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What is Volunteering? What is an Unpaid Internship?

Many students and scholars and their dependents may want to volunteer for different organizations while in the US. Volunteer experiences can be enriching and worthwhile additions to the experience of living in the US.

However, "volunteering" involves a number of complex issues. In particular, an activity is NOT automatically considered volunteering just because it is unpaid. While volunteers are by definition not paid for their time, not every unpaid activity is considered volunteering. Read through the information below to make the right choices about volunteering while in the US.

Volunteering: Examples and Definitions

The US Department of Labor defines volunteers as individuals who voluntarily donate their time, usually on a part-time and casual basis, to non-profit organizations, and for public service, charitable, or humanitarian reasons. In addition, the donation of time should be made without any expectation of compensation or remuneration. Some examples of volunteering include the following:

  • Helping out on weekends at a local animal shelter
  • Reading books to children at a local library
  • Visiting patients at a hospital
  • Assisting with a charity or non-profit athletics event, such helping with registration at a local sports event such as a marathon
  • Providing assistance to a relief or community organization such as Habitat for Humanity or the American Red Cross

In contrast, activities that are normally compensated, typically carried out by employees, or conducted for the benefit of a for-profit entity are likely employment activities that require employment authorization. In brief, it is not permissible to 'volunteer' in a position where the individual would ordinarily be paid. Volunteers cannot be used to displace or replace paid employees or receive any remuneration. Note that remuneration is not only paid wages (salary), but can also include non-cash benefits such as free housing, free food, etc.

Any student or scholar or dependent who wants to volunteer for a local charitable, humanitarian, religious or non-profit organization may do so without getting authorization from the International Center. However, if an activity is genuinely voluntary, immigration authorization or written approval from the International Center is not needed and will not be issued.

Unpaid Internships Versus Volunteering

Students may ask if an internship can count as volunteering if the internship is unpaid. The fact that an activity is unpaid does not mean it is necessarily volunteering. Internships are different from volunteering in that they can be paid or unpaid and are designed to be structured learning and professional development opportunities related to a student's major field of study. Volunteering, however, is typically casual and performed for non-profit charitable, humanitarian, and religious organizations.

The US Department of Labor has set out a seven-point 'primary beneficiary' test to determine whether or not an unpaid internship is permissible when a student is engaged in an internship for a for-profit entity. This test is used to determine whether or not an unpaid intern is actually an employee who should be compensated (paid):

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee - and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Depending on the individual situation, the internship experience may qualify as an unpaid internship or may be considered employment. In either case, the International Center's policy is to require students to obtain curricular practical training or an alternative form of employment authorization even if the internship is a legitimate, unpaid internship. This is because curricular practical training ensures that the internship activity is properly reported and integrated into the student's immigration record as a formal part of their educational curriculum, and ensures the student is properly protected in case the internship is later open to compensation. Many internship providers may also require curricular practical training to demonstrate that the student's internship experience satisfies the Department of Labor's 'primary beneficiary test' and that they are not in violation of US labor laws.