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A Comprehensive "To-Do" List Before You Volunteer Abroad

Volunteer ExperiencePhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

In many ways, the hardest part of volunteering abroad is the mental jump from dreaming of the perfect volunteer trip to making it a reality. The work doesn’t end there, though; once you’ve been accepted to your dream international volunteer program (there are a bunch of volunteer programs out there to choose from, afterall!), there are still lots of loose ends to tie up and situations to prepare yourself for. Some preparations will be more logistical, others more mental and emotional, but all of them are important if you want to have a great experience volunteering abroad.

After years of volunteering abroad and working in the international volunteering industry to prepare volunteers like you to make a difference in the world, I’ve compiled the following list of the fourteen most essential steps for preparing for your international volunteer experience. Treat this as your handy-dandy preparation checklist for volunteering abroad, and go turn that dream of volunteering abroad into a reality!

Some preparations will be more logistical, others more mental and emotional, but all of them are important if you want to have a great experience volunteering abroad.

Prepare your passport

Let’s start at the very beginning: you can’t volunteer abroad unless you have a passport to travel abroad. If you're getting a passport for the first time, apply at least 6 months before travel if possible (if not, you may need to pay extra to expedite). If you already have a passport, make sure it's valid for at least six months after your travels, and that you have at least one or two blank pages for entry and exit stamps.

Book your flight

Finding flight deals is key if you're on a budget. Compare flight prices on sites like Kayak and Hipmunk, and set up price alerts to see how prices fluctuate over time. The best time to buy is typically somewhere between two and five months before your program, and lower rates tend to be launched on Tuesdays. There are also special travel agencies and flight consolidators, like Key Travel and Fly for Good that have access to “humanitarian” airfares, which are unpublished, discounted rates for travelers doing volunteer service. The key is to get price quotes from a number of different places and compare them all to find the best deal, and don’t forget to ask friends and families for any frequent flyer miles!

Volunteer destinationPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

Apply for your visa (if needed)

You'll always get a stamp in your passport when you arrive in a different country, but some destinations also require a pre-entry visa. To see if you need a visa for your destination, check out Visa HQ. If you need a visa, the best time to apply is about one to two months before your trip. Pre-departure visas are usually stickers on the pages of your passport. This means you will need to send in your actual passport to get the visa, so make sure you take care of applying for, renewing, or adding pages to your passport before then. You’ll also need to book your flight first. If you encounter a bit of a time crunch, you can pay extra to expedite your visa through services like ABriggs.

Register your travels with the State Dept

You can register your dates of travel with the State Department through their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive safety updates about your destination and be sure the State Department can find you in case of an emergency. As you start looking through the State Department’s safety messages, keep in mind that there are different levels of alerts: security messages are typically the least urgent, followed by travel alerts, and finally travel warnings.

Leave your mark by teaching others your skills. If this is not built into the program design, try to find ways to proactively share your knowledge with the people who will continue to work on site after you leave, whether it be other volunteers or full-time employees.

Get insurance coverage

Most regular health insurance policies do not cover travel abroad, so check with your provider to know for sure. If your international volunteer work isn’t covered, explore options for supplemental travel medical insurance, looking for features like emergency medical evacuation as well as trip cancellation insurance in case a major event makes you cancel your program.

Research health recommendations and get required vaccines

Check with the CDC to learn about any vaccine requirements or recommendations and health risks where you’re traveling. Pay particular attention to food safety; in some locations, you can eat as adventurously as you might at home, but elsewhere, you may need to avoid all uncooked foods (sorry, salad lovers!) or street food. No matter where you go, it’s best to stick to bottled water and beverages. If you have any food allergies or preferences, be sure to notify your program or host as soon as possible, and if you’re a picky eater or vegetarian, come prepared with some protein bars just in case you have a hard time adjusting to the cuisine. Don’t forget to bring a full stock of any regular prescriptions you take (they may not be available where you’re going), and it never hurts to bring Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, and Benadryl. Be prepared in case you come down with sickness or injury while abroad.

Work hardPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

Stay connected

Be sure to know the availability of phone and internet where you’re going, and leave contact information with your friends and family so that they know how to reach you. If you’re bringing your own phone, make sure you check with your provider to confirm that your device will work abroad, and to ask what the rates are (roaming data can be pretty expensive!). Keep in mind that internet connections at cafes will probably not be strong enough for uploading photos or video calls, and in some places national firewalls can prevent access to Facebook or Gmail, so make sure you’re prepared. If you’re bringing any electronics, be sure to get a converter and adapter if needed.

Budget

Make sure you talk with your program provider to know what expenses are and are not covered, and what you need to budget for. Also ask whether card or cash is preferred in your destination, and keep in mind that Travelers Cheques are outdated in most places, and can be especially hard to exchange in rural locations. Notify your bank or credit card ahead of time so that they don’t freeze your account, and ask the international exchange fees for ATMS and purchases. Live frugally if necessary, and read tips on how to live on a budget.

Choosing a project-oriented volunteer trip, such as building a school or home, will give you the greatest sense of accomplishment and impact in a short period of time. In contrast, teaching and child care (as examples) are jobs that require bonding with children, knowledge of their language, and time investment in order to be maximally effective.

Pack light and pack smart

When it comes to packing, be particularly mindful of cultural norms and dress codes. In some cultures, “conservative” could mean buying traditional clothes in-country, where others could mean wearing fashionable jeans and long sleeve shirts that you already have. Also keep in mind what sort of volunteer work you’re doing; you might want to bring khakis and a polo shirt if you’re teaching, but will want clothes you don’t mind getting dirty if you are building or painting. Research the weather as well, and don’t assume that deserts or beaches are always scorching hot. Pack as lightly as you possibly can, without neglecting necessities like a flashlight, water bottle, alarm clock, and journal.

Fundraise

If you’re fundraising to pay for your volunteer abroad experience, you’ll definitely want to plan ahead. Create a calendar for yourself with different approaches and ideas every few weeks. Send out letters and emails to friends and family, use Facebook Causes, hold an old-fashioned bake sale, and ask local businesses to donate coupons or tickets to use in an auction or raffle. Fundraising is also a great opportunity to share your passion with your friends and family, so get creative with fundraising ideas, and don’t forget to look for scholarships and grants!

Volunteer helpPhoto Credit: Greenheart Travel

Learn the local language

Whether you’re volunteering for one week, one year, or anywhere in between, it always helps to learn as much as you can of the local language. A phrase book or translation app could come in handy, but they can never take the place of advance preparation. Take a class at your university, use a free online program like Duolingo, sign up for a word-a-day email, or label items around your room in the foreign language with post-it notes. Try to spend a few minutes each day practicing the language, and it will pay off when you’re better able to connect with local people during your international volunteer program. Do your best to learn a bit of a language, and before no time you'll be a pro.

Brace yourself for culture shock

Culture shock can strike even the most world-weary traveler, so the best things you can do to prepare are to embrace a spirit of flexibility, and to learn as much as you can about the culture you’ll be immersing yourself in as an international volunteer. Get a guidebook for your destination, ask your program for a recommended reading list, and research the country’s cultural norms and customs (including trying the cuisine if there are any restaurants near you!). Remember, as an international volunteer, you’re the guest, so it’s up to you to adapt to your host country.

Even if you are working with a tight schedule, a full inbox, and a demanding boss back home, you can absolutely have a meaningful and effective volunteer experience in a week or two.

Prepare for your volunteer work

Consider the volunteer work you’ll be doing and whether you need to plan ahead at all. For example, if you’re teaching, start thinking about games, crafts, songs, and activities you can do, and track whether you’ll need to bring your own materials or not. It’s always best to get creative and use local materials, but ask your program if it’s okay to bring some of your own supplies with you (different programs have different policies). If you won’t know your volunteer project until you arrive, no worries! Ask your program provider what you can do to prepare, and no matter what, remember that being flexible and willing to go with the flow are just as important as planning, so expect the unexpected.

Read articles challenging you to reflect deeply on your intended services abroad. Consider how to measure your impact, and weigh the pros and cons of short term volunteer programs. Find out who is really benefitting from your volunteer service. Overall, be intentional, which leads me to my final point:

Travel with an open mind and heart

Ultimately, the best preparation is knowing you’ll never fully be prepared, so while you want to do your best work, also embrace the unknown. If you’ve already checked off all of the logistics above, then your final step is to go into your volunteer abroad experience with an open mind and heart, and make the most of your once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

Whether you’re volunteering for one week, one year, or anywhere in between, it always helps to learn as much as you can of the local language. Try to spend a few minutes each day practicing the language - it will pay off when you’re better able to connect with local people during your international volunteer program.

There you have it – fourteen pro tips to prepare you for your volunteer adventure abroad. While some details might be a bit stressful, preparing to volunteer abroad should be fun as well! Practice a foreign language at a restaurant in your town, share updates about your destination on a blog or Facebook, and share your exciting plans with everyone you know. When you take care of the details ahead of time, you allow yourself to have a more enriching and impactful experience volunteering abroad. So what are you waiting for? Get cracking on this checklist, and we’ll see you abroad in no time!

Photo Credits: Greenheart Travel.
Megan Heise

After two years of helping volunteers and interns prepare to go abroad with Cross-Cultural Solutions, Megan now works by day at Fluent City, a Brooklyn-based foreign language school, and blogs by night about her misadventures learning foreign languages and seeking out cultural experiences at Multilingual Mondays.