How to volunteer abroad

Volunteering abroad is a worthwhile experience for volunteers of all walks of life. Learning a new language, exploring a different culture, and developing work skills are some of the benefits of volunteering in foreign countries. 

Although most foreign volunteering opportunities are not paid, some offer room and board, while others give small allowances to their active volunteers. However, you will still need to save money for your airfare since few organizations cover transportation costs. In this article, we will discuss the benefits of serving foreign communities while also helping you prepare for this incredible experience.

Volunteering abroad

Why volunteering abroad is good for you

Volunteering overseas exposes you to new challenges on a personal and professional level, and can benefit you in different ways such as:

Broadening your mindset

By working in a culture different to the one where you live in, you open yourself to the world and earn a new perspective on how people approach different situations. You also train your sense of tolerance while learning to question things you have been taking for granted. This leads you to become more empathetic with others, especially those who were raised in a different environment. Who knows, maybe you’ll later find a career in volunteer management yourself.

Growing your network beyond borders

It’s never too late or too early to create connections. Volunteering abroad allows you to polish your networking skills, since your work will probably involve collaborating with local leaders and other foreign volunteers. You will learn how to participate and lead international teams, while also meeting people from all kinds of backgrounds who enjoy spending time helping others.

Learning how to live in a different culture

One of the best benefits of volunteering abroad is being able to experience life in a different culture. From using different power sockets to enjoying new national holidays, you get to live like a local while also sharing your own roots. Keep in mind that you may face culture shock, which you can lessen by studying the local customs beforehand and preparing for homesickness.

Building up your resume

Volunteering in a different country will develop your work skills and teach lessons you can apply throughout your professional career. You will also learn how to work in international settings, overcome communication barriers, and be creative while solving problems, which can set you apart from the crowd. Don’t forget to list these newly acquired skills when you’re creating your resume!

Learning a new language

One of the most attractive benefits of volunteering abroad is learning a new language. Even if you studied the language before, by working directly with the community you will be able to immerse yourself, practice constantly, and achieve fluency faster.

Testing moving abroad

If you are considering moving to a different country permanently, volunteering can be a good way to see if you are ready to make such a commitment. You may also meet other expats and immigrants that can share their experiences or help you out when you are ready to move abroad. 

How to find volunteering opportunities abroad

In the past, the easiest way to volunteer abroad was to join the Peace Corps or pay for the services of a foreign volunteering agency. Thanks to the Internet, volunteering overseas is more accessible than ever. While some experiences are only available during the summer months, others require a commitment of one year or more. It is important that you know how long you want to volunteer, and be aware of the financial resources you have available to sustain yourself throughout the experience.

How to find volunteering opportunities online

Foreign volunteering opportunities can be found in volunteering boards such as Idealist, where you can filter opportunities by countries, skills, and keywords. There are also Facebook groups in which you can find different opportunities being posted – don’t forget to turn on your group notifications so you don’t miss them! 

If you have a particular organization in mind, reach out to them and find out if they have a period for volunteer applications. Most NGOs do have a limited period to receive submissions, since they have to allocate the resources needed to receive and train foreign volunteers. Keep in mind that there may only be a few spots available, so review your resume and try to apply to at least three different options so you have more chances of being selected.

Make the most out of your university’s network

College students can also ask their university study exchange office for guidance since some schools organize foreign volunteering experiences or have exchange agreements with organizations overseas. If you are already planning to study a semester abroad, research some local organizations you may like to volunteer at and send your application beforehand. 

Approach local representations of global organizations

There are also a variety of worldwide institutions with local offices around the world, such as AIESEC and Rotary International. If you are an active member of a local chapter, you can approach them and ask about volunteering experiences available in foreign branches. Even if you do not participate currently in one organization, you can always ask the local office for information about how to get involved in their overseas projects.

How to choose the right overseas volunteering experience

According to Coyote Communications, the best volunteering experiences are those in which you are able to share skills in place where they need them. Some recommended experiences include:

  • Sharing STEM teaching methods with local school teachers.
  • Training local community leaders on delivering public health campaigns.
  • Providing medical care or legal counsel.
  • Teaching business management classes to local entrepreneurs.
  • Training local people on how to maintain their current infrastructure.

Verify that your volunteer experience is legit

If you have found a potential organization, it is very important to verify that is legally established. At the bare minimum, you show be able to find the name, phone number, address and local staff of your host organization. It is very important to ask all the questions you may have before you go, especially those regarding visa requirements and travel restrictions. 

Ask about all the costs that your volunteering experience incurs and beware of scams. Some examples of dodgy practices include:

  • Pay-for-volunteer experiences, in which you have to pay for your travel and accommodation ONLY through the organization (which takes a commission from it).
  • Voluntourism agencies, which offer random volunteer experiences which do not relate to the needs of the local community.
  • Fake orphanages, in which they expect you to make a donation after volunteering for a day or two.

Ask the organization to connect you with past volunteers (either via social media or email). Search and read the blogs of past volunteers, and send them any additional questions you may have about their experience.  Beware of organizations which only have overly positive reviews, as they could be fake. 

If you are unable to connect with past volunteers, post in local community boards or Facebook groups and ask for referrals regarding the work of the organization. 

How to prepare for volunteering abroad

Once you have verified that your volunteer organization is legally established and have officially accepted a volunteering offer from them, it is time to make travel arrangements. Planning an international journey takes time and may require a lot of money. Do your research beforehand so you face less pressure while getting ready to serve a foreign community.

Apply for your visa early

Read the visa regulations in your host country and make sure of any restrictions. If you need to apply for a long-stay visa, try to do it as soon as possible to avoid delays. 

Take your shots

Most countries have their own vaccination regulations. Research the rules of both your home and host country, as you need to fulfill both requirements in order to travel back and forth smoothly. Check that you are up to date with your shots, and take boosters if you need them. 

Prepare your own first aid kit

If you have any kind of chronic condition or have to take a daily medication, make sure to fill your prescription before you leave. Ask your doctor for a copy of your prescription, and keep it with you as you travel between borders. Make sure to carry a small first aid kit with your preferred over-the-counter drugs for dealing with headaches, colds, and upset stomachs.

Take a first aid course before leaving your home country, and purchase a good travel health insurance. Make sure to give your volunteer organization a list of emergency contacts, and become familiar with the emergency numbers of your host community.

Research cultural norms

Find out if there are any cultural restrictions you should be aware of. Find out what is considered appropriate attire in your host country, and ask your organization if they have any policy regarding wardrobe, tattoos, piercings or hair styling. Keep in mind that cultural rules vary according to each country, so you may have to adapt to unfamiliar social rules.

Check which gestures or sounds are considered rude (the OK sign is an insult in certain Middle-Eastern communities for example). Research for any food exclusions you should be aware of, and familiarize yourself with the local cuisine before you leave. 

Stay connected

Ask your organisation about how easy is to get Internet access and a prepaid mobile card at your destination. Although there are worldwide SIM cards and modems available, it could be less expensive to buy a local data plan. Be aware of roaming and additional data costs, since they can quickly add up.

Secure access to your finances

Research in advance if you can open a local account easily. If you want to keep using your current account, confirm that your bank supports international withdrawals and find out if your destination accepts your bank’s card. Keep in mind that not all countries accept VISA, American Express or Mastercard.

Learn language basics

Know the basics of the local language, and ask your host organization if they offer any language classes. Apps like Duolingo and Speakly can help you to grasp the basics of dozens of languages, and search for any available podcasts or videos that can help you to practice.

Prepare for the unexpected

Look up for any areas you should avoid while living in your host community. Share all the information regarding your volunteer experience with a trustworthy emergency contact, including travel information and accommodation details. If your home country has an embassy in your host country, be sure you know where it’s located. Some countries also offer traveler registration, such as the STEP program in the US.

Make two copies of your passport, credit cards, and IDs (keep one at home and one in your luggage). Search and write down (not in your phone) the local number of your home country embassy and keep it in a safe place. Do not carry all your money in a single place, and invest in a discreet money belt. Backup your smartphone and laptop information, and avoid carrying unnecessary electronics. Don’t  forget to buy a good travel insurance and to write down the contact number to make claims. 

Create an emergency fund

Aside from the money allocated for your volunteering experience, you should also save a little bit of money to deal with unexpected events. This amount should cover at least one month of expenses in your host country, and be enough to pay for changing your flight dates. Be sure to keep this money in an account that allows you to make withdrawals at your host country’s ATMs.

Pack wisely

Pack according to your volunteer experience. Do not waste space carrying unnecessary luxury items or things you will probably just wear once. Be super practical about your luggage: get good socks, breathable shirts, comfy pajamas, and a jacket adequate to the weather of the place you are going to. Bring a couple of treats to help you out when you feel homesick (like candy bars or a special blend of tea). Avoid bringing perfumes and be aware of the regulations regarding the entry of foreign products.

As you can see, doing your research and planning ahead are the two keys to your perfect volunteer experience abroad. While it may take some time to plan, volunteering in a foreign country is a unique experience that will enrich your life and empower you to help others abroad – and bring back what you learned to your local community.