It can be nerve wracking to pack up your life into a couple of suitcases (or backpack!) to move abroad and work—and that’s before you factor in travel safety concerns or other ways you might compromise your safety while traveling abroad. From new venomous creatures (*eyeroll Australia*) to foreign language barriers to new ingredients in your food, at times it can feel like trying to stay safe abroad will be more work than your actual job!
But fear not, newbie expat. It’s a sweet world out there, and armed with these tips for before and during your life abroad, you’ll easily be able to stay safe abroad as an expat. Here are our best tips for ensuring your health and safety while working abroad!
Before you go
Your health and safety should be one of the top priorities for you to research before traveling. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming if you follow the steps below and make sure you’re well informed and prepared:
1. Check political stability of your destination
The first thing you should check before planning a work abroad trip is whether the political situation in your destination of choice is stable. The easiest way to do this is by checking your government foreign department’s official website. You will find any travel warnings or alerts there. You should also check with your insurance company whether they will cover you in a country that has some warnings issued. Living in a destination where you feel secure is paramount to safety while traveling abroad.
2. Get your vaccinations
Your doctor or a travel clinic can advise you on the vaccinations you need for your destination. Be aware that a lot of vaccinations are administered as multiple doses, meaning you’ll have to get your first injections a good few months before you actually set off on your travels. When you do travel, make sure you carry your vaccination documents with you and store an electronic version online as a backup.
3. Buy insurance
Every traveler and expat should have solid insurance cover, both for the trip and their time abroad. Travel insurance will cover you for your journey and any trips you might take, but if you’re planning on working long-term in a new country, you should consider getting international health insurance.
If you already know your employer abroad, you should reach out to them and ask about the required insurance, as you might not be allowed to start working until you’re fully covered.
4. Get a checkup
No matter if you’re perfectly healthy, before embarking on your trip, you should get a complete health check by your doctor. Not only will you feel more comfortable knowing everything is fine, but some jobs might even require a physical checkup before you can start working.
5. Research access to healthcare abroad
It’s always a good idea to be aware of whether you’ll have easy access to healthcare in your new home country. If you’re in a major city, this shouldn’t be an issue, but very remote jobs can be a few hours away from the nearest hospital or health centre. It’s therefore important to do some research and find out this information in advance of arriving at your destination, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions that might require you to visit a doctor regularly.
If you use any repeat prescriptions, make sure you also research in advance whether you can get your prescriptions abroad, or whether you should stock up before you go.
6. Consider mental health support
Many countries have quite old-fashioned approaches to mental health issues. So, if you require a prescription or therapy, make sure you do some research in advance, to check whether you’ll have access to a therapist and the support that you need. You could also look into doing online therapy with a doctor in your home country.
7. Prepare for your journey
Travel itself carries a few potential health risks. Deep vein thrombosis can occur after long-haul flights and can be very dangerous. Purchasing flight socks in advance and wearing them during your flight can help prevent thrombosis. You should also remember to get out of your seat regularly, walk around, and stretch a little in your seat and in the aisle.
If you’re prone to travel sickness, pack medication that you can take before long plane, bus, car or boat rides. While we're on the note of gathering your belongings and stuffing them in a suitcase for the next chapter of your life, we want to encourage you to pack smartly. Take twice the money / half the stuff yada yada yada. Or just hit up our 👇
When booking your flight to your new work abroad destination, also make sure you know what time of day you land. If you will arrive in the middle of the night, consider waiting at the airport until morning, or booking a hotel at or near the airport for your first night. Alternatively, book your accommodation and ask them to send you a car or taxi to pick you up from the airport if it’s late and no public transport will be available.
While you’re there
There are a variety of health and safety precautions you can take once you’ve arrived in your destination. Here are some key things to consider as you tackle your safety while traveling abroad:
1. Understand local culture and law
It’s important to know a bit about the local culture of the destination you’re in, to ensure you don’t accidentally offend anyone or put yourself in a dangerous situation (and ultimately stay safe abroad!). Customs and local laws vary from country to country, even within Europe. So, while it might be ok to carry an open alcohol container in public in Germany, the same could get you into trouble in many countries, such as the UK. A simple Google search is a great start and most travel guidebooks will also cover the basics.
In many countries, dress codes are stricter than what you might be used to in western countries, especially when visiting religious sites like temples or churches. Showing up in a tank top and shorts (even for men), might mean you have to miss out on a bucket list item, so be prepared and, if in doubt, ask the locals.
2. Be aware of crime
Make sure you have researched your destination carefully in regards to crime levels. Remember that safety can vary from city to city too. For example, Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa each have a very different crime situation.
While it’s important to be aware of certain dangers and risks, it’s equally important not to get carried away by panic, or stories people tell you. Ideally, you should talk to a local, or someone who has spent some time in your destination country, to get some real-life insight.
It’s also important to be aware that often, city centers see more petty crime, like pickpocketing, than more residential areas (for example, in Barcelona).
3. Know what to do in an emergency
Just in case you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, make sure you have local emergency numbers saved on your phone, and memorized in case you lose your phone or get pickpocketed.
The same goes for your new address. Memorize it right away, so you can find your way home, even in the event that you lose your map or phone.
4. Be prepared for unexpected disasters
While rare, natural disasters like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods can and do happen, and can severely impact your travel plans.
Be aware of any natural disasters that could occur in your destination. For example, Bali recently saw an eruption of Mount Agung, one of the volcanoes on the island. Thousands of locals and visitors had to be evacuated. In case a natural disaster occurs, make sure you keep up-to-date with the local news, check whether your own government has issued warnings or instructions and be flexible.
5. Understand local transportation
One of the best ways to blend in with the locals is knowing where you’re going, without having to consult a map or your phone every few steps. A key tip for ensuring your safety while working abroad is to make sure you understand the public transport system and always know how to get home. You can also research which transport lines or neighborhoods might be more dangerous, so you can avoid them. If there’s no public transport available, you should avoid taking unlicensed taxis and never hitchhike.
6. Know the climate
Research the typical local climate of your work abroad destination and don’t just rely on current weather forecasts. Also, remember that climates can vary greatly within the same country, so research the actual city and the months for which you will be there. A simple Google search will work well.
If you’re going to work outdoors, you should take extra precautions to stay safe abroad, like wearing appropriate clothing, sun protection, and drinking plenty of water.
7. Take workplace safety seriously
Depending on your work abroad job, there will be more or less risk involved. For example, if you’re working on a farm in Outback Australia, using heavy machinery, there will be more risks involved than at a desktop in Sydney. However, no matter your job, make sure your new employer takes you through a risk assessment and that you’re aware of correct health and safety procedures.
8. Be aware of food and water risks
Experiencing the local cuisine is one of the best parts of living abroad. Especially street food, which is enticing, local and cheap. Depending on your destination, eating street food can come with some risks and food poisoning can ruin even the most awesome trip.
Here are a few rules to follow that will help keep you safe (especially in very hot countries):
- Always wash your hands before and after eating
- Eat local (you’re more likely to get sick from spaghetti in Peru than from the local ceviche, which is a raw fish dish, as local food is more likely to be freshly prepared)
- Eat only freshly prepared food, ideally if it’s fried or boiled right in front of you
- Buy only fruit that you can peel yourself or that’s peeled freshly in front of you
- Avoid ice if you’re not sure that clean water was used to prepare it
9. Research and plan your onward transport carefully
While all major airlines have to adhere to strict safety standards and have excellent safety records, it’s recommended to research any smaller, local airlines, before booking with them. Airline Safety Ratings has an overview of most airlines around the world. If you’re planning a boat trip, it’s also a good idea to research the safety standards, especially for those in non-western countries.
Advice for Women
Female travelers and expats will have to do some extra research before traveling to non-western countries.
If you’re using any form of contraception, make sure you find out whether the same prescriptions are available abroad. Often, they are just sold under a different name and your doctor or a pharmacy will be able to assist you with this.
If you’re traveling to very remote or non-western locations, make sure you also find out whether you’ll be able to buy your preferred menstrual hygiene products. In some countries, it can be more difficult to find tampons than in others, for example, but it shouldn’t be a problem in most places that have large amounts of tourism. In general, using a menstrual cup is a great way to avoid having to worry about this issue, as its lightweight and reusable.
Sadly, just like at home, women should also take extra safety precautions when working abroad. As always, use common sense and don’t do anything you would feel uncomfortable doing at home. A few rules that apply anywhere in the world are the following:
- Dress like the locals
- Don’t leave drinks unattended
- Avoid walking home alone
- Only take licensed taxis
- Avoid getting drunk and don’t take drugs (stay in control)
- Be aware of local gender rules and laws
- Consider wearing a wedding ring (a lot of female travelers wear a wedding band even if they’re not married, to avoid unwanted attention)
- When taking an Uber or taxi, consider texting someone the license plate number
- Many cities now have women-owned taxi companies, so you may want to consider using these, especially if traveling alone or at night
Safety tips for LGBTIQ* expats
Unfortunately, not all countries and societies are accepting of homosexual or transgender travelers. Disturbingly, homosexuality is still punishable by death in 12 countries in the world and illegal in 75. Some precautions to take are the following:
- Common sense (meet strangers in public, stay in control by limiting/avoiding alcohol/drug use)
- Blend in with locals (dress like locals)
- Avoid public displays of affection in high-risk countries
- US citizens can register their travel plans ahead of time with the Smart Traveler Enrolment Program, which has a section specifically for LGBTIQ* travelers
- If you have changed your name, you need to update your passport before you travel
Stay safe abroad!
The topic of ensuring your health and safety while working abroad isn’t as interesting as planning your trip, or the sights you will visit, but it is just as important. Taking a couple of hours to do the research, talking to people who’ve been to your new home country (and the locals whilst you’re there), as well as purchasing adequate insurance, will be well worth it to make you feel safer and have a much more enjoyable time.