One of the most important steps in going on a volunteer program abroad involves choosing the country that is right for you. Most volunteers going abroad choose to travel to a third world country, where there are many projects available to join in a variety of fields.
Some of the major considerations when choosing a country for volunteering overseas should include the level of personal safety, political stability, costs, language(s), culture shock, the availability of your desired volunteer work, and even the time zone and climate.
In terms of safety, make sure the country you choose for your volunteer experience abroad is politically stable, with an established government that maintains law and order. There are many countries in Africa, for example, that experience unrest and violence at regular intervals, due to things like election results or conflicts with neighboring countries.
Will you need to be fluent in the local language in order to volunteer abroad? Many people choose to volunteer in a country where English is widely spoken and is even the official language. Some countries, like Ghana and Kenya, have English as an official language. However if you wish to volunteer in a South American country like Ecuador, Peru or Chile, you will almost certainly be required to speak at least intermediate Spanish both at your job and in your daily life in the community.
Cost can be a major factors in choosing a volunteer abroad country.
The big-ticket costs for a volunteer program abroad are the international airfare AND the program fee paid to the volunteer organization you signup with.
Depending on the destination, a round-trip airfare can vary from $400 to $1,800 USD.
Some of the other costs that vary by destination include:
- Visa fee
- Medical Insurance
- Meals outside of your host family
- Daily transportation like taxis, buses
- Shopping for gifts
- Sightseeing around the country
Some things to consider in terms of the actual volunteer work you want to do abroad:
What field you want to work in? Teaching? Conservation? Healthcare? With children in shelters? With Women’s groups? HIV/AIDS advocacy?
Do you prefer a rural or urban setting?
A structured, rigid schedule or something more informal?
How long can you stay? Weeks or months?
What’s the schedule? Hours per day / week?
Do you need special skills or credentials?
Do you need to provide documentation like a resume or school letter?
Prefer working with fellow volunteers OR working alone?
Can you receive academic credit?
Do you need to bring materials like flash cards or books?
Minimum age to volunteer?
The level of culture shock can vary considerable among countries. For example in India you will find huge cities like Delhi with 20 million people, with cows and beggars traffic and pollution to deal with each day. In Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam, many volunteering locations will not have many of the comforts of home like coffee shops, shopping malls, and air conditioning. You may also be uncomfortable with seeing young children on the streets working for vendors selling things like water and food.
Do you prefer hot weather or more moderate temperatures?
For hot and humid, there’s no beating tropical locations like Ghana, Vietnam, and India (summer temperatures in India can exceed 100 F). For moderate temperatures, cities with higher elevations are ideal such as Lima (Peru) and Quito (Ecuador).
As you research countries and their weather and seasons, you will probably come across the term “monsoon season”. Although to westerners the term monsoon might conjure thoughts of rain 24/7 and continuous floods, the reality is that for places like Nepal and India which have a “monsoon” period each year, the monsoon season produces regular rain but those locations can go weeks without even a drop of rain.
The time zone of the host country can be a factor when you first arrive in your program country, as you might find yourself traveling one or more time zones on your flights from home.
Flying from New York to Beijing will flip your schedule 180 degrees because of the 12-hour time difference between the two cities. With India, the time difference is usually nine or more hours with North America.
These time zone differences will create lots of jetlag for you, which can last up to a week for some travelers as they adjust to the new time zone.
Another factor is staying in touch with family and friends back home. When calling back home to family and friends, make sure everyone is aware of the time difference, to make things smoother for all of you. Those 2 am phone calls from China to mom and dad might not be the best way to stay in touch!