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Before You Leave for Overseas, Do These 5 Things

Over the past decade, opportunities for students and trainees to travel internationally have grown substantially. Universities and non-profit organizations offer a variety of short-and long-term opportunities for global health research, practice, and cultural experience. Everyone prepares for these experiences differently, but there are a few key steps every international traveler should take before they depart.

Do Your Research
Too often travelers go abroad without conducting research. They arrive in country without the right medications, or get turned away at immigration for having the wrong visa. There is a wealth of information available for country and region-specific safety, health, documentation, and culture. The CDC provides country-specific reports to help guide travelers with health concerns and the State Department regularly updates their website with safety and security issues. Regardless of citizenship, travelers should contact the embassy of their destination country to understand visa requirements and submit timely applications if needed. 

Visit the Travel Clinic
Each country has a unique health landscape and every traveler is different. While the yellow fever vaccine is the only one required by some countries for entrance, there are many other considerations for travelers including malaria prevention, food and water-borne illnesses, and altitude. Travelers should visit a local travel clinic to get country-specific advice based on where they are going and what their needs are, both physically and mentally. Some travel clinics may try to sell unnecessary services such as unneeded vaccines (the rabies vaccine does not make sense for a traveler staying in urban areas) and medications, so travelers should do their own research first.

Register Travel
Let people know where you are going by registering your travel. US citizens can register their travel with the State Department through the Safe Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP provides information to travelers from the embassy about safety conditions and helps the embassy contact travelers in case of an emergency. Some institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, maintain their own travel registry to identify students, faculty, and staff located in different countries in case of emergencies. In my role as the Assistant Director of the Center for Global Health I used this travel registry during the 2015 Nepal earthquake and 2016 Bangladesh terrorist attack to identify and mobilize Johns Hopkins students.

Consider Insurance Options
Insurance for travel is complicated and many people’s regular health insurance will not cover travel-related expenses. Travelers should call their insurance company to learn the rules about what will and won’t be covered internationally and how to get reimbursed should they need medical care. Many travel companies and airlines offer travel insurance that covers costs related to interrupted travel—but not medical expenses. Medical Evacuation Insurance should be considered for travelers going to high-risk locations. 

Learn the Language
Travelers do not need to become fluent in the local language, but learning just a little goes a very long way. Basic common phrases and grammar can help travelers navigate unfamiliar situations and develop relationships. Learning a bit of the local language demonstrates interest in the local culture and can help travelers make connections with locals. Consider using the flight to brush up on the basics.

In 2015 the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, in partnership with the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, developed a 1-credit travel preparation course for students preparing to conduct research and practice projects in low-and middle-income countries. This year, the course was redesigned and launched on Coursera, becoming available to a wider audience of learners in the US and internationally. The course is available every 4 weeks and interested learners can sign up on Coursera.


Anna Kalbarczyk, MPH is the Assistant Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health and holds a faculty appointment in the JHSPH Department of International Health.

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