Volunteering and Unpaid Internships for F-1 and J-1 Students Prior to Graduation
You should be aware that volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship are considered different activities. Read the brief descriptions below to ensure you understand any requirements before starting the work.
Volunteering refers to donating your time without remuneration or any other type of compensation to an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian. You can volunteer without restriction with such organizations that meet this criterion (e.g., tutoring under-supported students, supporting the American Red Cross).
Internships are primarily offered by the private sector and are typically related to your major field of study. Unpaid internships do not normally qualify as “volunteer” work.
See Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act for more guidelines on unpaid internships.
An unpaid internship must meet six criteria to qualify as an eligible opportunity:
- The internship must provide training similar to that which would be given in an educational environment (though it can include actual operation on the facilities of the employer).
- The experience provided must be for the benefit of the intern.
- The internship cannot displace regular employees and the work must be under close supervision of existing staff.
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded.
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
As an F-1 or J-1 student, you have these additional requirements:
- The internship has to be in your declared major field of study.
- The internship cannot be for more than 20 hours a week when school is in session.
- You cannot participate in an unpaid internship opportunity if you currently have a 50% assistantship.
- You cannot receive any remuneration or any other type of compensation. (An internship with any compensation requires F-1 students to receive either Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization and J-1 students to apply for Academic Training.
- F-1 students cannot be retroactively remunerated or in any way compensated for work done in an unpaid internship if they subsequently obtain work authorization.
If you are engaging in an off-campus unpaid internship you should be using Curricular Practical Training, Pre-Completion Optional Practical Training, or Academic Training (J-1 students).
You should ensure that your prospective supervisor is aware of related federal regulations and that you have assurances (preferably in writing) to that effect before you accept the position. Bechtel International Center also recommends that F-1 students who 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 dates you were participating in the internship.
Bechtel further recommends that F-1 and J-1 students seeking to engage in an unpaid internship attend one of the employment workshops to discuss the appropriateness, consequences, and responsibilities of this internship. You may also contact firstname.lastname@example.org with specific questions relating to unpaid internships.