How to Volunteer Abroad

Team of Operation Smile medical volunteers during an Operation Smile mission at a Cairo Hospital in Cairo, Egypt, March 2009.
Medical workers -- like these Operation Smile medical volunteers on a mission at Cairo Hospital in Cairo, Egypt -- aren’t the only people who can volunteer abroad.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images Europe

President John F. Kennedy once said, "Never before has man had such capacity to control his own environment, to end thirst and hunger, to conquer poverty and disease, to banish illiteracy and massive human misery. We have the power to make this the best generation of mankind in the history of the world -- or make it the last." These powerful words were presented to the United Nations in a speech in 1963, showing our collective responsibility to the world [source: JFK Presidential Library & Museum]. The world still needs volunteers, and you can still make a difference abroad.

The Peace Corps is one of the strongest and most recognized international volunteer organizations. Since it began in 1961, The Peace Corps has sent more than 195,000 volunteers to 139 countries [source: Peace Corps]. Signing up with a large organization has its perks. They've been to the countries, they know the rules and they can offer you extra support. But you don't have to go with a large organization. Volunteering doesn't mean you have to commit a year of your life to an organization. In fact, you can easily volunteer for a few hours or a day while you're vacationing in a foreign country.


There are many ways to help when you volunteer abroad, such as:

  • Teaching English as a second language
  • Building schools, homes and medical facilities
  • Providing food and water to communities
  • Assisting with farming and agricultural care
  • Giving shots and vaccines
  • Educating communities about politics, religion or health

In this article, we'll discuss the documentation you will need, grants you can receive to fund your journey and programs that specialize in volunteering abroad. Let's get started by exploring the documents.


Documents Required to Volunteer Abroad

When planning any kind of international travel, you need to have your documents in order. You won't be able to enter foreign countries without a valid passport. To get a passport in the United States, you can go to a variety of locations, including courthouses, post offices and passport agencies. You can find the name and address of your nearest passport location by doing a zip code search via the U.S. Department of State Web site [source: USDS].

The passport application process includes:


  • Filling out an application
  • Providing evidence of U.S. citizenship
  • Providing current identification
  • Paying fees (roughly $100)
  • Providing specific photos [source: USDS]

You can try to obtain a passport quickly, but remember that it takes time. While the government can offer expedited passports, the best way to get where you need to go is to plan head. If you need the passport immediately, contact the National Passport Information Center [source: USDS]. You will also need to check with your destination country to learn about any additional documents or fees that may be required when you arrive.

Research any vaccinations you may need well ahead of time so that you can make a doctor's appointment. The Centers for Disease Control offers advice on vaccinations and a list of health issues in countries around the world for reference [source: CDC]. It's also a good idea to carry health insurance documents or cards, a list of contacts back home and multiple copies of your itinerary. Large volunteer organizations will provide you with a complete list of all required materials.

Now that you have your papers in order, read on to learn how to fund your trip with grants.


Grants to Volunteer Abroad

Many organizations and businesses offer grants for people who want to volunteer abroad. The trick is finding the right group to fund your trip. When applying for a grant, it's important to read all of the fine print. Some grants may have clauses within that require you to write a written report at the end of your journey, participate in media events or send regular updates while you are traveling.

To find grant opportunities, you can search Web sites that cater to international funding [source: UWM]. You can then hone in on grant opportunities by theme, country or the type of work you desire. You can also find multiple grant listings in books at the library or local bookstore.


Once you have found a grant that suits your needs, you need to make sure you are eligible. Some grants may only be for college students while others may only be for those promising to volunteer in specific countries. You can expect to fill out a lengthy application that may include letters of recommendation, a resume, proof of passport and a personal essay [source: InterExchange].

Grants are a wonderful gift, but they may not cover all the costs. Basic volunteering grants can range from $100 to $2,000 or more, but they tend to stay low in numbers [source: UM]. It's a good idea to apply for multiple grants to ensure you can afford your journey.

Now that you have the money figured out, read on to learn about volunteer abroad programs.


Volunteer Abroad Programs

The safest way to volunteer abroad is to go through an organization. The people who run the organization will already have ties to the destination countries and will be able to provide a wealth of information about vaccinations, documentation and unique opportunities. In this age of Internet scams, it's all too easy to get the wool pulled over your eyes when you are trying to do something good. Be sure to research the organization you want to work with to make sure it is legitimate.

Here are some of the major volunteer abroad organizations:


  • Peace Corps -- This organization was founded after John F. Kennedy encouraged University of Michigan students to volunteer abroad. The organization has led volunteers to 139 countries [source: Peace Corps].
  • The United Nations Volunteers -- This multi-national organization organizes more than 7,500 volunteers around the world to promote development and peace [source: UNV].
  • United Planet -- This international organization offers trips ranging from one week to one year [source: United Planet].
  • Village Volunteers -- This non-governmental organization that works with villages to provide education and community growth [source: Village Volunteers].


There are many other organizations that can be located through specialty Web sites. The Web sites for the International Volunteer Programs Association and Idealist Organization offer many opportunities to choose from based on your personal wants and needs [sources: IVPA,].

Going abroad to help others in need can be an extremely rewarding and life-changing experience. Your trip is sure to stay with you for years to come, and you can feel proud of what you accomplished so far from home.

For even more information, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • CDC. "Vaccinations." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • CDC. "Outbreak Notice: Yellow Fever in Brazil." 04/17/09. (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • CDC. "Yellow Fever Fact Sheet." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • "About Us." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • InterExchange. "Working Abroad Grant." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • IVPA. "About IVPA." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • JFK Presidential Library & Museum. "Quotations of John F. Kennedy." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • KLI. "The Kor Memorial Scholarship." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • Peace Corps. "Fast Facts." 11/14/08. (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • Peace Corps. "What Is Peace Corps?" (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • UM. "Funding Your Work, Intern, or Volunteer Experience." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • United Planet. "Welcome to United Planet." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • UNV. "What We Do." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • UWM. "International Funding: Selected Web Sites." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • USDS. "Passport Acceptance Facility Search Page." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • USDS. "The National Passport Information Center." (Accessed 04/24/09)
  • Village Volunteers. "About Village Volunteers." (Accessed 04/24/09)