Updated for 2023, including new United Nations Volunteer alternative programs!
Dream of serving as a United Nations volunteer?
We have some great news: You can achieve that dream! The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program gives people like you the chance to contribute to peace and development worldwide.
If you’re not familiar with the United Nations volunteer application process, take time to learn how it works and how you can qualify for a position. It can get super competitive, so the more you know, the better.
In this guide, we’ll discuss all the important details of the UNV program. We’ll cover UN volunteer positions and where you can work. We’ll also go over skills you may need and tips for filling out your United Nations volunteer application.
Furthermore, given how highly competitive the program is, not everyone will be offered a spot in the program, so we’ll offer some great alternatives to UN volunteers, such as Maximo Nivel, Projects Abroad, GoEco, Volunteering Solutions, and African Impact, which is an award-winning, responsible travel organization that offers volunteer and internship opportunities in 7 countries across Africa.
Without further ado, let’s begin!
What is the United Nations Volunteer Program?
The United Nations Volunteer program advances peace and sustainable development. The program also promotes volunteerism globally and aims to inspire people to a life of service. The UNV program is very well-respected by international volunteers not only because the UN oversees it, but also because volunteers play a key role in realizing the organization’s mission. By integrating qualified, highly supported, and motivated volunteers into communities, the United Nations can better work towards its Sustainable Development Goals.
The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are:
- No Poverty
- Zero Hunger
- Good Health and Well-Being
- Quality Education
- Gender Equality
- Clean Water and Sanitation
- Affordable and Clean Energy
- Decent Work and Economic Growth
- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
- Reduced Inequalities
- Sustainable Cities and Communities
- Responsible Consumption and Production
- Climate Action
- Life Below Water
- Life on Land
- Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
Since you wish to serve as a UN volunteer, it helps to know a little history too. Currently headquartered in Bonn, Germany, the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) formed in 1970 and is administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Over the years, the UNV has achieved countless milestones and has become one of the best volunteer abroad organizations in the world. A few of those milestones include:
- Sending their first 35 volunteers abroad in 1971 to countries such as Chad and East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh).
- Placement of UN volunteers in 52 developing countries by the end of 1976
- Establishment of International Volunteer Day in 1985
- Participating in their first peace operation in 1992 as 700 UN volunteers joined the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (they assisted with electoral registration amidst a difficult post-conflict situation)
- Assistance with the 1994 election in South Africa, the first in which citizens of all races could participate
- Reaching 4,000 volunteers per year in 1998
- Deployment of volunteers to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake
As you can see, when big things happen in the world, UN service workers are there to help. You can make the world a better place by serving as a United Nations volunteer.
Where can you volunteer with the United Nations?
You can serve as a UN volunteer around the world. Some of the most popular destinations include Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. In addition to volunteering abroad with the United Nations, you also have opportunities to volunteer in your home country and even online.
Overall, the UNV program has deployed tens of thousands of volunteers to more than 130 countries, including many countries on our list of best places to volunteer abroad. Volunteers have come from a variety of backgrounds, with more than 150 nationalities represented.
Additionally, 12,000 volunteers serve in remote roles across more than 185 countries each year. The UN online volunteer program, which began in 2000, has been instrumental in removing barriers to international volunteering, such as time, place, and cost.
To summarize, there are three types of UN volunteer locations. You can:
- Volunteer abroad
- Volunteer in your home country
- Volunteer online
What do UN volunteers do?
United Nations volunteers support peacekeeping and humanitarian projects around the globe. They help run local and national elections, contribute to conflict resolution, and work on sustainable development projects, such as initiatives designed to improve human rights, expand access to education, and combat climate change.
What you specifically do as a volunteer depends on the needs of the host country, your language skills and area of expertise, how long you can volunteer, and your goals and preferences. Overall, the UNV program has a wide range of roles. To find you a position, the UNV matches your profile in their global talent pool with a host agency job opening.
For example, if you have a background in engineering or construction, the UNV may short-list your name for work on infrastructure projects in a country like Afghanistan, where efforts to rebuild continue. Specialize in environmental science? You could work as a research assistant in Zambia, and help the country develop sustainably.
Or, if you have experience in a specific region, different opportunities may be available. For instance, if you have work or volunteer experience in West and Central Africa, the UNV may assign you to roles in the region that align with your education and experience. You could serve as a communications specialist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, information analyst in Mali, or women’s rights advocate in Nigeria.
By the way, if you’re passionate about women’s rights and empowerment, check out our guide: Volunteer Abroad for Women’s Empowerment and Girls’ Education.
Interested in online volunteering with the United Nations? You’d be surprised by all that you can do from your own home. Roles include translation, teaching, research, project management, art and design, and more.
Before you agree to a position, make sure it’s a good fit, you truly meet the requirements, and that you can stay for the whole duration. This way, you ensure you can have a successful UN volunteer experience.
Why become a UN volunteer?
United Nations volunteers support peace, development, and human rights in communities most in need. By serving in a UNV program, you can enact positive change and help societies move towards a brighter future.
Many host countries have recently suffered through war and conflict (or still are). Others face complex challenges when it comes to sustainable development, human rights, access to education and healthcare, and other issues. The importance of UN volunteers can’t be overstated. In fact, they form one-third of all international civilians working on peacekeeping missions, according to UNV data. That’s amazing!
Furthermore, serving as a UN volunteer presents you with an incredible opportunity to enrich your personal life. You’ll help communities in need improve their quality of life, meet like-minded volunteers from around the world, and broaden your perspective.
Piera Zuccherin, now Head of the UNV in Ecuador, got her start in the program by serving in multiple countries. During her time in Mozambique caring for vulnerable children, she truly saw the importance of volunteerism.
“I was able to see how small actions can change people’s lives,” remembers Ms. Zuccherin.
That’s powerful. Simply put, volunteering with the United Nations can be a time of tremendous learning and growth. It can even inspire you to a life of service.
Additionally, joining the UNV program has professional benefits. It could even be a stepping stone to a career with an international organization, such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, or Save the Children.
It’s also worth noting that 82% of companies prefer workers with volunteer experience, with 92% saying volunteering builds leadership skills (Deloitte survey). Volunteering absolutely gives you an edge in your professional field. Because volunteering not only adds depth to your resume, but it shows positive character traits, such as compassion, courage, and integrity. And if that volunteer experience is with the United Nations, you’ll only impress employers more.
What are the requirements for United Nations volunteer jobs?
For United Nations volunteer jobs, you must meet minimum requirements. These requirements are based on the type of UN volunteer role you have.
- For UN volunteer abroad roles, you must possess a university degree or higher technical diploma, be at least 25 years old, have a minimum of two years of work experience, and have working knowledge in one of the following United Nations languages: French, English, and Spanish.
- For UN volunteer roles in your home country, most positions require a higher technical diploma or university degree, but some only ask that you have completed your secondary education. You must be at least 18 years old and have working knowledge or fluency in a local language. Most positions require two years of work experience, but some only ask that you have relevant knowledge of the field.
- For UN online volunteer roles, requirements vary a lot based on the role. Check each job description to see if you qualify. In general, you must have a university degree for many roles, such as writing and editing, healthcare services, and project development. For technical roles, you need to at least possess the relevant skills and qualifications (i.e. coding skills for a website development volunteer job).
Anyone who volunteers with the United Nations needs other attributes and qualities, notably:
- Belief in the values of volunteerism
- A commitment to the principles of ethics and integrity
- The ability to adapt, as living conditions may be difficult
- Strong communication, learning, and organizations skills
- A passion for addressing key issues and creating solutions
- Cultural sensitivity and the ability to work with multicultural teams
Note: UNV only posts hard-to-fill positions on their list of current openings (aka the Special Calls board). You can directly apply for those positions if you qualify. Or, you can enter the UNV Global Talent Pool and wait for the UNV to match you with a position (the most common route). Understand there’s no guarantee you’ll get an assignment and even if you do, it could take weeks to months or longer for the UN to contact you.
As you can see, it’s quite difficult to predict when there will be an opening. So, if you have a specific window of time when you want to volunteer, the UN volunteer program may not be the best option for you. If that’s the case, don’t feel bad. You have alternatives, such as serving with a volunteer abroad organization. Organizations like Maximo Nivel and GoEco can place you on exciting service projects within weeks.
United Nations International Volunteer Roles
There are three assignment categories. For each category listed below, we’ll give you an example of role-specific requirements.
Note: You should qualify for many International Youth positions, as long as you meet minimum requirements. You can only “choose” positions by applying directly for the hard-to-fill jobs on the UNV Special Calls board (most of these are for specialized roles).
- International Youth
You must meet minimum requirements plus any role-specific requirements.
Example: An HR assistant position in Mauritania requires an interest in natural resources management, with working knowledge of French preferred.
- International Specialist
In addition to meeting role-specific requirements, you generally need an advanced degree, like a Master’s degree, and five years of work experience.
Example: A project manager position in Guinea-Bissau requires five years of relevant experience at the national or international level, knowledge in justice and security sector reform, and language skills (fluency in Portuguese and working knowledge of English and French).
- International Expert
In addition to meeting role-specific requirements, you typically need an advanced degree, such as a Master’s degree, and 10 years of work experience.
Example: A resource mobilization and partnerships position in Morocco requires 10 years of relevant experience at the national or international level in leadership, resource mobilization, management, and partnership building. The position also necessitates knowledge of the region and fundraising skills. Required language skills include fluency in English and working knowledge of French and Arabic.
As you can see, UN volunteers must have a good deal of education, work experience, and expertise to serve overseas. If you’ve just graduated from college, International Youth positions are your most realistic option. If you’re mid-career, you could qualify for International Specialist and International Expert roles.
Alternatively, you may consider a short-term volunteer abroad program offered by organizations such as Volunteering Solutions and Maximo Nivel. Through these organizations, you can contribute to sustainable community development, help disabled children, build houses for disadvantaged communities, and more. If you find yourself waiting on the UN’s call, short-term volunteer abroad programs are a great way to still serve others in need.
United Nations National Volunteer Roles
National volunteers bring much-needed local expertise to peace and development solutions. There are five assignment categories. For each category, we’ll give you an example as we did above.
- Community Volunteer
You must meet minimum requirements plus any role-specific requirements.
Example: A community volunteer position in Venezuela requires you to have fluency in Spanish, possess a driver’s license, and have local contacts to assist with monitoring tasks.
- National Youth
You must meet the minimum requirements as well as role-specific requirements.
Example: A Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) engineer position in Jordan requires a Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, fluency in Arabic and English, knowledge of hydraulic monitoring software, and basic knowledge of CAD and GIS programs. You also need one year of experience working on WASH projects.
- National University
You must meet minimum requirements, position-specific requirements, and be enrolled in a university.
Example: An Information Technology and Communications volunteer job in Venezuela requires you’ve completed your secondary education and be fluent in Spanish. You also must have taken six semesters of coursework in computer science, computer engineering, or related field.
- National Specialist
On top of meeting role-specific requirements, you generally must be at least 22 years old, possess a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and have two-plus years of work experience.
Example: A logistics specialist position in Ethiopia requires a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration with a specialty in procurement, logistics, and supplies, as well as two years of relevant work experience. To qualify, you also must speak and read a regional language plus have a working knowledge of English.
- National Expert
On top of meeting role-specific requirements, you typically need a Bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree and two- or three-plus years of work experience.
Example: A product development and commercialization position in Bolivia asks that your university training in agriculture, forestry, food, or related studies. You also need three years of professional work experience, with one year of experience in project implementation in the Amazon region. You should speak Spanish fluently too.
As you can see, national UN volunteers typically don’t need as much education, work experience, and expertise as international UN volunteers. However, the higher the volunteer role, the more qualifications you need to have. You should qualify for many Community Volunteer and National Youth positions. If you’re a few years into your career, you could qualify for National Specialist and National Expert UN volunteer jobs.
How does the United Nations volunteer recruitment process work?
The entire UN volunteer recruitment process can take four weeks to three months or longer. First and foremost, you should register in the UNV Global Talent Pool (click to register!).
Give yourself about 45-60 minutes to complete UNV registration. It’s quite a lengthy application, as opposed to applications for short-term volunteer abroad programs that can be completed in under 15 minutes.
For example, if you’d like to serve as a community development volunteer, you can apply to one of Love Volunteers’ programs in as little as 10 minutes. Love Volunteers, a highly rated international volunteer organization, has impactful community development initiatives in countries like Albania and Cambodia. You can register and go to your destination within a week!
For the UNV application, the process is much longer. To start, you need to provide basic personal information to set up an account. You’ll then receive an email with a link to your profile. To fill out your profile, you’ll provide detailed information about:
- Your skills
- Your experience
- Your educational qualifications
To qualify for more positions, the United Nations recommends filling out the profile in English if you have a working knowledge of the language. That will make your profile more searchable for most open positions. You can fill out your profile in French or Spanish as well, which will give you more visibility with UN volunteer jobs in Spanish- and French-speaking nations.
Once you submit your profile, you’ve done your part (for now). It’s now time to wait.
As United Nations Volunteers (UNV) states, they fill the majority of assignments from UNV’s talent pool. Based on the host agency’s assignment descriptions, “UNV searches its talent pool for profiles that match the requirements listed therein.” They then select candidates, contact them to share the assignment details, and ask if they’re interested and available.
If interested and available, you’d then be “short-listed for the final selection process which is conducted by the host agency.” The host agency operates peace and development missions in the host country and could be an entity like UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) or Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Now, you may wonder: How does the host agency do the hiring process?
Honestly, it differs with each host agency. The needs, interview styles, and preferences of a host agency in Iraq may differ a lot from what the process looks like with a host agency in your field in Honduras.
On sites like Glassdoor, you can read experiences others have had with the UNV interview. After your profile matches a position and you agree to be short-listed, expect the following:
- The host agency will contact you to set up an interview.
- You’ll interview about a week later with about three panelists (usually senior managers in the project and stakeholders). Here are a few notes about the interview:
- If the assignment has language skill requirements, interviews will be done in the target language.
- During the interview, expect a lot of competency-based questions and questions designed to see how you’d work with the team.
- Depending on the role, the interview could include a skills test. You may also be asked to provide work samples or a portfolio.
- The host agency will then inform you of whether you’re got the position or made it to the next interview round.
- If you get the position, you’ll then sign a contract with the host agency and begin preparation for your assignment.
Tips for the UN volunteer application process
The UNV program receives far more applications than open positions. Your profile is THE source of information the UNV uses to short-list candidates for host agencies. You must stand out, so highlight the following on your profile, as well as at the interview:
- Relevant professional and educational experience, especially at the national or international level
- Past volunteer experience with local, national, or international agencies
- Proficiency in any crucial language (knowing United Nations languages is very beneficial!)
- Skills the UNV values, such as critical thinking and communication skills
- Demonstrate you have emotional stability, flexibility, adaptability, cultural sensitivity, and positive views towards change
- Your specialized skills, such as computer skills and even more specific skills, like the ability to use plumbing mechanical equipment (if looking for a water sanitation role)
- Your passion for humanitarian relief and achieving the UN mission
When filling out the application, target your profile to the type of roles you want. Provide a clear, concise picture of what you can bring to a United Nations volunteer job.
When you do get called, prepare yourself well for the host agency interview by going over your past work and educational experience. Organize your story so that you can show you’re a good fit. Also, it can help to do a mock interview beforehand with a colleague.
Finally, understand the process gets competitive, and you could wait a long time. A good first option could be serving on a project with a volunteer abroad organization. GoEco, with their 150-plus initiatives, offers you a quick and easy way to go overseas and make a difference. Volunteer for sustainable farming in Costa Rica, build schools in Ethiopia, teach English in the Philippines, and more!
Do United Nations volunteers get paid?
United Nations volunteers do receive compensation and other benefits. However, payment isn’t considered a salary. UN volunteers receive a monthly Volunteer Living Allowance (VLA).
The Volunteer Living Allowance includes a Monthly Living Allowance (MLA), which is intended to cover a modest standard of living in the host country. It also includes a Family Allowance (FA) for eligible accompanying dependents. Overall, you’ll have sufficient funds for safe and adequate accommodation, transportation, meals, and even entertainment.
Beyond the Volunteer Living Allowance, UN volunteers have other benefits, including:
- A pre-departure allowance for expenses incurred before traveling, such as a medical examination and vaccinations (for national volunteers, this is called a pre-assignment grant).
- Payment for the travel of eligible family members
- A settling-in grant to pay for initial expenses after arriving at your post destination
- A resettlement allowance after completing the assignment
- A well-being differential for volunteers working in hardship duty stations
- Facilitation of a home visit (depends on the duration of the assignment)
- Leave entitlements, including annual leave of 2.5 working days per month of assignment (up to 30 days per year). If applicable, you can also take maternity leave, paternity leave, learning and training leave, and special leave for emergency situations.
- Medical, dental, life, and disability insurance
- A resettlement allowance to assist with moving back home
Those are some good benefits, right?
From monthly stipends to health insurance, the United Nations takes care of their volunteers. This way, you can focus on what matters most: Contributing to the mission.
Finally, you can’t forget the main benefit of being a UN volunteer: the personal satisfaction the experience brings you. You get the opportunity to contribute to peace, development, and human rights! Beyond that, volunteering with the United Nations opens doors—both personal and professional. It can be a path to great things in your life.
How long do UN volunteer jobs last?
Most assignment contracts last six to 12 months, with the option to renew. The maximum length of service for United Nations volunteers is four years. Most roles have firm timelines, so check when you apply.
If you love volunteering with the UN and want a contract extension, understand that extension is subject to your satisfactory performance and a request from the host agency. The UNV must confirm funds have been made available.
Are there alternatives to the UN volunteer program?
Whether you can’t make the time commitment, don’t meet requirements at the moment, or are awaiting your name to be called from the UNV talent pool, don’t feel down. There are plenty of similar volunteer experiences out there. For instance, you could:
- Volunteer abroad with an international volunteer organization
- GoEco, a leading volunteer abroad program provider, can place you in a variety of meaningful projects, including initiatives in fields like childcare, community development, and healthcare. Sign up with GoEco, and you could be doing something impactful within weeks, such as teaching in Buddhist monastaries in Nepal.
- Volunteer with the Peace Corps
- Read our guide on Peace Corps alternatives!
- Volunteer abroad with an NGO, such as Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund
- Projects Abroad, one of the world’s largest international volunteer organizations, oversees a refugee project in Mexico that provides shelter and support to internally displaced persons (IDP). These refugees have escaped political and ethnic violence in their hometowns. Volunteers are crucial to the daily operations of the camp.
- Teach English overseas
- Example: Maximo Nivel, a leader in connecting ESL teachers to positions in Latin America, offers affordable TEFL courses and job placement in countries like Peru, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.
- Intern abroad with organizations that have similar missions to the UN
- Example: Volunteering Solutions, a leading provider of international internships, has programs that align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For example, you could join their medical internship in India and contribute to good public health and wellbeing (all Sustainable Development goals). Another option is African Impact, which offers NGO/ charity internships and public health internships across Africa.
Want to get started sooner rather than later? Then registering for a project with an international volunteer organization is your best option. You can travel, do good, build your skills, and make new friends from around the world. Interested? We recommend the following volunteer abroad organizations.
Founded in 1992, Projects Abroad has placed more than 122,000 volunteers abroad. Featured in publications like Time and the BBC, Projects Abroad earned recognition as the 2023 Best Volunteer Abroad Program by Volunteer Forever. They have many impactful programs that have similar goals to the UNV. Through Projects Abroad, you could:
- Do a human rights and social justice internship in countries like South Africa and Jamaica
- Serve as a refugee support volunteer in Mexico and help solve the migrant and refugee crisis
African Impact is an award-winning, responsible travel organization that offers volunteer and internship opportunities in 7 countries across Africa. It was founded in 2004 and has since hosted over 35,000 volunteers. African Impact has over 20 different projects, ranging from teaching in Zambia to marine conservation in Zanzibar. The organization is known for its long-term objectives and measurable change. It is also recognized as a trusted specialist on volunteering and interning in Southern Africa. African Impact offers internships, as well as group, family, and high school projects. The minimum age requirement for their projects is 16, making African Impact a great option for teen and high school volunteers. Notable projects include:
- The African Big 5 Wildlife Conservation project is a volunteer program in South Africa that offers participants the opportunity to work with expert field guides and research teams in the Greater Kruger Area, one of the world’s last remaining wildlife strongholds.
- The Early Childhood Development Project in Cape Town offers volunteers the chance to work with vulnerable children in underprivileged townships.
- Volunteer in Zanzibar on African Impact’s Dolphin and Marine Conservation Project and make a real difference to the sustainability of dolphin tourism.
Plan My Gap Year (PMGY)
As one of the most affordable and trusted volunteer abroad organizations, Plan My Gap Year operates service initiatives that focus on UN-type missions, such as improving education and healthcare in disadvantaged communities. Through PMGY, you could:
- Serve as a medical volunteer in Ghana and bring crucial health services to people in need
- Build schools, temples, and hospitals as a construction volunteer in Sri Lanka
- Work as a childcare volunteer for underprivileged children in Peru
Founded in 2009, Love Volunteers has a 96% rating from past volunteers. They focus on transparency and making an impact on the big issues. Through Love Volunteers, you can contribute to peace, development, and human rights, much like you would as a UN volunteer. Notable projects include:
- Community Volunteering in Bosnia: Help break down racial prejudices still lingering from the Bosnian War of 1992-95.
- HIV/AIDS Support in Zimbabwe: Work to end the epidemic, which has a profound effect on children in Zimbabwe.
Successfully Becoming a United Nations Volunteer
Now that you have a comprehensive overview of United Nations volunteer job opportunities, you’re more than ready to begin the process. That starts with registering in the UNV Global Talent Pool.
The process also involves preparing yourself mentally. Remember: United Nations volunteer assignments aren’t easy. You’ll journey to countries where there’s potentially conflict and you may not be accustomed to the living conditions. Go with an open mind, the ability to adapt, and a commitment to the mission, and you’ll have a powerful experience that’s beyond anything that can be described in words.
Finally, keep in mind that the UNV not only wants a long-term commitment (up to one year), but also the selection process gets super competitive and requires relatively high skills. Therefore, volunteering with the UN may not be a good idea for current students and early-career individuals.
If you’re a student, recent graduate, or simply want a more convenient way to serve overseas, consider short-term volunteer assignments instead. You’ll get to travel, explore other cultures, do good, make friends, and build skills. And just like volunteering with the UN, a short-term volunteer abroad trip can be the experience of a lifetime.
Nick Callos · Writer
With a BA in English Literature & Writing from Boston College, Nick researches and writes about volunteer, intern, and teach abroad programs worldwide. He has studied abroad and taught English in Chengdu, China, and aims to help fellow travelers make a lasting impact on the communities they visit.