Volunteering & Unpaid Internship

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 students be aware of the relevant regulations so that they do not violate any laws and participate in unauthorized employment.

General Information

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 students are volunteering at must be a nonprofit organization.
  • As a volunteer, the activities students 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).
  • Students do not receive any compensation or payment for their volunteering services, and no expectation exists that they will get a job at this organization at the end of their volunteering. The company cannot bring students on as a so-called volunteer and then decide they are an employee and pay them for work they’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 students volunteer at an organization, be sure to get documentation confirming their participation in their volunteer program and receive no compensation for their volunteering.

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.

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

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

  • Students 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 students are considering an unpaid internship, make sure they do their homework. Students must ask themselves whether the unpaid internship passed the 7-factor test.  Do not accept unpaid internship offers that have unreasonable expectations for their time and amount of work.
  • Unpaid also means uncompensated. For example, if the organization compensates students with stock options, gift cards, travel vouchers, or movie passes in lieu of payment, that is no longer an unpaid internship or volunteering.  Students must obtain work authorization.
  • If students are engaging in bona fide volunteer activity, it is advisable to get documentation from the organization explaining the nature of their work. They should keep this with their other immigration records (such as their 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 their F-1 status. 

Last updated: January 2024

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