Employment is available only to students who are in good academic standing and maintain their non-immigrant status. With the exception of work on the UF campus, F-1 students need approval from an international student advisor (ISA) or USCIS, depending on the circumstances, before they may accept employment. Students in J-1 status must have written authorization from an international student advisor before beginning employment. It is very important that the student does not work without authorization. International students may not be self-employed prior to graduation.
Employment opportunities for international students are limited by regulations of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State (DOS). Employment includes but is not limited to on campus, off campus, part time, full time, paid, unpaid, volunteer, shadowing, externships, internships, co-ops, etc. The student should contact their ISA prior to engaging in any activity on campus which is more than 20 hours per week and prior to engaging in any off campus activity, regardless of the hours per week, and whether it is paid or unpaid/volunteer.
This section presents a brief introduction to the following situations, primarily as they apply to students in F-1 and J-1 status.
Assistantships are paid positions in which a student assists faculty in a teaching or research capacity. Go to the Graduate School's website for more information.
- Fellowship: Fellowships do not usually have a work component, although there may be exceptions.
- Research Assistantship: Research assistants are selected for excellence in scholarship and promise as researchers. They do part-time research as a portion of their training under the direct supervision of regular faculty members.
- Teaching Assistantship:Teaching assistants have a primary responsibility in an instructional capacity. Services provided by a graduate teaching assistant may include lecturing, leading discussion groups, serving as assistants to laboratory classes, and grading tests and papers. Florida law requires all non-US students who are going to be graduate teaching assistants to prove adequate command of the English language. Before getting a graduate teaching assistantship, they must submit TSE (Test of Spoken English) or SPEAK (Speaking Proficiency English Assessment Kit) scores that meet the acceptable minimum set by the university. For more information on TSE and SPEAK requirements, click on this link: TSE and SPEAK Testing
- Graduate Assistantship: Graduate assistantships are available through the individual academic unit. Stipend payments are determined by the employing academic unit. Interested students should contact their academic offices to discuss available assistantships.
F-1 students who are maintaining status may work part-time on campus while classes are in session. "Part-time" means up to 20 hours per work week, inclusive of all on-campus work. Student assistantships are considered "on-campus employment" and therefore are also limited to 20 hours per week, inclusive of all on-campus work. The official work week of the University of Florida is Friday through Thursday. However, some on-campus entities’ work weeks may vary. The student must verify the work week start and end with the employer prior to starting employment.
F-1 students do not need special authorization to work up to 20 hours per week on-campus. On-campus work mainly includes UF, GatorDining (Chartwells), the UF Welcome Center/Bookstore (eFollet), the UAA (not including third party vendors/contractors), and the O’Connell Center (not including third party vendors/contractors). W.W. Gay Construction, among possible others, is not considered on-campus employment.
During the winter and spring breaks, and the student’s summer break, international students may work full-time, over 20 hours per week, on campus if they are returning to classes the following term. International students may not work on campus after completing their program of study. If the international student is continuing for another educational program, the student should consult their international student advisor.
For a listing of allowed work hours during the semester and during official breaks, click here.
Off-campus employment is limited to F-1 students in colleges and universities who are pursuing academic studies. Working off campus requires special authorization and is only available in certain situations. The F-1 student should consult their international student advisor (ISA) for advice.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT): Curricular practical training is a type of employment for an F-1 student, which is an integral part of the curriculum or program. This employment may be an internship or a practicum.
Standard Optional Practical Training (OPT): Optional Practical training is the opportunity to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to a practical work experience off campus. Optional practical training is authorized by the USCIS. This authorization can take 120 days to obtain. The maximum amount of time granted to work in F-1 standard optional practical training is 12 months. Students who have completed their degree program may be employed full-time in the field of study through Optional Practical Training.
OPT STEM Degree Extension: Students with a qualifying STEM degree (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) may apply for a 24 Month extension of OPT, making the total duration last up to 36 months.
Severe Economic Hardship Employment: F-1 students may request employment authorization based on severe economic hardship caused by unforeseen circumstances beyond the student's control. These circumstances may include a loss of financial aid or on-campus employment without fault on the part of the student, substantial fluctuations in the value of currency or exchange rate, inordinate increases in tuition and/or living costs, or unexpected changes in the financial condition of the student's source of support, medical bills, or other substantial and unexpected expenses. Source: [8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)(9)(ii)(C)-(D) and (F)].
Special Student Relief: Special Student Relief is available to F-1 students who began full-time study in F-1 status before June 10, 1998, and whose financial support comes from Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, or the Philippines. These students must be able to prove that they are experiencing severe and unforeseen financial problems due to the economic crisis in Asia.
Temporary Relief Measures: Students may need to work off campus if a disaster has affected their ability to support themselves. The disaster may occur in the United States and prevent them from working on campus or the disaster may occur overseas and affect their economic support. If the student can demonstrate that they are from an affected country or region and they have been recommended for such employment by an ISA, they may be eligible to receive employment authorization when filing the I-765, Application for Employment Authorization. For more information, click here.
Many international students are interested in volunteering their time during their stay in the United States. Volunteering may take a number of forms, such as helping out in a food bank, Habitat for Humanity, or other charitable project. Others may be interested in volunteering in a company in one’s field, perhaps in order to “shadow” or observe to gain some real-world experience. Or perhaps international student has a special skill, such as computer programming, and would like to donate their time to a non-profit agency. While the issue of volunteering may seem clear-cut (“I’m not getting paid, therefore I am not working”), it is actually a complex area in which immigration regulations and labor law intersect. Some of these activities are legally acceptable, and some are not. If interested in volunteering, international students must be aware of the relevant regulations so that they do not inadvertently violate these regulations and thus be penalized for unauthorized employment. Continue reading below for more information, frequently asked questions, and a quiz to help determine if you are truly volunteering or engaging in unpaid employment.
Frequently asked questions
There are some basic guidelines that international students can use to determine whether or not the proposed volunteer activity might be considered unauthorized employment. When considering volunteering, ask these questions first:
- Are the services performed for civic, charitable, or humanitarian purposes?
- Are the services entirely voluntary, with no direct or indirect pressure by the employer, with no promise of advancement and no penalty for not volunteering?
- Does the proposed service impair the employment opportunities of others by performing work that would otherwise be performed by regular, paid employees? Are the services provided the same as services provided by someone who is paid?
- Is there any expectation of compensation either now or in the future for these services?
The international student should be able to answer “yes” to questions 1 and 2, and “no” to questions 3 and 4. If not, it is likely that the proposed volunteer activity is more likely unpaid employment, and could subject both the international student and the employer to heavy penalties.
Keep in mind that the Department of Labor is concerned both with the protection of jobs for United States citizens, and with the prevention of exploitation of workers. It is illegal for an employer to pressure anyone to work for free, or to engage in activities for which it is usual to be paid. While both the person and the employer might be happy with the arrangement (for example, working unpaid in a company in order to gain job experience), this is considered an unfair arrangement because that work is usually performed by a paid person. For the company to not pay the person doing the work is considered exploitation by DOL.
Remember the questions above and these basic guidelines:
- Students should not engage in volunteer work if that work is usually performed by someone who is paid.
- Students should not engage in volunteer work if there is any expectation of current or future compensation—including not only wages, but a promise of a future job, gifts, or other benefits.
This is a tricky question to answer, and goes beyond the simple measure of whether or not the person doing the work is getting paid. The Fair Labor Standards Act defines an employee as:
“(1) Except as provided in paragraphs (2),(3), and (4), the term “employee” means any individual employed by an employer….
(2) In the case of an individual employed by a public agency, such term means –
(A) any individual employed by the Government of the United States – (i) as a civilian in the military departments (as defined in section 102 of title 5, United States Code), (ii) in any executive agency (as defined in section 105 of such title), (iii) in any unit of the legislative or judicial branch of the Government which has positions in the competitive service, (iv) in a non-appropriated fund instrumentality under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces, or (v) in the Library of Congress;
(B) any individual employed by the United States Postal Service or the Postal Rate Commission; and
(C) any individual employed by a State, political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency, other than such an individual – (i) who is not subject to the civil service laws of the State, political subdivision or agency which employs him; and (ii) who – (I) holds a public elective office of that State, political subdivision, or agency, (II) is selected by the holder of such an office to be a member of his personal staff, (III) is appointed by such an officeholder to serve on a policy making level, (IV) is an immediate advisor to such an officeholder with respect to the constitutional or legal powers of his office, or (V) is an employee in the legislative brand or legislative body of that State, political subdivision, or agency and is not employed by the legislative library of such State, political subdivision, or agency.
(3) For purposes of subsection (u), such term does not include any individual employed by an employer engaged in agriculture if such individual is the parent, spouse, child, or other member of the employer’s immediate family.
(4) (A) The term “employee” does not include any individual who volunteers to perform services for a public agency which is a State, a political subdivision of a State, or an interstate government agency, if – (i) the individual receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee to perform the services for which the individual volunteered; and (ii) such services are not the same type of service which the individual is employed to perform for such public agency.
(B) An employee of a public agency which is a State, political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency may volunteer to perform services for any other State, political subdivision, or interstate governmental agency, including a State, political subdivision or agency with which the employing State, political subdivision, or agency has a mutual aid agreement.”
(Section 3 (e), Fair Labor Standards Act)
A volunteer is defined thusly:
a) An individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered, is considered to be a volunteer during such hours. Individuals performing hours of service for such a public agency will be considered volunteers for the time so spent and not subject to sections 6, 7, and 11 of the FLSA when such hours of service are performed in accord with sections 3(e)(4)(A) and (B) of the FLSA and the guidelines in this subpart.
(b) Congress did not intend to discourage or impede volunteer activities undertaken for civic, charitable, or humanitarian purposes, but expressed its wish to prevent any manipulation or abuse of minimum wage or overtime requirements through coercion or undue pressure upon individuals to “volunteer” their services.
(c) Individuals shall be considered volunteers only where their services are offered freely and without pressure or coercion, direct or implied, from an employer.
(d) An individual shall not be considered a volunteer if the individual is otherwise employed by the same public agency to perform the same type of services as those for which the individual proposes to volunteer.
(29 C.F.R. 553.101)
While we cannot provide here every possible example of permissible and non-permissible work, here are some general examples of volunteering.
“Candy striper” in the hospital, literacy tutor, helper in a soup kitchen, builder for Habitat for Humanity, crisis line counselor for domestic violence or rape crisis phone hotline.
These positions are “pure” volunteer activities; they are performed as acts of charity to benefit the community. They do not displace an American worker, and they are not usually performed by someone who is paid for the service.
A person skilled in computer programming volunteers his/her services to a nonprofit/charitable organization such as a substance abuse counseling center to help them design a computer based intake system to log their calls.
While the "work" of computer programming would normally be a paid activity, note that in this circumstance it is performed for a nonprofit/charitable organization which traditionally depends on "gifts in kind" (items, resources, or services donated) to conduct its business. The programming is a gift of time and talent to an organization that depends on such gifts, with no expectation of payment or a future job.
The director of a local non-profit, such as a literacy organization, soup kitchen, or domestic violence shelter, if that position is usually paid.
Even if the position is for a non-profit organization that engages in charitable work, if the position is usually a paid one, volunteering as an international student is not permissible. To volunteer in a position that is usually paid would be considered to be unauthorized employment.
Unpaid work in a company to gain on-site job experience, if the activities/responsibilities would usually be paid.
Again, if the activities/responsibilities would normally be performed by a paid worker, this could be considered a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and immigration law. For example, “volunteering” as a lab technician in a company in order to gain work experience in that field if a paid worker does the same thing. The only time that this would be acceptable is in a true “training program,” in which the person is closely supervised and the employer is getting no measurable “work” from the activities.
It is not always a simple yes or no answer, as it may depend on the requirements set forth in the activity, the benefit to the person conducting the activity or to you, and how USCIS or the IRS may view the activity. We do not believe, for example, that participating as the subject in a research study or as part of a focus group, to be employment in and of itself, but caution students who wish to engage in such activities. You will need to ask the person conducting the activity in which you wish to engage, an immigration attorney, and perhaps a tax official questions such as “Is this employment (whether paid/unpaid/volunteer)?” and “Is this training/internship (whether paid/unpaid/volunteer)?” to help determine if the activity requires specific authorization in order for you to legally engage in the activity. Please note, if the activity is considered employment, internship, or other forms of training, you will only be able to engage in the activity if you are eligible to apply for and receive Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization as an F1, prior to the start of the employment/internship/training/etc.
Please click the links below to read the information and also to listen to a podcast made available by the Klasko Immigration Partners, LLP law firm. Read and listen to the information/podcast in its entirety, as they are insightful as to how USCIS may consider the activity in which you wish to engage. This will provide you some additional information relevant to your question from an immigration attorney perspective.
- Podcast: https://omny.fm/shows/statutes-of-liberty/episode-12-avoiding-status-violations-in-the-side
- Pay close attention to the scenarios mentioned, the gray areas discussed, and the topic of frequency of activity
- Infographic: https://www.klaskolaw.com/uncategorized/avoiding-status-violations-in-the-side-gig-economy/
- Scenarios which may or may not likely be considered employment.
Click here for some additional scenarios either presented in the podcast or which we have previously encountered which may or may not likely be employment, and some questions to consider in some of the scenarios. The information contained in the podcast and in this email does not to constitute direct legal advice or response to any scenario listed below, but is for information purposes only. Also note, consequences of engaging in activity which USCIS may consider employment may not be immediate, but may factor in when you apply for a benefit such as OPT or Change of Status to H1B, Permanent Residency, etc. Staying out of the gray areas is always in your best interest; seek counsel before engaging in such activities. Please refer to the information we have made available at Curricular Practical Training (CPT); if an activity may be able to qualify for CPT, it is always safest to apply for and receive CPT authorization prior to engaging in the activity. Not all activities qualify and you may not yet be eligible to apply for CPT.
The student should consult with the international student advisor to discuss any questions about the specific activity in which he or she wishes to engage.
“Can Suzy Volunteer until her Visa is Approved? ‘Volunteering’ in the crossroads of immigration and labor law.” Presentation at NAFSA Region VIII Conference, Bethesda, Maryland, Nov. 22, 2002. By Murray Welsh and Helene Robertson.
“Volunteering.” Duke University International Office. Frequently Asked Questions web resource.
To learn about employment visas, please here.