I always encourage everybody I know to travel abroad. Travel is such a special, amazing thing and it’s such an awesome experience to go somewhere different from where you live and experience something new. The impact traveling abroad has had on my life is, for lack of a better word, profound. To travel is to enjoy life and to see new things, experience new cultures, and open your eyes to the world outside of where you live. Traveling domestically is also amazing (I’ll never pass up a chance to go to New York City or to explore some of the amazing national parks we have here in the United States), but there’s something about going to another country that is extra special.
That being said, traveling abroad is more involved than just hopping over to another state (or province, territory, etc. if you’re not from the U.S. and have a different name for the far-flung regions of your country).
If you’re a newbie to traveling abroad, you may be wondering just where to begin. Don’t let the fact that it’s a little more involved stop you…it’s really not so hard and the rewards are well worth the effort. That’s why I wrote this guide to help you with all the things you’re going to need (or want) when you leave your country to visit another…
First and foremost, you’re going to need a passport. If you don’t have a passport and you’re thinking about traveling abroad, you should start the application process now because it does take a little while. Once you have your first passport, it’s generally easier to just renew it every few years.
Ok, so you’ve got your passport and you’re ready to book your trip. Excellent! Here are some things you’ll want to look into…
Each country has it’s own entry rules, and those rules vary depending on what country you’re from. Some nationalities have it easier than others as far as visitor visas are concerned, but wherever you’re from, your first stop should be to look into your entry requirements for the country you would like to visit. Since I’m from the United States, I’m going to use my own entry requirements as an example…
I’ve visited several countries in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. All of these countries issued me visas upon arrival. What this means is that I just need to show up and they let me in on a tourist visa for a set number of days (it’s usually up to 90 days, but that does vary with certain countries). All you do is fly there (or drive there in the case of Mexico and Canada) and they give you a short questionnaire where they ask the purpose of your stay, where you’ll be going, and how long you’ll be there. Then they stamp your passport and let you in. Simple.
When I visited Australia, I needed a visa before arrival, but it was pretty quick and easy. Since I’m from the United States, I was eligible for their electronic visa. All I had to do was fill out an application online with things like my passport number and travel plans and pay a $25 fee and I was issued a visa that was linked to my passport number within a couple days. Then, all I had to do was fly to Australia, show them my passport, and I was in. Super easy.
There are countries where it’s much more difficult to visit, however. China’s visa process is a little more involved, requiring U.S. citizens to submit an application to the Chinese embassy or consulate. Still, if you’re an average person just traveling for tourism purposes, it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Then there are countries where it’s pretty hard to visit. I haven’t been yet, but I’ve heard the process to get a Russian visa can take a long time and is very involved. I would love to visit Russia someday though, so there will come a point where I’ll go through that process.
Then there are countries where it’s straight up difficult to visit. Iran, Iraq, Angola, Somalia…these countries are pretty difficult for Americans to visit. That’s not to say you can’t get a visa to go if you jump through a bunch of hoops, but it’s not going to be easy and you may be rejected.
Border crossing rules.
Before you go, you’ll want to read up on your destination’s border crossing rules. This will vary from country to country as every nation has their own rules on what is allowed into the country. This could include things like food and medications, or other items which vary from country to country. Be sure to look into entry restrictions before you travel so you don’t inadvertently bring something prohibited into the country.
Plug adapters and converters.
Different countries have different electrical outlets. If you’re planning on traveling abroad, be sure to check which converters and adapters you’ll need for your destination. Hint for Americans: Canada, Mexico, and surprisingly…Japan all use the same plugs as us so no need for special equipment. Hooray!
You’re going to want to stay connected to the internet while you’re away so you can post fun trip photos to Facebook and maybe call your mom once or twice, right? Most phone plans don’t work outside the country unless you have a specific international plan on your contract (and even then it’s probably expensive) so have a plan in place to either use the WiFi at your hotel, bring along a portable hotspot, or pay extra fees for international service. There are also ways to use a local sim card in your destination or just purchase a local, pre-paid phone. It’s up to you, but have a plan in place of how you’ll connect before you go.
Essential phrases if you have special needs and there is a language barrier.
In my experience, if you speak English, you probably don’t need to know another language to get by in another country. So many people everywhere speak English, have signage in English, have pamphlets at tourist stops in English…you’ll be fine. I promise. That being said, a little bit of a language goes a long way not only in communicating with non-English speakers, but also in showing the locals that you’re making an effort to communicate in their own language. It’s appreciated, it really is. You’ll want to learn to say things like hello, goodbye, thank you, please, excuse me, etc. If you want to go a little farther, learn to say How much does this cost? as well as Where is…..(insert what you’re looking for here). You can always point to stuff as well. Pointing gets you a long way, but learning a little bit of the local language can be a big help.
The other thing you should learn is how to communicate any special needs you might have. I have celiac so I need to be able to ask if food has gluten in it, or if they have any food that is gluten free (and in some cases how to explain what gluten is). You don’t necessarily need to learn how to say all that, but printing out an explanation or translations of the questions to take on the trip with you can be a big help if you’re unsure. The same goes for any special needs. If you’ve got a handicap and need to ask for accommodations for that, print it out. If you’re like me and you have dietary restrictions, print it out. This will be a big help once you get there.
Learn a little about the culture before you go.
Let’s talk about cultural differences for a second. Let’s say there are two travelers. One is Japanese and traveling in the United States. The other is American and traveling in Japan. Neither of these travelers thought about reading up on cultural differences before their trips. They both arrive in their destinations hungry after a lot of travel, so they head to a local restaurant.
The American tries to tip his Japanese server and is confused when the server refuses the tip. The Japanese man pays his bill and walks out of the restaurant without tipping his server, and the server isn’t happy about it.
What just happened here? Cultural differences.
In both cases, these travelers were just following the customs they are used to at home. In Japan, things cost what they cost. There aren’t any additional costs like tipping, so when they say something costs 500 Yen, it’s 500 yen. You don’t tip there. In the United States, servers are often paid really low wages and depend on tips to survive (I know…I waited tables in college) so when you get stiffed on a tip, it sucks. It really sucks. We Americans are used to tipping our servers and most people who aren’t horrible monsters wouldn’t think of going out to eat without tipping.
In both cases, these men were doing what they thought was right, but they both could have benefited from a little reading up on local customs before traveling.
Bring some cash.
I always find it’s useful to get a little cash before I travel. You can usually get foreign exchange at a bank before you go, and it’s a useful thing. When you arrive, you may want to take a taxi to your hotel. You might be hungry and want to buy food or coffee at a cart that happens to be cash only. It’s always useful to have some cash on hand so you can hit the ground running upon arrival and not have to worry about finding an ATM when you’re tired and still getting your bearings. Usually $100-$200 worth is more than plenty to start you off. You can always get more cash later, but there’s nothing worse than pining over a cappuccino after traveling for 22 hours straight and finding out it’s cash only. Trust me….bring a little cash.
Directions, all info for your arrival, reservations, etc.
Since you may not know what the internet access situation will be like upon arrival, it’s always useful to print out some directions to your first hotel/Airbnb/etc. for when you arrive in the country. Maybe a map and a couple pictures of what the building looks like too. You’re going to be tired and you’ll want to make things easy for yourself. If you’ve pre-reserved anything for the trip as well and you have online tickets, print those out before you go as well to make it easy for yourself when you get there.
I know it sounds like a lot, but it’s really not too bad…and soooo worth it. Traveling abroad is an amazing thing to do and you’re going to have a great time and make some incredible memories. If you’re new to traveling abroad, go somewhere a little easier to get started. If you’re an English speaker, you’ll have an easy time in other English speaking countries. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand….easy peasy, and if you get confused or lost you’ll have no problems chatting with the locals. Mexico is super easy as well. Even though they speak Spanish, they get an enormous number of American tourists every year, so tourist areas are used to us and are staffed up with bilingual workers. Western Europe is generally very easy to get around as well. Although they speak many non-English languages, it really is easy to get around, so don’t let it worry you. Once you’ve mastered easy mode, it’s time to move on to other places. I found Japan to be a great place to visit. Beautiful country, interesting culture, friendly people. The culture and language was different enough to make it more challenging at times, but the people were so friendly and helpful and the touristy areas had English signage, so it wasn’t too hard to get back on track when lost.
I can’t say it enough…don’t be afraid. Make the leap. Go for it. You’re going to love traveling abroad!