An E-2 Visa is a great visa option for an individual who wants to start a business in the U.S. The full set of E-2 visa requirements can be found by clicking here. The E-2 visa permits the visa holder to work specifically for the E-2 company only, although there is a very limited exception where the visa holder may be able to work at an E-2 subsidiary.
If you are in the U.S. on an E-2 visa, it is important that you only work for your E-2 company to avoid violating your status by engaging in unauthorized work. One area of potential confusion is volunteering and whether volunteer activities count as work. We have had several clients ask whether they are permitted to volunteer while in the U.S. on an E-2 visa and the answer depends on several factors such as the organization you are volunteering for, the frequency of the volunteer activities, whether any compensation is involved and the reason for volunteering. Some types of volunteer activities are permitted, as long as the activities do not cross the line into unauthorized employment but if the volunteer activity does not fit in to a permitted category, you would need a visa before engaging in the activity.
One common misconception is that if you are not paid, your activities are not work but the fact that a position is unpaid does not necessarily mean the activities do not count as work. For example, you could not “volunteer” as an unpaid intern or as an unpaid person in a relative’s company without a visa. According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, “individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.”
If you are on an E-2 visa you may be able to volunteer, as long as you have no expectation that you will be compensated, either now or in the future, and the volunteer services are done for a non-profit organization for a public interest, religious or humanitarian objective. You should also note that compensation is not limited to money only, and if you are being compensated or expect to be compensated in some other way (for example, discounts, free parking, free memberships, etc.), this could also weigh against you being considered a volunteer. Other considerations include how frequently the volunteer activities occur and whether the activities you are performing are of the type normally done by an employee.
If you are on an E-2 visa and want to volunteer, we would recommend speaking with an immigration attorney to ensure you do not violate your status by accidentally engaging in unauthorized work.
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