How far in advance should I apply to volunteer abroad?

Arjun Roodink

Written by  April 24, 2012

A checklist to fast-track your departure.

Your dorm is packed and you’re ready to go. Exams are finally over. But what do you do if you haven’t scored that perfect summer job yet? 

The good news is that it’s not too late to apply to volunteer overseas this summer. While some programs have hard deadlines, many organizations accept volunteers on a rolling basis, with summer being the most common time for departures. Although six to nine months is an ideal length of time to prepare to volunteer overseas, it’s not out of the question to be on a plane and on your way within two weeks of submitting a volunteer application.

To help you get going, we’ve compiled a list of the most common items you’ll find on your pre-project preparation checklist and tips on how you can fast track the process:

Passport

How long does it usually take? Between 10 business days and 2 months.
 
What you need to know: Is your passport going to expire within six months of your departure date? If so, it’s time apply for another one. In-person applications may be processed within 10 business days, but it can take up to two months if you renew by mail.
 
Fast track: Many passport offices will let you pay an extra fee to expedite the process. For Canadian passport holders, these additional fees range from $30 to $220, dependant on how quickly you need your passport. (If you’re willing to shell out, you can have a new passport within a day.) For American passport holders, it’s a little trickier. The minimum express time is two weeks at a price tag of $60
 

Visa

How long does it usually take: 1 to 3 months
 
What you need to know: Since you’ll be working in your destination country, a tourist visa (the passport stamp that you usually get when you enter a country) may not cut it. Although your volunteer organization should help you with the process of applying for visas, it’s important to ensure you have your paperwork in order. This may include letters of invitation from field staff or your host organizations. You may also be required to send or leave your passport at the embassy or consulate, which like passports, can take up to a month.
 
Fast track: Choose to volunteer in a country that doesn’t have rigorous entrance requirements or require a work visa. For American and Canadian passport holders, volunteer projects in Central America are usually a safe bet.
 

Vaccinations

How long does it usually take? Between 1 week and 6 months.
 
What you need to know: Get an appointment with your travel doctor ASAP. Some vaccinations can’t be administered on the same day as other vaccinations, while other shots (such as Twinrix, for Hep A & B) are administered in multiple injections over a period of several months.
 
Fast track: Choose a destination country doesn’t have any entrance restrictions based on vaccinations. Tanzania and Kenya, for example, require visitors to be immunized against Yellow Fever before entering the country.
 

Participation Fee

How long does it usually take? That depends. Do you have a trust fund? Or do you have $40,000 in student debt?
 
What you need to know: Overseas volunteers consistently identify fundraising as their single greatest challenge. The sooner you’re able to start, the better. Some volunteers spend a year fundraising for their experience, while others are able to raise the required participation fee with one large send-off event.
 
Fast track: If your fundraising efforts are falling short, your bank may be willing to give you a line of credit (particularly if you’re a student) at a low interest rate. This is a great resource for paying extra expenses, such as flights.
 
Ask your volunteer organization if they will be willing to let you continue fundraising after or during your volunteer trip. While you'll likely be required to pay your full participation fee prior to departure, sometimes a portion of this amount can be refunded (provided it's not tax-receipted) after your return.

University Bursaries

How long does it usually take? 2 to 6 months
 
What you need to know: Find out if your university has an “international” office. In addition to supporting international students on your campus, they’re often responsible for supporting students who are interested in volunteering or studying abroad. They may be able to provide you with resources—including financial ones. (For example, Ryerson International manages an International Work Experience bursary.) Get in touch to see what scholarships are available on your campus.
 
Fast track: Bursary deadlines are usually set in stone, so start researching financial support as soon as you book your plane tickets .
 

Academic Credit

How long does it usually take? 2 to 6 months
 
What you need to know: If you’re paying to volunteer overseas, make your financial investment going the extra mile by applying for academic credit. If approved, you may be able to lighten your course load and save on tuition the following semester.
 
The only catch is that post-secondary institutions are notoriously bureaucratic—anyone who’s tried to transfer programs can tell you that. That’s why the sooner you start researching the process, the better. 
 
For many programs, you'll be required to submit paperwork from your host organization. Tell your volunteer coordinator that you intend to apply for credit and ask if they’ll support you in the process. You may also be required to write a paper or complete other coursework upon your return. Be sure to get buddy-buddy with your profs now and see if they’ll be willing to sign off on any paperwork.
 
Fast-track: You may be able to apply for credits retroactively. Look up the minimum requirements now and scout out an academic advisor who will be willing to support you when you get home.
 

Learn the Language

How long does it usually take? The more time you have, the better.
 
What you need to know: Other than fundraising, the second thing volunteers always say they wish they started earlier is learning the language. In addition to books, research cultural community centres in your city. Interacting with people from your destination country is an amazing opportunity to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture. 
 
Fast-track: Download a language app. You’ve got a long plane ride ahead of you—ignore the in-flight movie and practice rolling your Rs instead.
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Published in Editor's Desk
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Jessica Lockhart

Contributing Editor

Although Jessica has travelled to more than 30 countries, her favorite place to throw down her bag is still her hometown of Cold Lake, Alberta. A freelance journalist, Jess has worked for international development organizations and tour operators. She’s conducted workshops in Vanuatu, perfected the use of a satellite phone in the jungles of Guyana and supervised teenage pool parties in the Dominican Republic. Although she's based in Toronto, Jess works remotely from all around the world.

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