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F-1 students can gain experience off-campus through volunteering or as an unpaid intern only when there is no compensation of any kind and the position doesn’t violate any U.S. or state labor laws.
American labor laws protect workers from working without pay except in certain specific and defined situations. It is important to understand that workers cannot give away their right to receive pay. If the work being done benefits the company and is work that someone would normally be paid for, then that work most likely does not qualify to be considered an unpaid internship or volunteer work.
An international student who works at an unpaid internship or volunteer opportunity which is later found to not properly be unpaid work will have violated status.
When considering volunteering or doing an unpaid internship, international students should be very careful to make sure that the internship really meets all seven of the criteria established by the U.S. Department of Labor:
Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act
Do I need work authorization to accept an unpaid internship or volunteer position?
You are not required to obtain OPT or CPT work authorization to engage in a legitimate unpaid internship or volunteer position.
Before doing any work, you should ask what paperwork the organization requires from you to start your unpaid internship. If they want you to complete an I-9 Employment Authorization Verification form, it means they consider it to be an employment relationship requiring authorization even if you are not being paid.
Can the Arizona State University International Students and Scholars Center give me a letter of permission to do an unpaid internship?
No. We only authorize paid employment for students. We are not authorized to vet unpaid internships for compliance or to give permission.
Can the Arizona State University International Students and Scholars Center give me a Social Security Letter based on my unpaid internship?
No. We can only provide social security letters for authorized paid employment opportunities.
How can I later prove that my position was a legitimate unpaid internship or volunteer position?
You should get documentation from the organization where you are engaging in the unpaid internship or volunteer activity explaining the nature and terms of your work, and keep this with your other immigration records.