Top 5 Safety Myths About Study Abroad

by Zach Herzog
Students in a coffee shop.

When thinking about studying abroad, a big concern students and their parents have is safety. In our world of sensationalistic media and 24 hour cable news coverage, it is understandable that new travelers feel some fear when preparing for a trip abroad. The reality is, a lot of safety concerns lack real truth. To clear the air about international education programs, below we have outlined some of the most commonly held fears and safety myths about study abroad, to overthrow these myths once and for all.

Safety Myth #1: If I stay home, I’ll be safer than if I go abroad.

This is by far the number one fear not only in international education, but in travel as a whole. In order to break it down, there are a few points to consider. For one, the U.S. actually has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Other countries also prioritize domestic security to a higher degree than the U.S., and police forces are quite often more present internationally than they are through the U.S. Additionally, most countries outside of the U.S. have very strict regulations on firearms and other weapons.

While the U.S. economy is very commerce based, many foreign economies rely on tourism for a large part of their revenue. For this reason, internationals receive many added protections by law. That is not to say tourists or foreign visitors are never targets of crime, but most of the crime that involves international travelers outside the U.S. is solely related to petty theft and pickpocketing.

College students brainstorming

Safety Myth #2: If I get sick, I can’t get the medical treatments I need abroad.

This fear depends largely on where you go, but it is again not really true. While medical standards do vary around the world, that does not mean they are inferior to the U.S. Many times international hospitals receive larger amounts of funding than American hospitals, meaning that the treatment is both cheaper and more readily available to study abroad students. A lot of medications are also less regulated overseas (such as birth control or pain medicine), so you may even be able to get your prescriptions without seeing a doctor.

Of course it still in your best interest to meet with your doctor before you study abroad to discuss on-going health concerns or medical issues you may encounter abroad. Keep in mind that every country that has people (aka. every nation in the world) has medical professionals and facilities for the purpose of providing medical treatment. Even in parts of the world that practice non-traditional medicine or Eastern medicine, such as China, still have doctors that are well trained and prepared to treat a variety of health issues.

Safety Myth #3: If I travel in a group, I’ll be safe.

This thinking is not entirely flawed and traveling with people certainly makes your study abroad experience more enjoyable. That being said, groups are often targeted, because groups of foreigners are often loud, distracted, and obvious to identify. A group of English speaking college students who are laughing in the market become easy victims for “pickpocketers” and scam artists.

There are a couple of good strategies to mitigate this risk, however. For one, traveling alone will never mean that you are actually alone. If you are willing to engage with the local people (ex. talk to someone next to you on a train or go to dinner with someone staying in your hostel) you will get to experience more of the local culture while also finding new travel companions that may be more in tune with safety concerns. People have a lot of admiration and compassion for travelers that are exploring on their own, and many times will be willing to show you around and look out for you if you are not accompanied by a dozen of your fellow study abroad students.

Study abroad students on a field trip.

Safety Myth #4: If I don’t speak the language, I won’t know what’s going on.

This one is technically true, but the myth is in the fear associated with it. While it is incredibly disorienting and concerning to not be able to understand what is going on in public places, studying abroad in a part of the world where a language other than English is spoken can be an incredible experience. Studying abroad amid a new language will hone your power of observation as well as your non-verbal communication skills. You can learn a ton through people watching, and you will be amazed how universal a smile can be.

Learning the local language might also be a highlight of your experience studying abroad. Taking a class like “Basics of the Czech Language ” or “Introduction to Mandarin” is a good way to ease yourself into an uncomfortable situation. After a few weeks studying abroad, you may not understand everything, but you will surprise yourself with your new survival language skills and ability to navigate foreign situations.

Safety Myth #5: If I study abroad in a big city, I’ll be safer because there will be more people to help me.

In the U.S., most people live in suburbs and the safety myths we develop are based on that white-collar, suburban lifestyle. Think about this myth by considering if there is more crime in New York City or in Eaton, Nebraska. While there are of course safety concerns everywhere you go, big cities statistically have higher rates of social issues, including greater access to drugs and alcohol and more prevalence of risk taking behaviors. As a result, big cities can have more pickpocketing and harassment of tourists than smaller towns would.

A student packing for study abroad.

Living in a different environment and around people that have grown up in different parts of the world will give you a chance to gain their perspectives on safety. Staying in a small town inherently has less risk and often more of the “old world” culture than the big cities.  

While we always fear what we don’t know, these very fears are part of what you will conquer during a study abroad program. Studying abroad will allow you to see the world for what it is, and form your own opinions instead of perpetually buying in to the common safety myths. You will redefine the concepts of “us” and “them,” and “there” and “home.” Ultimately, you will find exactly where you fit in, in the world.