No-Brainer Safety Tips for Study Abroad

Study abroad is a time for adventure, exploration, and growth. However, don’t let your excitement and curiosity get in the way of your safety and well-being.

The good news is, according to the Global Peace Index 2018, 89% of USAC’s program sites ranked safer than the U.S.! But when you’ve living in a new place, safety is always something to keep in mind. So the following tips are simple reminders of how to stay safe during your time abroad.

Plan Ahead

  • One of the first things you should do is register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) through the U.S. Department of State. This allows the U.S. Embassy to contact a student in case of an emergency at home or if a situation arises in your host country. The process is free and can be done online at the STEP website.
  • Research your program site (and the places you intend to visit) early on to learn about current health conditions and precautions to take. Prepare yourself for any health-related risks by getting any necessary vaccines, filling any prescriptions that you cannot get in your host city, and speaking to your doctor to develop a plan to maintain your physical and mental health during your time abroad… then stick to it!
  • Read all the resources provided to you by USAC prior to departure, including the student toolkit you received in the mail. Use orientation to soak in as much as you can about your program city and ask questions related to your safety, like who to call in case of an emergency. Talk to your host family about local laws, cultural norms, safety dos and don’ts, and neighborhoods to steer clear of. You can access all USAC documents at anytime through your Gateway Account.
  • Make copies of your important documents, such as your passport and visa. Leave a copy with your family back home and keep extra copies on you and the originals safe in your housing (unless you’re traveling). It’s also smart to keep a physical and digital copy of important information like your address, the number to reach your on-site staff, and how to contact the local authorities.

Travel Smart

  • Pay attention to how locals carry themselves to blend in; tourists are more likely to become victim of crimes like pick pocketing, and wandering around in a large pack of loud, English-speaking students can put a target on your back. It’s always best if you can speak in the local language, and avoid drawing attention to yourself, adopt the local style, and keep a low profile in crowded or unfamiliar settings.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and always keep a close eye (and hand) on your belongings. Don’t carry large amounts of cash or personal documents when you don’t need them, and avoid showing off any expensive jewelry, watches or technology. You can avoid becoming a victim by being vigilant, always knowing where your belongings are, and by making it obvious that you’re paying attention. Don’t ever leave your bags unattended.
  • Never ever accept food, drinks, or medication of any kind from somebody you do not know and trust. Always watch your drinks if you’re at bars and clubs, and keep an eye out for your friends’ drinks, as well.  If you choose to drink, know you remain responsible for your actions and should still be able to navigate your surroundings. Also remember that local laws differ in your new home and you are responsible for following them!
  • Demonstrations are far more common abroad than they are in the U.S. We strongly recommend you avoid large crowds and demonstrations. It’s a lot harder to get out of a bad situation when you’re being squeezed in by a crowd.

Pay a Little Extra for Safety

It’s common to be frugal when traveling, and we understand that you’d rather spend your money on something more fun but remember that your safety and well-being is priceless. Put aside a portion of your budget to be able to make safe decisions when you need to.

  • If you must get from point A to point B alone at night, consider spending the extra cash on a taxi or Uber instead of walking. This goes for public transportation, as well. Avoid dark, empty metro stations or unfamiliar bus routes when you’re traveling alone or at night. 
  • When it comes to hostels and hotels, the cheapest option likely isn’t your safest bet. Cheap accommodations are likely due to poor location, lower standards, and lack of amenities (including security and a 24/7 front desk). Read reviews before booking, do your research on the neighborhood, and think twice before giving into a deal that seems too good to be true.
  • Invest in a good bag to carry day to day in your host city and on trips. Find one with a sturdy zipper (avoid bags with no form of closure), thick straps that can’t easily be broken or cut, and hidden pockets to hide your belongings.
  • Many hostels have lockers for rent to keep your stuff safe during your stay. Instead of carrying everything with you or opting to leave it in your room, buy your own combination lock and lock up your suitcase/backpack and any valuables that you don’t need while you explore the city.

Trust Your Gut

Above all, your intuition is your number one safety gauge. If you’re uncomfortable in any situation, find a reason to excuse yourself and get out of there. Trust your gut, and don’t shake bad feelings off for fear of seeming irrational or lame. Don’t be afraid to speak up to your friends or the USAC staff if a situation or person is making you uncomfortable, and please don’t brush your friends off when they’re getting bad vibes. 

Be alert and mindful of your safety and the safety of those around you and follow these tips for a (hopefully) worry-free study abroad.

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