Unpaid Internships and Volunteering

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Unpaid Internship Overview

In most situations, you will require some type of employment authorization to gain experience in your field of study. It is understandable that you might think that if you accept work for which you will not get paid it is not considered employment, and therefore does not require authorization. However, this is not correct.

Immigration regulations 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.

Moreover, both the U.S. and New York State have strict criteria regarding what constitutes a legitimate, bona fide unpaid internship and is not in violation of their labor laws.

If you are receiving any type of compensation, or the prospective position does not meet the unpaid internship criteria, you must obtain work permission (CPT, OPT, AT) if eligible. If you have completed your program you will need OPT authorization for both paid and unpaid positions.

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According to U.S. labor law, unpaid internships are:

Departments of Labor Criteria for Unpaid Internships

The U.S. DOL 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:

You and your internship provider must also comply with these additional 5 requirements of the New York State Department of Labor.

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Volunteering Overview

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:

  • which is normally paid, or
  • for which you will be paid later

You can learn about some 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 an unpaid internship that meets all the criteria. 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. If you have completed your program, you need F-1 OPT or J-1 Academic Training authorization for both paid and unpaid positions.

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.

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