Foreign National Students Must Proceed With Caution When Volunteering or Accepting Unpaid Internships

With the fall semester coming to a close for college students, many will begin packing up and heading home to spend the holidays with their loved ones. But what about foreign nationals here in the U.S. on a student visa, who may not want to travel back to their home country for the break? Some may consider spending their free time volunteering or engaging in an unpaid internship. However, they must proceed with caution as the Department of Labor has set strict rules for both.

While it may not be apparent on the surface, there is a large difference between volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship. The Department of Labor defines volunteering as donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without any sort of remuneration or compensation. Unpaid internships, on the other hand, are primarily offered by the private sector and relate to a student’s major field of study.

Under Department of Labor regulations, foreign national students are free to engage in volunteer work so long as they receive no form of compensation. Students should be extra careful as even something as small as accepting a free lunch while volunteering can technically be considered compensation. Foreign national students are also not to exceed more than 20 hours of volunteer work during the academic term. Some good examples of acceptable volunteer work include tutoring for a nonprofit such as the Boys & Girls Club of America or donating time to the American Red Cross.

The Department of Labor has six specific criteria for an unpaid internship that must be met:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation on the facilities of the employer, must include similar training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience must be for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

DOL also has additional requirements for foreign nationals in F-1 (student) and J-1 (exchange visitor) status:
1. The internship has to be in the declared major field of study;
2. The internship cannot be for more than 20 hours a week;
3. Any remuneration or other type of compensation requires the F-1 student to receive either Curricular Practical Training or Optional Practical Training and J-1 students must apply for Academic Training; and
4. 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.

It is important that any foreign national student looking to volunteer or participate in an unpaid internship make their supervisor aware of the above federal regulations. It’s also recommended that foreign national students receive a letter from their supervisor at the time of completion stating that there was no form of remuneration or compensation given.

If you have any questions on volunteering or engaging in an unpaid internship, please contact our office today to schedule a consultation with one of our knowledgeable attorneys!

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