F-1 and J-1 Student Volunteering and Unpaid Internships

Volunteering and Unpaid Internship

There is a difference between volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship.

Volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without remuneration or any other type of compensation.  For example, it would be acceptable to read at the Bowling Green library to grade school students, or donate time with the American Red Cross. Volunteering should not exceed 20 hours a week during academic term time.  F-1 students are free to engage in volunteer work as long as it meets the above criteria.

Unpaid internships, on the other hand, do not usually qualify as “volunteer” work. Internships, both paid and unpaid, are primarily offered by the private sector and related to the intern’s major field of study. The U.S. Department of Labor has guidelines for those seeking an unpaid internship:   http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm

Six criteria for an unpaid internship must be met:

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation on 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

Additional requirements apply to F-1and J-1 students

  • The internship has to be in the declared major field of study 
  • The internship cannot be for more than 20 hours a week during term time (those students with a 50% assistantship will not be eligible for the internship opportunity)
  • Any remuneration or any other type of compensation at all requires F-1 students to receive either Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT) work authorization and J-1 students must 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 later

Please ensure that your prospective supervisor is aware of these federal regulations. For more information and to apply for Curricular Practical Training, visit the CPT webpage.