Your Safety While Volunteering Abroad—Places, Programs, Tips & More

by Published

Safety always comes first, right mom? Safety and health, while we're at it. Normally we have questions our health and safety while volunteering abroad (mom probably does, too!). Going abroad is going somewhere new and pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and with that, there’s often a learning curve—that’s part of the attraction. 

GIF, Jimmy Fallon wearing a motorcycle helmet, Safety is sexy

Preach! 🙌

Now, the emergency number most likely isn’t the same. Cultural codes are different. Your host country will probably have different names of prescriptions and over-the-counter meds, and the role of gender in society isn’t the same. With a little research and keeping a few tips in mind, you too can avoid being the headline of the next dateline special. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic.

We’re not here to deter you from volunteering abroad, no, no, no. We simply want to give you a heads up on how to keep yourself safe and healthy while volunteering abroad. Bare in mind some of our suggestion and tips and you’re already off to a great start.

Is volunteering abroad safe?

Is it going to rain next Friday? We can’t ever be completely, absolutely sure safety anymore. It’s similar to the weather. There’s always a threat as humans are humans and so much is out of our control. That being said, we can be aware of our community and take note from locals on how to best protect ourselves while abroad. Generally, people have good intentions and they want to live a calm and peaceful life just like you. But, generally doesn’t mean always. Sometimes foreigners can be targeted for simply being foreigners. 

Your health and safety while volunteering abroad is of utmost importance. Staying safe while volunteering overseas might seem like a rather obvious idea, but we can never be too prepared. Research the destination where you plan to volunteer. Get your hands on some culture and daily-life info. Having an idea of the local culture is always a great idea. Not only will it help you pass the time until take-off, but it will also help you be more familiar with local culture and customs.

We can all agree that the goal of volunteering abroad is to do good. Locals are typically elated to have foreigners (like yourself) in their communities to work alongside them and create positive change. Often times people are honored to have someone (again, like yourself!) giving their time, energy, and money to help their cause. 

Volunteer programs go to great lengths to create effective safety protocols and ensure you have a wonderful time abroad. There are so many safe volunteer abroad programs. In fact, the majority are super-duper safe. Sure, there might be some nifty scams out there, but with participant reviews you can be more sure of your decision.

Hands potting small plants and succulents

Follow your volunteer program safety protocols to avoid ouchies and booboos. 

World’s safest places to volunteer abroad 

One way to help ensure your safety while volunteering abroad is to choose the right destination for you. Though there isn’t a “100% safety guarantee,” you can take some global statistics into account when deciding to where volunteer abroad. 

A report published by the claims that year after year European countries are some of the safest in the world. It also finds that more developed countries have lower crime rates. Not far behind Europe, Asian countries seem to have a safe reputation as well. Some of the safest places to volunteer abroad include Chile, Romania, and Singapore. Although these claims are backed by statistical data, they are only generalizations at best.

5 of the world’s safest places to volunteer abroad

Whether you speak English or Icelandic, here are some of our top picks to get yours hands dirty in.  

1. Iceland

This nordic country ranks number one on the Global Peace Index and certainly deserves a place on   our list. Although there has been a recent boom in tourism, the rates of crime in Iceland tend to stay rather stable. In a country with more sheep than people, you might have more problems with the livestock that the citizens. Icelanders are known for their warm hospitality, despite the cool climate!

2. Canada

A stable economy and rather neutral political landscape, Canada is one of the safest places to volunteer abroad. Furthermore, women’s rights are taken seriously in this country. Canada is an excellent option for women and the LGBTIQ population alike. It’s also a country with limited natural disasters too. Safety isn’t only crime! We shouldn’t forget mother nature, either.

  • Popular projects: Conservation and Community
  • Recommended program: Frontier

3. Australia

The land down under (under Asia, that is) is a melting pot with people from all over the world. This ethnically diverse country is safe for all sorts of people no matter your shape, size, color, or orientation. The animals in the outback might be your biggest enemy in this  country.

4. Japan

Japan is one of the safest countries in Asia. If fact, according to the World Atlas, it has the best Global Peace Index score out of the Asian countries. Feel the safety of Japan while volunteering abroad while experiencing the rich culture and history of this country. 

5. New Zealand

Similar to its neighbor to the east, New Zealand is a safe bet when volunteering abroad. Volunteers can choose a host of projects although the majority lie in the environmental sector.

  • Popular projects: Environmental Conservation
  • Recommended program: Love Volunteers
Woman hiking in Jesenice, Slovenia

Always use common sense and let people know where you are.

15 basic safety tips for staying safe while volunteering overseas

From keeping your shoes tied tight to not staying out all the night, here’s some food for thought while you prepare for your rendez-vous and for once you’re on the ground, in-country. Avoid those mamma-told-you-so moments. 

1. Register with your embassy

Many embassies suggest to register your trip with your local consulate. Give the government a head’s up as to where you’re going and how long you plan to stay there. While you’re registering your trip online, take a look at travel tips and any potential safety advisories that your government offers.

2. Carry a medical card if you have any specific medical conditions

Do you have a specific medical condition? Maybe you’re diabetic, allergic to bee stings, or have a gnarly, adverse reaction to shellfish. Keep a medical emergency card on you in the event something unfortunate arises. Include emergency details and also a list of prescriptions you’re taking. This simple document might save your life.

3. Use common sense

You know. Don’t accept rides from strangers. Be careful who you accept food from. And beware of where your drinking water comes from. Trust your gut instinct. If you don’t feel good a situation, avoid it. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

4. Keep family and friends informed

Many volunteers take advantage of their time abroad by escaping for long weekends or extending their stays. Of course! Send a little note to family or friends to give them a heads up as to your wheres. “Hey mom! I’m sneaking away to Bogata this weekend. I’ll be back on Monday and here’s the link to the hotel as to where I’m staying. I don’t think i’ll have service. XOXO!”

5. Be aware

Once we get comfortable we tend to lend our guard down. It’s normal and fully expected. Don’t stop yourself, it’s part of assimilation. This being said, be attentive of your surroundings. Take note of where you and and who might be around you. It’s not being paranoid, it’s only being cautious. Keep your eyes and ears open.

6. Write down numbers and addresses

Many opt to travel with their electronics and smartphones. Before you do so scratch down some important phone numbers and addresses in the event that your gear runs out of battery (or equally takes a dip in the Amazon with you).

People standing together Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Healthy and safe volunteers are happy and effective volunteers.

7. Purchase travel insurance

Check the box when booking your flights and other travel tickets. Sure it costs a little extra, but having insurance is never a bad idea. There are many third party insurance companies that offer short-term plans to ensure health and medical coverage while you’re volunteering. Again, like the weather, we never know what could happen: expect the unexpected.

8. Disperse your money and bank cards

Baggage gets lost. And unfortunately sometimes it’s stolen. In rare occasions, people are even robbed. Strategically put your cash and cards in different locations. This will be a sure-proof way to one, not spend all of your money at once, and two, to have a sense of security if your wallet or purse gets lost or stolen. 

9. Make copies of your passport

And government issued I.D. Similarly to how you put your money and bank cards in strastic places, put a copy of your passport and I.D. with that too. You never know when you might need it.

10. Carry the necessary medical devices or medications

So with that medical card of yours (see #2), you might require necessary medications too. You might need that shot of epinephrine if you’re out in the wild and away from medical care. Take enough medication with you if you happen to be on any. Oftentimes our physicians can write larger-than-usual prescriptions for special circumstances (i.e. to keep you safe while volunteering abroad)

11. Create a compact first-aid kit

Paracetamol. Aspirin. Hand sanitizer. Alcohol wipes. Bandages. Anti-diarrheal. You know what you usually need. Put it all in a nifty little bag that you can take with you! Et voila! You’re created your own first-aid kit.

12. Blend in with your surroundings

Ideally you are in this foreign country to not only volunteer, but to also learn more the local culture. Try to speak it, act it, and look it! Of course be yourself, but pay attention to cultural queues. For example, if you’re a woman in India, perhaps think twice wearing a miniskirt and a low-cut top. Just sayin’.

13. Use the lock

That door to your apartment or hotel room? Lock it. If you find yourself staying in a hostel or guesthouse, take a lock with you to keep your valuables safe. Most hotel rooms have a safe in the closet too. Take the necessary steps to keep not only yourself, but your belongings safe too. 

14. Drink in only in moderation

You’ve certainly heard and read this before, but it’s absolutely true. Drinking excessively is an excellent way to get yourself in dangerous situations. So, how do you avoid it? Limit your consumption! Maybe hold off on that sixth shot and opt for a glass of water. Staying clear-headed and conscious is one of the best ways to help ensure your safety.

15. Wear your seatbelt

Chances are you wear your belt at home. So make it a habit to do it while abroad too. The use of seatbelts isn’t always enforced. But just because it’s not a local law, doesn’t mean that you can’t use it. Click it for your safety!

GIF, professor Chang wearing goggles, Safety first

Remember, class—

Special circumstances

Is it safe for women to volunteer abroad solo?

Unfortunately there are often more dangers for women than men when it comes to volunteering abroad. Volunteer organizations do their best to support the safety and well-being of their volunteers, but there is only so much that they can do. As they will do their best to do their part, you too, should do your best to do yous. It might not be appropriate for you to dress the same way abroad as you might dress while you’re at home. Take the time to understand where it is you’re going and plan and pack accordingly. Maybe wait to start hitching rides from locals before you understand the culture a bit. And same goes for venturing out while it’s dark. Many crimes against women tend to happen after dark. Be aware. And as mentioned earlier, trust your instinct. Why not enjoy the company of someone else when you’re venturing ? Not only can you share memories together, but you will be less of a target when traveling as a couple or with a group. 

Sexual harassment on your work site

No means no. And any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable or violated is unacceptable. Speak up. If someone is making comments or remarks that make you feel uncomfortable, tell them. Furthermore, any unwarranted physical advancements are unacceptable. You have to be your own advocate. Oftentimes volunteers find themselves in rural areas where they might be a bit isolated. The sooner you let it be known that an individual's actions are unacceptable, the better. 

If telling them is out of the question, look to your advisor, -person, or a peer to help you confront the situation. Have a personal zero tolerance policy and don’t let someone take advantage of you. That grey area can seem larger than normal while abroad as different cultures have different customs and traditions. Don’t let that fool you though. You know when things are a bit fishy.

Where is it safe to volunteer abroad openly as a LGBTIQ?

Choosing where to volunteer abroad is often accompanied by staying safe while volunteering overseas—most of us ask ourselves these questions. An unfortunate reality is that the LGBTIQ community has a bit more of a concern with safety while volunteering abroad. That’s not to say that it can’t or shouldn’t be done. It’s a matter of openness and expression. In some cultures, straight men hold hands while walking down the street. And in some of those very same countries, individuals can still be imprisoned for homosexual acts. 

Some of the safest places abroad for the LGBTIQ community are in some of the most developed countries. Many volunteer opportunities abroad are in less developed countries. Go figure. This being said, two of the safest countries for the LGBTIQ country to volunteer in are Uruguay and Brazil. We often have to adapt ourselves to assimilate into our host countries, regardless of who we are. There are some volunteer programs that cater to the LGBTIQ community. Have a look into what is going to work best for you. You know best.

That’s the deal with safe volunteer abroad programs

girl smiling with scarf over face
Stay safe, have fun, make a difference, change lives!

What happens at home, happens abroad. Sure, the level of crime and accidents in London is much greater than that in rural Montana, but bad things can happen anywhere, at anytime. Keep these points in mind while you’re abroad and you will be sure to have nothing but positive memories. The less you need to worry your safety while volunteering abroad, the more time and energy you can expel into your volunteer and cultural experience. 

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