There is a difference between volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship.
Volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without remuneration or any other type of compensation. So for example, it would be OK to tutor in East Palo, or donate time with the American Red Cross. F-1 students are free to engage in volunteer work as long as it meets the above criteria.
Unpaid internships, on the other hand, do not usually qualify as “volunteer” work. Internships, both paid and unpaid, are primarily offered by the private sector and related to the intern’s major field of study. The U.S. Department of Labor has guidelines for those seeking an unpaid internship.
Six criteria for an unpaid internship must be met:
Additional requirements apply to F-1 and J-1 students:
We recommend that if you are engaging in an unpaid internship off -campus that you consider using Curricular Practical Training, Pre-Completion Optional Practical Training, or Academic Training (J-1 students).
Please ensure that your prospective supervisor is aware of these federal regulations and that you have assurances (preferably written) to that effect before you accept the position. We also recommend that F-1 students who do engage in unpaid internships have a letter from their academic advisor confirming that the internship is in the major field of study, and a letter from the employer confirming that there was no remuneration or any other type of compensation provided in any form during the (aforementioned) dates the student was participating in the internship.
Bechtel International Center recommends that F-1 and J-1 students seeking to engage in an unpaid internship attend one of the employment sessions to discuss the appropriateness, consequences and responsibilities of this internship. Students may also contact email@example.com with specific questions relating to unpaid internships.