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Volunteers and Unpaid Interns

The consequences of working without authorization in the U.S. are severe and can have a long-term negative impact on your future opportunities. Therefore, when considering a volunteer or unpaid internship activity, it is important to consider whether, in the future, the activity could be considered work.

Any unpaid role could potentially be considered employment for international students and scholars. The Department of Labor's volunteer guidelines can be found on their website. 

 Generally, the following conditions should be true for a volunteer role:

  • 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.
  • Services are performed for a nonprofit organization for public service, religious, or humanitarian objective.

Many international students and scholars have opportunities for unpaid internship positions. Information on how the Department of Labor determines whether an unpaid intern can be considered an employee can be found on the following fact sheet: Internship Programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  

If eligible, F-1 students offered unpaid internships should consider applying for work authorization (e.g., CPT), whether the company offering the internship requires it or not.

The Office of Global Learning cannot provide a legal analysis of whether a particular volunteer or unpaid intern activity would be considered employment. We encourage international students and scholars to be aware and cautious in situations where an unpaid activity could be considered work. If you wish to obtain a legal opinion about whether an activity could be considered employment, we recommend that you speak to an attorney specializing in U.S. labor law.

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