In most situations, you will require some type of employment authorization to gain experience in your field of study. It is understandable that you might think that if you accept work for which you will not get paid it is not considered employment, and therefore does not require authorization. However, this is not correct.
Immigration regulations consider employment to be any type of work performed, or services provided, in exchange for money, tuition, fees, books, supplies, lodging, or for any other benefit.
If you are receiving any type of compensation, or the prospective position does not meet the unpaid internship criteria, you must obtain work permission (CPT, OPT, AT) if eligible. If you have completed your program you will need OPT authorization for both paid and unpaid positions.
Six criteria for an unpaid internship must be met:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation on the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- 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;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship/
Additional requirements apply to F-1 and J-1 students:
- The internship has to be in the declared major field of study.
- The internship cannot be for more than 20 hours a week during term time (those students with a 50% assistantship will not be eligible for the internship opportunity).
- Any remuneration or any other type of compensation at all requires F-1 students to receive either CPT or OPT work authorization and J-1 students must apply for Academic Training.
- 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.
If you are engaging in an unpaid internship off -campus you should be using Curricular Practical Training, Pre-Completion Optional Practical Training, or Academic Training (J-1 students).
Please ensure that your prospective supervisor is aware of these federal regulations and that you have assurances (preferably written) to that effect before you accept the position. We also recommend that F-1 students who do engage in unpaid internships have a letter from their academic advisor confirming that the internship is in the major field of study, and a letter from the employer confirming that there was no remuneration or any other type of compensation provided in any form during the (aforementioned) dates the student was participating in the internship.
ISSS recommends that F-1 and J-1 students seeking to engage in an unpaid internship discuss the appropriateness, consequences and responsibilities of this internship. Students may also contact International Student & Scholar Services with specific questions relating to unpaid internships.