Whether an F-1 student requires work authorization is not governed by whether the student is paid. An F-1 student needs work authorization even for unpaid work. Therefore, an F-1 student should obtain either CPT or OPT work authorization to engage in unpaid work.
Only if the work is properly "volunteer" unpaid work under the Department of Labor rules can an F-1 student perform work without work authorization. To be eligible to gain experience without work authorization there may be no compensation of any kind, which could include meals, transportation, etc. and the position may not violate any U.S. or state labor laws.
Volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, and doing so without compensation of any kind.
Some examples of true volunteer work that would not need work authorization include helping serve food at a homeless shelter, cleaning out cages at an animal shelter, sorting food at a food pantry, and handing out water at a marathon.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
- The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
- The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
- 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.
- 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