Volunteer work conducted by foreign students: When is a work permit and an ESDC confirmation required?

What is work?

“Work” is defined in the Regulations as an activity for which wages are paid or commission is earned, or that competes directly with activities of Canadian citizens or permanent residents in the Canadian labour market.

Foreign students engaging in “work” are required to have a work permit. Exceptions:

  • on-campus employment, for which a work permit is not required.
  • Health care students doing an internship or practicum. The primary purpose of the practicum must be to acquire training; therefore these positions may be unpaid and should not be of more than 4 months’ duration.

Volunteer activities that are not “work” and do not require a work permit

  • Volunteer work for which a person would not normally be remunerated, such as a foreign student being a ‘big brother’, or ‘big sister’ to a child; being on the line at a rape crisis centre. Normally this activity would be part time and incidental to the main reason that the person is in Canada (in this case, to study).
  • Unremunerated observation of the functioning of a given work environment or occupation (i.e. following a geologist on their sample-gathering trips). In some cases, minor tasks may be performed by the foreign student (such as clerical chores), however there should not a significant contribution to the productivity of the enterprise.
  • Unremunerated helping of a friend or family member during a visit.
  • There may be other types of unpaid short-term work where the work is really incidental to the main reason that the foreign student is in Canada and is not a competitive activity, even though non-monetary valuable consideration is received. For instance, if a foreign student wishes to stay on a family farm and work part time just for room and board for a short period (i.e., 1-4 weeks), this would not be considered an activity which requires a work permit.

Volunteer activities which do require a work permit, but remain ESDC confirmation exempt:

  • With respect to volunteer work, the following conditions apply in order to be eligible for confirmation exemption:
    • The individual will not receive remuneration, other than a small living expense; and
    • The organization or institution which is sponsoring the foreign worker will not, itself, receive direct remuneration from any source on behalf of, or for, the services rendered by the foreign worker; and
    • The work goes above and beyond normal work in the labour market, whether remunerated in some manner or not. Examples of this might be constructing a house for ‘habitat for humanity’, living in and supporting a L’Arche group home.

It’s envisioned that normally, this kind of work would be full-time and so not applicable to full-time students during the school term.

Work permit and ESDC confirmation required:

  • Work (remunerated or not) in situations that do not fulfil the conditions above.
  • Any activity which might be considered ‘competitive’ within the Canadian labour market, even if unpaid. For example, if the work might be a valuable work experience for a Canadian student (for example, an internship with a television station or with a high-profile NGO, even if unpaid). For cases which don’t conform to the guidelines allowing for confirmation exemption (above) ESDC is prepared to offer a labour market opinion.
  • The work is “normal” work in the labour market: i.e. it competes with other jobs in the Canadian labour market. For example, if a foreign student is doing an internship that is not a requirement for the completion of the academic course of study, whether paid or unpaid, that fulfils the definition of “work,” an ESDC confirmation is required.


October 2002

Page details

Date modified: