Sometimes international scholars will ask a UAB faculty member if they can come to UAB to conduct purely independent research, use a library or other lab resource, or observe how something is done in the US. Other international scholars will be invited to campus to lecture or attend a conference at UAB. These individuals will not be paid by UAB as employees and may need only certain levels of access via a volunteer appointment in order to achieve their objective.

The vast majority of the time, such individuals will not need any immigration-related sponsorship from UAB and can apply for a business (B-1) visa at a US consulate abroad on their own in order to enter the US for the activity at UAB. Additionally, citizens of certain countries don’t even have to obtain a physical visa at a US consulate abroad and can just apply online for a visa waiver through the ESTA program. For ease of reference, we will call these groups “independent researchers.”

Even though independent researchers do not require UAB/HSF to file immigration-related sponsorship paperwork with a government agency, ISSS must still be notified that they are coming, and they still have to follow the proper institutional protocols for health & safety, confidentiality, immunizations, and the myriad of other rules of the UAB community. If we know they are coming, we can also help facilitate the tax piece of any honorarium or travel expense reimbursement offered.

Helpful Forms and Tips

It is helpful for the department to provide an official invitation letter to them outlining the scope of the visit so that the individual can present it to a US Customs and Border Protection official at the airport.

Explanation of Visitor Visas

The B-1 visa is for business visitors. The B-1 visa is a physical sticker placed in an individual’s passport after an interview at a US embassy or consulate abroad.

ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is an electronic document issued to citizens of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. It does not require an interview at a US consulate or embassy abroad and is not a physical sticker in the passport.

Remember, a visa is just a “ticket” to enter the US for a specific purpose. The visitor must be coming to the US to engage in activities commensurate with the intent of the B-1 visa and ESTA visa waiver programs. It is appropriate for temporary visitors to UAB engaging in the following activities:

  • Consult with business associates
  • Attend a scientific, educational, professional, or business convention or conference
  • Negotiate a contract

B/ESTA visas may also be appropriate for short-term observerships organized by the Office of International Medical Education. ISSS and IME must first confirm if the proposed visit is appropriate.

In any case, the B-1 Visa or ESTA is NOT appropriate, independently of the length of the visit:

  • If the visitor is coming to UAB to engage in collaborative research with UAB,
  • If the visit will benefit UAB in any way,
  • If the visit is sponsored by the visitor home government

Common Scenarios

“Someone at a conference liked my presentation and asked if they could come to UAB for a couple of weeks and work with me.”

“I want to invite a prestigious international figure to UAB to deliver a lecture.”

Cover reimbursement and honoraria.

“My friend’s niece is a genius and wants to shadow me in the lab this summer.”

Policy on minors.

“My colleague recommended a UAB observership to one of her friends overseas.”

The Office of International Medical Education has established very clear parameters and processes for international observerships at UAB.

Volunteer Appointments

Occasionally you may be asked to appoint an international visitor for administrative purposes, use of UAB facilities, or other reasons. Internationals without work authorization who want to do something with their time—even highly skilled and highly motivated internationals without work authorization, and even highly skilled, highly motivated internationals related to someone on campus—cannot be offered unpaid grant positions, research, grant writing, literature review, or other tasks for which UAB would normally hire and pay an employee. Even unpaid activities most people would not consider “work” can have disastrous immigration and compliance consequences in the context of international visitors.

Overlapping Definitions of Volunteer

UAB HR’s definition: true “volunteers,” like candy stripers, gift wrappers during holidays, high school students stuffing envelopes for fundraising, etc.

Immigration and Nationality Act [8 C.F.R. § 274(f)] defines “employee” as “An individual who provides services or labor for an employer for wages or other remuneration.” “Other remuneration” can encompass items such as housing, childcare, transportation, etc. 

Department of Labor (DOL) defines a “volunteer” as an “individual who performs hours of service ... for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” The DOL has two concerns: protecting jobs for US workers and preventing exploitation of all workers.

How to Determine if the Position Really is “Volunteer”?

  • Are the person’s prospective duties ones that are normally filled by a paid employee?
  • Are there other individuals in the department who perform such tasks without pay?
  • USCIS considers “work” to include performing a job that is normally paid, or if other people performing the same or similar jobs are compensated. Basically, anything done for UAB’s benefit (including for a UAB faculty member’s benefit) on a consistent or daily basis is considered “work.” J-2s without an EAD can participate only in true volunteer activities (i.e., for charities, religious or community organizations, or other similar entities).

Still not sure? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for an opinion.

  • This person I’m being asked to appoint as a Volunteer has a visa. They’re not getting paid. Why does it matter?

Many spouses of J-1 and H-1B primary visa holders at UAB are established, talented scientists in their own right and seek opportunities to “stay active” in the field or keep up their CV while in the US accompanying their J-1 or H-1B spouse. However, as stated above, "volunteering" cannot displace a US worker and is reserved for truly charitable opportunities.

J-2 dependents cannot “volunteer” to help in a lab, with research or literature review, or any other activity in any capacity that would displace a paid worker (including post-docs, student assistants, GRAs, etc.) or result in a benefit to UAB.

H-4 dependents also cannot participate in any activity outlined above ("helping" in a lab, etc.).

B-1/VWP status is appropriate ONLY for visitors who will come to UAB to engage in independent research as long as BOTH: a) neither UAB nor any other US source is paying the visitor, AND b) the results of the visitor’s independent research will not benefit UAB. If the visitor will receive payment from a US source and/or UAB will benefit from the results of the research, the visitor MUST come to UAB in J-1 or H-1B status.