In all honesty, it depends. There are some unpaid internships that will feel like a scam just because of the amount of work being done with no pay, even though the program is operating legally. There are also some unpaid internships that are downright illegal because a for-profit company is not paying interns at least the minimum wage for their profit-generating work. Still, not every unpaid internship is valueless or illegal. In fact, most of the unpaid internships (as much as 68%) are with non-profit organizations, and many of these organizations will look good on your resumé/CV. Before applying for an internship, one should always know if the organization is for-profit or non-profit, because any for-profit companies should be compensating interns for their work.
The focus of an internship is to gain first-hand experience that is entirely relevant to one’s goals—in other words, you should be the one benefitting the most from any unpaid internship program. The US Department of Labor helps to ensure this by providing a 7-point “Primary Beneficiary Test” to help interns determine if their internship is fairly unpaid at the federal level. Since interns are not considered the same as employees, this test helps define if an unpaid internship is illegal. If the intern is benefitting the most, and if their internship has a well-defined beginning and end date to avoid any misunderstanding of potential future employment, then the internship is fair and legal. But, if the employer benefits more than the intern, then the intern should be paid for their work.
Experience is always touted as the primary goal with an unpaid internship, to the point where students might come to think taking unpaid internships are the only way to become successful after college (as I once believed in my university days). Some employers will try to take advantage of this situation, convincing interns that the only thing they should care about is the experience that will lead to greater opportunity despite being over-worked and not paid for it. If you are interviewing for an internship, and if the interviewers emphasize experience over expectations, then that could be a major red flag to avoid the company. When it is your turn for questions, ask, “Do you understand the purpose of the Primary Beneficiary Test?” If interviewers disregard this test for what it is worth, then it could be an even greater red flag. Employers should know the laws of unpaid internships before they even hire interns to begin with.
International students are greatly at risk of receiving the brunt of a bad internship. A visa might only authorize a student to study in the US, but not to work and collect wages. This should not serve as a reason for international student to work without accepting wages. It should be mentioned that if the Department of Labor finds an internship to be unjust, then the student will also be subjected to legal scrutiny, including facing the possibility of being deported. For any international students who are applying to any internships that seem questionable, I recommend consulting with teachers, career counselors, or even department-specific academic counselors if your school has them. It could only help to ask any of these individuals if they think a given unpaid internship program sounds suspicious. Utilizing websites like Glassdoor.com, which can provide reviews from employees who worked there, will help give context into what the internship could be like.
Just because there are some illegitimate unpaid internships in the US does not mean that unpaid internships are too risky. Overall, they can provide some incredible experiences for students that they would not get in the classroom/lecture hall, or it could reinforce what was taught in these environments. There are rules in place to protect you from predatory internships, so it is important to know them and to use your knowledge of them to prevent an undesirable learning outcome.