The Study Abroad Office conducted a survey in Fall 2023 that showed the most common barrier students felt toward studying abroad was safety concerns. Unfamiliarity can be daunting. When faced with going to a place that is unknown to you, safety concerns can feel larger and scarier. But remember, the more you spend time in a place the safer that space will start to feel. Before you depart, spend some time doing research on the city/country/countries you plan on traveling to while abroad. You should start your search here: ( Look up your intended location(s) and see where it falls on the Travel Advisory Level. Levels 1 and 2 mean you are good to go. Level 3 may require special permissions and level 4 is an absolute no go.  

There is a psychological phenomenon called the availability heuristic which is a mental shortcut that involves estimating the risk of something based on how easily examples come to mind. Essentially, if we can think of many examples, then we assume it happens frequently. This kind of bias skews how we see the world. Do you think you are more likely to be in a plane crash or in a car crash? You might be tempted to say a plane. The media coverage that occurs when planes have faults far outweighs the coverage car crashes receive. There are far more people in the world that are scared of flying than there are people who are scared of cars. Just because you see it in the media more does not mean it happens more.  

All of this is to say, when preparing to travel abroad you may find your brain jumping to the worst case scenario. This may be violent attacks or incidents that prevent you from getting to your destination. However, those are often the extremes when it comes to your safety.  It is important to manage your expectations of the threats you may encounter while going abroad. The most common threat to international travelers is road accidents. The United States has a car culture unlike anywhere else in the world. Abroad you will most likely be walking from destination to destination, with maybe a tram or bus in-between. Bike lanes will also be more common and can often look like sidewalks. To a person who is not paying attention, walking in those bike lanes will lead to some very angry locals and potential collisions.  

 Another common safety issue is theft. Especially if you are in tourist-heavy areas. It is very easy to target people who look lost or are not paying attention to what they are doing. Keeping your bags secure and not putting important things in easily accessible pockets is key. Cell phones and passports are extremely valuable in many areas of the world. Passports are complicated to replace so do not carry it if you do not need it. Avoid carrying your cell phone in your hands as it can easily “slip” out of your hands and into someone else’s.  

Consider the following things when preparing to go abroad: 

  • Research: Start your journey abroad by looking up the basics of your city. Check to understand what the US is saying about your country. From there, research what crime is like, local areas to avoid, and best practices for staying safe in your specific location. Do the same for any location you plan on visiting while abroad. Also familiarize yourself with risks related to alcohol consumption, legal considerations, and memorize any local emergency phone numbers.  

  • Use location sharing: primarily with friends you may have in your study abroad program. Sharing with family and friends who may be back home is an extra step to take. If your phone gets taken you can track it through someone else’s phones. If anything happens to you, there will also be a record of where you have been.  

  • Buddy system: Walking alone at any time of day can make you an obvious target. Walking alone at night increases the chances of being a target. Adding one more person to the situation significantly decreases your chances of being targets. This chance is reduced even more when you are with 2 other people. 

  • Always be aware of your surroundings: consider taking well-lit and well-traveled routes. Avoid large groups where people may be bumping into you. Do not engross yourself in your phone while looking for directions as that takes your attention away from where you are walking or who is coming near you. Recognize when someone is walking too close or has looked at you one too many times. Do not assume everyone around you has the wrong intentions but it’s important to keep your wits about you. 

  • Common sense: The same rules you use to navigate your home university/city apply while abroad. If a situation is sounding the alarm bells in your brain, listen to them and act accordingly. 


If this post got you thinking and you’d like to talk to a study abroad advisor, set up a 1-on-1 advising appointment here.