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International Students & Scholars

Volunteer and Unpaid Intern

If you will be paid for your work in the US then the work is employment and you must have a visa that permits you to be employed in the US. This includes paid internships.   

If you will not be paid for the work the matter is a little complicated. Under US law, there is some work that you cannot do for free even if you want to. If the work meets the following criteria you can do it for free.  

Volunteer

Unpaid Internship

The work is charitable (directly serves the needy) or civic (serves the wider community)

The work is closely connected to your academic or professional goals and primarily serves these goals

The work does not benefit the employer’s budget by providing free labor

The work does not benefit the employer’s budget by providing free labor

Under US law, it is not enough that you are willing to work for free, or that the employer is charitable, civic, or non-profit. What matters most is that the work meet the criteria above.

There is no specific volunteer or unpaid intern visa. If the work you are doing is truly volunteering or unpaid internship, you may engage in the work on any visa—you do not require permission from USCIS or GEO in order to be a volunteer or unpaid intern. 

But you need to be very careful.   
Just because you or your employer think the work is truly volunteer or unpaid internship does not mean the US government (which conducts random audits of US employers) will agree.  Even unintentional misuse of a visa can cause serious legal problems for you and your employer.


Advice to F-1 and J-1 Students

If you have an F-1 or J-1 student visa sponsored by VCU, we strongly recommend that you obtain Curricular Practical Training (CPT, for F-1) or Academic Training (AT, for J-1) approval before starting a paid or unpaid internship in the US.   

Even though CPT or AT is not legally required for an unpaid internship, CPT or AT approval may protect you from penalties if the US government determines that your unpaid internship is really a kind of employment for which CPT or AT is required. See Risks and Penalties below.

Risks
GEO does not evaluate or monitor volunteer or unpaid internship opportunities. You and your employer should review the information here and decide for yourselves if the work is volunteering or unpaid internship.

If you and your employer agree that the work is volunteering or an unpaid internship, you may proceed with the work—but you and your employer must be prepared to respond to any US government inquiry about your activity.

The US government conducts unannounced employer site visits to see if all workers are authorized to be employed. If the US government determines that you should be getting paid for your work, and you do not have employment authorization, both you and your employer could be subject to penalties.  

The chance the US government will inquire about your activity is small but it is not zero. If you or your employer have any doubt that the work is volunteering or unpaid internship, you probably should not engage in the work without employment authorization.

Penalties
If the US government determines that your activity is not truly volunteering or unpaid internship, both you and your employer could be subject to legal penalties. You could lose your immigration status and your employer could be subject to fines.

HR Procedures
Although there is no specific volunteer or unpaid intern visa, there may still be employer human resources (HR) procedures for you to comply with. Employer HR procedures may include: confidentiality agreements, police background checks, export control pre-screening, and even the requirement that you obtain a specific visa. 

Employer HR procedures are the employer’s prerogative and would apply to all volunteers and unpaid interns. You should check with your employer about the employer’s own volunteer and unpaid internship procedures before starting work.

VCU HR Procedures
VCU’s HR procedures are managed by your hiring department. If you will be a volunteer or unpaid intern at VCU, check with the hiring department’s Personnel Administrator (PA) about HR procedures before starting your volunteer activity or unpaid internship there. 

Questions or Concerns
If you or your employer have questions or concerns about the information provided here, please contact us. We look forward to working with you.

 

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