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Volunteers from overseas

The rules about people from overseas volunteering can be complex.

There are no restrictions on volunteering for people from within the EU/European Economic Activity (EEA) area. However, for people outside the EEA, there are various restrictions based on what type of visa they are travelling on.

This page explains who from overseas can and cannot volunteer and what additional restrictions are in place.

Volunteering and voluntary work

In some cases, migrants are entitled to volunteer but not entitled to do voluntary work. It is important you are clear on the difference.

This is how the Home Office makes the distinction:

  • Volunteers do not have a contract, they must not be a substitute for an employee and they must not be doing unpaid work – ie receiving payment in kind (although they are sometimes reimbursed for reasonable travel and subsistence expenses). Volunteers usually help a charity or voluntary or public-sector organisation.
  • Voluntary workers will usually have obligations to perform the work, which may, if tested in law, be found to be 'contractual' (eg to attend at particular times and carry out specific tasks) with the employer being 'contractually' required to provide the work. The contract does not have to be written. The worker is sometimes remunerated in kind in this situation, for example through free training, building their CV for future employment or free products or services from the organisation.

In practice, the distinction rests on whether individuals consider there to be an obligation for them to commit their time to the charity in order to run the service. Volunteers are under no obligation to give their time.

Voluntary workers however, may have an obligation (not necessarily written), or feel they have an obligation, for them to commit certain hours. These may be interns or full-time volunteers, or simply regular volunteers who are given such a degree of responsibility that they feel creates an obligation to attend in order to keep a service running. We have advice on how you can avoid creating a contractual relationship with volunteers.

Right to work checks

If an individual meets the definition of a volunteer, there is no requirement for them to have the right to work in the UK and therefore no right to work check is required. See our guidance on how to ensure you are not creating a contractual relationship.

However, if there is any possibility that a volunteer could be deemed to be working under a contract, either as an employee, paid worker or voluntary worker, then a check should be carried out.  Charities are liable to strong penalties under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 if they are deemed to be employing people who do not have the right to work in the UK. Further rules are set out in the Immigration Act 2016.

Organisations should therefore take a considered approach towards conducting right to work checks for their volunteers. 

Visas and volunteering (non - EEA citizens)

Type of visaCan I volunteer?Notes
Tier 1: Highly skilled workers, investors, entrepreneurs or post-study workers. Yes, unless classified as entrepreneur

Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) Migrants are only allowed to volunteer/do voluntary work for the business they have established, joined or taken over.

Other Tier 1 migrants are free to volunteer/do any voluntary work they want (other than some restrictions on doctors/dentists in training and sportspeople).

Find out more about eligibility of Tier 1 migrants

Tier 2: Sponsored skilled workers with a job offer Yes

Tier 2 migrants can undertake volunteering and voluntary work in any sector.

Find out more about eligibility of Tier 2 migrants

Tier 4: Student Yes

Tier 4 students can volunteer while they are studying.

The following restrictions apply only to voluntary work:

  • Students following a course of degree level study or a foundation degree course can do no more than a total of 20 hours per week of paid or unpaid work (including voluntary work) in term time
  • Students following a course of study below degree level (excluding a foundation degree course) can do no more than a total of 10 hours per week of paid or unpaid work (including voluntary work) in term time

Find out more about eligibility of Tier 4 migrants (pdf, 1.4MB)

Tier 5 (Temporary Worker): Sponsored temporary worker No

Tier 5 Temporary Workers under the International Agreement sub-category cannot undertake voluntary work.

Find out more about eligibility of Tier 5 migrants (sponsored temporary worker)

Tier 5 (Temporary Worker): Unpaid charity worker Yes

The individual must be sponsored by an A or B-rated licensed charity with whom they will be volunteering.

They are allowed to do up to a total of 20 hours per week of supplementary work, paid or voluntary, but such work must be either:

  1. in the same profession and field, or
  2. on the Tier 2 shortage occupation list.

Find out more about eligibility of Tier 5 migrants (unpaid charity worker)

Tier 5 (Youth mobility scheme) Yes Find out more about eligibility of Tier 5 migrants (youth mobility scheme)
Dependent of a Tier 1,2 or 5 migrant Yes Find out more about eligibility of dependents of Tier 1, 2 and 5 migrants
Dependent of a Tier 4 migrant In some circumstances

Cannot undertake paid/voluntary work if their Tier 4 sponsor has applied for leave of less than 12 months or for a course that is below degree level.

If they are not permitted to work they are not permitted to volunteer. If they are subject to minimal restrictions on employment they can volunteer. 

Find out more about eligibility of dependents of Tier 4 migrants

Short-term student visa Yes

Short-term students are not allowed to work in the UK, either as a paid or voluntary worker. They are not allowed to enrol on a course of study that includes a work placement or work experience.

Short-term students can volunteer but may not do voluntary work.

Find out more about eligibility of short-term students (pdf, 275KB)

Standard Visitor In most circumstances

Allowed to undertake volunteering/voluntary work for up to 30 days for a registered charity during stay, except when entering through Approved Destination Status agreement (with China).

Find out more about eligibility of standard visitors

Marriage/Civil partnership Visitor Yes

Allowed to undertake volunteering/voluntary work for up to 30 days for a registered charity during stay.

Find out more about eligibility of marriage/civil partnership visitors

Permitted Paid Engagements (PPE) visit Yes

Allowed to undertake volunteering/voluntary work for up to 30 days for a registered charity during stay.

Find out more about eligibility of permitted paid engagements (PPE) visitors

Transit visit No Find out more about eligibility of transit visitors

Refugees and asylum seekers

People who have refugee status or humanitarian protection , and their family members, are allowed to do any type of work including voluntary work and can also volunteer.

Asylum seekers (people in the process of applying for refugee status) and family members are not normally allowed to work while their claim is being decided, but they can volunteer in both the public and voluntary sectors. This includes while they are appealing against a decision to refuse them asylum.

Find out more about permission to work and volunteering for asylum seekers

Page last edited Dec 07, 2017

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