Addressing Your High School Study Abroad Health & Safety Concerns

by Published

If you’re a high school student considering study abroad, we all know what you’re thinking. The parents will never let this one fly. Letting their kid run off into the big, dangerous world all alone? Keep dreaming, kid. 

Bird standing on rock in New Zealand

Things you are NOT safe from in New Zealand: friendly locals and stunning nature. 🤷‍

For parents, sending the high school aged children off to see the world isn’t as simple as letting their chicks leave the nest and grow up. Apart from the legal responsibility that parents still hold over their teens, leaving kids under the supervision of others in a dissimilar culture and society is a difficult pill to swallow for any mother or father. Oftentimes, parents are saying au revoir and sending off the kids to a strange place they themselves have never experienced. The unknown naturally carries many concerns, especially when it involves their pride and joy (that’s you).

Whether you’re the one freaking out about teen travel safety or your family members have been holding their breaths at the thought, all it takes is a little wisdom and safety know-how to calm the nerves. We’re here to tell you that it’s all going to be okay. Read on for some comforting information about health and safety while doing high school abroad!

[The World’s Best Countries to Study Abroad in High School—GoAbroad Report]

Is high school abroad safe?

The big question. There’s really no overarching, general answer for this question, as natural  disasters and summer love may be lurking in any corner of the world, parents present or not. However, when it comes to safety as a teen abroad, high school kids and parents can rest assured that high school study abroad programs are designed with safety as the first priority. Students may even have more supervision abroad than back home. With rule books and guidelines strictly in place, a student’s continued participation in a program may be on the line if any questionable behavior is found. 

Concern has risen over recent terrorist attacks and violent events highlighting news in Europe, however to this day, the homicide rate in the United States remains much higher than in Europe as a whole. So when parents worry most about environmental dangers, a quick look at up-to-date statistics shed light on the current situation in any city.

Waterfall in Iceland with rainbow

Iceland is rated one of the safest countries in the world and doubles as a popular teen travel location

Rather than a loose trip abroad teeming with temptations and vices (we’re looking at you, gelato), high school abroad should instead be viewed as an opportunity to learn responsibility and independence. In addition, there’s much to be gained through cultural immersion and international education alone. The fact of the matter is staying safe while doing high school abroad comes down to personal choices, finding the right organization, and education during the pre-departure phase. 

As any alumni can attest, you’ll be most at risk for overeating delicious foods and catching the contagious travel bug, among other common teen travel dangers

Popular high school travel destinations that are also some of the world’s safest countries

For first-time international travelers or those for whom teen travel safety is a number one priority, consider a country that’s both well-visited by peers and ranks highly on the safety meter. Using the Global Peace Index, the World Atlas released a list of the 25 safest countries that will make travelers feel safe and sound while hitting the streets in exploration. International relations, internal conflicts, and homicides are just a few indicators used to tell us where teens might fare best.

Topping the worldwide list is the tiny, chilly island of Iceland, where yearly tourists far outnumber the country’s population. For a decade, Iceland has dominated as the most peaceful nation and continues to become increasingly loved for its otherworldly landscapes and fermented shark meat…*ehem* hot springs, that is. English-speaking countries have always been study abroad favorites and it just so happens that New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland are also safety approved. For lovers of passion, siestas, and Spanish, either Spain or Chile provide a good dose of health and safety while doing high school abroad. Also in the mix are Japan and Germany—longtime sweethearts on lists of safe countries to travel for teenagers.

Saltee Island Great, Ireland

Carry a first-aid kit—your finger will get cramped from all the pictures you’ll be taking! #Safety101

15 basic tips to keep teens safe & healthy

Sometimes how to travel alone as a teenager isn’t all common sense. There are some things you can only pick up through trial and error, and the rest is sage wisdom from the elders. 

1. Know your program’s rules

Stepping onto foreign soil, where legal ages to engage in certain activities are far lower than back home, will seem like the most emancipating experience of any young teen’s life. However, each high school study abroad program will enforce additional rules to ensure that participants stay responsible and safe during their time abroad. Violating the program’s contract by drinking alcohol or running around during a curfew, for example, can get you a swift boot back home.

Trust us—your program is on your team. They want you to have the most amazing experience possible while abroad. You might think that some rules are over the top or unfair, but keep in mind that your safety is their top priority. There will be plenty more summers in your life to return to New Zealand for cliff jumping or for riding a motorcycle across Peru (on your own!).

2. Have all local and international emergency numbers on hand

You can never be too prepared for the unpredictable, and amassing phone numbers and contact names can literally be a lifesaver. Teen travel safety doesn’t have to be a solo ride, and it’s perfectly fine to depend on other for help, whether you get lost, sick, or feel uncomfortable in any situation. Make sure you have all contacts from your on-site program organizers, family members, and local authorities with you on paper at all times.

3. Bring enough medication to last your high school study abroad program

Shipping prescription or even over-the-counter (OTC) medication abroad can get really tricky with differing international customs and drug laws. While you may be used to having some basic medications like ibuprofen readily available at any corner store at home, they may require a doctor’s note abroad. Planning for meds won’t be a concern for short-term programs, but part of how to travel as a teenager on lengthier trips requires you to do some extra homework and check in with a doctor before departure.

[Your Roadmap to High School Abroad]

4. Be aware of your destination’s laws and legal ages

Assuming any law is a given is a big no-no in the international traveler’s handbook. Read up on your host destination’s common laws and minimum ages. You probably wouldn’t guess that chewing gum is banned in Singapore, or even that eating near important landmarks in Rome will land you a fat fine. 

Colorful buildings in Nyhavn, Copenhagen Denmark

Welcome to the happiest country on earth! Stroll on freely through the streets of Denmark. 🇩🇰 😊

5. When in doubt, don’t drink the tap water

Unless you’ve confirmed an absurd amount of times with human, digital, and print resources that tap water is okay to drink, don’t do it. Nasty, untreated water can contain hoards of disease-inducing microorganisms that will bust any high school study abroad program. Even if the sink water is proclaimed safe by local standards, your body may not have the immunities built up to process it. 

6. Notify at least one person of your whereabouts

Making good decisions doesn’t make you immune to strange happenings around you. Have at least one person know where you are at all times, even for a night run alone around the block for some snacks. In addition, make sure to keep some sort of ID card on your person at all times, because you neeeever know.

[Watch this: Study Abroad in High School is LIT]

7. Always take a travel buddy

To piggyback off the previous point, a comforting way to go out that beats going solo is taking an accountable buddy along. Apart from having an emotional support system and Instagram photographer there for you, a partner overall increases safety as a teen abroad.

8. Keep in contact with home

Staying in touch with loved ones isn’t just for parents’ peace of mind. The maintained correspondence can be comforting when feeling homesick or to keep in the know while away. Just imagine the horror to come back to a completely new home, just because you ignored all of mom’s Skype calls! 

Canadian flag waving on a fishermens whar

Your biggest safety issues in Canada are: 1) not saying sorry, 2) running out of maple syrup. Not much to worry about here! 🇨🇦

9. Trust your instinct, avoid sketchy areas

Found a shortcut through the city? Unless you know exactly what areas to expect, it’s best to stick to what’s most familiar, or where you’ve been. In addition to urban centers, this applies to lonely forests and all the scenes in Disney movies where the witches come out to do magic.  

10. Bring a copy of your medical records

Bringing along a few copies of medical records can drastically improve health and safety while doing high school abroad. Due to language barriers and new foods, it’s not always possible to know exactly what ingredients go into the exotic foods you try. Having a printed copy with your program or yourself can quickly explain to health professionals what they’re dealing with if something does go wrong.

[How to Find Incredible Teen Travel Programs]

11. Leave valuables at home, your homestay, hotel, or dorm

Unless needed for a particular reason, lifeline documents like passports or backup credit cards are better left behind in a safe place. The only exception is if you feel the safest place is with you! Although flashing expensive bling, glitzy, giant cameras, and fat stacks of bills can be  commonplace back home, you may be putting a target on your forehead abroad in other countries that screams “Take me, I’m foreign and rich!”. 

12. Put that beer bottle down

Despite what you do back home and the drinking age in a travel destination, consuming alcohol in a new environment leads can lead to some unintended decisions. Even if your high school study abroad program doesn’t explicitly prohibit this behavior, you best think twice, thrice, or four times before grabbing a glass!

woman doing yoga
Just because you're abroad doesn't mean you should give up healthy living and exercise. Take care of yo'self!

13. Avoid wandering in the dark when not with your program

Hazards only multiply in the darkness. You can trip, run into poles, get lost, or encounter some questionable personalities up to no good. Bringing along a flashlight may help, but a better solution is to avoid venturing out after dark when not chaperoned by program leaders. Traveling in a group of several can draw even more unwanted attention, if you’re in a questionable area of town. 

14. Don’t do weird stuff that you wouldn’t do at home

Climbing statues, posing with religious relics, being exceptionally loud in public spaces with your new crew—all behaviors a dignified, responsible young adult would never do at home. Having fun is a vital part of studying abroad, but the world doesn’t turn into a playground, ready for all visitors to stroll on through. Cultural norms, religious observances, and even public volume are all little things that any respectful travel (regardless of age) should be aware of. 

Foundational knowledge of a host destination is a basic part of how to travel as a teenager! Apart from your program’s orientation, you can soak in other cultural tidbits by doing a bit of research on the internet or asking previous participants. 

[Is Studying Abroad in High School Right for Me?]

15. Remember: Stranger, Danger! 

Remember that movie where two high school friends vacation in Paris, only to be kidnapped by some shady guys and saved by retired CIA agent dad? Spoiler: It’s not based on a true story.

The film portrays an incredibly unlikely scenario, but it does teach a good lesson about withholding information from strangers. This tip doesn’t just apply to teen travel safety, it’s a good practice to keep in mind throughout life wherever you travel. Venturing abroad is an exciting experience that will definitely bring out a new side of yourself, yet becoming overly trusting of unknown people can lead to some unwanted dangers. 

bowl of veggie soup
Remembering to eat your veggies is WAY more fun when THEY'RE FREAKING DELICIOUS

Special circumstances/additional safety measures recommended

Teen female travelers. No matter where women go in the world, they always receive more cautious warnings from pretty much everyone alive to be more careful than their male counterparts. Despite all the potential dangers (as we’re told), it may come as a surprise that for years, the vast majority of study abroad participants have been women. Maybe it’s something to do with the countless reasons why females should study abroad

Although a lot of advice you hear over and over again may seem like nagging, teen female travelers should be aware of potential risks in other countries. Knowing how to cope with certain unwanted behaviors can also be a game changer. Blatant discrimination, catcalling, or unwarranted touching are unfortunately just some circumstances that females of all ages need to learn to deal with. There are tons of online resources and blogs by pro female travelers that highlight personal experiences and what to expect!

lgbtiq* parade in canada
Unfortunately, there are special circumstances where more safety issues should be considered to ensure your physical well-being.

Where is it safe to study abroad openly as a LGBTIQ* high school student? Attitudes, norms, and religious perspectives differ vastly from one side of the world to the other. While it may not be explicitly banned to be LGBTIQ* in certain countries, negative treatment and discrimination may still be widely accepted by the general population, making it uncomfortable or even unsafe to be open about your sexual orientation. 

Countries like Canada, Spain, France, Iceland and other Scandinavian countries not only have notably large LGBTIQ* communities, but the more liberal attitudes and laws vastly increases safety as a teen abroad who identifies as LGBTIQ*. For Asia enthusiasts, China and Japan stand among some great LGBT-neutral locales, where you need not worry about feeling threatened. 

[Curious about how to study abroad as an LGBT student? Download GoAbroad’s comprehensive LGBT Study Abroad Guide!]

First time traveling solo. Boarding a 10-hour flight across oceans and continents for the first time without anyone familiar can be a terrifying idea. However, the magic of high school study abroad programs is that you won’t actually need to know how to travel alone as a teenager at all. Program organizers aren’t going to airdrop a group of teens alone in new country to fend for themselves. High school study abroad programs structure guidelines and procedures with participants’ needs and ages in mind!

How to travel as a teenager safely ✅

girl on phone with latte and sunglasses
Ready to live your best life? Armed with this knowledge, you're ready for a happy, safe time abroad.

If you read through this whole article, congratulations! You’ve got the groundwork down for staying safe while doing high school abroad. Being young and naive doesn’t mean you should have to skip out on the thrilling, life-changing lessons of international travel. Having some vital information and tips to keep in the back of your mind will prepare you (and calm the parents) to take the leap and study abroad.

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Topics:  Before You Go, Parents