While the issue of volunteering may seem simple: "I’m not getting paid, therefore I am volunteering," it is actually a complex area in which immigration regulations and labor laws intersect.
If you are interested in volunteering, you must be aware of the relevant regulations so that you and the organization for which you are volunteering do not inadvertently violate any laws and don’t get penalized for unauthorized employment.
Volunteering vs. employment
What is the difference between an employee and a volunteer?
A common misconception is that the only difference is employees get paid and volunteers do not. However, according to U.S. labor laws, there is more to distinguish between employees and volunteers than whether an individual receives a paycheck.
To be considered a volunteer, the work performed by the individual must meet the following criteria:
- No expectation of compensation
- The volunteer cannot displace a genuine employee, and the services provided by the volunteer should not be the same services for which he or she was previously paid and/or expects to be hired and paid for in the future
- Services are performed for a non-profit organization for public service, religious or humanitarian objective.
- Work for a for-profit entity is considered employment and must be for pay.
Volunteering vs. unpaid internship
There is a difference between volunteering and engaging in an unpaid internship.
An unpaid internship requires work authorization (review authorization steps for F-1 students or J-1 students), while volunteering does not require work authorization.
For example, it would be OK to tutor, or to volunteer at a local homeless shelter, charitable food pantry, or any volunteer work done through a service learning course. International students are free to engage in volunteer work as long as it meets the above criteria.