What is an I-20?
A Form I-20 is an official document that is issued by your university and attached to multiple entities, namely, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). This document contains supporting information that is relative to all these entities so that you can obtain something called a VISA and so that they can track your duration of stay and make sure you are eligible to be in the United States.
The most important pieces of information on your I-20 are: your SEVIS number (which is reported to SEVIS and USCIS when the university generates your I-20), your university, the university number, the degree granting program, and the duration of the program along with the projected costs of the program for a year.
The United States consulate/embassy in your home country uses this document to make a decision on whether you can be granted entry into the United States, on the basis of your academic credentials and your financial status as outlined in the I-20, and which are justified and proven by the financial documents you furnish at the in-person Visa Interview .
Why is the duration mentioned on the I-20 so important? This is because your degree granting program is generally governed by something called a Statute of Limitations, which specifies a time frame in which you are supposed to complete your program and obtain your degree. For most masters I-20s that I have seen, it is thirty-six (36) months or three (3) years, and for most PhD programs or doctoral I-20s, it is seven (7) years. If you are not able to finish your program in this time-frame, your graduate program director needs to request an extension to the Statute of Limitations justifying the extension and why you need more time. One this is done, the graduate dean signs off on this and USCIS and the other agencies are notified by the issuing of a renewed I-20 through the SEVIS.
What is a Visa?
A visa is a document that grants you entry into a particular country subject to approval by the immigration officials at the port of entry of that country. There are multiple visa types, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will consider just F-1s, J-1s and H-1Bs and their dependent visa types. So getting back to our discussion on US visas, a visa tells the USCIS (United States Customs and Immigration Service) Officers at your port of entry (the first city in the United States where you land) if you are cleared to enter this country and till when you can re-enter the US after exiting it. The validity duration on your visa is for re-entry only. It does not have any bearing on how long you can stay in the country, if you can work or not or anything else. Can you enter? Yes or no – this is what the letter “M” indicates, if printed on your visa. That letter “M” indicates that your visa is a “multiple-entry” visa, one that allows you to exit and re-enter the US at will, as long as the end date printed on your visa sticker hasn’t passed. And if you can enter, can you come back if you leave the country? Yes or no – if your visa doesn’t have the letter “M” printed, but has an “S” instead, that means you have been issued a “single-entry” visa. If you have been issued a “single-entry” visa, you would need to pay the visa processing fee again, reappear for the Visa Interview at a consulate/embassy outside the US and get the visa re-stamped, every time you exit the US. These are the only purposes that a Visa serves, as far as you need to be concerned with at this stage. For USCIS, ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, a sub-agency of the USCIS) and DHS (Department of Homeland Security – the sub-agency of the USCIS tasked with ensuring that internationals like you and me aren’t overstaying in the US beyond their validity period of legal status in the US), it gives them a whole lot of information as to who supported or sponsored the visa (sponsored, in case of a company that filed for your H-1B petition, or supported, in case of your university, in case you’re a full-time international student on an F-1 visa), whether you are permitted to work and eventually, your visa control number if linked back to your status with USCIS through a ton of other documents, like your Form I-20 (the document that officially signifies an “admit” or your acceptance into a program offered by a US university).
An F-1 visa is issued in the university’s name to a student who is supposed to be registering for a full-time program of study at a university (typically nine credits every semester), at a particular level of study (which can be Bachelors, Masters or Doctoral).
A J-1 visa is issued to someone who is coming into the United States on an exchange visitor program for a short duration of time (there are loopholes or other things which we will not deal with here).
A H-1B (for the most part is a work permit, but it can also refer to the visa used to enter the US to work for an employer temporarily) is issued to someone who is in the United States already (or in the case of an H-1B visa, desirous of entering the United States) for the purpose of being eligible to work for a particular company as a non-resident alien. More details about the H-1B and H-1B approval process is given in the 2nd part of this post.
What is CPT?
Curricular Practical Training or CPT, as the name suggests, is a method for the student to add some valuable industry experience to the program that he/she is attending. It is intended to give the student some hands-on, real world experience in addition to what they have learnt in the classroom and open them up to how things work in the real world.
What you should not get confused with (and normally students do) is the usage of the terms internship and co-op. It is a misconception that an internship is associated with a CPT and co-op with an OPT. This is incorrect.
Internship-related information that is common for people who start their MS in the Fall and in the Spring:
You can intern in a company, in a position related to your field of study and your degree program, after you have completed 9 months of stay as a full-time student in the US. However, in order to get an internship at that time, many companies require that you should be coming back to school for at least another semester, that you’ve got to go back to school after the period of the internship finishes. Some don’t, and those companies would generally allow you to intern (or co-op), during your final semester too, on a part-time basis. For an explanation of how a co-op is different from an internship, keep reading below.
In what respect are getting internships different for people who start in Spring, different from those who start their MS in Fall?
Getting an internship after your 3rd sem (assuming that you have started your MS in the Spring) might be a bit tricky because you’ll be competing not only with your fellow Spring batchmates, but also people who’ve come during the Fall semester after you. That makes for a huge number, and while ideally there should be no preference of one over the other, Fall folks might be preferred at some places because they’re going to be longer in school than you, and hence some companies might prefer taking them on after an summer internship as a co-op, rather than having to hire them immediately in a full-time role.