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Your Guide To First Time Volunteering Abroad & Traveling Solo

Guide to first time volunteering abroad by International Volunteer HQ.

First Time Volunteering Abroad for Students, Solo travelers, Seniors and More

Are you considering volunteering abroad or traveling solo for the first time? Here’s what to expect and how to make the most out of this life-enriching experience…

If you’re a prospective or first-time volunteer, you might be nervous about the unknown and unsure what to expect. Going overseas for the first time is a magical and thrilling experience, and it’s completely normal to have questions racing through your head. Who will pick me up from the airport? What will my accommodation be like? Will I meet other people along the way?

At IVHQ, we’ve supported tens of thousands of first-time volunteers, and our advice is always the same: don’t let the unknown stop you from having the time of your life!

Did you know that more than 70% of IVHQ volunteers are traveling solo and for 90%, it’s their first time volunteering abroad with IVHQ?

We’ve put together this guide to help ease your pre-travel jitters and answer your pressing questions. We’ll provide pre-departure tips, explain what to expect in your first 48 hours and help you understand what you’ll gain from your first volunteer abroad experience. If you haven’t yet locked in your trip yet, you can check out this step-by-step guide to help you secure your place.

Whether you’re solo volunteering or taking a gap year, we are here to help. If you’d like more information specific to your trip type, skip ahead to one of the sections below.

An introduction to volunteering abroad with International Volunteer HQ.

Pre-departure tips for a smooth first time volunteer experience

Being an IVHQer comes with some great perks - and we recommend you take advantage of them. Here’s a list of tips and tricks to help you prepare for your big adventure:

  • Take a virtual volunteering course before you go. The Certificate in International Volunteering from the Global Travel Academy is a great option to help you prepare, as it’s an online course that you can take part in from home. It will help you immerse yourself in a new culture all from your laptop, and give you a taste of what volunteering abroad really looks like!
  • Connect with other IVHQ volunteers before you leave home by joining our Facebook Group and following @ivhq on Instagram. This is a great way to get excited for your upcoming adventure, ask any burning questions and hear from past and present IVHQers. You can also connect with IVHQers who may be volunteering at the same time as you by joining our destination-specific Facebook Groups - simply search “IVHQ” + the name of your destination on Facebook and hit join!
  • Spend time exploring our pre-departure preparation tools via your MyIVHQ portal. Once you’ve paid your registration fee, you’ll have exclusive access to a range of important modules and training, as well as your Program Guide and Preparation Checklist.
  • Safeguard your trip! We require all volunteers to purchase travel insurance, and you can easily get a quote for affordable specialized volunteer travel insurance on our website. This protects you in the event of travel disruption, lost luggage and more.
  • Get to know your dedicated Program Manager. In the lead up to your trip, they will be your go-to person for all things prep. If you have any last minute questions or concerns, be sure to reach out.
  • Say hi to your local team! Before you depart, the local team from your chosen program will reach out to welcome you, so before you even leave home, you’ll already feel like part of the community.
  • Our most important tip - get excited! You’re about to see the world, change lives and join a community of 116,000+ IVHQ volunteers. If you have any preparation tips that you think other volunteers would benefit from, share them on social media and tag @ivhq.

What can I expect in the first 48 hours of volunteering abroad?

Guide to first time volunteering abroad - what to expect in the first 48 hours.

For most volunteers, the first 48 hours are filled with anticipation and excitement as you embark on a completely new adventure. You’ve had weeks, if not months of anticipation, and the day has finally arrived! Get ready to soak up the culture, language, sights, scents and flavors.

As you jet set to your destination, remember that you’ll be fully supported by IVHQ’s wrap-around support system - we ensure a smooth and safe transition from the moment you leave your doorstep to getting settled in at your destination.

Once you land, you’ll be met at the airport by a member of the local team who will take you to your volunteer accommodation and give you some time to settle in. This is a great opportunity to introduce yourself and get to know your fellow volunteers.

During your first couple of days, you’ll also complete an in-country Program Orientation, which includes a detailed briefing about the program and its objectives, as well as guidance around using transport, accessing nearby amenities, free time activities and identifying any risks that are specific to your location. This is your chance to ask questions and get familiar with your new home away from home.

Remember that your local team will be on hand 24-hours a day to provide direct support, and you’ll be given contact details for each staff member. IVHQ will also regularly check in with you to ensure everything is going well. Plus, your IVHQ Program Manager will be accessible via email or phone if you have any questions or concerns. When we say you’ll never be alone, we really mean it!

After the 48 hour mark, volunteers tend to have fully settled in and acclimatized to their surroundings, and by the end of your journey, you won’t want to leave!

“Dear future volunteers, if this is your first volunteer trip, never be afraid and never look back. At the beginning, when you are on the plane, you may be afraid or nervous about language barriers, new people, personal awareness and more, but once you meet the welcoming coordinators and other volunteers, you will be confident and prepared to explore the country and be set up to impact our amazing world!” - Dana Boranshinova, Youth Support in Spain

Will Covid-19 impact my first time volunteer experience?

We get a lot of questions about volunteering in a Covid-19 world and whether the pandemic will impact your experience. We’ve actually found volunteering during Covid-19 to positively impact our volunteers’ experiences. With fewer people traveling, you’ll encounter smaller crowds and the communities we support have an even greater need for volunteers, which means your impact will be that much more valued.

At IVHQ, the safety and wellbeing of our volunteers is always our highest priority. That’s why:

  • IVHQ programs are only reopening in countries where the government advice and local health guidelines deem it safe. Find out which programs are currently open and hosting volunteers here.
  • We understand that plans can change and we want to make life easier for you. With our flexible booking policy, we offer free changes up to 14 days before your start date if your plans change, and even refunds in the event you have to cancel.
  • We’ve implemented additional health and safety measures to ensure your first time volunteering remains as seamless and safe as possible. This includes strict disinfecting standards, mandatory Covid-19 tests and extra health and safety information provided during orientation.

Rest assured, we’ve had hundreds of volunteers start on programs over the last few months and have had consistently positive feedback! Check out our recent reviews.

Find out where you can volunteer abroad right now

Find out where you can volunteer abroad right now

The majority of IVHQ’s programs have reopened. Click below to find out where you can volunteer abroad without having to quarantine.

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What’s it like to volunteer abroad for the first time?

First time volunteering for high school students

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for high school students and teenagers.

Did you know that 35% of IVHQ volunteers are under the age of 20? We have a range of safe and affordable volunteer opportunities for teens and high school students, so there is no reason to wait until you’re 18! Volunteering abroad as a teen is a great way to get ahead of the curve and see the world at a young age. It will help prepare you for your next step in life and open up your mind to new experiences in a way that isn’t possible at home.

Top tip for first time teen volunteers: If you’re volunteering for the first time and you’re under 18, chances are your parent or guardian may have some questions or concerns. It’s smart to sit down with them well in advance of your departure and go through our FAQs. It’s also important to remember that youth volunteers are required to provide a guardian consent form. You can work with your Program Manager to complete this part of the application.

Parents who need some extra assurance should read through our reviews, written for parents, by parents.

“My 18 year old daughter went to Kenya on her own in the summer for 4 weeks. Yes I was apprehensive and concerned. But my worries were groundless. She had a fantastic experience and felt supported by the local team. She has great memories, fantastic photos and wonderful new friends. I made sure she had enough money and was vaccinated against every disease imaginable!!! Go have fun and tell your mum to try and stop worrying!” - Sarah Jones, Mother

First time volunteering for college students

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for college students.

Studying overseas during college is becoming the new norm, but have you considered volunteering abroad as a college student during your Spring, Summer or Winter break? It’s the best way to get inspired outside of the classroom and find some new perspective.

Top tip for first time college student volunteers: If you’ve already committed to your first volunteer abroad experience, make sure to speak with your University before you depart. IVHQ makes it easy for you to gain course credit and supplement your studies while making a difference to local communities. For example, you can enroll in our Spanish Service Learning courses or get approval from an advisor to ensure your experience abroad will enhance your degree.

“My time was definitely appreciated and it made me feel happy to know my students learned something from me. This was my first time working as a teacher, it was amazing to see my students learn from me every day, and it made me realize that I am needed and I can actually do something to make changes. This was a great experience, and I will definitely do it again.” - Ruobing Pan, IVHQ volunteer Teaching in Sri Lanka

First time volunteering for solo travelers

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for solo travelers.

While initially daunting, solo volunteering abroad is one of the best ways to find your independence, push yourself outside of your comfort zone and meet new people. Along the way, you’ll be supported by IVHQ’s wrap-around support, the local team on the ground and your fellow volunteers. Over 70% of our volunteers arrive alone, so it’s nearly guaranteed that you’ll encounter a fellow solo traveler on your program.

Top tip for first time solo travelers: Before you embark on your first solo volunteer adventure, we recommend doing a bit of prep! The smallest things can help calm your nerves so you can hit the ground running once you’ve arrived. For example, if you’re going to a non-English speaking country, try Googling some common phrases in the local language. Or, you can take advantage of IVHQ’s social media channels (Facebook and Instagram) to connect with volunteers who will be joining you on your adventure.

Want to hear first-hand what it’s like to volunteer solo for the first time? Check out this blog post: Why I Took the Plunge and Volunteered Solo. If you haven’t locked in your solo adventure, check out our guide to the Best Volunteer Trips for Solo travelers in 2021 and 2022.

“The best thing to do before volunteering abroad is to understand that you may not have what you are used to at home and you might not be as comfortable as you feel in your home but that is one of the biggest parts of your experience - you are putting yourself in others shoes, letting go of your ego and experiencing something different. When you look back to this experience, you will be proud of yourself and what you achieved as a volunteer.” - Noor Al-Nisf, IVHQ volunteer in Bali

First time medical volunteering abroad

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for medical volunteers.

For first time medical volunteers, this is an opportunity to put your studies into practice. While this can be intimidating, you are not alone! Every year, over 3,000 volunteers join our medical programs, working alongside qualified medical professionals and getting hands-on experience you often can’t get at home. Expand your global medical perspective and explore your career path while making a difference to local communities.

Most of our medical programs have opportunities to gain experience in your area of specialty, whether you’re a pre-med, nursing or medical student. Get in touch to find out more, or check out this blog: Best Medical Mission Trips 2021 & 2022.

Top tip for first time medical volunteers: Whether you’re still deciding on a program or you’re counting down the days until you leave, we recommend all medical volunteers keep an open mind! Depending on where you’re going, developing countries in particular have different ways of approaching healthcare, and you may not be used to this. Think about how you can use these experiences to your advantage in the future to boost your resume, enhance your career prospects and set yourself apart from your peers.

“The local team was amazing! They made us feel so welcome and helped us with everything. I’m so glad I had the chance to complete the Medical Volunteering program in Tanzania. I felt safe and knew I had the local team to contact if I needed anything. My advice to future volunteers: in the end, you’ll only regret the chances you didn’t take! So don’t think twice, just go for it!” - Rukhsar Asif, IVHQ volunteer in Tanzania

First time volunteering for seniors

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for seniors.

While some may think of volunteering abroad as a ‘young travelers experience,’ we’ve seen an increasing number of senior travelers choosing to volunteer with IVHQ each year. In fact, around one in five of our volunteers are over the age of 30.

Whether you’re a mature traveler embarking on a career break or a senior seeking meaningful retiree volunteer opportunities, volunteering abroad as a senior provides the perfect opportunity to experience a new country while supporting volunteer projects in communities that value your support.

Top tip for first time senior volunteers: As a senior volunteer, you’ll bring a unique and valuable dynamic to your fellow volunteers and local community. We find that seniors bring a mix of life experience, skills and patience, and younger volunteers always appreciate the opportunity to engage with and learn from volunteers of another generation. So, even if you are the only senior on your program, take advantage of your value-add and be sure to mingle with volunteers of all ages!

Want to know what it’s like to volunteer as a senior? Check out this guest blog from 75 year old volunteer, Julien: A Senior’s Volunteer Adventure: The Road to a Fulfilling Retirement.

“Some people believe that volunteering is for young people, but at my age of 75, I just spent an extraordinary 3 weeks in Ghana with 9 outstanding young adults from around the world. There is no age limit to volunteering… there is no limit to giving. The IVHQ team is well organized, and everything is taken care of, starting with the airport pickup. I am recommending IVHQ to all my friends and now preparing for my next adventure with them. I have found the road to a fulfilling retirement.” - Julien Comeau, IVHQ volunteer in Ghana

First time gap year volunteering abroad

Guide to first time volunteering abroad for gap year travelers.

Whether you’ve just graduated high school or college, or you’ve hit a lull in working life, taking a gap year is one of the most valuable ways to spend your down time. While most people jump from studying to working to retirement without pause, why not take a much needed break in life to explore the world and do something meaningful?

Top tip for first time gap year volunteers: Many gap year students choose to combine multiple volunteer and internship programs to create their dream gap year journey around the globe, ticking off bucket list items along the way. If you’ve only booked part of your gap year, or need to put together a longer itinerary, our in-house Gap Year Planners can help you to work out how to do this in the most cost effective way. It can be hard to piece together the perfect gap year, so fill out this quick form to get personalized gap year program recommendations from our in-house team of experts!

Want to know what a gap year is like? Check out this blog from first time gap year volunteer, Kelly: The Benefits Of Putting ‘Life’ On Pause And Taking A Gap Year.

“For me, a gap year was the best option to give me a break from studying, let me explore and give me a bit more time to think about exactly what it was that I wanted to study. There is no doubt it’s a big decision to make, but it just could be the best decision you ever make.” - Laura Watson, IVHQ volunteer in Zambia

How to get started

Pick a destination + project and apply for free
Meet your personal volunteer travel expert
Pay the Registration Fee to secure your place and upgrade your MyIVHQ account
Get ready to volunteer abroad, we’ll support you every step of the way!