Going overseas to volunteer
Volunteering overseas can be a rewarding experience and an opportunity to
- immerse yourself in a different culture
- meet and work with locals and likeminded travellers
- make a positive contribution to a community in need
To help you, we have developed some guidance and a checklist available at Smart volunteering (DFAT).
- volunteering responsibly
- things to consider before volunteering with children
- what to do before you depart
- Staying safe and healthy while you're away
- where to go if you need help while travelling
To ensure your overseas volunteering experience is safe, ethical and worthwhile, we recommend you:
- volunteer with a reputable organisation
- arrange the relevant work visa
- organise your placement before you leave Australia
In some countries finding a placement on arrival is not possible.
Research the volunteer organisation you plan to work with.
- Are they officially registered in the country you’re going to?
- Do they operate within local and international environmental or child protection regulations?
- Do they operate for profit or not?
Things to consider:
- speak to other volunteers about working conditions and their experience with local communities
- match your existing qualifications and skills with what the community or development project needs - taking a short term volunteer project with no applicable skills may not be useful to the community you are trying to help
- Australian Volunteers Program offers opportunities to undertake skilled volunteering assignments in developing countries in the region - passing on your expertise will lead to sustainable outcomes for the community in need
- learn as much as you can about the culture and local customs of your destination and prepare to adapt
- don’t impose your own values on a local community
- consider language training if you’ll be interacting with locals on a day to day basis and collaborating with them
Volunteering with children
It’s confronting for travellers to see children living in poverty overseas. It’s important the international community works to stop child exploitation and neglect. Volunteers should always therefore ensure they are contributing in an ethical and meaningful way.
Working directly with children in communities and orphanages may not be the most effective way to provide support.
- Volunteers considering short term placements with children, particularly in orphanages, need to think about the potential long term impact they may have on children in need of stability, structure and care.
- Volunteers should consider donating to or working on projects that develop and strengthen local communities. This creates longer term alternatives for children living in poverty.
Research overseas organisations 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 abroad. There are also reports of organisations deliberately housing children in poor conditions to attract ongoing financial support from volunteers.
Volunteers at these organisations may unknowingly facilitate child exploitation and should carefully consider these risks.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) can, under Australian law, investigate and prosecute Australians who commit child sex offences while overseas. Penalties for these crimes include
- imprisonment up to 25 years for individuals
- fines up to $825,000 for corporate bodies
The AFP has successfully charged a number of Australians 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 information on the risks you may face and precautions you can take while travelling and volunteering overseas. Subscribe to receive official government updates while you are overseas.
Find out about the political, cultural and economic environment of your destination so you'll know what to expect on arrival and talk to family or friends.
Confirm the visa and entry requirements
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. Contact the High Commission, Embassy or Consulate of the country you want to volunteer in for up to date visa information.
Failing to get the right visa or permit before you start volunteering may be a crime in the country you’re visiting. It could result in you being fined, deported or arrested.
Check visa requirements for each country you transit through as well as your final destination. If you plan to depart and re-enter the country, inquire about multiple-entry visas. Some countries have specific entry and exit requirements, including vaccinations.
Information about Australian passports is on the Australian Passport Office website.
Consular case: Sarah's story
During 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. Immigration officials visited her soon after and said that her volunteer work was illegal as she did not have a work permit. They took her passport while her case was investigated, and then ordered her to leave the country. Sarah forfeited the fee she paid to be part of the project and her holiday came to an abrupt end.
Take out travel insurance
Health cover is one of the main reasons Australians get travel insurance. It won't prevent you getting sick or injured, though it can prevent you suffering financially. Medical assistance overseas can be very expensive.
Choose the right coverage for your circumstances. Don't just choose the policy that looks cheapest on the surface. Make sure it covers what you need or it could end up costing you more in the long run.
For more information , see the CHOICE travel insurance buying guide.
It is important to consider your physical and mental health before volunteering overseas. You should see your doctor 6 to 8 weeks before you go. If you have a pre-existing condition ask if it's safe for you to travel. Travelling could put your health at risk as specialised care may be hard to find overseas.
Tell your doctor where you're going. Ask for preventative advice that suits your needs in that destination. Ask what vaccinations or boosters you need. Some require several courses over time.
Find out which infectious diseases are common in your destination. Learn what practical steps you can take to help reduce your risk of infection.
Ask for practical advice for while you're away. Your doctor can advise you how to reduce the risk of having health problems overseas.
While you're away
Be vigilant about your safety and personal security when overseas. 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 updated country specific information about crime, terrorism, 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.
The Australian Government's ability to provide consular assistance to Australian citizens may be restricted in some areas due to security issues.
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 page.
Keep in touch
When overseas, keep in touch with your family and friends. 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.
Where to get help overseas
When you're overseas, you won't have access to the support systems you're accustomed to in Australia. You'll need to seek support locally there, and from friends, family and your travel insurer.
- Contact local emergency services. We publish local contact numbers in the travel advisory for each destination.
- Talk to other volunteers Also, help them if they're in need. Look after your mates.
- Contact your friends and family. They may not be able to help you on the ground, however they may be able to help change your travel plans and talk to your insurer.
- Contact your travel insurer. Most travel insurers have 24-hour emergency hotlines you can call from overseas. If you're covered, they may provide logistical support, as well as financial.
In some circumstances, the Australian Government can help. In most cases, you must exhaust all other avenues before seeking consular assistance.
It's important to understand our limits. Know how and when we can help, read the Consular Services Charter.
Final tips before you go
- Read the travel advice for the countries you plan to visit and subscribe to notifications for updates.
- Research guidebooks and online forums for travel issues you may come across. Talk to friends, family and colleagues who have travelled to the places you plan to visit.
- Leave a detailed itinerary with someone at home, and plan to keep in regular contact.
- Choose a destination where you'll feel safe, comfortable, and prepared for any issues you may face.
- See our general advice for living and working overseas
- Learn about vaccinations and preventative health measures you can take.
- See our advice on reducing the risk of sexual assault, muggings and scams.
- See our advice on what do if you're a victim of assault or sexual assault overseas.
- Choose the right travel insurance that covers your health when things go wrong.
- See our advice on what to do when things go wrong
- Be prepared and read about Smart Volunteering (DFAT).
- Read the travel insurance buyers guide and reviews (CHOICE).
- See travel health information and travel health advice (Department of Health).
- Read about the Australian Volunteers for International Development.
Information for Australians going overseas for surrogacy. Learn about types of arrangements, laws, citizenship and visas.