So…now what? You’ve decided you want to volunteer abroad, but you need the next steps. You want a clear plan, with clear steps. You’re all about organization— or maybe you aren’t, either way this volunteer abroad planning timeline and printable packing list will be your lifeline throughout these early stages of prep to volunteer abroad.
Let the eager countdown to your volunteer trip begin!
Volunteer abroad planning timeline
You’ve got the whole year ahead to pick a program and ultimately plan to volunteer abroad, but if you’re not careful the year will get away from you faster than you can say, “I want to volunteer abroad.” POOF. Gone.
Start by making a list of what you want to achieve through your volunteer experience; this list will act as a rough framework for the rest of your planning process. Don’t worry, it won’t be written in stone. Your goals will change and grow as you figure out exactly what you want to do and where.
Which leads us to the next thing you need to start doing a year out: research programs and projects that interest you, and start to daydream about ideal locations. If you find any programs that interest you right off the bat, save and compare them side-by-side with MyGoAbroad. You’ll also want to start thinking about your budget and ultimate timeline for volunteering abroad (i.e. when do you want to go? how long do you want to volunteer?).
It’s never too early to get the wheels turning when it comes to planning your volunteer trip.
Remember that list you made a month ago? You might want to dig that out of your notebook because it’s time to revisit it. Now you want to start focusing on making more specific goals. Instead of “I want to go to Latin America,” try something more along the lines of, “I want to improve my Spanish in Latin America while helping local communities through education projects.”
Now you can start scrolling through volunteer program listings and choosing options that will help you achieve that goal! Perfecto!
Volunteering abroad is a great way to get work experience and beef up your resume, so consider how the projects you’re researching could relate to your studies, and ultimately, your career goals. Since you’ve already been saving and comparing programs, you can start to narrow them down, read reviews, and reach out to program staff for more information on the specific program you’re interested in.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to talk to friends and family about your future plans. Be open to their feedback, since the people who know you best will be a great help in your decision-making process. But, always remember that this is your experience, not theirs, and you shouldn’t let them make any decisions for you.
Hint Hint! Volunteer Programs You Should Check Out:
- Volunteer around the world with IVHQ
- Volunteer in Morocco with Cross Cultural Solutions
- Volunteer in Peru and earn your TEFL certificate with Maximo Nivel
- Volunteer abroad with wildlife conservation projects from GoEco
- Volunteer teaching English to Monks in Laos with GVI
- Volunteer on community development projects in Bosnia with Love Volunteers
PICK A PROJECT! SUBMIT AN APPLICATION! DO A LITTLE HAPPY DANCE! You’re over the first big hurdle, so take a little time to treat yo’self. Okay, good. Now back to work!
Does your volunteer program have any additional requirements or specific qualifications? Do you need a TEFL certification, diving certification, or CPR/Wilderness survival certification? Do you want these certificates? It could be a great added benefit to any volunteer abroad program.
Alright, now you’re going to want to seriously think about how you’re going to fund this adventure, because it’s unlikely that you’ll be volunteering abroad for free. Start looking into the best options for fundraising (both online and IRL). The earlier you start your campaign, the better. Talk to your volunteer program staff to get their tips and best practices for fundraising— they’re there for you as a resource, they’ve got a lot of experience, use them!
What do you mean you haven’t applied for your volunteer program? We told you to do that a month ago?! Okay, well, apply NOW, then! The sooner, the better!
Remember that list of goals from a few months ago? Yep, you should have put that in a safe, easy to find place. Now you’re going to want to pull that notebook with dog-eared pages out again. Start compiling a list of skills you want to improve during your time abroad. You can also take a little extra daydream time to plan out where you’d like to try and travel in-country or around the region when you have a free weekend.
Need to brush up on your Spanish? French? Maybe pick up some Arabic? Now’s the time to ease into it and buy any relevant translation dictionaries and workbooks to start practicing.
Check in on your fundraising efforts and make sure you’re doing everything you can to bring in the big bucks! Got a birthday coming up? Forget gifts, get that cash!
Speaking of cash, if you’re working, or even in school, you might want to let any supervisors or professors know about your plans, especially if your volunteer program interferes with work or school. You’ll want to make sure you have time to wrap up any projects before you go so you can be fully present during your volunteer trip.
You’ve chosen a program. You know where you’re going. You know what you’ll be doing. Now, you get to do all the fun, obsessive research about your host country and culture!
Read a couple books written by local authors— make sure at least one is nonfiction, or centered around the culture and history of your host country. If you’re not much of a bookworm, check out a documentary or two about local history, politics, and social issues in the region. This will help make transitioning into your new community a breeze, since you’ll have a little more context going in.
How’s your fundraiser looking? Are things still moving a little slow? Give it a big social boost and look into new means of funding your trip. If you don’t already work part-time, that’s always an option, and there’s still holidays and birthdays on the horizon. Does your neighbor need odd jobs done? Do whatever you need to in order to make this dream a reality!
MORE READING! Yay! Start scouring articles and travel blogs to compile all the best tips for traveling and volunteering in your host country. And, if you don’t already follow your program provider on social media or read their participant blog, get on it! If you’re not finding what you’re looking for, it doesn’t hurt to start your own blog. This will come in handy while you’re abroad! You’ll be able to document your experience and keep friends and family updated.
Halfway there! See, told you the year would get away from you if you weren’t careful. Now it’s time to start taking on some big tasks and costs. It’s time to do a little research and book your flights as well as get some travel insurance. Yes, you do need travel insurance, you’re not going to want to cut corners and costs here. If you need visas or new travel documents (a passport, perhaps) start that process now. You should have started it yesterday.
Once you’ve done that, you can get back to the fun research: food. Learn about all the local ‘noms you have to look forward to. If you can find a few good recipes, maybe even try them out for yourself at home and share with friends and family! While you continue to work on the local language, take this opportunity to learn some delicious food-related vocab and key phrases.
Follow local news organizations in-country and get a feel for the climate and weather. You’ve still got lots of reading to do. Start diving into the volunteer abroad experience in country. At this point in your planning timeline you should be trying to get in touch with program alumni to get an even better feel for what your volunteer trip will be like. START GETTING EXCITED!
Buy a folder. Tell the folder you love it. Keep this folder safe and warm and loved. This folder will hold all your relevant documents and copies of these documents. Speaking of copies, make two copies of the following documents (one for you to take with you, and one for you to leave with family or trusted friends at home).
If you know the names of your fellow program participants, or there is a project/program social media group or Facebook page, hop on it and start making connections!
Still have that notebook with the dog-eared pages and lists of goals and hopes and dreams? Good. Check in on that list and see if it needs editing. Add or remove any goals. If you didn’t love lists before deciding to volunteer abroad, you sure do now. List out a few of your strengths and weaknesses and think through how they will help you or challenge you during your volunteer project. How can you capitalize on your strengths during your volunteer trip? How can you take those (few) weaknesses and learn to turn them into strengths?
Yet another fundraiser check. Hopefully by now you’re raking in that cash money and you’ve got majority of your costs covered, but keep savin’ savin’ savin’!
By now you should have some sort of routine set: wake up, read about host country, eat breakfast, scroll through Instagram tag of beautiful photos of host country, go about your day, eat lunch, read current events about host country, sleep, repeat.
Follow up with volunteer program staff to make sure you have met all the requirements, turned in all necessary paperwork, and see if there are any new updates for you. Do they have a volunteer abroad packing list? If not, no worries, that’s coming up soon.
Hyperventilate a little. YOU’RE SO CLOSE TO YOUR VOLUNTEER ADVENTURE!
If you need to, download or update Whatsapp, Skype, Facetime, etc. and start thinking of ways to keep in touch with friends and family while you’re abroad. You know how Grandma worries. Make a communication plan. You won’t be spending every free moment on your phone or calling home, but make plans to check in throughout your stint volunteering abroad. You want to be present, but still be able to share the experience with your loved ones.
Time for the less-fun (but still important) steps in your planning timeline:
Call your bank and let them know you’ll be traveling so you don’t run into difficulties with your credit or debit cards abroad. Call your phone company and see what options there are and try to unlock your phone so you can easily get an international SIM. You’ll want to register with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) before leaving the country.
GET EXCITED! HOST A SEND-OFF PARTY WITH ALL YOUR FAVES!
Take good care of yourself. You’re in the home-stretch now and you don’t want to start your volunteer trip sick. Get plenty of rest, always drink your water, get all the vitamin C you can get your hands on. Block off some good ol’ quality time for family and friends. You’ll want some one-on-one time with them before you go.
If you don’t feel like using that notebook you’ve kept all your pre-departure plans in, get yourself a nice, clean, crisp journal to start documenting your trip. If you’re more of an Ansel Adams than an Ernest Hemingway, be sure to purchase or pack your camera. You’ll want to snap lots of pics.
[Apply NOW for GoAbroad & Lonely Planet's $2,500 Volunteer Abroad Scholarship Giveaway—Deadline Nov. 14]
Revel in the butterflies. We know you’re excited, but it’s okay to be a little nervous! Everyone is! Even seasoned international volunteers still feel that flutter in their tummy before embarking on their next volunteer program abroad
Now you just need to pack...well, at least with this nifty volunteer abroad packing list you’ll know you have the basics. Your specific program should provide you with more specific must-haves before you jet off across the world. Remember, you can never have too much clean underwear.
Volunteer abroad packing list
- Your passport— duh!
- A light jacket (always helpful)
- A water bottle
- Any medications you take/will need
- A camera
- Cash on hand and a debit card for the local ATM
- Your phone (but keep this packed away, there’s a lot to look at)
- Sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen
- Appropriate shoes
- A good book
- A journal
- Emergency numbers or contact info for in-country program staff
- A durable backpack to keep it all in!
BONUS! GoAbroad & Lonely Planet are giving away $2500 to one lucky volunteer
This is not a drill—the teams behind GoAbroad & Lonely Planet LOVE travel so much (especially the volunteer-oriented kind!) that we've joined forces to help one meaningful travel secure additional volunteer abroad funding. Check out all of the scholarship details and application how-to's here—deadline November 14.
It's time to gear up & go—adventure awaits
There you have it folks. A year of your life spent planning the volunteer trip of a lifetime. The list-making, frantic googling, endless reading, and fraught phone calls may seem like a lot laid out on paper like this, but trust us, it’s totally worth it.