Is It Safe to Study Abroad?

Steve Toews
01/14/2016
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Studying abroad can be intimidating for any student. Even if you’re eagerly awaiting your trip, the idea of being away from friends and family for months on end can be a nerve-wracking thought.

Add in the possible risk associated with international travel and it can be positively overwhelming. But feeling safe while studying abroad often comes down to a few key factors:

  • Choosing the right destination
  • Participating in a verified program
  • Taking precautions to prepare yourself for the types of situations you might encounter abroad

Keep reading to discover resources for choosing your study abroad destination. You’ll also see an overview of some of the safest places to study abroad and learn about the precautions you can take to help keep yourself safe.

Safety-Related Resources for Choosing Your Study Abroad Destination

When deciding where to study abroad, look to resources such as:

  • USA Study Abroad – The U.S. federal government recently launched USA Study Abroad, a comprehensive site offering a range of practical information for American and international students alike. It also shares personal stories from participants in study abroad programs.
  • The Global Peace Index – This report from Vision of Humanity, an initiative of the Institute for Economics and Peace, ranks 163 states and territories by their level of peacefulness. The report is created by analyzing 23 different indicators that fall into 3 separate categories: level of societal safety and security, extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict, and degree of militarization.

    See the “Global Peace Index 2019” here.

  • The Safe Cities Index – This report from The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks 60 cities according to 57 different indicators. These indicators fall into 4 separate categories: digital security, health security, infrastructure security, and personal security.

    See the “Safe Cities Index 2019” here.

  • Overseas Advisory Security Council (OASC) – The Overseas Advisory Security Council (OASC) offers travel and safety guides for virtually every country on the planet. This is an excellent place to start before embarking on your study abroad adventure.

  • Travel Advisories from the U.S. Department of StateU.S. Department of State-issued travel advisories are regularly updated safety rankings assigned to every country in the world. Check the travel advisory level for any study abroad destination you’re considering and reconsider any locations under a level 3 “reconsider travel” or level 4 “do not travel” advisory.

  • Travel Health Notices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)CDC-issued travel health notices are regularly updated notices that measure health threats worldwide and categorize countries based on severity. Check the travel health notice level for any study abroad destination you’re considering and avoid any locations under a CDC-issued level 3 “avoid all nonessential travel” warning.
  • “Resources for Travelers” from the CDC – The CDC also offers a “Resources for Travelers” page that contains comprehensive health guides for traveling and studying abroad.

  • Smart Traveler Enrollment Program – To make getting these notices easier, you can join the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) from the U.S. Department of State. This program is designed for U.S. citizens and nationals to ensure they receive timely notices of any pressing issues that may affect their time abroad. 

Learn more about travel advisories and what they mean for your trip.

The Safest Places to Study Abroad

A quick glance at the "Global Peace Index for 2019" shows that Iceland tops the list of the world’s most peaceful nations. New Zealand, Portugal, Austria, and Denmark round out the top five.

At the bottom of that list are nations consumed by active warfare, including Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq.

Country Snapshot: Iceland

Iceland is a Nordic island in the northern Atlantic Ocean and one of the safest places to study abroad. A famously liberal nation, this country of Scandinavian ancestors is home to gorgeous natural vistas.

Its official language is Icelandic. However, many of its inhabitants speak English fluently.

The University of Iceland offers two programs for international students: one in Icelandic studies and one in education.

According to the Overseas Advisory Security Council (OSAC), Iceland has:

  • A well-trained and trusted police force
  • A very low level of violent and non-violent crime
  • Some weather-related hazards, like slippery roads

Discover 5 more reasons to consider traveling to Iceland for your study abroad adventure.

Country Snapshot: Portugal

Portugal, located in southwestern Europe, is known for its advanced economy and very high living standards. The country also has a strong reputation regarding education. The University of Porto and University of Lisbon are particularly well-known and welcoming to students from all over the world.

OSAC notes that violent crime is extremely low in most parts of the country, but pickpocketing can be a major issue if you’re not careful. Keep your belongings in zipped pockets and be mindful of them at all times.

PRO TIP: Countries that have well-trained police forces and low levels of crime can still have hotspots of risk. Research the city you’ll be living in as well as the country as a whole. 

City Snapshot: Tokyo

At the top of the “Safe Cities Index 2019” list of the world’s safest cities are Tokyo, Singapore, Osaka, Amsterdam, and Sydney.

Tokyo, Japan is a city of over nine million people and offers dozens of institutes for higher learning. OSAC notes that there is minimal risk from crime in Tokyo and violent crime is rare. However, sexual assaults against women, such as groping, are a serious problem—especially in crowded places such as subway trains. Pickpocketing and other petty crimes in crowded areas such as shops, bars, and transportation hubs are also reported.

Considering studying in Tokyo or Osaka? Explore our Tokyo City Guide or read through our Osaka City Guide here.

Safety can be a highly personal judgment, as well. Your gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and native language can all influence your ability to safely navigate a country.

Remember to keep your own comfort zone in mind and listen to your instincts when deciding on the riskiness of a foreign country or city.

Study Abroad Safety Tips

Staying safe while studying abroad doesn’t stop at choosing your destination. Apart from using the resources listed above to research potential destinations, there are several study-abroad safety tips you should keep in mind.


1. Talk to Program Administrators of Study Abroad Programs You’re Considering

Most study abroad program administrators will have your best interests at heart. It’s their job to keep their students safe, no matter what. Listening to their advice is a great first step to staying safe while traveling and studying abroad.

It’s also important to that you ask the right questions before committing to a study abroad program. Talk to potential program administrators and study abroad program alumni. Read program reviews on sites like GoAbroad.com and GoOverseas.com.

Ask questions such as:

  1. How long has the program been running?
  2. How much experience does the program administrator have?
  3. Where is the university located?
  4. What is student housing like / what is a home stay like?
  5. What safety precautions does the program administrator take when vetting families for home stays?
  6. In what city / neighborhood is student housing or your home stay located?
  7. What safety / emergency protocols are in place for students?
  8. Have there ever been any safety incidents in the past? How did the program deal with them?

2. Do Your Visa Homework

Traveling for school isn’t the same as being a tourist. Many, if not most, countries will require that you have the appropriate visa before you arrive. The United States, for example, requires all international students studying inside the U.S. to have a J-1 visa, F-1 visa, or M-1 visa.

Learn everything you need to know about getting an F-1 visa.

Consult your destination country’s immigration control department before traveling (for the United States there are several, all under the authority of the U.S. Department of State).

Also consult the website of the embassy or consulate for your home country nearest to the location where you will be studying abroad. The resources you’ll find can make a world of difference.

3. Use Common Sense

The study abroad experience can be a lot of fun, but don’t throw caution to the wind. Even in a relatively safe country or city, foreigners can be considered easy targets for theft.

All the usual tips for personal safety apply:

  • Always be aware of your surroundings—especially when you’re alone.
  • Only carry as much cash as you need for the day.
  • Use an ATM located inside of a bank branch or hotel lobby rather than one located on the street. Do not use ATM machines that show possible signs of tampering and use your free hand to guard your PIN as you enter it.
  • If you are of age and choose to drink alcohol, do not drink excessively. Always keep an eye on your drink.
  • Be aware of local laws and customs and do not violate them.
  • Always keep a charged phone on you.

4. Consider International Student Health Insurance to Prepare for Potential Health Emergencies

If you have to call a doctor or visit an emergency room in a foreign country, you may be asked for cash upfront before services can be provided. In an emergency scenario where you need to be medically evacuated, the cost for the medical evacuation could exceed $100,000.

If your regular health insurance does not cover emergency situations or unexpected injury/illness incurred abroad, consider purchasing an international student health insurance plan like StudentSecure insurance from Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group.

International student health insurance may even be required by your program, university, or visa. Many universities offer their own student health insurance plans, but schools will oftentimes let you purchase your own health coverage if you can provide them with proof of coverage that meets their school requirements.

StudentSecure plans meet the requirements of many schools at a budget-friendly rate. All four plan levels meet or exceed most government and visa requirements, including J-1 visa requirements.

Additionally, Tokio Marine HCC – MIS Group can help you provide proof of coverage to your school by providing you with waiver forms and visa letters.

Learn more about the benefits of StudentSecure insurance.

Final Thoughts

Even the safest places to study abroad carry some risks. Be diligent, take the proper safety precautions, and make sure you have health coverage in the event of an emergency.

Additional Study Abroad Resources:


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