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Do I need CPT for an unpaid internship?

interstride logo by Interstride
August 7, 2023

You want to start building professional experience as an international student, and internships are a great way to do that. Some internships are paid; some are unpaid. However, even when you are not getting paid for an internship, you must gain work authorization to make sure you’re not in violation of your student status.

International students cannot work off-campus in the US while they are studying without the proper work authorization. Curricular practical training (CPT) can be used by international students who want to do an internship that is integral to their academic program and gain valuable work experience.

What is CPT?

Curricular practical training (CPT) is a work authorization for international students on F-1 visas. It allows international students to work off-campus during their academic program. Prior approval is required, and the work experience must be related to the academic program you are completing. CPT can be used for part-time employment (20 hours or less per week) during academic semesters. When school is not in session, you can use CPT for full-time employment (up to 40 hours per week). This is a great option for a summer internship.

CPT cannot be used after graduation nor can you delay graduation to work under CPT. For work authorization after graduation, consider applying for OPT instead. In some cases, you may be able to use OPT for unpaid internships, but make sure you understand the differences between CPT vs OPT before applying.

Interstride Tip: When an internship is a required part of your degree program, you will gain academic credit from your college or university for the internship, just like you would for completing a required course. In these cases, you will likely have to ‘pay’ for the credits you earn for the internship even if it’s unpaid.

While this might be confusing, remember that the US considers unpaid internships to be a type of employment. Employment is not defined by payment but by the kind of work being done and the relationship between the worker (you) and the employer (internship provider).

Paid vs unpaid internships

Internships are common ways for college students in the US to gain relevant work experience. They provide real-world experience with supervision and guidance. There are two main types of internships in the US: paid and unpaid. Sometimes international students may need clarification about what counts as payment for an internship. Whether you are paid via a paycheck, cash, housing, or other form of compensation, it is all considered paid employment. For an unpaid internship, you cannot accept any form of compensation at any point.

While paid internships are ideal, they may be hard to acquire. As an international student, be open to unpaid internship opportunities. With an unpaid internship, you can:

  • Satisfy your academic program’s internship requirement
  • Gain new skills, knowledge, and experience to put on your resume
  • Build your professional network in the US
  • Get exposure to US work culture in your specific field
  • Find potential opportunities for future employment

Unpaid internships vs volunteering

Volunteering is another way to gain professional experience and make new connections in your field. However, as an international student, it’s important to understand the difference between an unpaid internship and volunteering. Volunteering does not require any additional work authorization while most unpaid internships do.

Volunteering can be short or long-term. There are no limits on how much you can volunteer while in the US as an international student, but the volunteer work you do cannot be for a position that is normally paid. Additionally, it must be for an organization that does civic, charity, or humanitarian work. Do not accept a volunteer position that would qualify as an internship because you could risk misclassification which could violate your F-1 status.

CPT for unpaid internships

Most unpaid internships for international students require CPT, and securing CPT for your unpaid internship will ensure that your F-1 visa status is protected. It’s essential to talk to a student advisor before you plan to apply for the CPT training program. Some departments may have specific prerequisite course requirements that you must satisfy before you can complete an internship. This ensures that your internship is an opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge you gained in the classroom.

In order for a company to legally not pay you for an internship, the internship must be designed to benefit the intern and not the employer. The intern’s work cannot displace any workers, and the employer must provide on-the-job supervision and training to the intern. If the unpaid internship does not meet these requirements, it may violate Department of Labor laws. Employers cannot choose to not pay interns just to save money. Talk to someone at your school’s International Student Services (ISS) office if you suspect this is the case for your internship.

Use the steps below to apply for your CPT internship whether paid or unpaid:

  1. Get an offer for a qualifying internship.
  2. Submit your application to your university’s ISSS office with your official job offer letter.
  3. Once your CPT is approved, print and sign your Form I-20. The university will email it to you. Keep a copy for your records.
  4. Start your internship on the start date listed on your Form I-20.

CPT for paid internships

The CPT international students use for paid internships is the same CPT that is used for unpaid internships. The only difference is that all paid internships for international students require CPT while only some unpaid internships do.


Most US colleges and universities recommend that international students register for CPT even when their internship is unpaid because an unpaid experience can still be counted as an employment opportunity. It’s essential to avoid any accidental misclassifications that could lead to a violation of your F-1 status. While the government may not follow up on every unpaid internship to ensure proper work authorization, the risk is not worth the potential consequences. It’s better to play it safe and apply for CPT for your unpaid internship.