A common question that often comes up to F-1 visa students (as well as J-1 visa students) is: Is it OK to work at an unpaid internship during school and also during OPT. The short and simple answer is Yes. However, it does come with a few requirements that you should pay attention to so that you don’t get yourself in trouble. Again, working illegally or for an illegal, illegitimate employer only hurts your immigration goals and possibly barr you from ever immigrating to America in the future. Make sure you know your work situation fully before engaging in any employment, paid or unpaid.

Volunteering vs Unpaid Internship

You do not need USCIS or your school’s DSO permission to volunteer. Volunteering is donating time and effort at a non-profit charity without the expectation of compensation. It is OK to volunteer for any 501(c) charity in America and even put this on your resume so that it shows you are a good person and care about your society and others. In fact, this is a good way to get experience without the headaches of applying to OPT/CPT if you happen to be able to volunteer at an organization that utilize and expose you to skills and knowledge of your degree program. You can volunteer as many hours as you want and the school or USCIS really cannot force you to cut down hours, unlike an actual internship.

Unpaid Internship Requirements

First and foremost, you should know already that if you are doing a CPT or pre-completion OPT unpaid internship and the internship is during the times that school is session, you CANNOT work over 20 hours a week. That is a USCIS regulation for F-1/J-1 visa students. However, if the internship occurs during school breaks, such as spring/summer/winter breaks, it is ok to work 40 hours a week.

Now, there are US Department of Labor laws regarding unpaid internships. These are laws that the employer need to follow to hire you as an unpaid intern. Understand that, they may not know the law or may break the law intentionally (because they want free labor) and hire you as an unpaid intern even though technically you should be paid. In this case, the employer is in the wrong and you actually have legal recourse to bring them to the authorities. Obviously this is not a good situation for anyone because you lose out on the experience to write on your resume, and the employer will definitely not like you anymore and possibly bad mouth you to future employers. With that said, the employer must follow the following rules for an unpaid internship:

  • 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

I don’t know what or how the USCIS views a student who worked unknowingly for an employer that broke US Labor Laws. It really shouldn’t be the student’s fault that he happened to work for an employer who breaks labor laws. The student is desperate for internship experience to get a job later. It makes sense. Just be careful about this.

The next part is the student’s responsibilities. There are no excuses to not follow or not understanding the following points. Failure to do so will cause you to violate your F-1/J-1 visa status and jeopardize your chances on immigrating to America.

  • The internship has to be in the declared major field of study

  • The internship cannot be for more than 20 hours a week during school

  • F-1 students cannot be retroactively compensated in any way for work done in an unpaid internship if they obtain work authorization later.

  • The internship can only begin after the student has obtained a newly endorsed I-20 with permission to accept the internship.

  • The internship must begin and end on the dates written on the endorsed I-20.

Follow the above rules carefully without any ambiguity. You cannot violate any of the above rules or else you may violate your visa status. Make sure you follow the guide to applying for CPT and guide to apply for OPT to apply for the appropriate employment authorization to accept the unpaid internship. Remember, it may be unpaid, but if you gain solid, marketable experience with the internship, you stand a better chance on getting a full-time job later.


13 thoughts on “Guide on Unpaid Internships for F-1 visa students

  1. Pingback: Guide to finding a job with F-1 visa OPT - IMMIGRATE TO AMERICA

  2. Travel Buddy

    oh my I didn’t know there are so many visa classes, f1 cpt, f1 opt , f1 visa unpaid… so many.

  3. Pingback: F-1, J-1, Adjustment of Status common questions and answers - IMMIGRATE TO AMERICA

  4. Anon


    Unpaid internship are no longer being considered as employment anymore by USCIS Nebraska Service center. They don’t see unpaid work as employment anymore as according to them employment should involve wages or other remuneration. Where are they use ‘Right to Control’ the employee definition for H1B processing. A lot of people including got STEM extension denied for the above reason.
    Nebraska Service Center stated this in my denial letter even though it contradicts SEVP guidelines. I don’t think that NSC goes by written laws anymore.. Don’t join schools in midwest as they come under NSC. Avoid NSC and avoid unpaid internships at all cost..

    1. admin Post author

      Thanks for your comment. This is very interesting but I suspect they were also working for very small organizations. If it was an unpaid internship at a Fortune 500 company, I really don’t think the USCIS would deny it. Anyways though, paid is always better than unpaid.

    2. Unknown

      I am currently on post-completion OPT doing an unpaid year long internship in New York City. is my internship legal or not?

      1. admin Post author

        If the internship is related to your field of study, it is perfectly legal. In terms of your employer not paying you and you think they are exploiting you, you’d have to check if you are receiving any kind of incentive in return that isn’t money.

  5. Ramesh

    I am student on F1 visa. It was not mentioned in the above article if it is possible to do an unpaid internship at a non-profit organisation with out consuming OPT or CPT? In case if it is allowed, should I inform the school ? Do I need some legal documentation before I start the internship?

    1. admin Post author

      Any work outside of on-campus requires OPT/CPT.

  6. Elise Swart


    I wish to work for a summer internship in the state of Georgia (and have received an offer from the company).
    Do I have to report to my school’s DSO that I will be doing an unpaid summer internship?
    I am not able to apply for CPT/OPT due to my initial attendance F1 visa status.
    I will only be able to apply for CPT/OPT after 2 semesters of studying.


    1. admin Post author

      Yes you have to report to DSO. You are correct you cannot apply for CPT/OPT because of the minimum 1 academic year requirement. It sounds like you cannot undertake the internship since that would require CPT. Unless you can demonstrate economic hardship, you won’t be able to work there.

  7. Bader


    My major is applied mathematics with data analysis as minor area. I would like to get internship in the summer as unpaid internship because there is no internship course in my college.I need to get the internship for experience purpose (I need to write something in my resume). I talked to international students office in my university, and they told me that I cant take paid, unpaid or volunteer internship in the summer. Any recommendation?


    1. admin Post author

      It is unusual your school won’t let you undertake an internship in the summer. Typically it is ok for F1 students to have full time CPT during summer, which can be paid. Perhaps you can look into on-campus related jobs, on-campus jobs for F1 students do not need extra approval.

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