If you are a visitor to the United States, or you’ve entered the country without a work visa, you might be wondering if you are allowed to volunteer without pay. Another common scenario is when you’ve filed your application for a green card and/or Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”), and find yourself asking, “Am I allowed to volunteer or do unpaid work while I’m waiting for my work authorization?” Unfortunately, there is not a simple black and white answer to this question, and the answer depends on a variety of factors that need to be analyzed on a case by case basis. If you are in doubt about whether or not you should begin any volunteer activity that might be considered “unauthorized work” for immigration purposes, your first step should be to consult with an immigration attorney to discuss the type of visa on which you entered the United States, the details about the volunteer work in question, and any other factors that might affect your case.
Immigration regulations state in broad terms that unauthorized work is not allowed based upon the underlying idea that unauthorized work by foreign nationals is detrimental and should be discouraged because it takes jobs away from authorized U.S. workers, and may drive down wages or benefits for U.S. workers. So anything that could be construed as “engaging in work” should be avoided. Volunteering or “interning” in a position that is typically paid could be interpreted as engaging in work because it is taking away a paid work position from an U.S. worker. A volunteer position which would result in additional professional training could also be problematic because this would result in a potential advantage over similarly situated U.S. workers. The bottom line is that if you would be working without pay in a job that could otherwise be filled by an U.S. worker who would be paid, this could be considered unauthorized work and should be avoided, even if you are not receiving any monetary payment.
Another frequent question that comes up is whether it is allowed to “volunteer” in a position where you will later be employed as an employee once your work permit is received. Based upon the rationale above, it should be clear that this would constitute unauthorized work in the eyes of the U.S. government for immigration purposes, as this is a paid position being filled temporarily by a “volunteer.” Some people have also tried to “volunteer” in a position for which they would receive delayed compensation once their work authorization is received. Clearly, this is unauthorized work and is not allowed under immigration regulations.
If you would be volunteering in a position where other volunteers are unpaid, or similar positions are unpaid, it is a position unrelated to your professional field, and it could not be considered additional training for your profession, then the volunteer work may be legal. For example, volunteering at a non-profit soup kitchen where other volunteers are unpaid, an animal shelter that uses unpaid volunteers to care for the animals, or a museum where other volunteers are retired or unpaid, this would most likely be considered strictly volunteer work. If you are trained as a nurse and “volunteer” in this capacity in a hospital, this would likely not be considered volunteer work since the position would typically be filled by a paid nurse worker, you would potentially be taking that position away from an U.S. worker, and gaining professional experience during your “volunteer” experience. A good rule to follow is to generally refrain from doing any volunteer work that is related to your area of professional training. Finally, if you have any remaining doubts about whether the activity you want to do could be interpreted as unauthorized work, either consult with an attorney to discuss your situation, or simply refrain from that activity until you receive your work authorization.