What You Need to Know Before You Volunteer Your Skills Abroad: Securing Visas for International Volunteering #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly

Petra Barbu

Petra is a content marketer passionate about social enterprise, impact investing, and microfinance.

Before you travel internationally to volunteer your skills, there’s a few things you need to know. In this #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly series, we’ll be discussing the steps you need to take to prepare yourself for your trip – from healthcare to funding to visas to insurance. Let’s start with the legal stuff…

One of the most important steps in making your volunteering abroad experience a smooth success is securing your visa. Below are a few simple steps to demystify this process and help you take off without a hitch.

Although it might not be the most glamorous part of your trip, securing a visa is essential.
Although it might not be the most glamorous part of your trip, securing a visa is essential.

First: What type of visa do you need when you go volunteering?

There is a bit of a debate as to which type of visa you should have. According to travisa.com: “Visas are issued to permit entry into a country for a specific purpose – to allow travel for leisure, or to conduct business activities. The various classifications and requirements for these, and other, visa categories are usually defined by treaty, and vary by country. In general, “tourist” visas are issued specifically for the purpose of travel for pleasure, while a “business” visa generally permits a traveler to engage in normal business-related activities.”

It is our interpretation that even if work being done is of the business variety – like strategic consulting – the work itself is not business in that you are not being paid, selling services, or contracting as a business entity. If you are volunteering abroad for about 1-12 weeks, you will likely need a tourist visa. If you’ll be volunteering for an extended period of time, you’ll likely need a working visa. However, is up to you to discuss with your hosting organization on your exact categorization to remain compliant, and each country and position will have different specifications, although in most cases, a tourist or volunteer visa is sufficient.

First, do research on your country. Do you need a visa? If so, do you need a visa in advance or can you pick it up on arrival? Here is a list of countries that offer visa on arrival, though it does depend on your country of citizenship.

Start by doing the following google searches:

  1. Visa requirements for CITIZENSHIP-COUNTRY citizen traveling to DESTINATION-COUNTRY
  2. Volunteer visa requirements for DESTINATION-COUNTRY

With this information, you should also talk to your hosting organization to learn from them what they recommended.

Another useful site is VisaHQ, which offers a quick way to figure out exactly what paperwork you need for your trip. This site allows you to filter by the country you’re visiting, your original citizenship, and the duration of your trip. You could be surprised– many countries don’t require a visa for trips of up to 30-90 days, so save yourself a confusing trip to the embassy and do your research ahead of time.

Each country will differ in their policies, so you must be sure to check with your host country.
Each country will differ in their policies, so you must be sure to check with your host country.

Figure out How To Get a Visa From Your Host Country

If you need a visa for your travels, you can save yourself a lot of time by looking for an online visa option FROM the actual country you are traveling too.

While there are 3rd party sites, like VisaHQ and others, which offer an easy process to help you send off your application in minutes, you should try to apply for a visa online through your hosting country’s online systems first (if they have this option). You’ll need a passport on hand to answer questions and a credit card to submit your payment for application, but otherwise it’s a relatively pain-free process.

In addition to your online application, there is a possibility you might need to mail in additional documents depending on the country you’re traveling to. You may need to include a passport style photo, a doctor’s note that you are free from communicable diseases, a detailed itinerary for your trip, and a personal letter explaining the reason for travel, the cities and locations you will be visiting.

We can’t emphasize enough: each country has a different process, so make sure you check with your hosting organization and their nation’s policies to make sure you’re complying with the necessary provisions.

Check, check, and check again. You don't want to be stuck because you're missing any documents!
Check, check, and check again. You don’t want to be stuck because you’re missing any documents!

Double Check You Have All the Necessary Elements

Check the Validity of Your Passport

This is a fact that many people do not know: your passport must be valid for at least 90 days after departure from your host country, but it is recommended to travel with at least six months of validity on your passport. Additionally, ensure you have at least two empty pages on your passport to accommodate any visas you might need.

Check for Transit Visas

If your flight to your host nation has a connecting stop in another country, double check to see whether you will have to secure a transit visa for this stop. Check visa requirements for both nations. Here is another useful resource to learn more about transit visas.

Register Your Trip with Your Country’s State Department

It could be a good idea to register your trip before you leave. State governments in the US, Australia, and Canada offer this service. It will allow you to receive important information from your government about safety conditions, allow the department to contact you in an emergency, and ensure that your family and friends will be able to stay in touch with you.

As an example, if you’re coming from the USA, you would first visit the Americans Traveling Abroad page of the US State Department website. There, you’ll find information about entry requirements for each nation and you’ll be able to see if you need a visa at all. From there, you can go to the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and enroll your trip through a quick questionnaire. Many countries have a similar process, so check with your government for its own travel resources and alerts.

Actually getting your visa is also a process that differs from nation to nation.
Actually getting your visa is also a process that differs from nation to nation.

Getting Your Visa

As we have explained throughout this piece, the process will vary for each country. However, in some cases once you have been approved, you will need to make an appointment at the respective embassy or consulate, and bring a picture of a government-issued photo ID. Other countries mail visas to your home, so will have to check with the process for your country.

Though getting a visa may seem like a complicated and painful process, it’s probably easier than you think. It’s very possible you won’t need a visa for a short volunteering trip. If it turns out you do, the application process is straightforward and there are plenty of resources to help you on your way.

If you’re preparing to travel abroad, check out the other articles in this #TravelSmartGiveResponsibly series to learn about how to secure funding for your trip, find affordable health care, learn the language, and more! Sign up for the email campaign to get informed first about our new articles, and ask your burning travel questions to be prepared for your journey.


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