Volunteering and Temporary Visas

Federal law restricts the kinds of employment that aliens on temporary visa status may undertake in the United States. Activities which may be thought of as "volunteering" may be restricted as well. People unable to accept paid employment because of their current visa status often ask whether they are permitted to engage in "volunteer" work and what activities are permissible.

The following list of questions provide some guidance regarding volunteer options available to people presently in the United States on a temporary alien visa status.

Note: A foreign national who is not authorized to work at the University of Pittsburgh cannot volunteer at the University in a position for which wages would normally be paid or other benefits would normally be forthcoming. This includes all positions listed in job families by the Office of Human Resources.

Which government agencies oversee activities by aliens in the United States?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the authority to make determinations regarding the activities of aliens in the United States. The Department of Labor (DOL) has the authority to make determinations regarding services, compensation, and the nature of work, for all workers in the United States.

Who is a volunteer and who is an employee according to these agencies?

Employment is a status that is determined by looking at more than whether or not someone is paid for their work.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) perspective, if the alien is providing a service normally provided by a paid employee, then the activity is work and the alien is receiving the "compensation" of valuable training or experience and/or the compensation of possible future paid employment. It does not matter that no money changed hands at the time the work was being done. Being paid or compensated in the future does not change the fact that one is performing real work in the present. For example, you cannot serve as a lab technician while waiting for work permission that will permit you to do the same or similar work for pay. In that case DHS sees the current "volunteer" activity as work that is "holding" a position for the future and is therefore compensating or "paying" you with the reward of a future job.

Department of Labor (DOL) draws a distinction between:

  • True volunteer activities, which are traditionally done by non-paid persons out of their own sense of altruism and for their own pleasure or fulfillment and
  • Work which is usually done by a paid employee, but for which a particular worker is not paid or is not properly compensated as part of an agreement between the "employer" and the "employee."

Why does it matter what I do if I am not paid? If I want to volunteer for the University to get valuable experience and the department wants me to be there, why can’t I do that?

Congress has passed a number of laws dealing with labor rules and the employment of aliens. One of these laws, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), guides and directs how the DOL and employers must view and treat those who provide labor or services.

From the DOL perspective, both to protect U.S. and foreign workers from abuse and to protect U.S. jobs, the FLSA says that if a person provides a normal service for which a person would normally be employed, the activity is work/employment, and the employer must pay the person. There are exceptions for bona fide training programs where the trainee functions, to some degree, like an employee, but this is under close supervision and provides no significant measurable work for the employer. The trainee must not take the place of a paid employee.

If you are thinking about a volunteer arrangement with an employer in a job that would normally be paid, you should consult an immigration lawyer and the supervisor should consult with the Office of International Services and the Office of Human Resources before you move forward with that arrangement.

I think I understand, but could you give me some examples?

Sure, here are some examples, but we strongly urge you to check with the Office of International Services or the Office of Human Resources directly before engaging in any activity that a person is normally paid to do.


  • NOT VOLUNTEER: A researcher in a laboratory at the University is usually a paid position. Working unpaid, if that position is normally paid, would generally fall into the "unauthorized work" category. Even though the organization is nonprofit and uses volunteers, the position of researcher is generally a paid position, not volunteer.
  • NOT VOLUNTEER: A person works unpaid as a lab technician or a computer programmer, and performs services for which a person would normally be paid. Such activities are not volunteer, but take on the character of employment.
  • VOLUNTEER: A literacy tutor at a local literacy council or a helper at a local soup kitchen traditionally performs these services as acts of charity and good will and as a service to the community.

Where can I volunteer and in what activities would I be prohibited from volunteering in?

You may volunteer for activities in and around the University of Pittsburgh that are normally done by volunteers. Learn more about volunteer opportunities and community engagement in the area.

Many student groups also organize community service volunteer activities. Performing one of these activities is recognized as a volunteer activity. Learn more about Student Volunteer Outreach.

You may not volunteer for positions listed in the job families section on the Compensation section on the OHR website.

I still have questions about this. Who can answer my questions?

Contact the Office of International Services at 412-624-7120 or the Office of Human Resources at 412-648-1969.