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.


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: Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act

When considering doing an unpaid internship, see if it meets the criteria below:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of 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.


  • You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in bona fide (legitimate) volunteer activities or unpaid internships which passed the seven factors 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 7-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.

Last updated: February 2018

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