Unpaid Internships and Volunteering
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.
According to U.S. labor law, unpaid internships are:
- structured in a particular way to be of benefit to the intern and not necessarily to the provider
- unpaid for everyone, regardless of immigration status or employment eligibility
- not able to be compensated retroactively
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:
- it is clearly understood by both intern and employer that there is no expectation of compensation
- the internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
- the internship is tied to the intern's educational program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit
- the internship corresponds to the academic calendar to accommodate the intern's academic commitments
- the internship's duration is limited to the period in which it provides the intern with beneficial learning
- the intern's work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees, while providing significant educational benefit
- it is understood that there is no entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship
You and your internship provider must also comply with these additional 5 requirements of the New York State Department of Labor.
- Any clinical training is performed under the supervision and direction of people who are knowledgeable and experienced in the activity.
- The trainees or students do not receive employee benefits.
- The training is general, and qualifies trainees or students to work in any similar business. It is not designed specifically for a job with the employer that offers the program.
- The screening process for the internship program is not the same as for employment, and does not appear to be for that purpose. The screening only uses criteria relevant for admission to an independent educational program.
- Advertisements, postings, or solicitations for the program clearly discuss education or training, rather than employment, although employers may indicate that qualified graduates may be considered for employment.
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:
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.