Are Unpaid Internships Abroad Worth It?  

by Laura Jelich

The question is, are unpaid internships for international students worth it? Yes! No...maybe?

The answer is that it depends. Everyone’s situation is unique, but there are a few stars that need to aline in order to justify unpaid internships abroad, and conversely other factors that tend to become deal-breakers. In order to decide if a particular international internship is a step in the right direction for your own job journey, cross-check your personal situation against our list of “worth it” and “not-so-worth-it” criteria.

Stacks of coins

Money is one of the factors when considering internships.

So Worth It If...

While the unpaid aspect can be a bit of a bummer, it most definitely doesn’t have to be a nix-worthy factor when choosing an internship abroad. There are so many pros to interning abroad that this seemingly difficult dilemma doesn’t have to be a toughy, especially if you find yourself in any of these so-worth-it situations.

You don’t need the money.

This means you are not a college graduate fresh out of school with loads of student debt, rent, grocery, insurance, and life bills to pay. If you are, in fact, in this exact situation, then you may need to weigh the pros and cons carefully. Recognize that participating in an unpaid internship will not only not pay the bills, but it will actually add to your unchecked pile of debt already accumulating. Unfortunately, the reality may be that the timing for this opportunity is just not the best. 

However, if you have your finances reasonably under control, a job that doesn’t necessarily pay may be exactly what you are looking for. Maybe you are blessed enough to come from a family with parents more than able (and willing) to chip-in. Maybe you have the ability to fundraise sufficiently, recently inherited a large sum of money, earned a scholarship, or are simply a hard-working money-saving-master with a bank account to back your endeavor.

If you have funds available to you and the right opportunity presents itself, maybe a better question to ask yourself is, why not?? If your priorities lie further along the experience end of the spectrum, then you won’t find a much better opportunity than venturing abroad to learn from professionals with new and challenging perspectives that will allow for your own personal growth and networking.

You can earn college credit.

The total jackpot is when you can kill three birds with one stone (not literally though, please) and knockout college credit, career experience, and an adventure abroad all in one! If you are still in school and your university offers the chance to replace class time with working hours overseas, take it.

Obviously, however, you need to ensure that the company you will be working for actually is willing to, and adequately does, meet the requirements for earning college credit. It is worth noting that because you are paying for your college tuition during this time, you will ultimately be paying (not just not getting paid) for your internship. So, make sure it is a position that will provide relevant experience and adequate resume boosting power.

Graduation cap with 2016 tassel

College credit is a good reason to take an internship.

You need the experience.

It’s no secret that the job market nowadays is tough. Getting a job requires experience, but experience only comes from working the field. It is quite the conundrum, literally. Luckily, many companies offer the experience fresh professionals so desperately need while mutually benefiting by being compensated with free labor! It stinks (and can be controversial) to have to work for free, but it has practically become the expected norm.

If you haven’t already completed the internship route and need the experience to break into your chosen field, an international internship can actually set you above and beyond your competing peers by providing that ever-so-desirable global edge. International status alone, however, won’t cut the cake, it is the improving of skills and hands-on learning that will really help get you hired when the time comes.

The internship itself is WORTH IT.

Say you’ve dreamed of working for the World Wildlife Foundation since the day you saw a commercial for saving tigers when you were five years old and an unpaid intern position becomes available, or you want to break into an especially niche and closed field of work that hires more off who you know than what you know. Even if the timing or wages aren’t ideal, if you have the chance to pursue a career-altering once-in-a-lifetime dream international internship, you can (and probably should) still take it.

If you are pursuing an unpaid international internship in the hopes of obtaining a competitive full-time paid position, just be sure the effort you put in matches your high expectations!

Your internship placement provider has rave reviews.

If past interns have been satisfied with their international work experience, paid or not, then it’s a good sign that you too will find tangible value and benefits from interning abroad sans salary. Before you sign off on a program provider, be sure sure to read reviews, compare options, and choose the internship program that best suits your professional (and fun!) goals. Here are some great options to jumpstart your research: The Intern Group, Internship in Japan, VACorps, and Asia Internship Programme.

Not-So-Worth-It If...

While the international internship itself is sure to be beneficial, there are inevitably a few instances when the time, effort, and money invested outweigh the pros of the experience. The following situations outline a few scenarios where an unpaid international internship may just not be worth it:

Person climbing stairs

Internships are good for experience and getting your foot into the industry.

There is a paid internship available.

If there is a just-as-good paid internship available to you, take that instead. International experience cannot be overrated, and if your goal is to work abroad or in a position you can only gain access to by interning abroad, then obviously the two internship opportunities aren’t equal are they? But, if you simply wish to travel and there is a paid internship available that is just as relevant to your life as the unpaid international one, opt for the former. Make the money, save up, and travel on your own time.

There are several reasons why this will be the better course, generally speaking. Oftentimes, paid internships are with presumably better companies because they can afford to pay their interns and care to invest in their future. Likewise, they will often be more competitive, since the prospect pool will not be limited to only those who can afford the pay sacrifice.

In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that those who participated in paid internships had a higher percentage of job offers and higher median salaries upon being hired. Although the numbers in part may reflect the fact that paid internships are often available in more prestigious, higher-paying industries, it also suggests that paid internships prove more beneficial in getting hired and compensated in the long run.

The internship is not directly beneficial.

International internships are undoubtedly offer incredibly meaningful travel opportunities, but if the only reason you plan to pursue one is to justify a trip abroad, you may want to think again. The internship part of an international internship should be the priority, not the international part.

The fact that an unpaid internship is abroad is, in fact, a GINORMOUS perk, but shouldn’t be the only qualifying factor in your checklist of internship criteria. If the actual work involved is not directly beneficial to your career and life, it is probably not going to be worth it, but definitely work to find one that is.

You are actually just trying to escape the reach of your overly needy new bae.

...Or overprotective mom, un-fun adult responsibilities, or pesky messy roommates. Basically, similar to the above bullet, if you are motivated by any number of non-realistic, non-relevant, moot motives, probably just stay home and face them instead.

If it is a job you hate and dread going to everyday that motivates you, on the other hand, looking into new career prospects is not a bad idea. Just be sure you are making your decisions for a longer-term, logical process in mind, and not as the result of a hasty, frustrated need.

Sports ball in field

It’s important that the internship is in your field of game.

You have strong ethical concerns.

Because there is such an emphasis on experience, in turn forcing young professionals to have to take what they can get, arguments have been made that unpaid internships hurt the economy by allowing companies to fill positions for free that would otherwise employ local professionals seeking work.

This is, however, a rare exception to the rule. Unpaid internships have long since become the norm, and international internships are extremely commonplace, so the vast majority of opportunities are legitimate and should arouse no concerns. If for some reason you uncover any shady business that causes you to seriously question the ethics of the internship at hand, don’t be afraid to pay heed to red flags.

So, is it worth it for you?

The only thing left to do is a little introspection. Where do you stand financially? What are your motives for pursuing this internship? What will you get out of the experience?

We all get it. Everyone wants to find paid internships abroad, but it’s not always a possibility. No argument stands a chance against the benefits of an unpaid internships for those in a position to take advantage of what it has to offer. So if your only hesitation is apprehension, fear not! If a realistic opportunity to intern abroad presents itself, there’s really nothing left to do but count your blessings and pack your bags.