How the US Government Defines Unpaid Internship

To protect U.S. and international workers from abuse, the U.S. government says that if any person provides a service for which someone would normally be employed, the activity is considered work or employment. This means that the employer must then pay the person for his/her work.

How to Tell if Your Unpaid Internship Needs Work Authorization

For students looking at the Career Center’s Externship Program

  • First-year students – International students in their first year are not eligible to participate in this externship program due to visa restrictions. Please contact the ISL Office with questions about this policy.
  • Sophomores, juniors, and seniors – International students who have been in the U.S. on an F-1 visa for more than one year can participate in an externship only if the externship is a 100% shadowing experience. This means that students with F-1 visas may not participate in any work projects. Each externship posting in the Tunnel indicates if F-1 visa holders are eligible to apply. 

For all other unpaid internships

The internship must meet ALL of the following criteria:

  1. The training at the job is similar to training you would receive at a vocational school.
  2. The training is for your benefit; you may even slow down work for others in the learning process.
  3. You are not taking a job from a regular employee/worker
  4. Your internship does not come with the promise of a job offer after completion.
  5. You do not receive compensation of any kind for your time, i.e. wages, free meals, transportation, stipends, etc.

If your unpaid internship does NOT meet all the criteria, we recommend you get work authorization (CPT or OPT). Before taking on any unpaid internship, we strongly recommend that you contact the ISL office.  You should also be sure to get a letter from your internship employer confirming your title, hours worked per week, and that the position is completely unpaid.  J-1 students should contact ISL before pursuing any off-campus employment whether it is paid or unpaid.

Volunteer Work

Any unpaid charitable work at a non-profit charity is fine and will NOT need any form of employment authorization.  Again, for any repeated volunteer work, i.e. Northfield library, we recommend that you obtain a letter from the organization confirming that you are an unpaid volunteer.