortunately cannot offer definite guarantees whether you will be able to come back to the US on a reactivated I-20 or will need a new initial attendance I-20. We can try to reactivate an I-20 up to 60 days before the start of the Spring 2021 semester.
Do I need CPT or OPT to do internships or to work outside the US?
OPT and CPT are types of authorization for students who are engaged in activities while physically present in the US. F-1 requirements do not apply for internships, training, or other employment taking place outside the United States. Therefore, if you plan to do an internship outside the US - or if you plan to leave the US after completing your programs - then you do not need to worry about establishing eligibility for OPT or CPT.
Do I need to be inside the US to apply for CPT or OPT?
CPT applications are processed by the International Center and can be done remotely, although as mentioned above it is generally needed only when you are doing an internship or practicum while inside the US.
However, if you are applying for OPT, you must be physically present in the US in valid F-1 student status when you are ready to submit your application. USCIS instructions indicate that persons must submit their applications for OPT while in the US; as a result, the International Center advises that you plan on being in the US in your final semester, which is when most students apply for OPT. (Students can apply for post-completion OPT as early as 90 days before completing degree requirements, which is usually the last day of the final semester of study.)
How should I get more information?
The OPT / CPT regulations are still in flux because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Please check back with the International Center frequently as guidance will be updated as the rules and regulations change.
Diretor, Tufts International Center