The Preparation Guide to Volunteering Abroad

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Tips for volunteering abroad (before you go)

So, you’ve mastered the how to volunteer in another country. After days turned into weeks looking for the perfect volunteer abroad program, the chosen one came to you like a beacon of light. You exchanged a few vows, signed a few documents, and now you’re hitched to have a wildly productive volunteer experience abroad!

...but, what’s next, you ask? Even with some of the best volunteer abroad programs, you’re never fully left with what to expect on the other side. This is especially true for first time volunteers. Providing your services or expertise to other communities around the globe is no small feat. After all, being best equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills brings you closer to making a positive impact abroad without wasting precious time and resources.

Rather than combing through the deepest, darkest corners of the Internet for a preparation guide to volunteering abroad, you can get the juicy spread right here. All you have to do is keep reading to learn how to prepare to volunteer abroad!

close up of several bristle brooms in a pile

Are you bristling at everything on your to-do list to prepare for volunteering abroad? Don’t let it sweep you out. Dust yourself off and get ready to broom into your new role as an international volunteer.

1. Research required and recommended vaccines for your destination.

If you’re completing a volunteer abroad program for college credit through your home institution, you’ll oftentimes be required to complete medical paperwork before leaving. However, you may be responsible for all medical protocol yourself. This means being proactive with the nitty gritty of how to volunteer abroad. 

Health precautions and disease outbreaks are constantly changing. Even if you’ve had experience in the destination where you’re to volunteer abroad, it’s still best to educate yo’self! All that knowledge isn’t going to learn itself, and no matter how amazing, your mother doesn’t have all the answers.

Using a reputable resource, such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travelers’ Health directory, can give an overview of what vaccines and medical preparations are suggested for your destination. Of course, your doctor and volunteer organizations are also great places to start! 

2. Gather the right legal documents.

The absolute first thing you should pack is your passport! Second to that, you must round up additional documents that may be needed for a visa, entry, or anything else necessary for your stay. Even short-term programs of a few weeks can have a strict legal policy depending on the country. In order to ensure your legal entry and smooth departure (and to save yourself many headaches), plan your documents ahead.

Refer to your volunteer organization’s guide to volunteering abroad, or ask to learn about all documents you might need for your specific program. Stick to the information provided by official governmental websites or your volunteer org to have the most up-to-date and accurate information.

Open laptop with glasses and a notebook full of notes

Research the heck out of your project and destination, so you can get all your vaccination and visa documents in order.

3. Pack your wardrobe thoughtfully.

Perhaps some of the best tips for volunteering abroad lie within the wardrobe department! Will you be brushing elephants or teaching kiddos in an orphanage? Fashion, schmashion. Your comfort and clothes functionality should take priority over any vogue style you strive for at home. Try connecting with your volunteer project on-site leaders or past participants to learn of what clothes worked best for them.

Another important factor to consider is what’s culturally appropriate in the community where you will work. Even if it’s 100 degrees and humid, wearing running shorts could be a massive taboo that will get you more than a few dirty looks. Take religious norms, traditions, and current customs into consideration when packing. 

[Don’t forget a thing! Prepare Your Volunteer Packing List]

4. Practice minimalism in packing.

After you’ve piled up organized heaps of things to bring with you, go through everything and take out half. Whether it’s makeup, clothes, or shoes, there are many things you think are necessary that you’ll never wind up using. Set aside your “just-in-case” belongings, such as different colors of the same blouse or an extra pair of walking shoes, then PURGE!

By simplifying your baggage, you’ll be lugging around a lot less and have a much breezier volunteer experience. 

5. Bring along small gifts or mementos.

Even if you’re volunteering abroad with animals or plants, there are bound to be humans somewhere along the way that have made your volunteer abroad experience possible. Bringing along a small thank-you gift, such as a postcard, keychains, or something unique to your home is a thoughtful way to show your appreciation. You could even bring multiple gifts for those involved in your volunteer training, project administration, or host community. It’s not always easy working for nonprofit organizations, so every act of kindness helps!

white wolfpack playing nicely together

Pack for volunteering abroad thoughtfully, like these wolves. Wait. Different kind of packing...

6. Identify emergency contacts.

Volunteering abroad is a fun and great learning experience, but sometimes trouble can break out. Having your emergency contact information on the ready is an integral part to this preparation guide to volunteering abroad. First, start out by compiling information on the closest embassy at your volunteer destination. Lost passports and legal issues are an inherent part of travel, so you never know when you may need governmental help.

We live in a day and age when the only phone numbers we know are our own, the parents’, and maybe the BFF’s. Remember those troublesome address books people actually wrote down addresses and phone numbers in and carried around? Yeah, we don’t either. A good habit for how to volunteer abroad successfully is having your family and friends’ contact information written down on a physical piece of paper. 

The next step is knowing your on-site contact information. This includes local law enforcement, your volunteer organization’s emergency number, and the head honcho of your specific project. Keep all these contact numbers in a safe place on you at all times. It does no good to have them lying in your suitcase in your room if you have an emergency on the road!

7. Visit the pharmacist and check in with insurance.

Not all healthcare systems are created equal. Here are some lifesaving tips for volunteering abroad! If you take prescription or even non-prescription medicine at home, make sure you bring enough with you to last your volunteer experience abroad. Some countries are stricter when it comes to over-the-counter medicines. Something as seemingly simple as migraine fighting pills may be unavailable overseas unless you have a doctor’s note. 

Check in with your doctor to get an extended prescription if you’re unsure whether it will last. You could get into some deep legal doodoo if you or someone else are caught sending it in the mail later on. Also, make sure you’re covered by insurance in case of emergencies! If your usual plan doesn’t cover overseas travel, there are several companies that offer affordable short-term plans for your destination.

[Guide to volunteering abroad with a chronic condition]

8. Determine how you will contact home.

Internet access and widespread WiFi may be something that has become second nature in our everyday lives. It’s certainly easy to forget that it’s not a given until you find yourself in a different country with no way to contact home. It’s wise to get familiar with your connection situation during your volunteer training. Will your accommodation provide WiFi, an ethernet cord, or a phone to make international calls? You may be having the time of your life, but a check-in with the loved ones is always appreciated!

9. Get familiar with your duties and project.

The time before your departure is an excellent opportunity to fully acquaint yourself with your responsibilities and volunteer expectations. It’s almost a given that your volunteer organization will provide participants with a guide to volunteering abroad, including vital information on what your duties involve.

This step isn’t just to help yourself, it’s a responsibility you hold as a volunteer to use the time and resources abroad efficiently and skillfully. A volunteer project isn’t just a trip abroad, it’s an occasion to help more than yourself.

Vintage red phone booth in New Zealand 

Figure out your emergency contacts...who ya gonna call? (Note: Do not make “Ghostbusters” your emergency contact.)

10. Stock up on can’t-live-without essentials.

Dry shampoo? Cut-off socks? Whatever makes your world go ‘round will help make your volunteer experience more comfortable. There’s no guarantee your favorite conveniences can be found within a 2 mile walk radius of your volunteer site, so it’s particularly important to stock up while you still can.

While this may seem conflicting with some tips for volunteering abroad previously stated above, it’s all about a good balance. It comes down to location, location, location, so even if your essentials are easily found in Western Europe, they may not be sold anywhere in Thailand. Familiarize yourself with which needed products can be obtained abroad, and leave these at home to buy later.

11. Cash or card?

A part of how to volunteer abroad successfully is being able to take care of yourself when off duty. Is cash or card the way to go at your volunteer destination? ATMs (especially for your bank) may not be available, which means bringing an old fashion, big ol’ wad of cash to exchange. When in doubt, ask it out! Your volunteer organization gurus will have the answers. 

12. Fundraise the heck out of your volunteer trip.

You’re volunteering abroad—that’s awesome! We’re not the only ones who think so either. More than a spring break fun trip to Paris, volunteer experiences garner a lot more interest and attention from friends, family, and strangers alike. You may even be surprised of the financial support you can raise for your cause, if you reach out and ask.

Whether volunteering takes you to Switzerland or one of the cheapest volunteer abroad destinations, fundraising is never a bad idea. Every day you have left until take off is an opportunity to save and relief any financial stress. Use extra funds to cover a range of out-of-pocket costs, such as airfare, program fees, room, board, and transportation!

[Become a volunteer abroad funding wizard]

close up of water bottle outside

Once you know your project and job inside and out, don’t forget those essentials—like a refillable water bottle.

Now you’re ready to go forth and own your volunteer experience!

Now that you’re a master of the preparation guide to volunteering abroad, you have the necessary know-how to prepare what you have control over. Whether it’s at home, in the shower, or abroad, sometimes things happen over which you have no power. The hope is that with a little bit of foresight and adequate volunteer training, you will be primed and ready to encounter even the wildest of surprise situations!

At times when the first time volunteering abroad seems terrifying, just remember there are thousands before you who have already scaled that mountain...and succeeded!

Read more pro tips on volunteering abroad

Topic:  Before You Go