New PT Graduates need a Master’s Degree to Immigrate

Our firm represents medical service facilities and healthcare professionals throughout the US. This includes physical therapists (PTs) who are either immigrating or coming to work in the US on a temporary basis. A new question that is being asked by PTs is, “Why am I not getting my Visa Screen Certificate? I’ve been told I need a master’s degree.”

Not all PTs will need a master’s degree. In order to understand who will need a master’s degree, one must understand the criteria applied by the two credentialing bodies. The Visa Screen Certificate is the trademark name of the immigration certification issued by the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS). This certification is needed before a working visa can be issued to healthcare workers. CGFNS can issue immigration certification not only for RNs but also for PTs, occupational therapists, medical technologists and speech language pathologists.

One of the purposes of the Visa Screen is to confirm that foreign-educated PT’s have a substantially equivalent education to that of an accredited US degree in physical therapy. The CGFNS professional standards committee developed the educational standard based on whom the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education’s (CAPTE) would accredit. CAPTE stopped accrediting bachelor’s degree programs in the United States as of January 1, 2003. Therefore, accredited US degrees in physical therapy are now only offered at the masters level.

As a consequence, when CGFNS evaluates the education of a PT, it will first look at what year the education was completed. If it was completed prior to January 1, 2003, the applicant must have the equivalent of a B.S. in Physical Therapy. Post 2003 graduates will have to show they have the equivalent of a Master’s degree.

The Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy (FCCPT) is an alternative credentialing body for the PT immigration certificate. FCCPT uses a Coursework Evaluation Tool (CET) established by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy that has been studied and determined to be a reliable, valid tool. The CET has also been validated against the CAPTE criteria.

The CET consists of a course-by-course evaluation to ensure the minimum credits in particular subjects are earned. It is therefore possible that PTs with bachelor’s degrees may be found to have a substantially equivalent education based on their extensive course work. Not all PTs with bachelor’s degrees will meet the CET requirements. The CET draws no distinction as to when the degree was earned. This means if a PT applicant received a B.S. prior to 2003, but does not have the requisite courses on the CET, no certification will be issued.

Recent and upcoming PT graduates can visit the FCCPT website and obtain a copy of the coursework checklist. This is a powerful resource that can help current PT students in bachelor’s programs to wisely select courses and electives. For many other PTs, there will be no other alternative than to return to school and obtain the missing classes. For most, this means completing a master’s program.

PTs who intend to immigrate should carefully review their education against the different standards. In some states, only an FCCPT credential evaluation will be accepted for licensure, limiting with whom the PT’s may apply. A career in physical therapy in the US can be a rewarding one. PTs must be realistic and understand the requirements needed to pursue this career in the US.