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Safety Tips for Parents Whose Children Are Studying Abroad

stay safe while abroad

Studying abroad can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences. It can change worldviews, open minds, and create global friendships. While the benefits are immense, the thought of one’s child living so far away can rattle the nerves of even the most easy-going parents.

While your child is probably swimming in glossy brochures and informative emails from their study abroad office, you might be less in the loop. From choosing the right travel insurance, to what to do in the case of an emergency, here is your guide to preparing your child for a safe study abroad experience!

Basic Study Abroad Safety Tips

Common sense and good judgement are the best tips for staying safe anywhere in the world. Though, when placed in an exciting and unfamiliar environment, sometimes even our best judgment gets tossed to the wayside. To beat the bull, share these tips with your child:

1. Take official taxis

Leaving the bustling airport, jet lagged and tired, it’s tempting to jump at the first taxi you find. Instead, hold off, and find the airport’s official taxi queue, a special area for only authorized taxis. (These are the safest bet). While out and about, avoid hopping into taxis that don’t list a phone number or company name on the outside, as these ones are probably unauthorized.

taxis abroad

2. Communicate travel plans

If your child is traveling to other cities or countries on the weekend, see if they can shoot you or a local person a quick email about their plans. Updating their social media accounts or blog is also a smart move, as it lets everyone know that they’re doing ok.

3. Avoid being a target for pickpockets

I’ll always remember one evening in Paris, sitting on the steps of Sacre Coeur with some international students. Suddenly, a man came over and asked if we had a cigarette. There was a quick conversation exchange, and he left as quickly as he appeared. Suddenly, two people in our group noticed their purses were missing.

Ok, maybe this man had nothing to do with it, but all it took was a few seconds of distraction for us to notice our bags missing. (Luckily, mine was in my lap.) The takeaway point is that pickpockets sometimes do work in teams, so while you’re distracted, there may be another person working on your bag.

Of course, walking through through life paranoid isn’t the way to go, but just make a habit of holding onto your bags, and always wear a moneybelt while at airports and train stations.

4. Understand the country’s laws

The moment you cross a border, you’re no longer covered by your home country’s laws and constitutional rights. Getting arrested abroad and saying that you “didn’t know this was the law”, or, “but I’m a U.S. citizen!” won’t get you off the hook. Drug-related arrests account for one-third of U.S. citizen arrests abroad. While the penalties vary from country to country, getting caught carrying drugs abroad can carry severe sentences, ranging to imprisonment, to hard labor, and even the death penalty.

If you get arrested abroad for anything, you will need to contact your nearest consulate, which can help you find legal representation and English-speaking lawyers, but can’t secure your release. To stay safe, make it a priority to learn about your host country’s laws.

5. Stay aware of local events and news

It’s always smart to keep an what’s unfolding around you. For example, if your county has a notorious rainy season, know which roads and areas to avoid. (For example, those mountain roads leading to Machu Picchu are mudslide-prone in February. Best to avoid!) If you hear about a tumultuous protest planned in a neighboring city, avoid weekend travel through that area. Asking the locals, reading the news, and staying updated on travel advisories from the U.S. Department of State can give you more insight on unfolding events, especially if you’re studying abroad in a politically unstable area.

Everything You Need to Know About Travel and Health Insurance

Whether it’s four weeks or four months months- it’s extremely important (and required by almost every study abroad program) that your child has some kind of international health coverage for every day they’re abroad.

First off, check if the study abroad program includes basic travel and health insurance in their program fee. (A lot do!) These basic plans usually cover these minimal (but most important) areas:

visa application paperwork
  • Flight delays/disruption
  • Lost or stolen luggage
  • Basic medical (Evacuation and emergency treatment of injuries/illness.)

But they usually do NOT cover…

  • Injuries from sports and adventure activities
  • Pre-existing medical conditions
  • Injuries obtained while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Cancellation for any reason

Make sure you’re covered in important areas

Scouring the internet for the right international insurance can be daunting. There’s a lot of options, “add-ons,” exceptions, and questions to ask. The first step is to avoid purchasing the first “deal” you find, as the cheapest policy might not offer the best coverage for your child’s needs.

No matter what you decide on, make sure child is covered in these two, important areas:

  • Evacuation (Medical evacuations can cost upward of $50,000 abroad, so make sure you find a policy that offers excellent coverage here.)
  • Emergency medical treatments/hospitalization

Know how to file a claim

This is most fuzzy area, but it’s well worth the extra attention! Before purchasing, always read the policy’s fine print, and ask questions about their process of making a claim. For example, would your child have to pay cash at the hospital for medical treatments first, and then file paperwork in order to be reimbursed later? What is the number to call to file a claim, and is there a 24-hour support service? (Try to find a policy that has one.)

Other questions to ask to help you choose the right travel insurance plan:

  • Does my child have a pre-existing medical condition? Whether its asthma or heart problems, make sure you find a plan that covers the possible expenses of treating pre-existing conditions abroad. Even if a plan says it does, make sure it’s sufficient.
  • Does my child plan to be very active? Injuries from practically all sports activities abroad aren’t usually covered by basic, international health insurance plans. If your child plans on skiing, biking, or even riding a moped, then you may want to add on this extra coverage to be safe. World Nomads Travel Insurance has a variety of options.
  • Is this an expensive trip? A good, basic travel insurance plans will included “Trip interruption or delays” coverage, meaning if your flight’s delayed or canceled, you’re reimbursed for any associated costs of hotels, etc. However, if you cancel, you aren’t covered. What if there’s a family emergency, and your child has to miss their flight? To be covered for these kinds of situations, make sure you have “cancel for any reason” coverage in your plan.

Tips for Responding to Emergencies

Just like at home, we can come down with a nasty flu or lose our wallet. But abroad, in an unfamiliar environment, these situations can be more stressful if you’re not prepared. Here’s how to tackle the unexpected while abroad:

If they lose their debit card...

Call the bank immediately Shutting down the card is the first priority. Before leaving, make sure your child knows how to reach their bank to report a lost card while abroad. They should always carry this phone number, along with their bank account number and photocopies of their debit card.

friends abroad

Use a backup card: It usually take 2-3 business days to express delivery a replacement card. Carrying an extra debit or credit card can come in handy in emergencies.

Wire money: If they’re really in a bind, you can always wire money. They can pick up the cash from the nearest local money transfer service by presenting a photo ID and the code number from the transfer. Western Union is the most reliable way to send money abroad in as quickly as one hour.

If they lose their passport...

They will need to visit the nearest consulate and apply for a temporary passport. To apply for one, they will need to present a passport-sized photo and photocopy of their old passport, so make sure they carry these copies.

This may interrupt travel plans and be a costly mistake. Be sure to communicate explicitly with your child the importance of this document.

If they have a medical emergency...

First things first - take a deep breath. Your kid is in good hands. Here's what to do next:

  • Call the local emergency number Before anything else, get to a hospital. In most European countries, the emergency number is 112, which can summon an ambulance, the police, or the fire department. Make sure they know their country’s emergency number.
  • Call the nearest consulate If they’re in a non-life threatening emergency, the nearest consulate can provide a list of quality, nearby doctors and hospitals, and often English-speaking physicians.
  • Contact your insurance company Let them know your situation, and file a claim as soon as possible. Many major insurance companies have a 24-hour emergency support line for assistance.
  • Tell the study abroad staff Always tell an in-country, study abroad staff member about any unfolding medical situation, and notify the home campus. Some study abroad programs even have a 24-hour contact person that students and parents can reach out to for urgent matters.

Emergency Contacts Checklist

Having all the right numbers at your fingertips is a great feeling. While the vast, vast majority of study abroad experiences are incident-free, it’s always smart to be over prepared. Here are the contacts both you and your child should carry:

Register your trip with your embassy

Ok, it’s not a contact number, but a smart tip! Consider registering online with your home embassy before leaving. This gives your country a “head-count” of its citizens abroad. If there is an emergency, like political unrest or natural disaster, it will be more easy for them to reach your child. Here is U.S .Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

The nearest consulate

If your child loses their passport, get arrested, or needs medical or legal resources, the local consulate is the place to visit or call. Along with the address, they should know the consulate’s daytime and after-hours phone numbers.

Your home embassy’s 24-hour phone number

If they can’t reach the local consulate for any reason and need help regarding medical or legal matters, they can call their home embassy. These offices are here to help citizens traveling abroad. Bookmark your embassy’s emergency assistant page:

Your insurance policy’s emergency number

They can provide help and assistance, so it’s advisable to find a policy that has this support.

Any local contacts

Make sure you have a few numbers of people in-country, such as a friend studying abroad with your child, and a local, study abroad program coordinator.

Keep in Touch!

Just like at home, the key to staying safe abroad is a combination of good judgement and preparation. Knowing how to deal with injury and sickness abroad, and knowing that you both have a plan will give you better peace of mind.

Encourage your child to use their street smarts abroad, but also give them their space and trust in the process. Now that you’re both prepared, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the rewards of this incredible experience!

Photo Credits: One World 365 and Wikimedia.
Andrea Moran

After studying abroad in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Andrea decided to combine her love of education and other cultures by teaching English in Chile. She has previously coached diverse Bay Area students in English writing, and is recently TEFL-certified. Keep up with her on Twitter @andream_m and Google+.