Internships and placements

The law on unpaid internships: know your rights

31 Aug 2023, 08:28

Our guide to interns’ rights sets out when students and graduates are entitled to the national minimum wage. It also explores the issues around unpaid internships.

An unpaid intern’s empty piggy bank lying on its side looking tired.

The law on pay for interns sounds simple. In theory, as an intern, you’re entitled to payment if you’ve agreed to do work for an organisation within a set timeframe and you’ve completed it. However, in practice the situation is more complex. We outline the facts on unpaid internships and why there is debate about them. Our guide covers the following:

We also have advice features ‘What is an internship?’ and ‘What are virtual internships?’ that will help if you’re unsure of what counts as an internship.

If you’re looking for an internship, you can find paid opportunities on targetjobs.

Are internships paid?

By law, employers have to pay interns the national minimum wage if any of these apply:

  • you have a contract outlining that the nature of the work you will do (the contract doesn’t need to be written, it can be verbal).
  • you’re required to turn up to work, even if you don’t want to.
  • the employer has to have work for you to do.
  • you’re promised a work contract in future.

A full list of situations when interns must be paid can be found on GOV.UK .

If you’re offered a written or verbal contract for an internship or work experience, ask your careers service or university advice centre for guidance before you agree to it. Their advisers will help you work out if what you’re being offered is legal and what to do if you’re asked to work for free.

What is the internship minimum wage?

If you’re doing a placement that meets any of the criteria above, you’re entitled to be paid the minimum wage. This varies depending on your age. In 2023, the national minimum wage is as follows:

  • Rate for those aged 23 and over: £10.42 (this is also known as the national living wage)
  • Rate for those aged 21 to 22: £10.18
  • Rate for those aged 18 to 20: £7.49
  • Rate for those aged 16 to 17 or apprentices: £5.28

Are unpaid internships illegal?

It’s illegal for employers not to pay workers at least the national minimum wage.

The important word here is ‘worker’. Not all interns are classed as workers, and as you’ll see below, there are some circumstances in which interns don’t need to be paid. This is why you need to know your rights (and to seek advice if you’re asked to agree to a contract) before starting any kind of internship or work experience.

What kinds of unpaid work experience are allowed? There are a few situations in which organisations aren’t required to pay interns the national minimum wage. These include:

  • if you’re doing an internship that lasts for less than one year as part of a UK-based higher education course (eg a sandwich course – although most employers do pay sandwich-year students).
  • if you’re volunteering at a charity or voluntary organisation, work hours you have chosen and receive limited expenses, such as for food and travel. However, if you receive any money that can’t be regarded as a reimbursement of expenses, this counts as payment and you should therefore be paid the national minimum wage.
  • if you’re work-shadowing – ie observing an employee and not carrying out any work yourself.

What’s wrong with unpaid internships?

Unpaid internships have been criticised for two main reasons:

  1. It’s unfair and exploitative for an employer to profit from an intern’s work when the intern isn’t paid for it. The employer is getting something for free and could be seen as taking advantage of a student or graduate’s eagerness to get experience in that field of work. For graduate interns, in particular, a long unpaid internship could be regarded as a way of having someone do a graduate job without paying them for it.
  2. Unpaid internships are a barrier to social mobility. It’s seen as unfair that students and graduates from wealthier backgrounds can take part in (and benefit from) unpaid internships, while many others can’t. For example, in 2020, the Sutton Trust estimated that the cost of doing an unpaid internship was £1,093 (or £1,011 if travel costs were paid by the employer) in London and £905 in Manchester (or £843 if travel was covered). This is a situation that not all students and graduates can afford.

Is it ever OK to do an unpaid internship?

If you have the chance to do an unpaid internship – one that should be paid – that you think could help you get your dream graduate job and you can afford to do it, should you take it? Some industries offer very little in the way of paid internships but still ask for relevant work experience in order to get your first job. This is particularly common in arts, media, journalism and fashion roles.

Some might argue that employers will continue to offer unpaid internships if students and graduates are willing to do them. However, you could consider doing a short period of unpaid work experience, such as a fortnight or one day a week for a couple of months, if all of the following apply:

  • you’ll get something out of it that you’re confident will help your career.
  • it’s flexible enough to give you the time you need to study, work part time or apply to graduate jobs at the same time.
  • it doesn’t break the law (see above).

You might also decide that it’s acceptable to take up an opportunity where you will be working the hours that you want to work, and doing a combination of work shadowing and independent work – but without any obligation for you to complete a certain amount within a certain time, or to stay any longer than you want to.

Alternatively, you could accept an unpaid or low-paid internship and look for a bursary to help with the costs. Many universities offer bursaries, although they’re sometimes only available to particular groups of students. Some charitable trusts and professional bodies also offer bursaries to cover the costs of internships: ask for guidance at your careers service.

Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that the best option is always a paid internship. You can be confident you’ll be doing work that’s contributing to the organisation and you won’t have to worry that anyone is being exploited.

View paid placement and internship vacancies on targetjobs .

Paid internships with SMEs

It’s not just big-name recruiters who hire interns. Small to medium-sized organisations (SMEs) do too.

However, these placements may not be advertised as widely as those at well-known employers. You may need to send speculative applications or ask for useful contacts from your university department. You can also contact your university’s careers service to find out how their advisers can help you organise a placement or internship at an SME.

What’s right for you?

In the end, the decision as to whether to do an unpaid or low-paid internship is down to you, how much work experience you have to add to your CV already and your career plans. It’s certainly true that money isn’t the overriding concern for many students seeking an internship: more than half of the students and graduates who responded to the Cibyl Graduate Research UK 2022 survey said that learning career skills was the most important reason to do an internship. Earning a salary tied for second place in the ranking, alongside using an internship to secure a graduate job (even if the job wasn’t with the internship provider) and networking.

Beyond the law: what does a good internship look like?

Whether your internship offers a high salary or not, there should be something in it for you. Internships should meet some best practice guidelines, such as those put together by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Employers should follow them when they’re developing work experience opportunities for students and graduates, and you can use them to decide whether an internship is going to benefit your career.

Here’s what to look for when you apply for internships:

  • You should be given as much responsibility and diversity in your work as possible.
  • You should be allowed time off to attend job interviews.
  • You should have opportunities to interact with other interns.
  • You should be able to participate even if you don’t have the latest technology or a specific device.
  • You should have a full induction.
  • You should have a specific person supervising and mentoring you. This person should also conduct a formal performance review to evaluate the success of your time with the organisation.
  • On completion of your internship, organisations should provide you with a reference letter.

How can I get work experience, apart from an internship?

If you can’t find a paid internship in your career area of interest, you may need to build relevant experience in other ways. This can often be done online and could be combined with paid work. For example, if you want a graduate job in software development, you could take part in a hackathon. If you’re interested in a role in public service, you could volunteer online to help elderly people become more digitally literate and connect with people via technology. If you need examples of your writing, set up your own blog or website to show off your creativity, or offer to write for your university’s student newspaper.

Look at a volunteering database such as Do IT if you’re not sure what you want to do. This will list online and in-person opportunities with voluntary organisations and charities. Don’t forget about online courses and webinars either. While they’re not a traditional form of work experience, many offer the chance to build career-related skills and will give you a certificate or badge when you complete them.

The beauty of this kind of experience is that it’s tailored to you. You won’t be paid, but you can fit your self-created internship around paid work and other commitments. You’ll also build valuable work-related skills that you can include on your CV, such as customer service, time management and communication skills.

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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