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Health and Safety Issues Abroad

Posted on November 29, 2019


It’s important that you take personal responsibility for your health and safety while abroad. If you don't take care of yourself, you’ll be at greater risk for illness and dangerous situations. Remember that taking care of both your physical and mental health is important before, during, and after your study abroad experience, and this is ultimately your responsibility.

Be sure to inform the appropriate people about your health needs. Whether you have dietary restrictions or a disability, it is important that the program coordinators are aware of any health conditions so that you can be accommodated. It is also a good idea to let people like your roommates know about your medical conditions, so that they will be able to help you in case of emergency. Continue reading below for suggestions on how to protect yourself while abroad.

Research Your Host Country

Always be aware of your surroundings when you are abroad. Before you leave, research your host country:

  • Talk with other students who have studied in the country you’re going

  • Register with the U.S. State Department to let them know your location, which is extremely important in case of a natural disaster or other emergencies.

Staying Healthy

Staying healthy begins at home. First, learn about the health conditions in your host country. If you need travel shots (immunizations), get them as soon as possible (usually 4-6 weeks before you leave). Before you leave home, follow these steps:

  • Get a physical and any necessary immunizations before you leave. Your doctor should be able to tell you about health risks abroad. Or, consider seeing a doctor who specializes in travel medicine; they will be able to discuss with you in depth the risks in your host country. In addition, you may want to see your other doctors, such as your dentist.

  • If you have any health conditions (e.g. allergies, diabetes, asthma), discuss with your doctor how to manage them while abroad.

  • For students with learning, physical or mental disabilities, visitMobility International and learn about the experiences of other students with disabilities abroad.

  • If you take prescription medicine, take enough supply for your entire time abroad, plus some extra in case your return is delayed. To avoid problems, ensure that the medicine is in it original container.

  • Bring a large enough supply of medicine and medical materials, because your host country may not have the medicine or medical devices you need.

  • Pack your essential medicine or medical devices in your carry-on luggage.

Once you arrive to your destination, you’ll be experiencing a new lifestyle and new environment, which can be difficult on your health. Remember:

  • You will need time to adjust from jet lag and culture shock.

  • Be careful where you eat and drink abroad. Not all countries have the same sanitation standards as the U.S. Your body will have to adjust to the new foods of your host country. This is especially important in developing countries where drinking water may need to be boiled before drinking.

For up to date information on country-specific health conditions and travel health information, visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's travel website.

Follow the Law

When abroad, follow the local laws. Your host country's laws may differ from U.S. laws. Typically, you'll learn about specific laws during your program orientation. But remember: ultimately it's your responsibility to know your host country’s local laws. As a rule:

  • If something is illegal in the U.S., it probably will be illegal in your host country.

  • Don’t fool yourself and think that local authorities will give you a break because you’re a foreign student.

  • Infractions considered minor in the U.S. oftentimes carry severe penalties in other countries.

If You Run Into Trouble

If you find yourself in trouble for breaking the law in your host country, contact the local U.S. embassy or consulate.

If you are arrested, the embassy and consulate can visit you in jail. With your authorization, the consulate can notify your family or friends and deliver request for money or aid. The consulate can help you choose a local attorney to ensure you are receiving all of your rights under the law of your host country. Consulates, however, cannot guarantee your release from jail.

Alcohol Use Abroad

Research your host country’s drinking laws and customs. In many countries, the legal drinking age is lower than that of the U.S. However, in some parts of the world, drinking alcohol is highly restricted or even illegal.

If drinking alcohol at your age is legal, remember to be smart about how much you consume. Being drunk in an unfamiliar country could lead to dangerous situations. Also, be aware of the risk of date rape, which can happen to both women and men. Sometimes, people will buy you drinks and add date rape drugs to them. For your safety, you should buy your own drinks and never leave your drink unattended.

Drug Use Abroad

If you're thinking about using illegal drugs when you're abroad—DON'T. In many foreign countries, laws against drug use and possession are very strict. Every year thousands of Americans are jailed in foreign countries—sometimes for life—for drug possession, even in small amounts.

You are more likely to be caught because police abroad specifically target foreign students for illegal drugs. Obtain more information about Drug Use Abroad and what services the U.S. can and cannot provide if you are caught abroad using or possessing illegal drugs.

Behavior Tips

Staying safe while abroad has a lot to do with your behavior. Follow these tips:

  • Don’t attract unnecessary attention to yourself with loud conversations with other Americans while in public.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings. If certain areas seem unsafe, avoid them

  • Try not to be flashy with expensive jewelry or electronic equipment.

  • Don’t carry too much cash.

  • Use caution with alcohol and drugs; they impair your thinking and judgment. If you drink alcohol, be sure that you are with people you trust.

  • If you travel independently, notify someone from your school where you’re going.

  • Use only official taxis.

  • Avoid political or social demonstrations. Such events can become dangerous, and you can be hurt or even arrested.

  • Keep your passport in a safe place. If you carry it with you, keep it in your front pocket (or another safe place on your person).

  • Be polite to other people and respect their opinions, even if you disagree. Remember that people in your host country may have different values and be less “politically correct” than what you are used to.

  • Use common sense.

Must Ask Questions

  • What should I do in case of emergency? Who should I contact?

  • What is the equivalent of 911 in my host country?

  • Do I have any health issues that I will need to take care of while I’m abroad?

  • What medications will I need to take with me?

  • What are the local laws?

  • What are common crimes in my host country?

  • How can I safely get around? Is public transit safe and reliable? Are there things I should look out for as a pedestrian?

  • What is appropriate dress and behavior in my host country?

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