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Volunteering, Employment, and Unpaid Internships

While the term “volunteer” is often used to refer to unpaid work generally, it represents a complex area in which immigration regulations and labor laws intersect. If you are interested in volunteering or participating in an unpaid internship*, you must be aware of the relevant regulations in order to maintain your F-1or J-1 status.

*We are using the term “internship” to refer to all unpaid experiences offered by for-profit organizations, such as “externship”, “micro-internship”, and “employer project”.

If you are an international student in F-1 or J-1 status, please remember that any off-campus employment for F-1 or J-1 students must be authorized! Without proper work authorization, off-campus employment would be considered a violation of your status. The consequences may include loss of valid immigration status in the U.S. and great difficulty in reacquiring lawful status in the future.

Definitions: Volunteer vs. Employee

According to the Department of Labor, volunteers are individuals who “donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public services, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without expectation of pay”. Additionally, the Department of Labor specifies that such services can only be provided to “religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations”. Based on this definition, it is not possible to volunteer for a private sector, for-profit organization.

While there is a highly specific definition of what constitutes volunteerism, employment is not so easily defined. Employment can be understood to be any activity in which an individual works or performs a service in exchange for wages or other remuneration. Please note that the term “remuneration” is quite broad and includes a variety of non-monetary benefits, such as free housing, food, gifts, etc.

Please note that it is never legal to “volunteer” (work without pay) for a normally paid position (work that people are typically paid to do), as this would constitute an unfair labor arrangement.

How to determine if an opportunity would be considered volunteerism (when work authorization is not required):

To meet the Department of Labor’s definition of volunteerism (and thus not require CPT or any other work authorization), the work performed by the individual must meet the following criteria (this list is not exhaustive):

  • No compensation or expectation of compensation or personal benefit.
  • The volunteer cannot displace regular employees and cannot provide a service that people are typically paid to do.
  • 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.
  • Services are performed for a non-profit organization for public service, religious or humanitarian objective (i.e. it is not possible to be considered a volunteer at a for-profit organization)
  • The services must be offered freely and without pressure or coercion.
  • The services must be done on a part-time basis.

Volunteering and Unpaid Internships – is it the same?

As explained above, volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without remuneration or any other type of compensation. F-1 and J-1 students are free to engage in volunteer work as long as it meets the above criteria. For example, it would be okay to volunteer at a local homeless shelter, charitable food pantry, or American Red Cross.

Unpaid internships, on the other hand, do not usually qualify as “volunteer” activity. Internships, both paid and unpaid, are primarily offered by the private sector and usually related to the intern’s major field of study.

For more detailed information about unpaid internships, please reference the Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71 titled “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act”.

Do F-1 students need CPT authorization to participate in unpaid internship?

CPT authorization is strongly recommended for all unpaid internships, whether the student does or does not need to provide employment authorization documents to the employer. The F-1 regulations are written in such a way that CPT is an authorization to do practical training as part of the curriculum for the academic program, and as such is significant in more ways than simply for the employer to verify employment eligibility. CPT authorization is more than just permission to get paid.

You must have CPT authorization for unpaid internships for the following reasons: 

  • CPT authorization by the university serves to demonstrate that this practical experience is part of the curriculum.
  • CPT authorization is a way of reporting in SEVIS your activity, employment, and location where you are working and therefore maintaining your status.
  • If the unpaid internship at some point changes into a paid one (or if your employer decides to compensate you for your work in any way – for example, give you a monetary gift), you won’t be able to accept the payment if your internship/externship was not authorized as CPT. Please keep in mind that F-1 students cannot be retroactively remunerated or in any way compensated for work done in an unpaid internship/externship if they did not obtain work authorization prior to when the work was performed.
  • The government has been known to question students’ work authorization when they are in the process of applying for an immigration benefit (e.g., STEM OPT Extension, H-1B employment visa, US permanent residency, etc.). If your unpaid activity is questioned by the government, your practical training authorization (such as CPT) will protect your legal status and future benefit eligibility.

Based on the above, if you have an internship offer (paid or unpaid) that meets CPT eligibility criteria, you must apply for CPT authorization.

If you have any questions or doubt about your activities, please contact us so we can help.