How to stay safe and deal with disaster during study abroadConcerns over study abroad student safety have become much greater over the past couple of years with events like last year’s uprisings in the Middle East, this year’s attacks on U.S. Embassies in the Middle East, and the recent anti-Japan protests in China. Students have been arrested, disappeared, and some have even died abroad. The reality is that the world isn’t 100% safe; however, the number of students who fit into the categories I just mentioned are very few. If the right precautions are taken, there’s little chance you’ll encounter any major danger, and if you do, at least you’ll be prepared. Here are The Study Abroad Blog’s tips on staying safe while studying abroad.
Have The Right Paperwork
Before you leave U.S., make sure you’ve taken care of all important paperwork and documents. The most important will of course be your passport and, depending on where you’re going, your visa.
Having the right paperwork is necessary for getting in and out of just about every country (and back into the U.S.), so make sure you’ve done your homework and have a clear understanding of all aspects of your visa including restrictions, duration, and validity.
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- Note: Don’t forget to make multiple photocopies of all important documentation. Carry one in your bags but separate from your passport, leave one in your home in the U.S., and leave one at your home/dorm abroad.
Register With The U.S. State Departments Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
STEP is a free service provided by the U.S. Government to U.S. citizens who are traveling to, or living in, a foreign country. By entering information about your trip abroad, you make it easier for the Department of State to get you help in an emergency.
They can provide the names of local attorneys and doctors, loans to Americans who have somehow reached poverty abroad, and information about dangerous conditions affecting any overseas travel. They can also help Americans with absentee voting (upcoming 2012 Presidential election!), notarize documents, and issue passports.
You can find more information on the STEP website.
You should also consider following the State Department on Twitter for live travel warnings and updates.
Let Someone Know Where You’ll Be At All Times
Obviously this doesn’t mean inform the world you’re heading to the bathroom, but you should let someone know whenever you’re leaving your abroad university for a long period of time. Include a list of hotels or hostels, contact numbers, flight information, and your expected return date.
You should also send your international phone number and abroad address to friends and family back home in case they need to get in touch with you about anything in the U.S.
Sign Up For Insurance That Covers You Internationally
One of the most important things study abroad students don’t consider enough is health insurance, even though most states actually require you to enroll in a student health insurance program or in a health benefit plan while you’re abroad. While you may be covered under your parents plan in the U.S., check to see if the plan you’re under covers you abroad, and if it covers you beyond the basic trip to the ER.
If it doesn’t, see if your home college or university offers a student health insurance plan. This is pretty common among schools with well established and organized study abroad offices. You can also apply for an individual insurance plan through providers that work specifically with either study abroad students or frequent international travelers.
Know What To Do In A Large-Scale Emergency
Emergencies abroad can include theft or robbery, injury and illness, natural disasters, political upheavals, and acts of terrorism. More than likely, you won’t get much of a warning before any of these occur either, which is why it’s so important to register your trip.
If anything like this happens while you’re studying abroad, the State Department sets up a special task force which is in touch 24-hours a day with the Ambassador and Foreign Service Officers in that country. If you have to get out of the country in a hurry, they’ll even charter special flights to help get you home.
Be Aware Of Local Laws
If you don’t want to end up on the next version of “Locked Up Abroad”, obey the local laws of the country you’re visiting. Just because you’re an American citizen doesn’t mean the U.S. government can bail you out of jail (and in most cases it can’t).
- Many countries impose harsh penalties for violations that would be considered minor in the U.S., and unlike the U.S., you’ll probably be guilty until proven innocent.
- Be careful when you decide to whip out the camera and start snapping pictures. In some countries you can actually be arrested for taking pictures of police and military bases, government buildings, embassies, etc.
- Check with the foreign country’s embassy in the U.S. to make sure your medications are not considered illegal narcotics. Be extra careful if you take a medication like Adderall for ADHD, or any type of anti-depressant!
- Don’t accept packages from anyone, and don’t offer to be anyone’s drug mule, no matter how much money you’re offered.
- Be careful with “recreational” drugs! Marijuana isn’t illegal when smoked in the coffee shops of Amsterdam, but the penalty for having marijuana on you in China can be an extremely long prison sentence.
- Avoid riots, demonstrations, and other political activities. While we have the freedom of speech and the right to assemble in the U.S., it’s a freedom not enjoyed in many other countries.
Research The Local Fire Safety Regulations
Fire safety standards differ drastically from country to country. I’ll be honest, plenty of apartments I’ve stayed in while abroad haven’t had anything resembling a functioning smoke detector or sprinkler system. While I don’t necessarily suggest installing one on your own, you should at least be aware of fire standards and regulations of your host country, and make a fire safety plan in case you have to be your own Smokey the Bear.
Finally, make sure you know the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy. You can find location and contact information for all embassies and consulates on the U.S. State Department website.
If you have any other safety tips, questions, or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!