Volunteer Abroad

How to Live Like a Local as You Volunteer Abroad

Photo of Natasha Amar
Natasha Amar

Natasha is a Dubai-based travel writer and photographer who likes to explore the world in cultures, cuisines, and hiking trails.

Alexis M., NYU Accra Ghana
Photo by Alexis M., NYU Accra Ghana Alum

Volunteering abroad is a deeply immersive travel experience, no matter how long you spend on your volunteer placement.

There are some things you can do to make this a more meaningful experience though, and living like a local is one of them. Learning how to live like a local in a new place makes all the difference to how deep and insightful of an experience you’ll have. It also is often a more budget-friendly way to live abroad while volunteering.

There’s a golden opportunity for real cultural immersion to be found only in navigating life in a new place as the locals do. Stepping into local life means you’ll come away with more than just another addition to your resume. You’ll bring back with you a new, open-minded and empathic way of looking at different cultures and lifestyles. Here’s how to live like a local on your volunteer abroad program.

Stay Like a Local

While it might be "the dream," it might not be financially feasible to stay at a hotel while volunteering abroad.

Beyond that, practical considerations aren’t the only reason you should explore other accommodation options. To really integrate into life as a local, steer away from hotels, hostels, or guest houses in the touristy neighborhoods of the city and look for options in residential neighborhoods.

While hostels and student residences are a reasonable option in every major city, consider renting an apartment by yourself or sharing with one or more fellow volunteers. Not only will you have the additional benefit of access to a kitchen, but you’ll also have the chance to be part of a real local community with neighbors. If your volunteer program is for a few months, you will appreciate living in a real home and have your own privacy and space.

If you do not mind sharing a space, there’s nothing like living in a room in a local’s apartment. Check sites like Airbnb and local rental websites to find accommodation listings. The people who usually open up their homes to travelers are generally friendly, helpful, and interested in more than just the extra income that comes from renting out a room. They can be wonderful hosts, sharing helpful tips, advice, and recommendations, introducing you to other locals and authentic experiences while wanting to learn more about where you come from.

For many community development volunteer programs, such as those in Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, volunteers have the option to stay in accommodations within the community or in homestays with local families. If you’ve never experienced something like this before, this can become a valuable part of your volunteer program and an eye-opening experience.

Homestays are a great opportunity to spend time with local families and get to know them intimately. They can become part of your support system while you volunteer abroad and these relationships may last long after you’ve returned home. Through homestays, you have the chance to increase your impact by sharing your skills and adding value, no matter how small, directly to the community.

Get Around Like a Local

Tuk Tuk in Thailand Pixabay

While you might be used to driving around your own city or hopping into a taxi without thinking twice, varying fuel costs around the world mean that taxis can be shockingly expensive in some cities. Instead, consider public transportation like buses and trains.

These modes of transport might be a bit scary at first, but they're commonly used by locals, and they typically help you experience local life much more deeply. Also, it's almost always is the cheapest, fastest, or most convenient way to do it.

In cities like Dhaka, while taxis and auto-rickshaws might be cheap, they may not always be the best way to get around because of massive traffic jams during rush hours. During such times, follow the example of locals who get around by cycle-rickshaws that can squeeze and wiggle their way out of traffic jams.

If you’re living or volunteering in the countryside or smaller towns, consider if you can rent a bicycle to get around; not only does it save on everyday travel costs, it also keeps you fit and active. In bike-friendly cities, there are bike-share systems in place that are used also by the locals.

In metropolitan cities with public buses, trains, ferries, and metro, the transportation system offers 90-day, monthly, or weekly travel cards, used by locals, that charge a lower fare on every journey as compared to point-to-point tickets and can be used on a combination of different modes. In Mumbai, a monthly first class pass is available on local trains, that are the most convenient and quickest mode of transportation across the city, and offers unlimited journeys in the first-class compartment for a month at a very reasonable fare.

It’s worth doing your research to find out if having one of these commuter passes or cards would work out cheaper, especially if you have a daily commute to your volunteer placement

Eat Like a Local

Thanks to globalization and tourism, you’ll find that in most cities and towns that host a large volunteer or study abroad community, there are a reasonable number of international options. Thus, it isn’t difficult to find your comfort foods like pizza, burgers, or sandwiches.

While it’s okay to resort to these every once in a while, remember that one of the most enjoyable ways to explore a new culture is through its cuisine. If you don’t at least sample the cuisine that’s native to the place, it would amount to a wasted opportunity.

Ask the locals about their favorite places to eat out and don’t be afraid to follow them into little hole-in-the-wall restaurants, even when they don’t have English menus. These can often be where you’ll taste the most authentic and delicious local food and spend a fraction of what you would in more touristy places.

While it’s the easiest thing to sit down to eat at one of the paella restaurants lining the tourist drag of La Rambla in Barcelona, it’s worth seeking out a tiny family-run kitchen serving home-cooked meals in the residential neighborhood of Gracia, especially if eating out costs are significant in your daily budget. If you happen to notice a place is full of locals at lunch or dinnertime, it is likely to serve good food. Many cities have food markets or food halls where you can enjoy a delicious takeaway lunch or snack for cheap and very often these are the go-to places for locals.

If you’re volunteering abroad for a long time, aren’t living with a local host family, and have access to a kitchen, consider cooking, whether it’s in a hostel or shared apartment. Shop for groceries at fresh produce markets like the locals and hone your cooking skills. Not only will it be more budget-friendly, it is also healthier than eating out every day... you'll also gain first-hand experience with new ingredients and undoubtedly invent a few meals you love.

Dress Like a Local

Melissa P., Volunteer India
Photo by Melissa P., Volunteer India Alum

As travelers, it is our responsibility to dress in a way that’s both culturally appropriate and respectful. Before you leave for your volunteer abroad program, research how locals dress in your host city and pack to blend in rather than stand out. Don’t forget to bring clothes that are appropriate for the weather.

If you’re volunteering abroad in the Middle East or in Asia, bear in mind that dressing modestly will not only help you feel comfortable and avoid unwanted attention, it will also help locals warm up to you and view you as someone who is respectful of their culture.

Travelers can often ignore or be indifferent to what is appropriate in a local community when they are surrounded by other travelers or backpackers dressed like them. But this can make local communities wary of opening up to foreigners and lead to a general dislike for outsiders. A little bit of research and a willingness to adhere to the local dress code can avoid that situation.

On the other hand, remember not to take your enthusiasm for the local dress too far and wear traditional outfits that might usually be worn only during festivals or celebrations, as it may amount to a mockery of the tradition and will also make you look silly.

Speak Like a Local

While volunteering abroad, any effort to learn and speak the local language significantly enriches your overall experience and the quality of interactions you have with locals in your host country.

Often, travelers tend to become lazy about learning the local language, making do with English where possible and sometimes even forcing locals out of their comfort zone by having to resort to broken English. Instead, if you tried to pick up their language, not only will you have a more interesting overall experience, you might find that you like the language enough to want to learn it formally.

It does not even matter if your accent sounds funny or if you mispronounce some words, locals will always appreciate the fact that you’re trying. Even if language learning is not your forte, try to learn basic greetings and phrases such as ‘Thank you’, ‘Good Morning’, ‘How are you?’, and ‘My name is’, as these can help break the ice with even the most reserved locals you meet. It demonstrates your eagerness and effort to meet them halfway. Thanks to free language learning websites like Duolingo, apps, and pocket-sized phrasebooks, it has become very easy to learn a few key phrases.

Observe Customs Like a Local

Katherine G., TEAN Thailand
Photo by Katherine G., TEAN Thailand Alum

If you truly want to live like a local abroad, you have got to take the time to learn as much as possible about the customs and right social etiquette to avoid any cultural faux pas. Even everyday things can be different in a foreign culture and awareness is key.

Here are some examples of how observing local customs can help you avoid major social faux pas:

  • While you might be used to reaching out for a handshake while introducing yourself, in the Middle East, it is best to refrain from doing that with a local of the opposite sex and waiting for them to do it first, should they be comfortable.
  • In Thailand, it’s rude to show the bottom of your feet and women, when seated on the floor should sit with their knees together, both feet pointed to one side away from their lower bodies while men may sit cross-legged.
  • In some parts of India, people do not use cutlery to eat with and scoop up balls of rice with their fingers, always using their right hand only, and guests should do the same.
  • In the country of Georgia, you are likely to be offered homemade wine everywhere in the wine-making regions, often for free by families you just met, it is polite to accept and praise the quality and taste as Georgian winemakers are very proud of their wines.

Experience the Culture Like a Local

While volunteering abroad, it can be easy to cling to the comfort of your volunteer group and spend all of your free time with fellow volunteers who are just like you.

A volunteer abroad program offers opportunities that go far beyond your official scope of work and duties; it offers the chance to closely interact with the host community and develop friendships. Talk to coordinators, neighbors, and any other locals that you meet on a daily basis to know more about life in their cities.

No matter where in the world you volunteer abroad, local people are generally friendly, approachable, and happy to share stories about their cities and want to know more about where you come from. A volunteer abroad program can become an excellent cultural exchange, only if you’re willing to venture out of your comfort zone.

Treat locals and your interactions with them just as respectfully as you would while making new friends back home. Never objectify these experiences and always ask for permission before photographing people. It’s best to put down your camera and try to build a rapport with people as the few stories you take away will be far more meaningful than countless photographs.

Don’t be shy to accept invitations to weddings, festivals, celebrations, or simply an evening in a local home to chat over a cup of tea. It might feel strange to attend a local community festival or event when you do not speak the language, but locals will be pleased to see you try to integrate within the community and be warm and welcoming. These serendipitous experiences can surprise you in a pleasant way and show you a side of the culture other tourists might not get to see.

By trying to live like a local on your volunteer program, you won’t just learn the practicalities of life abroad, but will also tune in to the mindsets and mentalities of people who grew up with different social systems, beliefs, values, priorities, challenges, and opportunities than you did. That is an experience that prepares you for an international career, a global mindset, and expat life abroad.