Unpaid Employment


Volunteering at a local non-profit organization is generally allowed under student and dependent visas. Examples of local volunteer opportunities may include serving food at a soup kitchen, teaching a Sunday School class at a church, or walking dogs at an animal shelter.  It is important to ensure that the work is always done by volunteers, and that the organization does not pay anyone else for performing the exact same work.

Other Unpaid Opportunities

Before agreeing to do an unpaid internship or other unpaid work beyond the scope described above, it is very important to understand the laws that determine what kind of jobs can legally be unpaid. The following excerpt is taken from an article on this subject published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE):

What are the legal issues surrounding international students and unpaid internships?

  • If an internship is properly "unpaid" within the DOL rules, then it is not "employment" and therefore does not require a foreign student to be "employment authorized," i.e., F-1 Optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT); or J-1 Academic Training.
  • If, on the other hand, an unpaid internship should be a paid internship under DOL rules, then the student must be "employment authorized" in order to undertake the internship. If the student undertakes such an internship without using proper authorization, e.g., CPT, OPT, then the student will violate status because the student has engaged in unauthorized employment.

The DOL Wage and Hour Division has established a six-factor test for determining whether work is legitimately volunteer training (for which no pay or work authorization is required) or whether it is employment (for which pay and work authorization is required).

If all six of the following criteria apply, the trainees are not employees within the meaning of the FLSA, and are properly classified as unpaid volunteers for which no "employment authorization" is required:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the employer's facilities, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Source: NACEWEB.org 

For this reason, ISSA recommends that students consider applying for CPT (F-1 students) or Academic Training (J-1 students) to cover unpaid work. If you do not qualify for these types of work authorization, please discuss this concern with your employer or an employment advisor before accepting the work. ISSA is not able to evaluate job offers to determine whether they are appropriately classified as unpaid.