The Inherent Risks of Study Abroad (and How to Prep for Them) 

by Megan Lee

Survivors of tragedy are called to reflect. How can we better prepare for these types of emergencies in the future? Where did we go wrong? What preventative steps can be taken? How do we streamline our response processes, establish order amidst adversity, assuage trauma?

It is with a heavy heart that we remember Nohemi Gonzales, a study abroad student who was killed during the Paris Attacks of November 2015. Beau Solomon, Tarishi JainTaylor Force, and Nicolas Leslie unfortunately lost their lives while studying abroad in the summer of 2016. While we grieve their losses, we should likewise identify ways future study abroad students can thrive as active and intelligent responders during unforeseen crises.

If you’re a student contemplating study abroad, but feel nervous about the inherent risks, you’re not alone. There ARE real risks to travel. But these risks shouldn’t be debilitating or cause you to acquiesce just yet. Here’s what you need to know to be prepared to handle emergencies while studying abroad.


Arm yourself with as much information as possible before you put your boots on the ground. In this way, you won’t be scrambling to gather pertinent details during your first week and can transition to life abroad with more ease.

Make sure your program provider has an emergency response plan in place.

There are many factors at work when you are deciding between study abroad program options; the obvious ones, like if the company has a study abroad program in your destination of choice or if they offer a program oriented around your preferred subject matter. You might also be considering which study abroad programs’ credits will transfer directly to your home university, which program your friends are choosing, which program is the most affordable, or which program sounds the coolest. Needless to say, there is a LOT that goes into making a final decision on which study abroad program is best for you.

But as you shop around and weigh your options, be sure to inquire specifically about what measures providers have taken to ensure the safety and security of their program participants.

Study abroad isn’t a new kid on the block, so organizations should have a solid, cohesive emergency response plan in place.

Here are some valuable questions you might consider asking your program provider or host university:

  • Do you have a specific emergency response plan for this country? What is it?
  • Are your staff well-trained in CPR, wilderness first aid, or other apposite certifications?
  • What is the chain of communication between departments of the program during an emergency?
  • Will I be given a refund should my program end suddenly due to extenuating circumstances?
  • Is insurance included and what does it cover?
  • Has your organization ever had an emergency it needed to respond to and how did the process go? Were parents satisfied with your organization’s response and the way it was handled overall?
  • Are there any specific safety concerns in this area we should be made aware of?
  • What precautions will be covered during orientation?

These questions can be directed to all relevant/applicable audiences, including:

  • Your on-campus study abroad office/advisor
  • Your off-campus program advisor
  • The international student office of the foreign university you will be attending
  • The on-site director for the program you will be attending

The more intel you gain prior to leaving, the more complete picture you will have about your overall safety. The existence of a comprehensive, holistic approach to emergency response, where all parts are working together, should make or break your final decision of where to study abroad and what organization to study abroad with.

Familiarize yourself with your embassy location and contact information in your study abroad destination.

In case of an emergency, your strongest ally will be the diplomats and representatives from your home country at your local embassy. Students should review maps and contact details, as well as national emergency procedures and protocols in advance of their travels. Research should be conducted on government websites and any unanswered questions should be directed to your national embassy in your study abroad destination.

You can find the address and contact information for embassies around the world through GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory.

Enroll in a government travel program.

Different countries take unique measures to ensure their citizens are traveling as safely as possible. Many countries offer a safe travelers program specifically designed to track and locate travelers as they move around outside of their home country. In the UK, this is the Registered Traveller Service. While Australia offers the Smart Traveller Program, and U.S. citizens can opt to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

While it may come off as a bit “big-brother-y,” these government programs share underlying goals: to keep you safe, keep tabs on whether or not you are alive, and keep your family informed on your status in an emergency situation.

Research your government’s website(s) to see if similar programs exist for travelers from your home country. You might likewise research and take heed to your national government’s travel warnings and alerts. For American students, the US Department of State provides a range of resources and updates related to traveling abroad for your reference.

Make multiple physical and digital copies of your ID and passport.

This may be one of the oldest travel tips in the book (besides to always aim for the window seat on the plane). However, it can’t go without being said again, and again: have multiple copies of your travel identification documents handy. Leave physical and digital copies with your immediate family, make sure your study abroad provider has multiple versions, save your files in your school AND personal email accounts, keep a copy folded up neatly in your wallet, and stash a few extra physical copies in your notebooks and your suitcase. It may seem excessive, but it can potentially alleviate undue stress in case of an emergency.

Know your insurance policy like the back of your hand.

While many rightly consider medical evacuations or emergencies as they are choosing an international or travel insurance provider, you might likewise consider tacking on a policy that covers security or political evacuations. If an emergency situation occurs and you are in imminent danger while studying abroad, your travel insurance company can arrange for you to be evacuated immediately to a safe place.

It’s important to understand that security evacuations are different from political evacuations and the travel insurance provider will be the one to determine whether an evacuation is a covered event or not, based on the circumstances. 

Covered reasons for non medical, security, or political evacuations include natural disasters, civil uprisings, military coups, or political unrest. Insurance policies range from covering the cost of departing to the nearest safe location, unintended expenditures for accommodations, economy airfare back home, and many other expenses.


Once you land in country, be diligent in staying up-to-date on best practices for ensuring your safety.

Review procedures with your on-site staff, ideally during orientation.

Make sure all of your questions are answered during your on-site orientation. Typically, program providers or host universities will conduct an orientation during your first three to seven days in country. A significant portion of this should be devoted to explaining emergency protocols, and clearly outline expectations for students in these types of situations.

The first few days abroad can be overwhelming at best. Be sure to take notes during the lectures on emergency response systems to help you stay focused; plan to review your notes at a later date when your brain is slightly less clouded from fun/jet lag/excitement. Ask your on-site directors to email you digital copies of any germane materials or physical addresses for important points of interest.

Here are some more questions to ask:

  • Who do I call in a crisis?
  • What should I do if the internet and phone lines are down?
  • Where is the safest place I can go?
  • Should I leave the country if I have a chance without telling you?
  • What if I am not in country during the emergency?
  • Who should I contact if you are not available?
  • How soon should I be in touch with my family? Immediately? After establishing contact with you?
  • Is there anything I should know about talking to news teams on behalf of the organization or as a study abroad student specifically?

Pay a little visit to your embassy.

If your country’s embassy is in your study abroad destination city, you would be wise to take note of its location, and perhaps even schedule a brief trip there to ensure you know where it’s at and what it looks like.

There’s no need to schedule an appointment or go inside (unless you have a deep seated love for waiting in lines and bureaucratic shenanigans). Just getting a feel for the neighborhood and how to get there should do the trick.

Again, you can find the address of your home country’s embassy in your study abroad destination through GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory.

Get your on-site director's contact details and save them in multiple places.

Your on-site director or liaison will likely be your first point of contact in case of an emergency. To ensure this can be done in multiple ways, take note of their physical address, their phone number for work, potentially their personal phone number, their email address, and potentially their Facebook account. Review with the individual how to best reach them in an urgent situation.

Once you’ve gathered the necessary info, save it in multiple places. Your email inbox, your notebook, your Google documents. Share the details with your family back home if you think it might be helpful in case of an emergency.

Always make sure to tell at least one person or friend where you are going at all times.

We’re not trying to be your mom-away-from-mom, but it is important that you have a buddy who is aware of your whereabouts whenever possible. Even if you are going out for a stroll, give your roommate a window of time you can be expected to return. Shoot a text to a friend letting them know your general vicinity or the direction you’re heading in. Let your on-site director know in advance if you are intending to travel outside of your study abroad city or country.

All tales told, the more people are aware of your bearings, the more safe you will be.

If you are impossible to track down in a crisis, you might incite unnecessary worry or heaps of stress. Your friends and extended network might aptly jump to the worst case scenario, thinking you were abducted, injured, or even worse. Save everyone the heartache by being proactive in telling others where you are headed and when.

Keep your phone game strong.

If you are taking your cell phone with you on your study abroad trip, guarantee that it will be worth it in the case of disaster. Have it prepped to make both local or international calls with ease. Figure out in advance how to dial international calls quickly. Keep it charged and within easy access. Have emergency numbers saved and easy to locate (more easily than your last failed Tinder date’s digits). Save the emergency number for your study abroad destination (spoiler: it isn’t 911 in every country!). Buy a phone card with a few minutes calling time pre-loaded to store in your wallet in case your cell phone service cuts off.


Yikes, no matter how many preemptive measures are taken, it isn’t possible to fully guarantee complete and utter safety while abroad (or in your home country, for that matter).

Seek shelter and safety.

Don’t go out looking for more trouble. If you hear news reports of mass shootings, army coups, pending hurricanes, or other calamities, your number one priority is finding a safe place to rest. After you’ve secured a location, stay put. It is important that you don’t wander aimlessly or put yourself in imminent danger by going outside.

Contact your on-site staff immediately.

Depending on your study abroad provider’s emergency response policy (you know, the one you paid close attention to during orientation!), you will likely need to call your provider first. Establishing contact and answering questions relating to your location, your physical and emotional well being, and your overall safety status will allow them to communicate with their headquarters and ultimately your family, friends, relatives, university, etc. back home.

Let everyone back home know you are alive and well.

Double check with your on-site provider that you can communicate directly with your family back home. If you can, get to work on checking in on Facebook, emailing Mom and Dad, calling your boo, whatever you need to do to feel the people who matter in your life know about your well-being.

Discuss the emergency situation openly.

Processing a traumatic experience like an international political crisis or natural disaster is tough stuff. It will be difficult to work through all of your memories and your emotions, which will likely run the gambit. In order to process and move on healthily from your shock, seek communities who shared a similar experience. Talk with others about what you went through.

Reflect on the distress creatively. Write in your journal, draw pictures, craft songs or poems. Don’t bottle it all up and hope that it will go away. Don’t use one horrid experience as an excuse to shut out the world and never go back outside. There are ways to effectively and earnestly process your experience that don’t include becoming a bearded hermit on a mountaintop.

Consider returning home.

If you are frightened to your core or want nothing more than a hug from someone you love, it might be time to book a flight back to your home country. If issues are ongoing and there is no end in sight, you may not have a choice in the end. But if you are feeling shook up and can’t imagine returning to your humdrum way of life prior to the disaster, then cutting your program short isn’t a bad option.

Think through your decision from start to finish and ask your program provider what options are available to you, or what the financial implications of your decision will be. You may see sticking around as proving to yourself how thick your skin is. You may see sticking around as a waste of time. No matter your stance, there is no right or wrong way to respond to an emergency while studying abroad.


Absolutely. Just as with every time you hop in your car to drive, you board a plane headed to a city across the country, you enter a movie theater or a mall, you more or less exist on the planet…there is always risk.

Some risks are better disguised than others, but uncertainties and instabilities can be found everywhere in the world.

The value study abroad brings is to not let yourself be afraid of foreign places or foreign people. The world can seem scary if you let the flagrant fear mongering of modern news take hold of your emotions. But the world is utterly beautiful and profound too. Instead of allowing your fear for potential catastrophes to hold you back, view it instead as a lesson in proper preparation.

Just remember: challenging your comfort zone can start as early as even considering the possibility of study abroad. And the sweet spot of study abroad is just that: challenging your comfort zone.

If you strongly desire peace in the world, studying abroad is an organic means to an end (as we discussed in our article about What the Paris Attacks mean for Study Abroad). With more understanding and collaboration established between nations from the ground up, future policies will more be more humanistic and negotiations will be less violent. It starts with ordinary people, dedicated change agents, and optimistic students, like YOU, to tip the scale in harmony’s favor.

Study abroad is risky business, but so is staying in the familiar warmth and comfort of your home. Oftentimes, the perpetrators of atrocious events are actively seeking to provoke terror, horror, alarm, panic. If you let your fears hold you back, you let them win. With necessary precautions and pre-planning, many emergencies abroad can be attenuated and handled as smoothly as possible.

For more information on student safety while studying abroad, refer to this excellent and insightful report from the Forum on Education Abroad titled: Insurance Claims Data and Mortality Rates for College Students Studying Abroad.