Europe has long been the go to destination for North Americans looking for an international adventure. Regardless of how many tourists travel to Europe each year though, far fewer take the time to learn, experience, and explore as a volunteer.
But you, you're different. You don't just want to visit castles, you want to help restore castles. You're just as interested in drinking the wine as you are in picking the grapes on a vineyard. You want to immerse yourself fully in a European lifestyle by living and volunteering abroad in Europe.
So, whether that means teaching English in Spain or working with children in Poland, Europe is just as full of volunteer opportunities as it is world class museums and sidewalk cafes.
Europe is small but diverse. And when we talk about Europe, we're just as much referring to world powerhouses as we are emerging economies.
On top of that, each nation in the region has slightly different needs and priorities that volunteers can help out on. For example, Malta and Italy struggle to support large numbers of refugees from North Africa. In France, you'll find volunteer projects working with the restoration of castles.
Throughout Europe's wine-growing regions, there's a demand for volunteer grape pickers and farmworkers. In Greece, you'll find projects for sea turtle conservation. And just about everywhere, there are the usual gamut of volunteer positions working with community development, education, and healthcare.
Honestly though, more stable European countries are ideal locations for travelers who only want to volunteer for a short amount of time. There are programs smartly set up to balance a demand from the community (i.e. more English education) and the interest of travelers who want to do something different (i.e. teach). Make sure you do your research and choose a responsible volunteer program that's just as interested in helping the local community as it is supporting volunteers.
Europe was at the heart of the medieval age and many remnants of it still remain. However, many of these buildings/castles are in poor condition and in need of restoration.
As mentioned above, France is an excellent destination if you're interested in this type of project but by no means the only country in Europe with castles. Adventures in Preservation, for example, works with preserving buildings and important historical areas (not just castles) in Scotland and Eastern Europe.
Although education in Europe is some of the highest in the world, there are still opportunities to teach English in Europe as a volunteer. English Conversation Volunteers Abroad (ECVA) is one of the largest volunteer English teaching program providers in Europe, but several others operate throughout the continent.
Also popular are short term English camps that help connect English learners with English speakers to simulate an English immersion environment -- without ever leaving the student's home country. Pueblo Ingles in Spain and Angloville in Hungary and Poland are two good examples.
There are a variety of environmental projects that volunteers can get involved within Europe. Just because there are a lot of urban areas in Europe, doesn't mean it doesn't have a need for wildlife conservation. You can find everything from sea turtle conservation in Southern Europe, to helping stray dogs in major cities.
There are several countries in Europe -- Ukraine, for example -- which, unfortunately, have large orphan populations. As a volunteer, you have opportunities to work and support these orphanages. However, this is an ethically tricky project to get involved with, so make sure the orphanage is responsibly run and that you can commit for a longer period of time.
WWOOF has a large and established presence throughout Europe. Whether you volunteer through them or find another project via another program provider or organization, the most common project you'll find working with agriculture in Europe will be in some way related to winemaking.
Read more: Top 5 Countries to WWOOF on a Vineyard
For more tips, read our comprehensive guide on planning a volunteer abroad trip.
So, you want to volunteer in Europe? How do you make it happen? What should you know before planning your trip?
When to Volunteer in Europe
Keep in mind that some projects, like wine picking or sea turtle conservation, are seasonal, and you won't be able to participate in them year-round. Look into this first before getting your hopes up about working on a vineyard in December.
Also note that most European cities will empty out in August, making it a less than ideal time to travel there. Instead, plan on traveling during one of the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) so that you avoid the high tourist prices and tourist crowds.
Do I Need a Visa?
Within the E.U., most nationalities will not need a Schengen Visa to stay for up to 90 days. You can absolutely volunteer on a tourist visa.
However, if you want to stay for longer than 90 days -- and are planning on staying in the same country for those 90+ days -- then that gets complicated. Nomadic Matt has a great article about how to legally stay in Europe for more than 90 days, and I'd suggest you take a read through his helpful (and extremely detailed) advice before committing to a 6-month project in Germany.
Although Europe tends to get a reputation as one of the pricer travel destinations, volunteering in Europe is one of those tricks for visiting Europe on a budget. If you can score a volunteer project that also provides housing and -- though rare -- meals, then you're essentially working your way through a very affordable stay in Europe.
Again, Europe is a diverse continent, and some countries are more expensive than others. For example, the overall cost of living in Portugal, Spain, Malta, Greece, and most Eastern European countries makes it easy to get by on $40 - $50 USD per day.
Do, however, make sure you set aside some funds to travel before or after your volunteering stint in Europe (unless you want to hitchhike and camp your way through... which is an option.)
How do you recommend staying safe in Europe?
Always be aware of your surroundings and have a buddy when walking at night. Like anywhere in the world, some cities are safer than others. Do your research before you arrive and learn about about what petty crime looks like in the location where you'll be living. Be confident when you walk and blend in as a local. People looking to steal will often target people who stand out as tourists. Pickpocketing tends to be a very common offense, so always be aware of your purse, phone, and wallet, especially if on public transportation. Learn your surroundings and safety will follow.
Do I need a visa to volunteer in Europe?
Most foreigners will not need a Schengen Visa to volunteer within the E.U., if they're staying up to 90 days. This means you do not need a special visa to volunteer, and can participate in most programs on a tourist visa. Most volunteer programs in Europe will let you know if the case is otherwise.