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Many students in Canada volunteer for charities, non-profit organizations, or community groups during their studies. Volunteering as an international student can be a significant part of the culture of Canadian life, and many find it is a rewarding way to give back to their community, while also developing experience and references for their resumes.

Volunteering as an international students in Canada is also an ideal way to get Canadian work experience, meet new people, and develop language skills. Volunteer positions can involve more advanced skills and responsibilities, such as management-type roles, than may be available in paid positions. They are also likely to be flexible and responsive to your schedule and study commitments, as non-profit organizations value any time and effort you are able to contribute. Having said that, if you are volunteering as an international student in Canada, it is important to take it seriously as you would a paid position – this means giving enough notice if you need to miss or postpone a shift, or if you need to take a break for a while.

You generally won’t need a Social Insurance Number (SIN) in order to volunteer. If you earn income in Canada, you need a SIN – so even if you’re planning just to volunteer while studying, it may still be a good idea to get one so you’ll be ready for any paid opportunity that may come along.

While eligible international students in Canada may work a maximum of 20 hours per week during the semester, unpaid volunteer hours may not count towards this total. However, it is still important not to overstretch yourself and remember that your studies should be a priority over working or volunteering.

Finding a volunteer position

If you’re looking to volunteer, start by researching groups or charities in your local area that operate for a cause you care about. There are also many charities or organizations that have campus groups, including major national or international charities. University and college campuses also often have community outreach groups that work in the local neighbourhood, for example with newcomers to Canada, in hospitals, or with local religious communities.

When you’re first looking into volunteer positions, it can seem like the opportunities are endless. To narrow it down and help you find a position that will be truly productive for you, think about your particular talents and goals. If you’re interested in developing your web design skills, see if you can create or update a charity’s webpage. If event management is your passion, see if you can get involved in organizing charity events. If you want to get sales or networking experience, you could try fundraising. If you love education and teaching, you could tutor or teach workshops at the local library. If there is a non-profit organization you might want to work for, reach out and ask if they have volunteer opportunities. Proving yourself as a volunteer could put you first in line if and when a paid position opens up.

Unpaid internships

While there is no doubt that volunteering as an international student in Canada can be rewarding and productive, it is important to be aware of the regulations around unpaid internships. Generally speaking, unpaid internships are illegal in Canada, though the exact regulations are determined by the provincial governments.

One exception is co-op work placements or internships undertaken as a required component of a study program. The line between unpaid internships and volunteering is fairly clear. If the position involves the same duties and responsibilities as paid employees, it is likely considered an unpaid internship. If you are doing work that would generally not be remunerated, and if you have more control over your time commitment, the position could be considered a volunteer position.

You never know where volunteering as an international student in Canada could lead you. Even if you don’t get a job out of it, the experience, satisfaction, and memories can make your investment of time and effort completely worth it.