Today’s college students are on the move. Many study abroad or get the travel bug and hurry overseas every chance they get.
If your student will study in another country this fall, you may have safety concerns. Good news: study abroad isn’t inherently more dangerous than staying on campus (see this report from the Forum on Education Abroad). And by following the same basic safety rules that apply at home (be aware of your surroundings, avoid traveling alone particularly after dark, keep close tabs on your valuables, drink responsibly) plus taking note of these eight essential tips, your student can have a rewarding and safe experience.
1. Register with the State Department
This way the embassy can contact your student in case of a natural disaster, civil unrest or an emergency back home. “We encourage U.S. citizens traveling overseas to enroll their travel plans in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP.state.gov) so they can receive important messages about their destination(s), including timely Alerts and updates to Travel Advisories,” Carmen Hills, Public Affairs Specialist in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, said. “There are a number of other ways to receive updates of our safety and security information, including Twitter (@travelgov) and Facebook (facebook.com/travelgov). Students can choose the method that works best for them at travel.state.gov/stayingconnected.”
The State Department website also lists the location of U.S. embassies. Both you and your student should put the number in your phones. The embassy is an American “home base” where your student can get assistance in an emergency. You and your student also might want to follow the appropriate consulate and/or embassy on Facebook and Twitter.
2. Speak the language
Most students aren’t (yet!) fluent in the language of their host country, but they should learn basic phrases in advance. This will make it easier to get around and also foster good will — people everywhere appreciate attempts to communicate in their own language. It also makes your student a less obvious target for crime. Speaking of which…
3. Watch your wallet
Pickpockets (who may be well dressed and even speak English) target tourists in busy places. It won’t always be possible for your student to avoid crowds, but they should keep their wallet secure (not in a back pocket) and be cautious about where and when they open it. Use similar precautions with cell phones!
Suggest that your student make copies of their passport, driver’s license, credit cards and airplane ticket and keep one set in a separate place from the originals and leave another at home with you. The FBI recommends keeping your passport with you at all times — theft of American passports is on the rise. If a hotel requires your student to leave their passport at the registration desk, they should ask for a receipt and remember to pick it up when they check out.
4. Be smart about public transportation
Research official buses and taxis (names, price) before traveling. With any kind of ride/limo service, it’s a good idea to agree on a fare before entering the vehicle to avoid confrontation later. Some countries don’t carefully regulate transportation safety. Ask the host school which services are trustworthy and reliable.
Both Uber and Lyft operate internationally — check to see if these will be options.
Safety items to pack:
- Simple rubber doorstop (to stop a door from being opened)
- Wallets and passport holders with technology that protects against RFID-skimming (available at many stores)
- Portable smoke detector
- Personal safety alarm
Study Abroad programs will have their own safety recommendations and protocols — encourage your student to follow them and share information with you.
5. Know the laws of your host country
Not knowing the law doesn’t protect a person from consequences. Depending on the country, your student should look into the following:
- Is it legal to take pictures in public places — including of government buildings? Is political speech (speaking out against the government) protected?
- Is there attire (especially for females) that is prohibited or frowned upon?
- If they will drive, will their U.S. license be valid or do they need an international driver’s license?
- What are the penalties for drinking and driving? (In some countries it’s illegal even to bicycle while intoxicated.)
- Do cars drive on the right or left side of the road? If left, your student should practice looking right, left and right again before crossing a street (the opposite of what they’re used to). And know that pedestrians may not have the right of way as they do in the U.S.
It’s always a good idea to respect cultural norms and show deference to officials. The inside of a foreign police station is not a place your student wants to visit.
6. Prepare for health emergencies
Check your health insurance plan. Is your student covered for illness and injury abroad and does your plan include medical evacuation? It might be a good idea to purchase supplementary travel insurance. Even if your plan covers doctor visits, your student may have to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed later. In addition:
- Research the location of the closest doctor/hospital to where your student will be living.
- The CDC’s Travel’s Health Website provides information about potential health risks and recommended vaccinations.
- Be sure to take a sufficient supply of prescribed medications and essential supplements (like Lactaid for lactose intolerance).
- Pack a small first aid kit that includes Bandaids and commonly used over-the-counter medicines. (You can find many of these items in other countries, but a language barrier can make it difficult.)
7. Steer clear of demonstrations and protests
Free speech and the right to assemble aren’t universal. If your student gets arrested at an event, they may be found guilty merely by association. Even if a protest doesn’t get out of hand, crowds can be unpredictable — it’s easy to get separated from friends and lost.
8. Share your itinerary
Some study abroad programs require students to inform them of any trips outside the city or country. Insist that your student tell someone (preferably you) the dates and destinations of side trips they take while abroad.