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Unpaid Work

To be considered a volunteer, the work performed by the individual must meet the following criteria: 

  • No expectation of compensation.
  • The volunteer cannot displace a genuine position.
  • 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 organization for public service, religious or humanitarian objective.

An internship is a work-related learning experience for students who want to develop hands-on/on-the-job skills in a particular field of study. Although many international students are paid for the work they do, from time to time a student may be offered an opportunity for which there is no compensation.

International students may participate in unpaid practical training in their field of study as long as:

  1. the internship is a learning experience for the benefit of the student rather than a job that serves the employer's purposes. There are six criteria established by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) for evaluating such a work situation. They were developed in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law that addresses employment issues such as minimum wages.
  2. the student receives authorization for Curricular Practical Training (CPT for the F-1 student) or pre-completion Academic Training (AT for the J-1) before the start of the internship.

Please note that there is a difference between volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship.

As explained above, volunteering refers to donating time with an organization whose primary purpose is charitable or humanitarian in nature, without renumeration 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.  For more information on the subject of unpaid internships, please refer to the ISSS CPT webpage. 

The Six Criteria

To determine whether an experience may be considered an internship rather than a job, the U.S. Department of Labor has developed the following test, a set of six criteria. If the work experience meets all of the following conditions, then the DOL would not consider it to be employment and the employer would not be subject to the FLSA's minimum wage requirement (i.e., the experience may be an unpaid internship).

  1. 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;
  2. The internship experience is 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; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  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.

Immigration Authorization

International students should apply for and receive authorization to participate in unpaid internships before starting the training. Students should understand that wages are not the only form of compensation that they might receive for the work they do. Sometimes employers give students a check for lunch and transportation expenses or small monetary awards for a job well-done. For the employer, these bonuses are gestures of appreciation. For students who do not have CPT or AT approval, they are evidence of unauthorized employment!

Practical training authorization has another advantage. It corroborates the relationship between the internship and the student's educational objective. In the CPT and AT authorization processes, students must submit letters that confirm the nature and relevance of the training experience. In addition, F-1 students must enroll in a course for which experiential learning is a requirement. This course will later appear in the student's transcript, further documenting the legitimacy of the internship. For information about:


U.S.D.O.L. Fair Labor Standards Act

U.S.D.O.L. Fact Sheet #71, Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act

University Career Center/ Internships Information

UMD Engineering Co-op and Career Services/ Student Internships

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