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How to Dress for Success During Your Internship Abroad

Internships abroad dress code

There’s a reason the saying “dress to impress” has been around for so long – it’s a valuable piece of advice. While arriving overdressed might be awkward at someplace like a swim meet or frat-sponsored toga party, it’s generally a good rule of thumb for more formal events like weddings, interviews or, most importantly for us, internships. International internships are more popular than ever, with opportunities springing up everywhere from Asia to South America, involving everything from studying banking in Japan to learning about beekeeping in Jamaica.

But starting an internship abroad isn’t as simple as hopping on a plane – you want to make a good impression. We spend a lot of time worrying about doing a good job, but in many places, how you look can go a long way toward what people think of you. Follow these tips, and you'll be well on your way to making a great first impression!

General Tips for Internship Attire

Internship dress codes can be tricky to navigate for anyone – though you’re working at that business, you’re technically not a full-time employee, and chances are you’re a good bit younger than the full-time people, so how much should the dress code apply to you? This gets even more complicated when your internship is in another country, where you may not be familiar with what exactly defines “business casual.”

Elegant shoes and accessories

Sure, the old tried and true choices of button-downs and nice pants will never let you down, but professional attire does vary somewhat between countries – you can go barefoot in some workplaces in New Zealand, but don’t even think about trying that in Egypt! One particularly problematic issue is body modification – while many North American workplaces have fairly generous rules about piercings and tattoos, in many countries these things, as well as unconventional hairstyles, can be a serious impediment to hiring. Try to be respectful of local customs and cover tattoos if that’s what all of the other workers are doing – there’s no need to make it even more obvious that you’re a foreigner, or try to get special treatment.

Overall, with the exception of very formal fields like banking, American workplaces tend to be somewhat more casual than our international counterparts, so remember that when you’re packing for your great adventure. However, use common sense too - if your internship involves stomping through the jungle or working in a clinic in a rural town, obviously you’re going to have a different set of clothing rules.

Fashion Tips for Popular Intern Abroad Destinations

Depending on where you're going, you'll need to follow a few specific clothing customs. As always, your common sense is probably the best guide, but here are a few helpful hints about workplace attire in some of the most popular internship locations. This will get you thinking about ties and heel heights before you step off the plane.

ARGENTINA

Like most Latin American countries, Argentina is fairly formal when it comes to office attire. Though there are plenty of young, hip porteños - Buenos Aires residents - just waiting to show off their new skinny jeans, most people working in offices stick to the tried and true conservative styles of suits, collared shirts, pants and skirts. Like New York, Buenos Aires is all about dark and neutral colors – if it’s not summer, you’ll stand out a lot in bright colors and prints, so you may be better off sticking to black, blues and browns, at least until after 5 p.m. Ladies, keep in mind that BsAs is very much a fashionista’s city, and working women are much more likely to wear chic dresses and skirts than pants.

AUSTRALIA

Of all the countries on this list, Oz is probably the most casual, both in and out of the workplace. Think of “smart casual” as the key to dressing here. Unless you’re in a very strict business environment, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be required to wear jackets, ties, heels or any kind of suit (besides a swimsuit). This doesn’t mean you can necessarily show up for work in flip flops (although there are certainly some places where you can), but in most places you should be able to get away with jeans, comfortable shirts and flats or other normal shoes. Maybe you can even find a way to get paid to hang out in those comfy clothes!

BRAZIL

Despite its party reputation, Brazil is all business when it comes to, well, business. Brazilians dress quite formally for work, even in the hotter regions of the country – short sleeves will generally be a no-no, unless you’re in a very casual environment. Overall, Brazilians are very fashion-conscious, so people are probably paying more attention to your clothes than you might be used to – even you, guys! Make sure all your clothes look nice (no wrinkled linen, no matter how comfy it is in hot weather) and leave the distressed, hole-filled jeans at home. Fingernails are a big deal in most places – no matter your gender, keep them clean and looking nice, and ladies, you’ll be expected to get regular manicures. It’s a good thing they’re so much cheaper than at home! And one last thing – never, never wear green and red at the same time (except during a futbol match), unless you want to look like the national flag!

CHINA

Lately, China has become a really popular place for overseas interns. Once the hard part - finding an internship - is over, you just have to worry about what to wear. Given the explosion of business-oriented internships there, odds are good you’ll be working in an office, which means you should obey all the normal standards of office attire. Businesspeople in China conform to a relatively conservative style of dress, favoring suits and ties, longer sleeves, knee-length hemlines, and flats over heels. With the exception of a nice watch, flashy jewelry is frowned upon – you don’t want to look like you’re trying to show off! Chances are, as a foreigner in China, you’ll probably stand out enough on your own without any conspicuous fashion choices making you look even more lost.

GERMANY

Despite their straight-laced reputation, Germans are actually one of the more relaxed nationalities when it comes to office dress. Though all employees are expected to look professional and recently-showered, you can get away with more fun colors and patterns, especially when it comes to shirts and ties. While shoes are an important part of the outfit (some men get their shoes shined several times a week!), some German workers will bring comfortable shoes to the workplace for the day, so feel free to stash your Toms in a bag to bring to the office.

Many Germans view their dress choices as an expression of their personality, and there’s often space in the company dress codes to allow that. Err on the side of caution and dress formally on your first day, but don’t assume that you won’t get a chance to wear that floral spring dress or bright green pants. Of course, they do draw the line somewhere. Two years ago, the country ruled that employers do have the right to enforce certain dress codes, such as mandating that female employees wear bras to work – so don’t forget to pack your undergarments!

GHANA

Yes, we know it’s hot, but that doesn’t mean you can show up for work in a short-sleeve romper. For work in office environments, Ghanaians still dress relatively formally – button-down shirts and skirts or long pants are generally the norm. You can usually get away with short sleeves, but don’t wear your ratty painting t-shirt to the office. While in most other places it’s wisest to copy whatever your co-workers are doing, in Ghana you’re given a bit more dress code leeway as a foreigner. You can get away with dressing a bit more casually than people around you, so don’t worry too much about the ties, but try not to abuse this privilege too much. You still want people to take you seriously, right? Of course, these rules all change if you’re working out in a field location rather than in an office – in that case, let common sense and your organization’s recommendations direct your clothing choices.

INDIA

You thought Ghana was hot, huh? Just wait until you get to India. Luckily, dress codes in India are generally realistic as far as the temperature is concerned – again, no swimsuits in the office, but loose, light fabrics are the norm across the board. India as a whole is generally conservative in terms of dress, even in the large cities, and you certainly don’t want to be mistaken for a tourist, so take cues from how your co-workers and other local residents dress. You’ll typically want to keep your legs and upper arms covered, but that doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit. Light slacks, linen pants, long dresses and jackets made of lightweight materials are the norm for most office environments.

You should generally wear close-toed shoes, and nothing higher than low-heeled pumps for the ladies. Unless you’re working in a foreign bank, you can forget about black and navy – bright colors are totally the norm in India, so don’t be afraid to throw on some red pants. It isn’t uncommon to see executives and other high-level workers wearing more traditional garb to the office and work events. Whether you want to do this depends on how comfortable you feel about it, but if you feel like it’s appropriate, get your neighbor to help you with your sari and head out to the office party!

SOUTH AFRICA

Like Australia, South Africa doesn’t have as stringent of dress code requirements as other nations, but people dress very fashionably, particularly in the larger cities, so be sure to bring some tailored items. For offices, long pants, knee-length skirts and blouses or button-downs are acceptable attire. Many women in South Africa tend to wear skirts more than pants, so keep that in mind if your job involves being outside a lot. Offices and other indoor spaces tend to go overboard on the A/C, so stash a jacket or two in your suitcase for keeping warm inside. Sneakers will be frowned upon while at work, but any other presentable close-toed shoes should be fine. Bright jewelry is allowed, but don’t wear anything too flashy, as it may be seen as showing off.

SPAIN

Given Spain’s current economy, it’s pretty impressive that you managed to find an internship there. But you did, so congratulations! Before you start packing, note that there’s a huge difference in culture and attire between Spain’s major cities – what works in Granada may be frowned upon in Barcelona, so keep weather and culture in mind. In general, Spain follows other European nations in keeping office attire fairly conservative – long sleeves, ties, dark colors and so on. In recent years, many offices have become more relaxed about their rules, permitting more casual items like polo shirts, khakis and more colorful items. Overall, women tend to dress more “feminine” than workers in North America, and can get away with much more casual clothing than men.

UNITED KINGDOM

Dress code standards have relaxed significantly over the last decade or two in England, especially in many of the younger startups and tech companies – with the exception of those guards outside of Buckingham Palace, it seems that hardly anyone wears formal business attire to work anymore. Even in the most conservative industries, fewer people use wear and very formal dress. Given the often-chilly weather in England, you’ll probably still want to stick to long pants, dresses with tights, and longer sleeves, but you don’t need to whip out the iron every morning. Nice jeans, blazers and well-fitting shirts will be perfectly acceptable in most offices – but do pay attention to what others are wearing, because you won’t be able to blame any fashion misunderstandings on a language barrier!

Managing what you wear can be difficult anywhere, especially when coming from the sweatpants-to-class environment of college, but dressing well is important when you want to make a good impression. Many other countries place a lot more importance on appearance than we do in North America, and you’re going to be under special scrutiny as a foreigner there, so do everything you can to make a good impression. You can always wear your neon shirts and leopard-print leggings on the weekends!

Photo Credits: Stacy Yip, All Things Fashion DC.
Photo of Natalie Southwick

Natalie has made appearances in 16 different countries to date. Her favorite is definitely Colombia, where she spent 3.5 years ogling mountains on a daily basis, eating an overwhelming amount of arepas and working with human rights organizations. She's currently finishing up a master's degree in Denver, where her main activities are trying not to get in fights about Boston sports teams and attempting to convince herself that the Rocky Mountains are just as good as the Andes, even though we all know that's not true.