While I was waiting for my UK visa to arrive stamped on my passport at my home address, I was obsessed with reading travel articles about my next volunteering destination. I enjoyed daydreaming and fantasizing about all the places I was going to visit in the next year. All those middle-age castles, nature sights, and cool UK-vibe towns seemed like a perfect way to spend a year of my life on.
But I didn’t.
When the postman brought me the big envelope with my passport inside, I told him that I have been waiting for my UK visa to arrive stamped on my passport. Then he wished me luck for my adventure.
However, the passport was empty. No visa inside. The next year of my life was canceled.
That’s how I realized that obtaining a visa could be an obstacle to international volunteers, even if you have found a free volunteering abroad placement.
Even though my UK hosts agreed to pay for my accommodation, meals, and provided pocket money, the UK government thought that it wasn’t enough to let me in. Instead, they let me know that my organization should have found someone from the UK to do the job, which is a fair argument.
However, if I applied for a visa to enter another country or through another organization, my chances would have been much better.
If you want to avoid canceling your trip due to visa issues, you’ll have to follow certain advice that I am about to provide in the following paragraphs. Remember that such issues do not happen often, but can pose an obstacle if you don’t plan carefully.
From the rest of the article you will learn:
- The legal status of volunteering abroad
- Types of visas available to volunteers, including working holiday visa, volunteering visa, and tourist visa
- How to get a visa for volunteering abroad
Disclaimer: This article is by no means legal advice. It provides only general information about volunteer visas. It is educational and informative and is not legal advice. In any case, check out the visa requirements with the relevant authorities.
Legal Status of Volunteering Abroad
Volunteering abroad is in the grey zone. In most countries, it is not clear whether foreign volunteers are allowed to undertake any work or not.
So, if you want to travel as a tourist in some country, they may require a visa because they want to check out who you are before letting you in their land. If you want to go work there, they will want to check you out before giving you a job. If you want to volunteer, they will likely want to check you out, but it is not clear on what basis.
Some people will tell you that you can get by on a tourist visa. Others will tell you that you need a working visa. The best for you is to ask your host organization for advice. They have experience with other international volunteers and can provide you with information on what you have to do before arriving there.
There is no simple answer to this question. No one really knows. There are around 200 countries in the world, which translates into around 200 laws about visas for volunteering.
Some of them have passed regulations that make things clear, but most of them have not. In the case of the latter, you’ll have to rely on the common practices in those countries and the experience of your hosts.
Talking about the law, some countries have regulated volunteer trips by introducing a volunteer visa or a working holiday visa, but these countries are very few.
What Types of Visa Are Available to Volunteers
Depending on the passport you possess, the following types of visa may be an option for you:
Some countries that receive international volunteers regularly have introduced a volunteer visa to make the process painless. These countries include, but are not limited to Ireland, India, and Tanzania.
Before going on a volunteering trip, check out if your chosen destination country issues volunteering visas to travelers like you. The best way to check it out is to contact their authorities directly, via email or phone. Don’t rely on the information on their website because they may not be always up-to-date.
Also, make sure that you ask them weeks in advance. Communication, if by email, may take some time.
Working holiday visa
This is a residence permit that allows the holder to undertake a volunteering work while staying in a foreign country.
Many countries around the world issue working holiday visas, mostly on the reciprocal level. It means that if your country issues working holiday visas to citizens of the country where you want to go, you are likely to be eligible to obtain a working holiday visa from their country.
For example, if you are a German citizen and Germany gives working holiday visas to Israeli citizens, then Israel gives the same type of visas to German volunteers.
Ensure to check out whether you qualify for a working holiday visa for the country you want to travel to. Wikipedia has done a great job in listing all the working holiday visas for 50 plus countries, but don’t forget to check it out directly with authorities, just in case.
Where there are no rules about volunteer visa or a working holiday visa, that’s where tourist visa comes into the picture.
The majority of countries worldwide have no rules on volunteer work. That creates space for lots of different interpretations of the law. That’s why it is wise to do your research before going anywhere.
Ensure that you gather all the information you need before going overseas and realizing that you have put yourself under the risk of getting in trouble with the national authorities.
In general, most countries would let you in for volunteering on a tourist visa. Authorities from countries where international volunteers travel regularly do not bother volunteers with visa requirements.
But you should know that some of them may require you to obtain a work visa in order to enter and do volunteering work.
Have in mind that long-term volunteering requires long stays in the country, which is likely to require obtaining a long-term visa and a residence permit even in visa-free countries.
Visa-free travel is always limited to a certain period of time. If your volunteering engagement exceeds that period, you must obtain a long-term visa in order to be allowed to stay during the whole duration of your project.
Backpackers and other travelers usually don’t obtain a work visa to volunteer abroad, but it may be required by some countries. Again, be wise and check out if you need one.
If it turns out that you need a work visa to volunteer in some country, it is hard to expect that you’ll get one. In such a case it is best to search for another volunteering opportunity.
How to Increase Your Chances of Getting a Visa for Volunteering
Each country has different criteria on the requirements you have to meet in order to let you in. You have no choice but to meet these requirements.
Depending on your passport, obtaining a visa for some countries could be too much of a hassle. If you are from Morocco or Indonesia and you want to volunteer in Canada, you know that obtaining a volunteer visa will be hardly possible.
That’s why you should focus your efforts on more reachable goals. To Increase your chances of getting a visa and have your adventure trip, it is wise to avoid certain countries and choose others.
Planning carefully where to go saves lots of headaches. Accept the fact that some countries are hard to get in, while others will let you volunteer without bothering you with bureaucracy. Just avoid the ones that are hard to get into, and go to countries that are more open to foreigners.
As a rule of thumb, the English-speaking countries are the hardest to get into. The well-developed EU countries are not far from them, having in mind the immigration crisis they are facing. To be honest, this may not be the best time in history to apply for a tourist or a working holiday visa asking them to let you do a volunteering work there.
Instead, opt to a country that does not have a problem to have foreigners on their territory. Most often, these are the countries that need volunteers most. These are the Asian, African, and Latin American countries.
If you are coming from a developing country, such as Brazil, India, Kenya, or Pakistan, you may have a difficult time to obtain a visa to travel to certain countries. However, some other countries will take you with arms wide open. Take advantage of that.
Your passport allows you to travel freely to certain countries while making it hard to get into others. You can check out world passports and the possibilities they allow via the Passport Index.
How to Choose Where to Go Depending on Your Passport and the Visa
Here are some non-written rules to take into regard:
Countries that allow you to stay there visa-free for a certain period of time are more likely to grant you a long-term visa and a residence permit.
They are willing to let you in already, hence they are likely to allow you to stay for a little bit longer.
Countries that issue visa-on-arrival and e-visa for citizens of your country are very likely to let you in, whether for short or a long period of time.
Visa-on-arrival, as the name suggests, is a visa that you can obtain on the border control. At the moment when you arrive at the border, whether it is a physical border or an airport, you can obtain the visa to enter the country and stay there for a while. The officer will ask some questions, such as why you are going there, do you have a place where to stay, and so on. Ensure to learn what are the requirements in order to give adequate answers to their questions and not destroy your chances to get the visa. If everything goes well, the officer will stamp the visa in your passport and you are free to go. In most cases, officials grant visa-on-arrival. But to avoid being among the rare ones that get rejected, ensure that you meet the requirements to get a visa and enter into that particular country.
E-visa is a visa for which you apply online and receive online information on whether you have been granted one or not. The good thing is that you do not have to go to the embassy of the country of your interest. All you need to do is apply online, accompany the application with the necessary documents and wait. Then, if everything goes well, you’ll get the visa and start preparing for the trip.
Projects funded by governments or reputable international organizations dramatically increase the chances to be let into any country for volunteering purposes. There are several reasons for that:
- Governments are responsible for both the volunteering programs and issuing the visa
- Governments know the reputable organizations operating in their countries and are likely to not bother them when taking volunteers from abroad
- It is more likely to obtain a visa if you have behind you an organization that offers visa support by providing you with the necessary sponsorship documents or pay the visa
In government-funded projects, organizations are free to choose the volunteers themselves. It is not the government the chooses the volunteer, but the organizations themselves. The government is likely to grant a visa to them, but there are still some chances of being rejected upon the background checks usual for the visa procedures.
The same goes for intergovernmental bodies, such as the United Nations Volunteers program. When immigration officials receive an application by a potential UN volunteer, they will probably let him or her in.
Also, if the volunteer is supported by an organization that offers visa support and hosts international volunteers on a regular basis, the authorities will know that the volunteer has been vetted already to some extent. Of course, authorities make more detailed checks, but they see these volunteers differently compared to all the others.
If there is no visa support, then you have to walk the way by yourself. In that case, it is wise to ask your host organization for information on what to do. They have hosted international volunteers before, so they’ll know what you need to do. Also, they’ll do what they can to help you go past the bureaucracy and have you there helping them.
Steps for Obtaining a Volunteering Visa
If you have found your dream volunteering placement and you have been accepted there, now you have arrived at the part where you have to figure out how to get that visa.
From that moment, follow these steps:
- Check out how much time you can stay in that country visa-free if any time at all. If you need to stay longer than that, you’ll need a visa.
- Check out if you are eligible for a working holiday visa. If positive, then make sure to take advantage of that. If not, then check out what kind of visa you are required to obtain. Do not rely on information on random websites on the internet. Instead, contact the embassy where you need to apply. They will be happy to offer you information. Most important, that will be accurate and up-to-date information.
- Ask your host organization for support. Some of them will support you with documents, some of them with information on what to do based on the experienced with former international volunteers. Accept whatever help they can offer you.
- Gather all the necessary documents. Contact the relevant embassy for information on the documents you are required to submit.
- Submit the application accompanied by all the necessary documents to support your visa application.
- Wait for good news. If you receive bad news, opt for another volunteering opportunity in another country, preferably one that offers you visa-free travel, visa-on-arrival or an e-visa.
Visa can be an issue for international volunteers. You have only good intentions, but immigration authorities may not trust you. That’s why you should plan your adventure well to avoid any visa obstacle to prevent you from traveling and helping abroad.
It is better for you to choose to go to countries that are used to accepting international volunteers. If you do it through a program funded by a government or an international body, that helps a lot.
If not, go help in countries where you can travel visa-free, or can obtain a working holiday visa, visa-on-arrival, or an e-visa.
Just don’t be discouraged by the possible negative outcomes. Thousands of people from all over the world volunteer abroad every year. Very few of them have visa problems.
With so many people doing it, just don’t stay at home thinking that is an insurmountable obstacle. Because it is not. You can volunteer abroad for free, no matter what passport you have.