Volunteering can be a great way to engage with your local community and network with others who have similar interests. For example, you may wish to volunteer for a non-profit organization who is holding a charity race or food donation drive, participate in a religious service, or volunteer at a local animal shelter. Under very narrow circumstances, students may participate in limited unpaid civic, charitable, or humanitarian services for an organization as a volunteer without additional work authorization.

However, it is important to be aware of both the Code of Federal Regulations for F-1 and J-1 students as well as the labor laws so that you do not participate in unauthorized employment. It is important to note that volunteering opportunities are typically only found in the public sector (non-profits, charitable organizations, etc.). There is no such thing as “volunteering” for a private or for-profit organization. These institutions generally must offer an unpaid internship for unpaid work. It is very important not to accept a position with any company that is violating U.S. Department of Labor laws. 

Important: Before engaging in any volunteer activity, please consult International Student Programs & Services PDSO Shelley Palmer to find out if authorization is required.

What is the difference between volunteering and employment?

There is a difference between volunteering and engaging in unpaid activities conducted off campus such as an internship or unpaid employment. Employment is defined as any situation where one party provides services that benefit another, and in exchange receives some type of benefit from the party to whom the services were provided. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor consider both monetary and non-monetary compensation in exchange for services as employment. Thus, both paid and unpaid positions are considered “employment” and will need authorization before the start date of the work experience. As a reminder, all off-campus employment for F-1 international students require authorization.

Keep in mind, failure to obtain proper authorization, even for an unpaid position, can result in a violation of status. Visit the Employment section of our website for detailed information on how to apply for the appropriate work authorization.

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. The following guidelines from the Department of Labor can help determine if the services you wish to perform are considered volunteering and may not need additional work authorization.

Volunteer Guidelines

Department of Labor defines an individual as a volunteer when they meet the following criteria:

  • Perform hours of service for civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons without promise, expectation, or receipt of compensation for the services rendered
  • Offer their services freely and without coercion, direct or implied, from the employer
  • Are not otherwise employed by the same public agency to perform the same services as those for which they propose to volunteer.

There are several guidelines provided by the Department of Labor FLSA Fact Sheet (DOL) to help determine if the service or volunteer experience you wish to perform is considered volunteering. Here are a few questions to consider in order to help determine if the service you wish to perform is an appropriate volunteer opportunity:

  • Are the services performed for civic, charitable, religious, or humanitarian reasons?
  • Are the services performed primarily for the benefit of the organization, not for my personal or professional benefit?
  • Are the services being performed without promise of payment, compensation, or any other tangible benefit?
  • Are you performing the services without promise or expectation of future employment?
  • Have regular employees been displaced to accommodate the volunteer position?

If you have any questions about these guidelines, please schedule an appointment with PDSO, Shelley Palmer.