Health & Safety
The Office of International Education wants everyone to have a happy, healthy and safe study abroad experience. Students should be informed about the health and safety concerns in their host country, prepare accordingly and communicate any health and safety concerns to their program provider and the Office of International Education.
Because safety concerns and attitudes surrounding women, the LGBTQIA+ community, people of color, and non-majority religious groups may not be the same as in the United States, this page also contains a You Abroad section to address navigating cultural attitudes toward various identities while abroad. OIE also recommends that students research the host country’s view of diversity and find out what they can expect to encounter. Much of the information on this page will also be useful to students who are currently abroad.
Health & Safety Considerations
The style of medical care abroad is largely dependent on the country. Some study abroad programs provide medical services for students. Other programs provide a contact list for emergencies. Non-routine medical costs (including hospitalization), dental care and eye exams are generally the full responsibility of the student. Students must ensure that their medical insurance provides complete coverage for the entire time abroad. Learn more.
OIE is committed to ensuring all students have the opportunity to study abroad, and we are happy to assist students in finding a program that can meet their needs. In addition, study abroad programs are committed to making their programs accommodating to students with physical, mental, learning or other disabilities. Learn more.
As wonderful as study abroad is, it is also stressful. Learning a new language, navigating foreign streets, and meeting new people are all exciting experiences, but they require intense physical and mental energy. Coupled with jetlag and loneliness, it can prove overwhelming. In short, studying abroad is not a way to escape problems. All students should have strategies for taking care of themselves while abroad. Learn more.
Drugs & Alcohol
Culture plays a role in attitudes about alcohol and drugs. In many countries alcohol is much more accessible than in the U.S. In other countries alcohol may be illegal, or at least frowned upon. At the same time, recreational drugs are legal in some countries while highly illegal and penalized in others. Students should determine the cultural norms and laws regarding drugs and alcohol and act accordingly. Learn more.
Information on contraception overseas may be more difficult or more available to obtain, depending on the location. It is important to know the cultural norms surrounding sex and gender, clothing, sex roles, and what constitutes harassment. Learn more.
Students with food allergies, vegetarians, vegans, and students with religious dietary restrictions should take special care to ensure that their dietary needs will be met while abroad. Learn more.
Preparing to Travel
As a precaution, students should have a routine medical and dental checkup before going abroad. It is also recommended that students pack a small first aid kit that includes their preferred and most often used over-the-counter medicines, bandages, antibiotic cream, antacids, etc. In addition, students should carry with them pertinent information from their medical record such as: medications, medical conditions, allergies, immunization history, blood type, glasses/contacts prescription, name of primary care physician at home, and health insurance information. Students with medical conditions that are not easily recognizable should wear a medical alert bracelet and inform their study abroad program of the condition and what to do in the event of an emergency.
Students without proper immunizations may not be allowed to enter a foreign country or may be quarantined at the U.S. border. Check the embassy website of the host country and all countries to be visited regarding required immunizations.
- Immunizations for Tetanus and Hepatitis A and B are recommended for all foreign travel
- No immunizations are currently required for travelers to Western Europe
- Immunizations may be required for travel in Southeastern and Eastern Europe, Central and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania
U.S. prescriptions cannot be filled abroad. Take enough medicine for the entire trip or research how you might be able to obtain medicine while abroad. Check the embassy website to make sure that the needed medication is legal in the host country and the countries to be visited. Some commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. are illegal in other countries.
Bring a physician’s letter listing the generic and name brand of each medication, the dosage, and the condition the medicine treats. This is also the procedure for injections such as insulin.
For students who wear contacts or glasses, bring an extra pair. Consider bringing contact solution as well. Glasses and contacts can be very expensive to purchase abroad.
Medical Services Abroad
Students should not assume that the care needed will be available or available free of charge. It is the student’s responsibility to make their needs known and to ensure that the services needed are available in the host country. Contact OIE, the study abroad program or Mobility International for information and assistance.
English speaking doctors are available in most parts of the world. Your program abroad should have information on this. A directory of English speaking doctors can also be obtained through the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT).
Preparing to Travel
The OIE and the Study Abroad Office should be aware of any special needs or accommodations required. Equal Opportunity & Disability Services at Carnegie Mellon is another crucial partner in this process. Students with documented disabilities should work with the Disability Services Office to provide a detailed description of the disability and the accommodations required to the study abroad program or school.
Remember that many other countries are not as accessible as we may think they should be. Research the laws of the host country regarding persons with disabilities and the availability of services and accommodations that can be found in the host country. Attitudes toward disabilities vary by location.
Be sure to inquire about additional costs, if any, for services. Do not assume that such services will be free as they are here. If services are not provided free of charge, please contact the study abroad staff, Equal Opportunity & Disability Services, and/or Mobility International. They can work with the program or school to find a solution.
Students with learning disabilities should notify the study abroad program and explain the required accommodations. American providers are generally able to easily accommodate students with learning disabilities. Direct enrolling in a foreign institution may or may not present accommodation challenges to students with learning disabilities, depending on the pervading attitude toward learning disabilities in that location. Be prepared to explain in detail. Failure to disclose this information, though within a student’s rights, is not recommended. The added stress of foreign study coupled with not having the appropriate accommodations could prove to be overwhelming.
Preparing to Travel
Students who have mental health concerns should consult a therapist/counselor before going abroad and have a plan for staying healthy while abroad. Students should inform their study abroad program of any special needs or requirements and find out what services will be available to them while they are abroad. The study abroad program will be able to help the student find a counselor or therapist while abroad, if needed. Carnegie Mellon’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) will do telephone consultations with students studying abroad.
Eating disorders can be heightened while abroad due to unfamiliar foods and an unfamiliar setting. Students dealing with eating disorders are urged to consult a physician before studying abroad and have a plan for staying healthy while abroad.
Alcohol & Drug Dependency
Students who struggle with alcohol or drug dependency now should be aware that studying abroad can often make the problem worse. Loneliness and culture shock symptoms can cause drinking problems.
Resources for Students Dealing with Alcohol Dependency
Drugs & Alcohol
Attitudes by Culture
Social drinking is the norm in most of Western Europe compared to norms in the United States. Europeans may feel comfortable drinking earlier in the day or having wine at dinner every night, but they typically drink more slowly and have fewer drinks over all.
Australian beer is stronger than most beer found in the United States. Australians, like Europeans, tend to be social drinkers. They, however, will be used to stronger beer!
Alcohol is illegal in many Muslim countries.
A Word of Caution
Since attitudes toward alcohol can differ widely from the U.S. and since students may not know what effect it will have, it is important for students to have a strategy for staying safe while abroad. Alcohol and drugs, even if legal, can impair judgment and reduce safety. It is recommended that students go out in groups and never walk home alone at night, especially if impaired by alcohol or drugs.
Also, just because the drinking age is lower does not mean that public drunkenness is acceptable. Ending up in a foreign jail is not the way a student should spend their semester abroad! The U.S. embassy will not intervene. Students caught with illegal substances will pay the penalty, and these penalties are often much more severe than in the U.S. Not knowing the law is not an excuse.
Information on contraception overseas may be more difficult or more available to obtain, depending on the location. OIE recommends that students purchase contraceptives before leaving the U.S. if they think they may be sexually active while abroad. It goes without saying that STIs are worldwide, so bring protection. University Health Services can provide more information on contraceptives, AIDS and other STIs.
A note on HIV transmission: Keep in mind that HIV can also be transmitted through needles, so do not get a tattoo or an acupuncture treatment in a country with lax health standards. In some countries blood transfusions can also be risky. Contact the program director or the closest U.S. consulate for advice if a transfusion is necessary. Research the health standards of the host country before going abroad.
Sexual Assault & Harassment
Sexual assault can happen anywhere, and unfortunately study abroad is no exception. The newness of the language and setting can make study abroad students particularly susceptible to assault. Never walk alone at night, especially if intoxicated. Stay away from dark alleys, do not leave beverages unattended or accept a drink from a stranger. Essentially, follow the same precautions you would take at home.
It is important to know the cultural norms surrounding sex and gender, clothing, sex roles, and what constitutes harassment. Know what resources are available, including the study abroad program director, English speaking doctors and therapists, Carnegie Mellon’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Carnegie Mellon’s Sexual Harassment Advisors. CAPS will do phone appointments, and the Sexual Harassment Advisors can be contacted by phone, email or instant message.
Most of the harassment that Carnegie Mellon students have reported over the years is verbal harassment, which can usually be handled by simply ignoring the person – a tactic used in the U.S. as well. Anything more serious than verbal harassment or blatant staring should be addressed in a more serious manner.
Tips on how to deal with harassment:
- Ignore it if at all possible. Chances are they are just looking for a reaction.
- Avoid large groups of men. Discreetly cross to the other side of the street and continue walking.
- Observe locals. Find out how others deal with any harassment that they may receive. Mimicking their behavior will help to reduce or eliminate verbal harassment and stares. Sometimes something as simple as making eye contact can be viewed by men as an invitation. Recognizing that local women do not make eye contact and following their example can often eliminate the unwanted attention. If the opportunity presents itself, ask local women how they respond to certain situations and/or how they avoid harassment.
- Learn key phrases. Sometimes just the right words are the best solution.
- Act confident. Always walk with confidence.
- Leave and find somewhere safe to go. If ignoring the situation does not help, leave and get to a safer location. For students harassed on the street, getting on a bus or going into a store can usually solve the problem. Bus drivers and store owners are often very helpful in these situations.
Preparing to Travel
Many countries do not label food containing nuts or understand the concept of vegetarianism. Consider packing power bars or other lightweight, nutritious food and researching where to find food that meets your dietary needs.
Students living with a host family should inform the program provider of their dietary requirements. They can work with students to find suitable living arrangements. Host families are typically willing to accommodate a student’s request, but they must be informed of the requirements.
Of the U.S. students studying abroad, approximately 65 percent are women, and the majority of these women have safe and rewarding experiences. There are instances in which women abroad need to be cautious, however. This section contains general advice about navigating femininity and gender roles abroad. Learn more.
Many countries are much more open and accepting of LGBTQIA+ students, but in other countries homosexuality is illegal. Sexual identity may be a more or less central issue, depending on the culture and the particular student. Learn more.
Students of Color
Many students of color studying abroad find that they are recognized first as Americans, and then as people of color. Students of color may find themselves looking like the majority for the first time in their lives while at the same time realizing they have little in common with the people of their host culture. Other students may feel at home for the first time. Whatever the case, students find that their identity changes while abroad. Learn more.
Religion & Spirituality
Countries, much like people, have different levels of commitment to religion and spirituality. Some countries have a state religion around which daily life is planned. Other countries, like the U.S., have citizens of almost every religion. Students are encouraged to participate in religious/spiritual events as a way to further their cultural understanding, but only to the extent that they feel comfortable. Learn more.
The best advice for women abroad is to observe the local women. How do they dress? How do they walk? How do they behave? What do they do? Not do? In general, be more cautious than normal, but do not feel the need to become reclusive. When in doubt dress conservatively and bring a friend.
Remember that people have varying ideas about what it means to be a woman. Women are perceived and treated differently from culture to culture—and may not have the same day-to-day lives that American women do. Gender may be a more important or less important part of a student’s identity abroad, depending on the culture and the woman herself. Some societies extend more privileges to women, others less. Standards of behavior vary just as widely.
The Perception of American Women
Americans are also perceived differently from culture to culture, and being perceived as an American woman may afford students more privileges and safety—or less. American movies and pop culture have wide influence, and this may lead to a perception that all American women are promiscuous. This stereotype may lead to unwanted attention. Please see the Sexual Activity and Harassment information for more information on how to deal with harassment.
Also keep in mind that many behavioral cues taken for granted by Americans can be misinterpreted abroad. A smile and eye contact, which is considered polite by most American women, can mean “availability” in another culture. In many countries women do not go out alone, so taking a male friend to the bar can alleviate much unwanted attention and help students blend in with the culture.
Dress Like a Local
Dressing like the locals can also help students blend-in and reduce unwanted attention. In many countries women dress very fashionably, so jeans and sneakers are a tell-tale sign of being an American. In other countries tank tops are culturally inappropriate and can cause problems with the locals—men and women alike.
- Investigate the destination - find out what clothing is and is not appropriate.
- Be comfortable! Traveling usually entails lots of walking. Comfortable travelers make for happy travelers.
- Bring some black - it goes with everything, and may help students blend-in with the locals.
- Mix & Match - bring clothes that have the same general color scheme so that several outfits can be made from just a few items
- Dress for Worship - many places of worship (churches, synagogues, mosques) require women to cover their heads, legs and arms before entering. Bring at least one long skirt, one scarf or hat and one long-sleeved shirt.
- Layer up - this allows an easy transition from warm to cooler temperatures
- Some essentials to bring include: a scarf or hat, pants other than jeans, a long skirt, a simple black dress, good walking shoes (beware of sneakers which can scream American), and fast-drying underwear (if backpacking and washing clothes by hand).
Dating a Local
Dating a local can be a great way to learn the culture, but cultural misunderstandings can cause some unwanted and unexpected situations. Go out on group dates for a while before going out as a couple, and find out the norms around dating in the culture. Innocent flirting may not be perceived as innocent in another culture, so beware of sending the wrong signals. Remember that “no” in many countries is regarded as just what nice girls say before saying “yes.” It might be that the only way to express “no” and be heard is to leave. The concept of “just friends” may not have the same meaning in another culture. In many cultures the only relationships that exist between men and women are either familial or romantic.
For More Information
The website Journey Woman offers good information for women travelers.
Many countries are much more open and accepting of LGBTQIA+ students, but in other countries homosexuality is illegal. Sexual identity may be a more or less central issue, depending on the culture and the particular student. For students who are out, a conservative country may mean a complete change in behavior while abroad. For students who are not out, a more liberal country may afford a freedom not possible in the U.S.
Keep in mind that cultural norms surrounding the behavior of two people of the same sex maybe different than in the U.S. In another country seeing two men holding hands may be much more common and might not identify them as a gay couple. Furthermore, in some countries all public displays of affection—from gay or straight couples—are considered taboo.
It is important to take this into account when choosing a study abroad location and program. Students should assess the characteristics of the environment that could affect sexual identity expression and determine their comfort level with that particular environment. It may be helpful to look at it as another element of cross-cultural challenge. Observing local behavior provides the best insight into safe and unsafe public behavior. That is not to say that students should hide who they are, but that they should be open minded and willing to adapt.
Above all stay healthy and safe. Doctors who are sensitive and understand the needs of transgender people may be hard to come by, but they do exist, and the program director can help students find a health care professional abroad. Be sure to research options for continuing treatments abroad, if necessary, and find out if there are any restrictions on prescription medicine in the host country. Students planning to be sexually active should always use protection. In countries where homosexuality is illegal, use discretion.
- OIE, the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, and the study abroad program provider can provide helpful information for LGBTQ+ students
- The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission protects and advances the human rights of all people and communities subject to discrimination or abuse on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status
- The International Lesbian and Gay Association is a worldwide federation of national and local groups dedicated to achieving equal rights for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender people everywhere
Students of Color
Unfortunately racism exists in every part of the world, and though it affects different groups of people depending on the country, it is the same all over the world—the oppression of one group by another. Students studying abroad in some countries will not face any racism, overt or otherwise during their time abroad. Others will witness blatant acts of racism. Most will see or experience a subtle form of racism or the perpetuation of a system of oppression, much like in the U.S. It is important to have a strategy to deal with racism abroad, much as students of color do in the U.S.
Students are encouraged to talk to the advisors in the Office of International Education if they have concerns about study abroad relating to race or ethnicity. OIE is committed to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to study abroad, and the staff is happy to assist students in finding a program. The study abroad program provider will also be a valuable resource for learning more about the host culture’s attitude toward people of different races and ethnicities.
Religion & Spirituality
For some students, religion and spirituality is the focal point of their lives and finding a similar group abroad is at the top of the priority list. For other students, religion and spirituality is something they have thought little about. Countries, much like people, have different levels of commitment to religion and spirituality. Some countries have a state religion around which daily life is planned. Other countries, like the U.S., have citizens of almost every religion. Still other countries, like Italy, maintain close ties to a particular religion while remaining open to those who practice a different tradition or do not subscribe to any religion at all.
Religion remains a fundamental aspect of virtually every culture. It shapes worldviews, influences behavior, and is reflected in art, poetry and architecture. Whether a student experiences the elaborate paintings in Europe’s churches, the holy cows of India or a call to prayer in the Middle East, religion will be embedded into daily life in the host culture.
Students are encouraged to participate in religious/spiritual events as a way to further their cultural understanding, but only to the extent that they feel comfortable. Be sure to research the group or tradition first, and always be respectful of the rituals and the customs of the group. Remember that arms, legs, and heads may need to be covered before entering a holy place. Sometimes shoes must be removed, or hands and feet washed.