As international students, navigating the complexities of the U.S. immigration system can be overwhelming. With various terms and oh so many acronyms, it’s crucial to understand their meanings and implications to ensure a smooth and successful academic journey in the U.S., so we created this helpful guide that help anyone having trouble understanding U.S. immigration for international students.


Our firm was founded by Fiona McEntee who came her as an international student before she started McEntee Law Group in 2009. As a former international student, Fiona understands how daunting and sometimes scary the immigration process can be and we work every day to help people just like you. In this blog post, we will explain some of the commonly used immigration terms related to international students, including F-1 visas, OPT, CPT, and more.


F-1 Visa

The F-1 visa is the visa used most often by international students. The F-1 visa stamp – when approved – is a stamp that is put into your passport, and it lets you come to the U.S. specifically for the purpose of pursuing your education.


To get an F-1 visa, you need to be accepted into a U.S. educational institution that is approved by the U.S. government to host international students. This could be a university, college, or any other educational institution that meets the requirements.


Once you’re accepted into a school, they’ll issue you a document called Form I-20. After you receive your I-20, you will generally need to schedule an interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. During the interview, you’ll need to provide some documents, such as your passport, financial documents, and proof of your ties to your home country (to show that you intend to return after completing your studies).


If your application is approved, the Embassy or Consulate will keep your passport, print the F-1 visa stamp in your passport, and send it back to you. Congrats would be in order because this means you can start making preparations to travel to the U.S.!


M-1 Visa

The M-1 visa is the visa category designed for international students who wish to pursue vocational or non-academic studies. It is specifically intended for individuals who plan to enroll in technical or vocational programs that are not primarily academic in nature. Examples of M-1 programs include cooking classes, technical courses, mechanical classes, flight school etc.



This is an important piece of paper that you’ll need to apply for the F-1 visa. It’s a document issued by the school or university to international students who have been admitted. It’s like an invitation letter that confirms a student’s acceptance and provides information about the program of study and information to show that that you have enough financial resources to cover your tuition and living expenses while studying in the U.S.


Full Course Load of Study

A full course load for F-1 students typically refers to the minimum number of credits or courses required to maintain full-time student status, as required by law.


The specific requirements may vary slightly between institutions, so it’s important to consult with your designated school official (DSO) or international student advisor for precise details.


For most undergraduate level programs, a full course load is typically 12 credit hours per semester but, again, this may vary based on the school, program, and semester. And for graduate-level students, a full course load varies based on the school/program. It’s crucial to consult your international student advisor or designated school official (DSO) for information specific to your program.


International Student Advisor or Designated School Official (DSO)

The International Student Advisor or Designated School Official (DSO) is a person at a university or college who provides guidance and support to F-1 students throughout their academic journey in the United States.


They are responsible for things like immigration compliance, Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) reporting to maintain accurate records of F-1 students and their activities, regulatory compliance, and advising and supporting international students.


SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System)

SEVIS, or the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, is a web-based system used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to track and monitor the immigration status of international students and exchange visitors in the United States.


SEVIS is used to maintain records of international students’ personal and academic information, such as their enrollment status, employment authorization, and changes in their immigration status. It is also used by schools, DSOs, and U.S. government agencies to communicate and share information related to international students’ immigration status.



CPT (Curricular Practical Training)

CPT, or Curricular Practical Training, is a program that allows F-1 visa holders to engage in paid or unpaid employment as part of their academic curriculum.


CPT is typically used for internships, cooperative education programs, or other types of work experiences that are required by the academic program or directly related to the field of study. Unlike Optional Practical Training (OPT), CPT is authorized by the DSO at the student’s school and does not require approval from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services.


If you’re an international student who wants to work for an employer – or maybe even your own startup – you should explore how you can maximize your student-related work authorization like CPT.


Think of CPT like an internship (paid or unpaid) that you can do while you’re a student/during your course of study. Schools have different policies when it comes to approving CPT, so it’s best to contact your specific school for their CPT guidelines.


A lot of schools require the student to have been enrolled for a year before they will approve CPT, and others will approve it beforehand if certain conditions are met (e.g., the degree program requires immediate internship/participation in CPT).



OPT (Optional Practical Training)

OPT, or Optional Practical Training, is a program that allows eligible F-1 visa holders to work in the United States for a specified period of time.


OPT comes in a few forms:

  1. Pre-completion OPT
  2. Post-completion OPT
  3. STEM OPT Extension


STEM OPT extension aside, students are eligible for up to 12 months of OPT initially at each degree level (e.g., bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral), and this can be used either pre- or post-completion of the degree.


Pre-Completion OPT

This is employment authorization (part-time or full-time) that is issued to a student pre-graduation.


As with CPT, policies for pre-completion OPT can vary depending on the school/course/time of year. It’s best to discuss these policies with your school, so you’re aware of the specific parameters that would apply to you.


It is very important to know that any time used in pre-completion OPT is deducted from post-completion OPT time. For this reason, in our experience, pre-completion OPT is rarely used because students typically want to save their OPT to use after they graduate, and instead, they try to use CPT while they are enrolled in school.


Post-completion OPT

Post-completion OPT must be used directly following program completion and may not be “saved” to be used at a later time. As with CPT and pre-completion OPT, any work done on post-completion OPT must be related to the student’s degree.


To apply for OPT, the student must get an updated I-20 from the school and then use that to for apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) with the USCIS.


Post-completion OPT allows for a lot of flexibility and students may:

  • Be paid or unpaid on OPT (however, unpaid work may violate labor
  • laws, so this needs to be explored separately).
  • Work full or part-time (part-time must be at least 20 hours per week).
  • Work for multiple employers, but all work must be related to your degree.
  • Work as an employee or as an independent contractor, assuming appropriate from an employment law standpoint.
  • Work for your own startup.


STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) OPT Extension

STEM OPT Extension only applies to students who have earned a degree in certain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The complete OPT STEM extension list is located here and this includes 22 new STEM OPT fields that were added by the Biden Administration in January 2022.


Students with degrees on the STEM extension list may apply for a 24-month extension of their post-completion OPT employment authorization, and this added 2 years of work authorization can be extremely beneficial to all, especially those working in a high-potential startup.


To be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, any employer the student wants to work with must be enrolled in E-Verify. They must also complete and submit an I-983 training plan to the international students’ office that confirms they will provide compensation to the STEM OPT student commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers, and that they have the resources to comply with the training plan.

a picture of an Amazon review of Fiona's eBook on a black background underneath a picture of the book cover

Our founding partner Fiona McEntee, J.D. has written an eBook that goes into more detail about CPT, OPT, and frequently asked questions from international students. It’s available to download on the Kindle app now




In conclusion, understanding the various immigration terms and programs available to international students in the U.S. is crucial for a successful academic journey and to remain compliant with immigration laws.


The U.S. immigration system can be unforgiving, and we hope that information like this enables you to be you make informed decisions during your time in the U.S.


If you’d like to book a consultation with one of our experienced international student immigration attorneys, you can email us at, call 773-828-9544, or click HERE to book your consultation directly online.


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