International volunteering can be an amazing experience for both you (the volunteer), and the community in which you’re serving. However, great experiences don’t come without planning. To ensure your volunteer experience is a good one, you’ll need to make sure you’re partnering with a great agency (more about this in later post), and you’ll need to do some personal homework and preparation before you go.  

If you’re heading out on a short-term mission or volunteer placement overseas, make sure you’ve done, or at least considered, the following:

Passports and Visas

While this is common sense stuff, it’s important that you get on to it early – just in case there are unexpected delays. Most countries expect you to have a minimum of 6 months left on your passport before entry, even if you’re only staying a couple of weeks.

Visa requirements differ between countries and will depend on what passport you are travelling on, so don’t just take a mate’s word for it; they may be travelling on a different passport to you. The Passport Index is a good place to find out about Visitor Visa requirements and you can search by passport and destination country. Just be aware that for long-term volunteering you may need a Special Purpose Visa.

* Special Note for Volunteer Teams
If you are the trip organiser, it’s a good idea to get copies of your teams’ passports and visa documents ahead of time. You don’t want to get to the airport and have to leave someone behind.

Travel Insurance

Having adequate travel insurance is a no-brainer, so if you’re travelling on your own, go ahead and organise whatever insurance works best. Just be aware that some volunteer activities may require special insurance cover, so make sure you’re upfront about what you’ll be doing while you’re away.

* Special Note for Volunteer Teams
If you are the trip organiser, you may want to ensure your team members are all insured with the same company and with the same level of cover. If your team is involved in a group incident, you will be glad to be working with just one set of rules.

Several years ago, I was part of a volunteer team that was involved in a motor vehicle accident in Kenya. Four of our team passed away and more than a dozen were hospitalised with serious injuries. So many of the costs incurred were done so as a team (e.g. shared accommodation, shared meal expenses) and even the hospital bills were invoiced collectively. However, as I was the only person carrying my credit card at the time of the accident, every expense went on my Visa. While we had amazing service from our insurer, Allianz, I can only imagine how difficult the claims would have been if we were each insured with different companies.

Travel Vaccinations

Making sure you have adequate travel vaccinations is not only important for your own health, but also for the health of those around you (both while you’re away and when you return home). What vaccinations you need will vary depending on where you’re travelling to, so start by checking out www.travelhealthpro.org.uk/countries for a list of both required and recommended vaccines for every country.

Be aware that in order to be properly effective, some vaccines require an initial dose, followed by a booster dose a few weeks or months later. Make sure you check in early so you can be properly protected before you leave.

Personal Health Kit

Whether you are travelling on your own, or travelling in a team, it’s a good idea to pack your own health kit so you’re not reliant on others if you get sick. Obviously you’ll want to pack any regular medication, but you should also pack some broad-spectrum antibiotics and some basic over-the-counter remedies for less serious illnesses. Things like throat lozenges, paracetamol, ibprofen and diarrhea stop are a must. The longer you’re going to be away, the more comprehensive your kit should be. Watch this space and I’ll post a downloadable list shortly.

Dietary Requirements

If you’re volunteering in a developing country, then chances are the menu is going to look very different to what you’re used to and if you have special dietary requirements, they may be difficult to cater for. With that in mind, if your requirements are more of a preference than a medical must-have, I suggest you take a deep breath and be prepared to eat a little differently for a couple of weeks.

In most developing countries you’ll be eating fresh food, rather than food from a packet, so you’ll always be able to find things that are gluten-free and dairy-free. However, if your needs are are more complex or you require a special diet for serious health reasons, you may want to bring some food items or supplements with you.

If you are bringing your own food, it’s important that you let your hosts know why, but at the same time don’t make a big deal of it. Your hosts will go to great effort to meet your dietary needs, so try to eat as much of the local offering as you can.

Learn Some Basic Phrases

No-one is expecting you to be fluent in the language of your destination country, but it is helpful to know some basic phrases before you leave. Don’t assume that the people you are working with can, or want to, speak English.

Make sure you know how to greet others and introduce yourself, including where you are from, how long you are visiting for and what work you will be involved with while you are there. Some people may also want to know about your family and work back home, so it’s a good idea to learn how to share that information too.

Of course, conversations are not a one-way thing. Make sure you learn how to ask someone their name, and depending on your placement, some appropriate personal questions. Questions might include things like how old are you, do you go to school or who is in your family?

Once you’re working in the community, be prepared to give new words and phrases a try. The people you’re working alongside will really appreciate the effort and you’ll get a much better sense of what’s going on around you.

Learn About the Culture

The best way to learn about a culture is to immerse yourself in it, but you’ll want to understand some of the basics before you go. Some things you might want to think about include how you should address elders or people in authority, the role of men and women in specific situations, rituals or practices around food and how you should dress. If you know you’ll be attending a formal occasion, do some homework around protocols before you go.

While most communities are gracious hosts and will give you guidance where required, it’s good manners to learn the basics ahead of time.

Activity Preparation

Depending on where you’re going and what type of activity you’ll be involved with, you may need to do some activity preparation before you leave. Find out what equipment or resources are available where you’re going and work out what equipment or resources you’ll need to bring with you.

Can you adapt the activity to use resources that are already plentiful in the community? Is your usual method appropriate for this community or do you need to re-think how an activity is delivered? Don’t assume you will have access to items that you take for granted at home. Do your homework and prepare as much as you can before you leave.

Know What to Expect

If you have never travelled to a developing country before, it’s likely that you will experience some culture shock when you arrive. Things will look different, sound different, taste different and smell different. You’ll probably be without some basic amenities that you take for granted back home and your bed might not be as comfortable as you’re used to. While there is no way to properly prepare yourself for the new experience, doing some homework about what to expect can make the transition easier.

Talk to people who have volunteered in the country or community before, and if your travelling with a team, ask the team leader as many questions as you can. Check out photos and videos from previous volunteers; a picture really does paint a thousand words.

Develop an Open Mind, a Willing Attitude and Lots of Patience

The most important thing you can do is develop an open mind, a willing attitude and lots of patience. Things will not go to plan. Things will be different to what you expect and almost everything will take longer than you’re used to. There will be things you love and things you really struggle with.

It’s important to remember that while this trip will be an amazing experience for you, ultimately you are there to serve. That means there will be times when you will feel uncomfortable or homesick; times when you will feel frustrated, impatient or resentful; and times when you want to pack it all in and go home. That’s all part of the process, so lean in with an open mind, a willing attitude and lots of patience. Start practicing now in preparation!