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Volunteering, Unpaid Internships, and Start-ups


International students may serve off-campus in a volunteer capacity. You are not required to obtain special permission for volunteer service as long as it meets the following criteria:

  • The service is charitable or humanitarian in nature. 
  • The service is performed for a non-profit organization.
  • Volunteers will not receive any form of compensation.
  • Volunteers perform the service without the expectation of future employment or benefit. 
  • Volunteers can't displace genuine employees. 

In short, this service is for the benefit of the organization or the people served, not yourself.  A good place to start looking for opportunities is right here on campus, at the Leduc Center for Civic Engagement. Or you can visit to look for a local volunteer opportunity. 

For further questions about whether a specific activity truly qualifies as volunteering work, please see an advisor at the ISSC


Unpaid internships

It’s easy to confuse unpaid internships with volunteering because you’re not getting paid in either case.  But, you must have approval for Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or Optional Practical Training (OPT), if your unpaid internship is:

  • mostly in the for-profit sector
  • directly related to your major field of study
  • advertised as unpaid 
  • primarily for your benefit as a training or work experience, not for the benefit of the company hosting your internship.

The U.S. Department of Labor protects all employees from exploitation by making it against the law for an employer to pressure you to work for free or to expect you to work for free at a job that is usually paid.  See this U.S. Department of Labor Fact Sheet.

Examples of the difference between volunteering and unpaid internships:

VolunteerPermissible?Unpaid InternshipPermissible?
Community Food Bank – helping serve meals Yes – no authorization needed Unpaid position for Marketing student observing how community food bank handles its publicity and fundraising Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required
Mentor/tutor in a local elementary school Yes – no authorization needed Biology Graduate Student earning academic credit tutoring in science in a school Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required
Student helping the choir director with a local church's children's choir Yes – no authorization needed Music student offered internship at a local music studio observing their procedures Yes – CPT or OPT approval is required


UMass Dartmouth’s Career Development Center is an excellent resource on obtaining internship positions.

You must also carefully follow OPT and CPT procedures with our office to ensure you are complying with your visa requirements. For more information, please visit CPT & OPT page. 


Starting your Own Business (Entrepreneurship or Start-ups)

In some cases, F-1 and J-1 students can obtain work authorization and start their own business, as long as you are operating legally and have any required business licenses.

It’s easier to use the 12-month OPT period for this than the new 24-month extension allowed for STEM fields, since the extended period has more restrictive rules: a written training program, additional reporting requirements for schools, and so on.

Where to Begin

  • U.S. Custom and Immigration Services (USCIS) has launched an Entrepreneur Pathways website with information and guidance about legally operating your own business in the U.S. while your F-1 student visa is valid.  
  • Then, our own UMass Dartmouth Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is a good place for ideas about starting your own business.
  • You may wish to consult with an immigration attorney to be sure you have all the necessary paperwork and employment authorizations in place.  You wouldn’t want to jeopardize a bright new business idea by overlooking an essential document or permission!

This article discusses various aspects of entrepreneurship with a visa.  One of the co-authors is an immigration attorney himself and a member of the U.S. Alliance for International Entrepreneurs (USAIE), which provides comprehensive services and advice to international entrepreneurs. Visit the USAIE website.


Stock Investing

While there appears to be no specific law against international students investing in the stock market, we want F-1 and J-1 international students to be very careful because we do not want any investment activity to negatively impact their visa status.

There is a tricky line between reporting the capital gain as passive income and taking it as active income through self-employment, which is prohibited on the F-1 visa. Since the ISSC does not provide legal advice, we highly suggest, prior to investing in the stock market, you consult with an immigration attorney or legal resource to make an informed decision at your own discretion.

The ISSC would gladly provide a list of immigration attorneys for a consultation. Avoiding Immigration Scams

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