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Volunteering and Unpaid Internships

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.

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.

IMPORTANT

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:

  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.

Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act

Frequently Asked Questions

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.

IMPORTANT

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.