Complexities of volunteering

If you are interested in volunteering, you must be aware of relevant F-1 regulations so you and the organization do not violate any rules for unauthorized employment. F-1 and J-1 students who are working off-campus must be authorized do so. Without proper authorization, off-campus employment, including some volunteering, would be considered a violation of your F-1 or J-1 requirements. The consequences may include loss of valid immigration status in the U.S.—making it difficult to reacquire lawful status in the future. If you are considering engaging in a volunteering opportunity, please make an appointment with an OGS adviser before making plans to begin any activity. 

Volunteering vs. 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. F-1 and J-1 students are free to engage in volunteer work as long as it meets the above criteria. For example, it would be okay to volunteer at a local homeless shelter, charitable food pantry, or American Red Cross.

Unpaid internships, on the other hand, do not usually qualify as “volunteer” activity. Internships, both paid and unpaid, are primarily offered by the private sector and related to the intern’s major field of study.

The Department of Labor in the U.S. has guidelines for those seeking an unpaid internship, please see here.

The following six criteria must be met for an internship to be considered a legitimate unpaid internship (and not employment below minimum wage, in violation of Department of Labor laws):

  • 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
  • The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

The above criteria are known as the “6 Factor Test.” Please note that ALL 6 criteria must be met for the Department of Labor to consider the internship unpaid and not fall under the definition of “employment.” Factor #4 is particularly hard to meet and basically limits the activities of an intern to mere observations, excluding any contribution to the operations of the company/organization.

If the organization where work takes place is not a non-profit charity or a state/local government agency, all the 6 Factors above must be met for the student to engage in the activity with no special authorization (such as Curricular Practical Training/Optional Practical Training/Academic Training). In all other cases, prior work authorization is required before an F-1 or J-1 student engages in any work off-campus.

If you have any questions whether you need work authorization or not, please contact the Office of Global Services. If you are considering engaging in a volunteering opportunity, please make an appointment with an OGS adviser before making plans to begin any activity.

U.S. Department of Labor's definition volunteering

The Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for U.S citizens, and with the prevention of exploitation of workers. They have created laws to ensure employment that should be paid is not done for free. While both you and the employer may be happy with an unpaid arrangement (for example, you may be eager to work even on an unpaid basis in a company in order to gain job experience), this may be considered an unfair arrangement in cases where the work is normally performed by a paid person and both the company and the employee are benefiting from the employment.

To determine whether an individual is a true volunteer engaged in “ordinary volunteerism,” the Department of Labor considers a number of factors. No single factor is determinate. These factors include:

  • Is the entity that will benefit/receive services from the volunteer a non-profit organization
  • Is the activity less than a full-time occupation
  • Are the services offered freely and without pressure or coercion
  • Are the services typically associated with volunteer work
  • Have regular employees been displaced to accommodate the volunteer
  • Does the worker receive (or expect) any benefit from the entity to which it is providing services

How to determine whether an activity is truly volunteering and does NOT require work authorization

Employment authorization is NOT required when the work performed can be considered volunteering. To be considered volunteering, the work performed by the individual must meet the following criteria:

  • No compensation or expectation of compensation
  • The volunteer cannot displace a genuine employee and the services provided by the volunteer should not be the same services for which he or she was previously paid and/or expects to be hired and paid for in the future
  • Services are performed for a non-profit charity and the work is “charitable” in nature
  • Services are performed for a state or local government agency and there is a “civic” purpose to the work

Volunteering at Northeastern

If you are a student considering volunteering or engaging in unpaid internships at Northeastern or a staff/faculty looking to hire a volunteer or unpaid intern, please review this guidance from Northeastern University Office of General Counsel.