Volunteering overseas

Volunteering overseas can be a rewarding travel experience, allowing you to be immersed in a different culture, meet and work with locals and likeminded travellers and make a contribution to a community in need. Reading and following the advice on this page will help to ensure that your overseas volunteering experience is safe, ethical and worthwhile.

We recommend that you volunteer with a reputable organisation, arrange your work visas and make appropriate arrangements for placement before you leave Australia. In some countries, finding a placement with a volunteer organisation on arrival is not possible.

This page should be read in conjunction with Travel advice: hints for Australian travellers and the travel advice for your planned destination.

Responsible volunteering

Thoroughly research the volunteer organisation that you plan to work with. Find out if the organisation is officially registered in the country you are going to, operates within local and international environmental or child protection regulations and whether or not it operates for profit. Speak to other volunteers about working conditions and their experience with local communities.

Try to match your existing qualifications and skills with what the community or development project needs. Be aware that taking on a short term volunteer project with no applicable skills ultimately may not benefit the community you are trying to help. Passing on your expertise through training and development will lead to a more sustainable outcome for the community in need.

Learn as much as you can about the culture and local customs of your destination and be prepared to adapt. You should not impose your own values on a local community. You will be interacting with locals on a day to day basis and ideally collaborating with them in decision making processes, so consider language training.

The International Volunteer Programs Association website provides extensive information to help you decide on a volunteer organisation and program that will ensure your volunteer experience is positive and worthwhile.

Volunteering with children

It is always confronting for travellers to see children living in poverty overseas. Whilst it is important that the international community works to prevent child exploitation and neglect, volunteers should always ensure that they are contributing in an ethical and meaningful way. Volunteers considering short term placements with children, particularly in orphanages, need to carefully think about the potential long term impact they may have on children in need of stability, structure and care.

Working directly with children in communities and orphanages may not be the most effective way to provide sustainable assistance. Volunteers should first consider donating to or working on projects that aim to develop and strengthen local communities, to create longer term alternatives for children living in poverty.

Australians should thoroughly research any overseas organisation offering opportunities to volunteer with children, particularly in orphanages. In some circumstances, these organisations have removed children from adequate family care in order to profit from donations from abroad. There are also reports of unscrupulous organisations deliberately housing children in poor conditions to attract ongoing financial support from volunteers.

Volunteers at these organisations may unknowingly contribute towards child exploitation. Australians considering volunteering with children should carefully consider these risks.

Australians who commit child sex offences while overseas can be investigated and prosecuted under Australian law. The penalties for these offences include a term of imprisonment of up to 25 years for individuals and fines of up to $825,000 for corporate bodies. A number of Australians have been successfully prosecuted under these laws. If you have information about such possible criminal activity, call 131 AFP. If you are outside of Australia, call 61 2 6131 5926. You may also call AFP anonymously on 1800 333 000. More information is available on our child sex offences page.

Before you go

Familiarise yourself with your destination

Start with the latest travel advice for your destination. This advice will give you information on the main risks you may face and some precautions you can take while travelling and volunteering overseas. You can subscribe to receive free email updates each time the advice is reissued when you are overseas.

Find out about the political, cultural and economic environment of your destination so you'll know what to expect on arrival. Talk with family or friends or other volunteers who are familiar with the countries you'll be visiting.

Register your travel plans

We encourage you to register your travel plans with us before you leave Australia to take up a volunteer placement overseas. The registration information you provide will help us to contact or find you in an emergency - whether it is a natural disaster, civil disturbance or family emergency.

Confirm the visa and entry requirements

You should find out well in advance of leaving Australia what rules and regulations apply to volunteers at your destination. A tourist visa usually won't allow you to undertake any form of work, including voluntary or unpaid activities. You may need to obtain a work permit or working visa. You should contact the High Commission, Embassy or Consulate of the country where you want to volunteer for the most accurate and up to date information about visa requirements.

Failing to obtain the appropriate working visa or permit before you start your volunteering opportunity may be a criminal act in that country and could result in you being fined, deported or arrested.

Consular case: Sarah's story

In uni holidays Sarah arranged to be part of a short term volunteer project in South Asia. Sarah arrived on her tourist visa and started a placement at a local animal sanctuary. She was soon visited by immigration officials, who informed her that her volunteer work was illegal as she did not have a work permit. Her passport was confiscated while her case was investigated, and she was then requested to leave the country. Sarah forfeited the fee she paid for being a part of the project and her holiday was brought to an abrupt end.

If you intend to depart and re-enter the country you're volunteering in, enquire about a multiple-entry visa. Remember to also check the visa requirements of countries you might be transiting on your way to your final destination.

Some countries also have specific entry and exit requirements, including compulsory vaccinations.

Make sure your passport has at least six months' validity from your planned date of return to Australia. You should carry copies of a recent passport photo with you in case you need a replacement passport while overseas. Information about Australian passports can be found on the Australian Passport Office website or by calling the Australian Passport Information Service in Australia on 131 232.

Take out travel insurance

Before you leave Australia, organise travel insurance to cover the whole time that you'll be away. A wide range of travel insurance policies are available, so shop around to find the policy that best suits your circumstances and volunteering plans. If your volunteer organisation is providing your travel insurance, make sure the policy is appropriate for you and your planned activities, and that it covers you for any pre-existing medical conditions.

If you extend your stay overseas, don't forget to extend your insurance before it expires to make sure you're never without it.

The Australian Government won't pay for your medical treatment overseas or medical evacuation to Australia or a third country. Expatriates and travellers without appropriate insurance are personally liable for covering any medical and associated costs they incur.

For more information, see our travel insurance page.

Stay healthy

It is important to consider your physical and mental health before volunteering overseas. We encourage you to consider having vaccinations before you travel. At least eight weeks before you depart, make an appointment with your doctor or travel clinic for a basic health check-up, and to discuss your travel plans and any implications for your health, particularly if you have an existing medical condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) provides information for travellers and our health page also provides useful information about staying healthy when overseas.

While you're away

Stay safe

Be vigilant about your safety and personal security when overseas. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own safe travel decisions, so it pays to be well informed about the risks you may face.

You should carefully read the travel advice for the country where you intend to volunteer. It contains accurate and regularly updated country specific information about crime, terrorism, political tension, civil unrest, local travel, health concerns and severe weather risks.

Familiarise yourself with local laws and show sensitivity to local customs. Be aware that local laws and penalties, including ones that may appear harsh by Australian standards, apply to you.

Due to the extremely dangerous security situation and access limitations in some locations, the Australian Government's ability to provide consular assistance to Australian citizens may be restricted.

There is an ongoing high threat of kidnapping in a number of locations globally, including areas in Africa, Asia, Central and South America. For more information, see our Kidnapping bulletin.

Keep in touch

When overseas, regularly contact your family and friends. It's important to let them know of any changes to your plans and that you're well to avoid causing needless stress and anxiety. Each year, DFAT receives thousands of calls from worried friends and relatives who haven't heard from loved ones overseas and are concerned for their safety.

Providing regular and detailed information to your family and friends will assist them to provide accurate information to DFAT if there is a serious concern for your welfare while overseas and you need our help.

If things go wrong

If you are safe, contact your friends and family at home

If an emergency, such as an earthquake, severe weather or civil unrest, affects the region you are volunteering in but you are safe, contact family members and friends in Australia as soon as possible to let them know you are okay.

Contact your travel insurance provider

If you get sick overseas or are involved in a medical emergency, you should contact your travel insurance provider as soon as possible. Travel insurance companies often have 24-hour assistance centres that you can contact from anywhere in the world. Make sure you take your travel insurance policy information and contact numbers with you so you can easily contact your insurer from overseas. Consider leaving details of your travel insurance policy with family or friends back home.

Contact the Australian Government

The Australian Government will do what it can to help Australians in difficulty overseas, but there are limits to what can be done.  The Consular Services Charter sets out the standard of services all Australians can expect to receive from consular staff, including what they can and cannot do.

If you require consular assistance, contact details for Australian missions overseas are available on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website and in our travel advisories.

The 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre in Canberra can also be contacted for assistance from anywhere in the world on +61 2 6261 3305 or 1300 555 135 (local call cost within Australia).

Counselling services

Australians in need of counselling services overseas can contact our Consular Emergency Centre on +61 2 6261 3305 to be transferred to a Lifeline telephone counsellor.