Volunteering and Unpaid Internships for F-1 International Students

“What is a volunteer?"

“I am not getting paid, so that means I am volunteering and I am ok!”  

While the issue seems to be simple, but it is actually a complex area where immigration regulations and labor laws intersect.  The information below will help you be aware of the relevant regulations so that you do not violate any laws and participate in unauthorized employment.

Volunteering

Only true volunteering, as defined by the U.S. Department of Labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require work authorization.  According to FLSA, volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation for services rendered.

  • The organization you are volunteering at must be a nonprofit organization.
  • As a volunteer, the activities you engage in must be activities normally completed by volunteers and not paid employees (Examples of volunteer activities include serving food at a soup kitchen, walking dogs at an animal shelter, or participating in a beach cleanup day).
  • You do not receive any compensation or payment for your volunteering services, and no expectation exists that you will get a job at this organization at the end of your volunteering. The company cannot bring you on as a so-called volunteer and then decide you are an employee and pay you for work you’ve already done.
  • Many nonprofits have organized volunteer programs.  Participating in such a program is likely to be considered volunteering and not unpaid work.
  • If you volunteer at an organization, be sure to get documentation confirming that you participated in their volunteer program and received no compensation for your volunteering.

Unpaid Internship

Unpaid internship is different from “volunteer” work.  Internships may be paid or unpaid and are designed to provide interns with work experience related to their major field of studies.  The U.S. Department of Labor has specific regulations governing unpaid internships.  When considering doing an unpaid internship, see if it meets these 6 criteria (often refer as “a six-factor test”):

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
     

If you will provide the employer with beneficial service, you are no longer considered an unpaid internship but an employee.  You must obtain work authorization.

Also, unpaid internships should not be used by your employer as a trial period before you receive work authorization.  For example, if you start working while waiting for your work authorization to be approved, you would be considered an “employee” instead of an unpaid intern or volunteer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  This is because both you and your employer have the expectation that you will be hired on a permanent basis as soon as you obtain work authorization.  Under no conditions can you begin working – not even as a volunteer or unpaid intern – before you receive your work authorization.

Summary

  • You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in bona fide (legitimate) volunteer activities or unpaid internships which passed the 6-factor test defined by Department of Labor.
  • If you are considering an unpaid internship, make sure you do your homework. Ask yourself whether the unpaid internship passed the 6-factor test.  Do not accept unpaid internship offers that have unreasonable expectations for your time and amount of work.
  • Unpaid also means uncompensated. For example, if the organization compensates you with stock options, gift cards, travel vouchers, or movie passes in lieu of payment, that is no longer an unpaid internship or volunteering.  You must obtain work authorization.
  • If you are engaging in bona fide volunteer activity, it is advisable to get documentation from the organization explaining the nature of your work. You should keep this with your other immigration records (such as your previous I-20s).
  • Finally, engaging in any employment or internship, whether paid or unpaid, for academic credit or not, without proper work authorization is a serious violation of your F-1 status.

Further Reading

Legal Issues: International Students and Unpaid Internships (April 1, 2016) published by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).