Guidance

Gap years, volunteering overseas and adventure travelling

Information on how to stay safe and healthy during travel overseas.

Planning your activities

You must plan before any big trip abroad, whether it’s a gap year, volunteering, adventure travel and other another experiences abroad. This is especially important if you’re spending months away from home in several different places.

Whatever your plans, this page includes useful advice and information to help you get ready to have a safe trip.

Remember to check our travel advice for the country you’re going to. You’ll find the latest information and advice on topics such as safety and security, entry requirements, local laws and customs and health.

Before you go

Whatever type of trip you decide to take, there are some things you should do before you go.

  • research your destination, including its laws, customs and language. This will help you avoid offending people or breaking local laws, even if you do not mean to
  • apply for a passport in good time. You can check each country’s passport requirements in our country travel advice, under ‘Entry requirements’
  • get comprehensive travel and medical insurance before leaving. Think about any activities you may be doing, even unplanned ones, and make sure you’re covered for these. Check the FCDO travel advice for your destination, and check your travel insurance will be valid
  • you may need a visa to enter the country you are going to. You can check visa requirements in the ‘Entry requirements’ section of travel advice. If you’re planning to work or volunteer while you’re away, visa requirements may be different
  • work out your budget before you go and try to stick to it. Follow the steps outlined in the Financial Assistance abroad guide
  • buy a return ticket, or make sure you have enough money to buy one. The situation in a country can change at short notice, and you may need to leave unexpectedly
  • plan ahead for any delays to your return home and the financial or practical arrangements you may need if you need to stay longer than intended
  • book at least your first night’s accommodation in advance. You are at your most vulnerable when you first arrive in a foreign country. You are likely to be tired and unsure of your surroundings
  • tell family or friends your itinerary including timings, insurance details and consider checking in as you travel, especially if you change your plans
  • set up your phone with a ‘find my phone app’
  • check the Safety and security section of our travel advice for the latest information and advice on risks to be aware of, as well as tips on staying safe

Stay up-to-date

You can keep up to date before and while you’re away by subscribing to the FCDO’s free email alert service, which will notify you of any travel advice updates for the countries you are visiting.

You can also keep up to date on travel advice by following us on:

Our campaign page gov.uk/travelaware has listed links and top tips on topics that you might need when planning your trip and while you’re away.

Volunteering

Voluntary work can be very rewarding, but a successful volunteering project requires careful planning and support.

Before you agree to a volunteering opportunity, do your research to make sure you’ll be volunteering with a genuine organisation and your work will have a positive impact. For example:

  • check the organisation’s history and track record in leading groups to volunteer abroad
  • check that the organisation is correctly registered with the local authorities (where required)
  • if your trip is planned through a sponsor organisation, find out more about the local association(s) they partner with, including how projects are monitored and quality assured
  • make sure you understand the main parts of the itinerary, including travel arrangements, accommodation, any insurance cover provided for you, and what support would be available if you needed to return home early
  • speak to past volunteers to find out about their experiences and any complaints or concerns

Organisations like Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), charities and university student services may provide further advice and guidance on volunteering abroad and finding the right project for you.

The UK government has a flagship offer for young people age 18 to 35 to volunteer through the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme. This scheme supports young people to complete 12-week sustainable and locally-owned volunteering placements that directly work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Volunteering with children

Many volunteer projects directly or indirectly contribute to improving the lives of children and young people overseas and can be popular among travellers.

In some countries you can volunteer in or visit orphanages, but doing this can have serious unintended consequences for vulnerable children and communities. A regular turnover of volunteers without relevant training and experience can be harmful to children’s development and emotional wellbeing.

Some organisations that invite volunteers are profit-oriented, not charitable, and some dishonest organisations have deliberately housed children in poor conditions to attract financial support from visitors. Poor safeguarding practices also increase the risk of abuse. By volunteering in or visiting such organisations, you may unknowingly contribute towards child exploitation, and you may put yourself at risk of accusations of improper behaviour.

If you’re considering any volunteering opportunities with children or young people, consider these additional risks and safeguarding issues carefully within your research and planning.

The International Forum for Volunteering in Development is developing a Global Standard for Volunteering in Development. This aims to help volunteer organisations provide responsible and impactful volunteering and prioritise community needs. Organisations adopting the Global Standard will commit to promoting child-safe volunteering in all environments, which includes not facilitating visits to orphanages or other residential care facilities for children.

The UK government recognises that institutionalisation (the housing of children in an orphanage or other residential institution) harms children’s physical, emotional and psychological development. In line with the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care for Children, the UK government is working towards the long term process of de-institutionalisation.

Adventure travel

Whether you or an organisation make the arrangements direct or through a company, you must consider safety to plan and manage a successful adventure travel trip.

Balancing adventure and challenge with safety

No one can guarantee safety, especially in unfamiliar and unpredictable environments, but choosing travel organisations that take preparation and planning seriously is a good start. The FCDO and British Standards Institution (BSI) have created a useful checklist for adventure travel abroad to help guide you.

Check safety standards

  • if you choose an organisation that prepares properly, you are more likely to stay safe
  • do not assume that safety is well managed: check with whoever makes the arrangements and find out what safety standard(s) the organisers adhere to. For example, check if they use BS 8848, ask for evidence of how they comply with the standard(s), including the provider’s responsibility for making checks on sub-contractors providing accommodation, transport and activities
  • read the contract you are offered and be clear about who is responsible for all parts of the venture, including any outsourced elements, how these are checked. Ask about roles (who is responsible for what)

British Standard (BS) 8848

BS 8848 provides a rigorous framework for adventure providers to properly manage risks on adventure trips abroad. BS 8848 is a voluntary standard. However, if a company claims they comply with it, and for it to be effective in minimising risks, they must fully implement all the measures in the Standard.

The information provided by BS 8848 is for adventure providers and organisers of educational activities abroad. These may include university and academic fieldwork, gap year experience, charity challenges and research expeditions. You can also refer to it to help satisfy yourself that your potential provider has planned well, and has good procedures in place to manage safety overseas. See BSI’s guide to Safer Adventures to help you with this.

Before committing to a particular adventure trip, find out:

  • what planning, policies and procedures exist to identify and manage risk at every stage of the venture, including when there is unpredictable weather that may affect the activity
  • what exactly the venture involves, and if are there any risky activities planned
  • where or what the accommodation is
  • who is responsible for individual aspects of the trip
  • who is the person or organisation (the venture provider) with overall responsibility for all parts of the venture, including those run by third parties
  • has the venture leader and team members got sufficient training and experience of similar ventures, activities and environments
  • are there contact details to let you ask previous participants about their experiences
  • what level of physical fitness, experience and skill level do you need to take part
  • is any pre-trip training required and what equipment is needed
  • are particular vaccinations or anti-malaria precautions recommended
  • is there any guidance on coping with environment-related illnesses, for example heatstroke, or altitude sickness
  • what evidence do they have of using the safety standard properly

If there is no trip organiser, it is even more important to check all these points and make arrangements for yourself to cover all possibilities.

Supporting British Nationals abroad guide

Published 8 June 2015
Last updated 17 June 2022 + show all updates
  1. Guidance fully reviewed and updated.

  2. Full review and update of guidance, including additional information on volunteering overseas. Information on gap year, volunteering overseas and adventure travelling has also moved to one central place.

  3. First published.