Volunteer travel

Why not do more than just visit a bunch of old temples and ruins when you travel? It is often possible for travellers to significantly improve the lives of people in destination countries.

Saint Vincent de Paul, the patron saint of volunteers, worked among the poor of France in the 17th century.

Volunteering while travelling is a great way to make a difference but it's not just about giving. Living and volunteering in a foreign country is a great way to get to know a different culture, meet new people, learn about yourself, get a sense of perspective and even gain new skills. It can also be a good way to stretch a budget to allow a longer stay somewhere since many volunteer jobs provide room and board and a few pay a small salary.

Many volunteer programs are oriented toward youth since good health, a desire to explore, enthusiasm and flexibility are all assets in volunteer work. Some programs involve gap year travel for secondary school leavers, and others are mainly designed for recent university graduates or for young people in general. However, these are by no means the only opportunities; there are also programs designed specifically for retirees, and organisations like Doctors Without Borders who mainly recruit volunteers with specialized skills.

Of course volunteering is not the only way to travel conscientiously; see our articles on Ecotourism and Leave-no-trace camping for some of the others.

Be wary

While there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely legitimate volunteer projects, there are also some scams specifically targeting volunteer travellers. Some people will make profits any way they can, including exploiting both their country's poverty and your good intentions for their own gain.

All of the following are common enough to be worth watching for:

Some volunteering tours are quite reasonable deals, but others are seriously overpriced for what they actually provide. In the worst cases you could be paying as much as for a high-priced tour with good hotels and professional guides, but getting services transport, accommodation and food that a low-budget backpacker would not put up with.

The best defense against all of these is to research and compare carefully.

Of course, do an Internet search on any organisation that wants a substantial lump of your money or time.

Careful research is also needed to verify the effort meets the needs of the local community, instead of merely what might sound good to prospective donors. Importing travellers as free labour to "rebuild a community", if the community already has many unemployed builders who cannot find work, is an expensive but unhelpful proposition. Likewise, proposing to "build a school" in a community which already has a suitable building but cannot afford salaries to hire instructors sounds great but accomplishes little.

There is even a campaign to "End Humanitarian Douchery", run by ex-volunteers. They provide a toolkit to help prospective volunteers find good opportunities.

Government-run programs

Various agencies of Western governments send volunteers abroad: the US Peace Corps, British VSO, Canadian CUSO, Australian AVID, New Zealand VSA, French France Voluntaires and so on. These are among the best volunteer jobs. All the major expenses immunizations, travel, etc. are normally covered and there is support training (often including very good language training), medical insurance, emergency evacuation if needed and some sort of salary, though this is generally quite small by home country standards. On the other hand, these positions are harder to get; they generally require citizenship in the sponsoring country and a university degree just to apply, and the process after application may be quite competitive. Most also require a heavier commitment than other volunteer schemes, typically two years.

When you come back, these organizations look good on a resumé, especially for jobs where your knowledge of the country and language will be of use. Both governments and international companies quite often recruit among former volunteers; any overseas volunteer experience may help but the government-sponsored programs are the most credible.

Many governments also run organizations to teach languages abroad, and of course they hire teachers. These are not purely volunteer jobs typically they cover travel expenses and provide a salary but salaries are often lower than they would be at home and sometimes the working or living conditions are difficult. We have lists of such organizations for English and for other languages.

There are also programs sponsored by host governments in various places. Many involve teaching English and mainly want native speakers who are new university graduates. Typically they use one-year (renewable) contracts, pay a salary and cover expenses such as airfare. See Teaching English for details.

Various other government-related groups also sponsor volunteer programs:

There are also programs in various countries that involve volunteer work on archaeological digs:

For archaeological volunteering, see also World Heritage Volunteers above, Past Horizons in the next section, and our article on Archaeological sites.

Index sites for volunteer jobs

Several sites provide online indexes of volunteer opportunities:

Nearly all these posts cover at least room and board while you are working, but few cover anything beyond that. Typically there is no salary and you are responsible for your own travel expenses.

Other overseas volunteering

A gap year is a a year (or other chunk of time) taken off, most typically between high school and university but also perhaps at various other times in life. Volunteering overseas is a common way to spend such a break; most famously, Prince Harry spent a gap year in 2004 volunteering in South Africa. Typically there will be a fee to participate in these programs, and participants are not paid. For more, see our gap year article.

Many of the major NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) involved in international aid also recruit volunteers and/or paid workers for various tasks. Examples include:

Many of their jobs are high-risk, involving work in war zones or epidemic areas. Many also require specialised training such as medicine or nursing. On the other hand, almost all cover things like immunisations and travel cost, and some also pay reasonably well.

Many churches or other religious organisations also send volunteers abroad, mainly either religious specialists (preachers, monks, nuns, ..) or people with important practical skills (doctors, nurses, teachers, ...). If you are a member of a religious congregation, then it is probably worth inquiring about their programs.

There are also various other organizations that recruit volunteers. These generally do not cover the major expenses such as airfares and travel insurance, and some charge a fee for placement. Web search for "volunteer" or "gap year" will turn up an enormous number of examples. You can narrow it down by adding a country or region name or using combinations like "youth volunteer" or "retired volunteer". Many things you find will be worthwhile opportunities, but see also #Be_wary above.

Stay-at-home volunteering

There are numerous opportunities to contribute to the world while at home. For one thing, many worthwhile international organisations need donations and some may need volunteers in your area. Also, working for a local political party or advocacy group may have effects on the rest of the world.

Some governments have volunteer programs within their own country, for example the US CNCS, Canadian Katimavik and French Service Civique.

Other projects to consider include:

You can also contribute information or copy edits here on Wikivoyage, on other Wikimedia Foundation projects such as Wikipedia, or on independent projects such as the appropriate technology wiki Appropedia.


Many volunteer jobs are in the 'third world'; see Tips for travel in developing countries.

Health can become a major issue when you are exposed to conditions and germs not found at home; see Stay healthy and Infectious diseases. At a minimum you need to see a doctor, preferably one who specialises in travel medicine, about vaccinations and other precautions well before your departure date, and to consider travel insurance.

If you pay income taxes in your home country and work as a volunteer abroad, then you may be able to take a charitable deduction for some or all of your trip expenses. The tax agencies are very strict on which organizations' trips qualify, and if you combine volunteer work with vacation, you will have to prorate the deduction on your airfare.

More generally, tax rules get complicated when you live abroad. If you have income other than the volunteer salary then parts of the discussion at Retiring_abroad#Taxation may apply.

Even if you are not getting paid for your efforts, expect trouble if entering a foreign country without a work visa; one mention of WWOOF to US authorities is enough to get an unsuspecting, well-meaning volunteer strip-searched and turned back at the border if officials think the tasks could have otherwise been done by a paid employee.


Visa requirements vary significantly between countries, so make sure you check the regulations before you agree. In some countries, such as the United States, volunteer work is allowed on a tourist visa as long as you don't overstay, and the position you take up is a legitimate volunteer position that has been advertised as such (i.e. It would normally be taken up by locals as an unpaid position). In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, all work, paid or otherwise requires you to obtain a work visa, meaning that you will be breaking the law by volunteering on a tourist visa.

For some travellers, a working holiday visa is another alternative; these are bilateral arrangements between various pairs of countries that allow young travellers from either country to work in the other for a year or so.

Other ways to help

Of course volunteer work is not the only way to do something helpful while travelling. See Working abroad and Teaching English for some of the others. Our article on begging also has a discussion of other ways to help.

If you're only on a short trip, take time to visit an orphanage, hospital, etc. Those with more time can contact local NGOs, tourist offices, embassies, etc to inquire about longer term possibilities.

A few ideas are:

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, March 13, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.