Volunteering while Pursuing Degree Requirements & In F-1 Status – Proceed with Caution

In general, students should exercise caution when undertaking volunteer activity.

The U.S. Department of Labor makes the determination whether an activity is legally considered to be a “volunteer” opportunity or if the activity is actually “work” that should be compensated. If the volunteer activity is work, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor, then undertaking the activity without compensation is seen as a violation of U.S. labor law and could result in loss of immigration status. When applying for future immigration benefits, the U.S. government reviews the beneficiary’s history in the United States and can request information and/or documents to demonstrate that they were performing a legitimate volunteer activity, as opposed to work for which they should have received compensation.

Because of the complicated U.S. labor laws surrounding what is considered volunteering and what is considered “work,” when students participate in volunteer activities it is crucial that students in F-1 visa status and their employers confirm that the volunteer opportunity is a true volunteer opportunity and does not violate any U.S. labor laws. Whether or not an activity is paid or unpaid does not determine whether an activity is truly a volunteer experience.  ISSS advisors are not U.S. labor law experts; therefore, we recommend consulting with an employment attorney for further information.

If an international student would like to volunteer in a field that is closely related to their field of study, then they should consider applying for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Pre-completion Optional Practical Training (OPT).  However, truly volunteer activities that are not related to a course of study will not require authorization.  Some examples where authorization may not be required include volunteering for the American Red Cross, the Humane Society, Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Club of America, etc.

ISSS recommends carefully reviewing the U.S. Department of Labor's webpage about volunteers.

If a student in F-1 status would like to participate in a volunteer opportunity at CU Boulder, then the activity needs to be a formally established volunteer activity. If a CU Boulder department wishes to create a formal volunteer position, then ISSS recommends the CU Boulder department consult the University Risk Management website for guidance regarding establishing a volunteer program.  The volunteer guidelines will help ensure the project is formally recognized by the university as a volunteer opportunity. Questions can be directed to:  urmucbdirs@cu.edu.

In all instances, ISSS highly recommends that students keep documentation of the hours contributed per week while volunteering.

Unpaid Internships – Work Authorization

In most situations, students in F-1 status will need either CPT authorization or Pre-Completion OPT authorization to gain experience in their major field of study. Students may think that accepting an internship for which they will not be paid is not considered employment and therefore does not require work authorization. However, this is not necessarily correct. It depends upon the specific situation.

The Department of Labor utilizes a Test for Unpaid Interns and Students to determine if the intern is considered an employee. If an intern does not meet the Department of Labor's definition of an employee, the student may be able to participate in the unpaid internship without off-campus work authorization (CPT or Pre-Completion OPT). However, due to the complexities surrounding unpaid internships, ISSS strongly recommends that all students in F-1 status pursue CPT or pre-completion OPT for unpaid internships. ISSS is not able to assess unpaid internship opportunities for compliance with U.S. labor laws. Moreover, ISSS is not able to give permission for (“or approve”) students in F-1 status to participate in unpaid internships without authorization.

Volunteering while Authorized for Post-Completion OPT – Proceed with Caution

SEVP OPT Policy Guidance states that, "Students may work as volunteers or unpaid interns, where this practice does not violate any labor laws. The work should be at least 20 hours per week for students on post-completion OPT.  A student should be able to provide evidence, acquired from the student's employer, to verify that he or she volunteered at least 20 hours per week during the period of employment." A SEVP Broadcast message also highlights the importance that any volunteer activity relates to your major field of study to count towards OPT.

Students should exercise caution when undertaking volunteer activity as a form of OPT employment. If the volunteer activity is seen as a violation of U.S. labor law, then the activity will not stop the accrual of unemployment days and the activity could result in loss of immigration status.  

If a student in F-1 status would like to participate in volunteer work at CU Boulder or elsewhere while in an authorized period of post-completion OPT, then as mentioned above, the opportunity needs to be a formally established volunteer opportunity and documented as such.

Volunteering while Authorized for STEM OPT – Does Not Count as Training

While authorized for the STEM OPT Extension, students must only participate in training opportunities where the employer is registered in E-Verify, has an IRS Employer Identification Number (EIN), and has sufficient resources to provide a training program (executed via the Form I-983). Students participating in training under the STEM OPT authorization are required to receive compensation.

Due to the nature of the STEM OPT Extension and employer expectations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has clarified that volunteer opportunities cannot serve as the basis for requesting a STEM OPT Extension.

If a student in F-1 status who is authorized for STEM OPT wishes to volunteer incidentally to their STEM OPT employment, the student should ensure that the volunteer opportunity is a true volunteer opportunity and does not violate U.S. labor laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines volunteers as, “Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service."