Volunteering Information/Guidelines for International Students

Many international students are interested in volunteering during their studies in the United States.  Volunteering may take a number of forms such as helping out in a food bank, or other charitable projects.  You may also be interested in volunteering for a company within your field of stud​y to gain some real-world experience. 

While the issue of volunteering may seem clear-cut (I am not getting paid, therefore I am not working) it is actually a complex area in which immigration regulations and labor law intersect.  Some of these activities are legally acceptable, and some are not. 

If you are interested in volunteering, you must be aware of the relevant regulations so that you (and the recipient of our time) do not inadvertently violate these regulations.

Frequently Asked Questions


How do I know if the volunteer work I want to do would be considered "employment" by the Department of Labor or the Department of Homeland Security?

When you are considering volunteering, ask yourself these questions before you begin:

  1. Are the services performed for civic, charitable, or humanitarian purposes?
  2. Are the services entirely voluntary with no direct or indirect pressure by the employer, with no promise of advancement and no penalty for not volunteering?
  3. Does your proposed service impair the employment opportunities of others by performing work that would otherwise be performed by regular, paid employees?  -or- Are you providing services that are the same as services provided by someone who is paid?
  4. Is there any expectation of compensation either now or in the future for these services?

You should be able to answer YES to questions #1 and #2 above, and NO to questions #3 and #4.  If you cannot, it is likely that your proposed volunteer activity is more likely unpaid employment and could subject both you and the employer to heavy penalties. 

I do not understand why the Department of Labor would be concerned if I decide to volunteer my time, as long as I am not getting paid.

Keep in mind that the Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for United States citizens, AND with the prevention of exploitation of workers.  It is illegal for an employer to pressure you to work for free, or to engage you in activities for which it is usual to be paid.  While both you and the employer might be happy with the arrangement (for example: working unpaid in a company in order to gain job experience), this is considered an unfair arrangement because that work is usually performed by a paid person.  For the company to not pay the person doing the work is considered exploitation by the Department of Labor.

These are the general guidelines:

o   You should not engage in volunteer work if that work is usually performed by someone who is paid.

o   You should not engage in volunteer work if there is any expectation of current or future compensation-including not only waged but a promise of a future job, gifts or other benefits.

What is the legal definition of a volunteer?

  • ​A volunteer is defined as:
  • An individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons without promise, expectation or receipts of compensation for services rendered is considered to be a volunteer during such hours.  Individuals performing hours of service for such a public agency will be considered volunteers for the time so spent and not subject to sections 6, 7, and 11 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) when such hours of service are performed in accord with sections 3(e), 4(a), and (b), of the FLSA and the guideless in this subpart.
  • Individuals shall be considered volunteers only where their services are offered freely and without pressure or coercion, direct or implied, from an employer.
  • An individual shall not be considered a volunteer if the individual is otherwise employed by the same public agency to perform the same type of services as those for which the individual proposes to volunteer. (29 C.F.R. 554.101)

Can I have some examples of permissible and non-permissible work? 

While we cannot provide here every possible example of permissible and non-permissible work, here are some general examples of volunteering you may be thinking about:


​"Candy Striper" in the hospital, literacy tutor, helper in a soup kitchen, builder for Habitat for Humanity, crisis line counselor for domestic violence or rape crisis phone hotline.

  • ​These positions are "pure" volunteer actives; they are performed as acts of charity to benefit the community.  They do not displace an American worker, and they are not usually performed by someone who is paid for the service. 
  • Example: A person skilled in computer programming volunteers his/her services to a nonprofit/charitable organization such as a substance abuse counseling center to help them design a computer based intake system to log their calls
  • ​ ​Why?
  • ​While the 'work' of computer programming would normally be a paid activity, notes that in this circumstance it is performed for a nonprofit/charitable organization which traditionally depends on "gifts of kind" (items, resources, or services donated) to conduct its business.  The programming is gift of time and talent to an organization that depends on such gifts, with no expectation of payment or a future job. 

Not Permissible:

The director of a local non-profit, such as a literacy organization, soup kitchen or domestic violence shelter, if that position is usually paid

  • Even if the position you are interested in is for a non-profit organization that engages in charitable work, if the position is usually a paid one, you should NOT volunteer.  To volunteer in a position that is usually paid would be considered to be unauthorized employment.

        Unpaid work in a company where you would get on-site experience, if your activities would usually be paid.

  • Again, if the activities you are engaging in as a volunteer would normally be performed by a paid worker, you would likely be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and immigration law.  For example, you could not "volunteer" as a lab technician in a company in order to gain work experience in that field if you would be doing the same thing as a paid worker.  The only time that this would be acceptable is in a true "training program," in which you are closely supervised and the employer is getting no measurable "work" from your activities.

​Please consult with your International Student Advisor if you have ANY questions about the specific activity in which you wish to engage.​