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Unpaid internships and Volunteer Work

Unpaid Internships and Volunteer Work

Got an unpaid internship and wondering if you can do it?  Want to volunteer at a local charity you care about?  Find out if you need authorization and make sure you have the authorization you need.

It is a common misperception that if you are not receiving payment, you are just “volunteering” and not really employed. However, this is a complicated area involving both immigration regulations and employment law. It is your responsibility to be aware of the relevant regulations and laws that pertain to your activities in the United States.

What is "employment"?

Under immigration and employment laws, “employment” generally refers to the relationship where an individual provides services or labor and receives wages or other remuneration for these services. Accepting housing, gifts, meals, or other non-monetary forms of remuneration for your services is generally still “employment.”

What is "volunteering"?

A “volunteer” is “individual who performs hours of service . . . for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” (29 C.F.R. 553.101). Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a person may not volunteer services for for-profit private sector employers. See here for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor regarding volunteering. To be considered a volunteer, the work performed by the individual must meet the following criteria: 

  • No expectation of compensation;
  • The volunteer cannot displace a genuine employee;
  • The services provided by the volunteer should not be the same services for which he or she was previously paid and/or expects to be hired and paid for in the future; and
  • Services are performed for a non-profit organization for public service or religious or humanitarian objectives. See here for more information about what is considered a non-profit organization.

F-1 and J-1 students do not need employment authorization for opportunities that meet the criteria above. For example, helping to serve meals occasionally at a homeless shelter may qualify as volunteering if you are not being paid.

What is an "unpaid internship"?

Unpaid internships are typically not considered “volunteering.” Internships, both paid and unpaid, are primarily offered by the private sector and related to the intern’s major field of study. Whether your position qualifies as an unpaid internship depends on the unique circumstances of your situation and involves an analysis of various factors. For more information, see the U.S. Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act. If you are an enrolled student, you must receive authorization for Curricular Practical Training (F-1) or Academic Training (J-1) to participate in an unpaid internship.

F-1 and J-1 students that wish to engage in off-campus employment (whether paid or unpaid) must first obtain authorization.  Engaging in employment without authorization is a violation of your nonimmigrant status, see 8 C.F.R 214.1(e), which may result in termination of your SEVIS record, your removal from the United States, and/or difficulty in future attempts to get a visa or re-enter the U.S.