Skip to main content

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.

How can I tell if I'm a volunteer?

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

  • The volunteer can't displace a genuine employee.

  • The services provided by the volunteer are not the same services for which he or she was previously paid and/or may be hired to perform for pay in the future.
  • Services are performed for a nonprofit organization for public service or a religious or humanitarian objective.

What if I'm offered an unpaid internship?

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

If eligible, F-1 students offered unpaid internships should consider applying for work authorization (for example, 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 might be considered employment. We encourage you 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 urge you to speak with an attorney specializing in U.S. labor law.

Next Up: Avoiding Scams