Students in valid F-1 and J-1 status may engage in volunteer activities and unpaid internships, as long as the activity is in compliance with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s and the U.S. Department of Labor’s regulations. The information below will help you understand how to meet those responsibilities. Please contact the Reves Center if you have questions about the appropriateness of any volunteer position or unpaid internship.
Volunteering refers to hours of service performed for an organization for “civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” (U.S. Department of Labor).
Unpaid internship is different from “volunteer” work. Internships may be paid or unpaid and are designed to provide interns with work experience related to their major field of studies. The U.S. Department of Labor has specific regulations governing unpaid internships. When considering doing an unpaid internship, see if it meets these 6 criteria:
The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
The intern does not displace regular employees, but works 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; and
The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Permissible volunteer work:
Providing one-on-one tutoring for an adult learner as part of the Literacy for Life volunteer program.
Engaging in an unpaid internship with a Williamsburg company through the W&M Tribe in Action program. These internships are vetted by the W&M Career Center and meet the Department of Labor criteria for unpaid internship. There are typically several unpaid internships available each semester.
Reves Center Policy
You are not required to obtain work authorization to engage in bona fide (legitimate) volunteer activities or unpaid internships.
If you are engaging in bona fide volunteer activity, it is advisable to get documentation from the organization explaining the nature of your work. You should keep this with your other immigration records (such as your previous I-20s/DS-2019s, etc.).
Remember, unpaid also means uncompensated. For example, if the organization compensates you with free airline tickets in lieu of payment, that is no longer an unpaid internship or volunteering. For that, we advise you to secure the proper work authorization.
Our website has additional information about employment in F-1 or J-1 status.
The Career Center has resources on finding internship opportunities, including this article about unpaid internships.