Unpaid Internships and Volunteering

It may be possible for you to gain experience in your field of study through an unpaid internship or volunteering without needing work permission. This is possible only when there is no compensation of any kind and the position doesn’t violate any U.S. or state labor laws (as detailed below).

Variety of People

Unpaid Internship Overview

According to American labor law, unpaid internships are:

It is natural to think that if you're not getting paid it is not considered employment. Immigration and labor regulations, however, consider employment to be any type of work performed, or services provided, in exchange for money, tuition, fees, books, supplies, lodging, or for any other benefit.

If you are receiving any type of compensation, you must obtain work permission if eligible. Read more on our general employment page.

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Eligibility Requirements

The U.S. Department of Labor considers the following factors in determining whether an intern is the "primary beneficiary" of the intern-employer relationship or is, in fact, an employee and should be paid. Courts will look at the extent to which:

New York State Department of Labor requirements

In addition, you and your internship provider must also comply with these 5 requirements of New York State's Department of Labor:

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A paid internship or one that provides non-monetary compensation requires employment authorization (F-1 Optional Practical Training, F-1 Curricular Practical Training,  or J-1 Academic Training), if eligible.

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Volunteering Overview

Volunteering is a great alternative if you cannot do an internship or paid employment in the U.S..

Volunteering allows you to get involved with the local community, network, utilize skills and learn new ones.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines volunteering as donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is civic, charitable, or humanitarian in nature. Remember, you may not receive payment or any type of compensation.

You cannot offer to volunteer for a position a) which is normally paid or b) for which you will be paid later.

You can learn about legitimate volunteer opportunities through the links below:

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in a legitimate unpaid internship. Ask in advance 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.

The ISSO can authorize Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for both paid and unpaid positions. If the unpaid internship is not CPT-eligible, we are not able to vet unpaid internships for compliance with labor laws and are not authorized by regulation to give permission.

You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in legitimate volunteer activities.

We advise that you get documentation from the organization explaining the nature and terms of your work, and keep this with your other immigration records.