As today’s young people begin launching their careers, they can find themselves faced with plenty of options and not a lot of time. Many industries are more competitive than ever and even an entry-level job can require years of internships, fellowships, and possibly research experience. In the midst of all this, many people who are passionate about global issues have a hard time finding the time to step away from their studies and careers to volunteer abroad. They fear that a year or even a few months away from the competition will hurt them later on. While I’d argue that volunteering abroad is incredibly beneficial to personal and professional growth, I understand why young people would be worried, because I was too. Luckily for me and luckily for you, there is a third option: interning abroad, which are essentially short to long-term work abroad programs.
In this article, I’ll do my best to provide you with an understanding of how internships abroad work, why they are beneficial to you and your cause, how to find an internship opportunity, and a little bit about how to prepare for your internship.
Author and Fulbright Scholar Brittany Edwardes in Malaysia
The Intern Abroad Experience: Everything You Need to Know about How to Intern Abroad
In many ways, interning abroad is the best combination of two experiences—volunteering abroad and an internship. International internships include all of the novelty and unique opportunities for service and growth that volunteering abroad does, but also has all of the structure and in-depth learning of an internship. Additionally, overseas interns are able to work towards the mission and good work that their organization does at a level even beyond that of the volunteer. Since overseas internships often include teaching the intern how to perform tasks that are vital to the life of the organization, interns play a key part in contributing to excellent causes and solutions.
Interning abroad doesn’t just benefit the organization or the cause that you care about though—it also benefits you. Interns are an important part of the project team and the knowledge that comes along with this is astronomical. International internships also incorporate experience that will benefit your later career and can be easily explained on a resume or cover letter. International internships convey to employers that you are serious about your career and contributing to solutions for causes that you care about. Overall, internships are often a perfect next step for someone who is serious about making a change while also growing professionally.
I had the opportunity to pursue work on an educational project in Malaysia after I graduated from college. Although the fellowship was not technically an internship, it functioned in a similar way in that I spent a year working abroad as a teaching assistant. Before my year in Malaysia, I knew that I was passionate about education and community service. However, it wasn’t until I spent a year in my Malaysian classroom that I realized that the best way for me to serve my community was to be a teacher. Now, as a first-year Teach for America Corps Member, I am so thankful that I stuck through the long application process to take a step that would lead me to find my passion and career.
So, now that you’re sold, and you’re ready for your international internship, what comes next? I’m here to help you with that.
How to Apply for an Internship Abroad
Getting an internship in another country can seem complicated, but there are a number of resources that can make your research much easier. As you begin looking for potential internship opportunities, you should know that application processes vary greatly and that you may be required to fill out an application, write entrance essays, provide references, submit resumes, or a number of other things. Some internships even like to have their applicants create videos about why they’d like to intern at the project. So, as you move forward, realize that applying to multiple internships can be a large time commitment. Below, I have detailed a few ways that you can find out about three major types of international internships.
Interning Abroad with Government Programs
If you’re an American citizen, there are many internship opportunities that are provided through the United States State Department and other government-led programs. These internship opportunities can range from diplomatic internships in embassies and consulates across the world to project-based internships with any of the many American government-led ventures. You can also browse internships on the government’s job posting website.
Interning with International NGOs
If you’re looking for an internship with an international NGO or similar organization, internships can usually be found through their hiring portals or through other job listing sites. If you don’t find any internships listed online, but have a hunch that they probably do have interns, just give their human resources department a polite call. Some organizations have relationships with universities or other entities that place their internships for them, but are usually willing to pass along any information. If you want to generally view international internships by field or by location, Volunteer Forever’s new intern abroad section is a good place to start.
Interning with Small Projects
If you’re looking for an internship with a small project, an intern placement agency might be best for you as they can connect you with small projects while also providing the support and community of a larger internship. One such placement agency is Work the World, which specializes in placing interns with all kinds of medical internships in small hospitals and clinics in Africa, Asia, and South America. If you’re interested in an environmental internship, The Foundation for Sustainable Development has a competitive internship program that places interns with over 300 of their community partners around the globe. Finally, many volunteer abroad placement organizations also provide placements for international internships, so as you research, be sure to take a look at some of our highly rated volunteer abroad organizations.
What to Look For in A Good Internship Abroad Program
Once you’ve isolated a few internships that are interesting to you and relevant to your career goals, it’s time to dig deeper and make sure that they’re the right internship for you. I’ve provided a few things to look for as you research internships abroad as well as questions that will help you gain a greater understanding of what the daily life of the internship will look like.
First, internships are tough, and that doesn’t change when you go abroad. Just like domestic internships, internships across the world vary immensely depending on the position, size of the organization, kind of organization, and the work that your organization does. Still, there are a few things that you should look for as you search out the perfect internship experience.
Good overseas internships provide good support
Interning, no matter where you go has a pretty steep learning curve and when you compound that with culture shock, learning how to thrive in your new workplace, and homesickness, it can seem a bit much. Still, interning abroad isn’t nearly as unsupported as working abroad, and this is definitely to your advantage. A good internship placement should include supervisors who are familiar with working with interns from other countries and can help the interns adjust. Finding an internship with an organization that employs a diverse workforce, including people from your home country, is also a good idea so that you’ll have the opportunity to interact with people who have been in your shoes before. Finally, I’d recommend applying for internships that have at least a few interns at a time. Working with a team of interns isn’t just great for meeting peers who are as passionate about your cause as you are, but can also help you make great friends to be homesick with.
On the other hand, if you want to intern with a small project that can’t provide this level of support, you should consider going through an internship placement organization. Although some travelers avoid placement organizations because they typically charge for their services, we find that the support, knowledge, and security that placement organizations can provide is well worth the cost. Also, many placement agencies also provide housing, which any seasoned traveler knows can be almost impossible to arrange yourself in a country where you have no connections and can’t speak the local language.
Since internships can vary so much, make sure you know what to expect
Even though interning abroad can be tough, it is invaluable in helping you gain skills needed for your career while also making a huge difference with hands-on work in the field. One of the major reasons that people decide to volunteer abroad is because it is a great way to affect change and in the case of interning abroad, this can increase tenfold. With this being said, it is your responsibility to make sure that the internship you choose is the right step in your career path. When researching positions, try to think of at least five skills or experiences that you would like to take away from your internship. For example, if you’re interested in becoming a veterinarian and find an internship at a great-looking animal rescue organization, be sure that your internship aligns with your skills and career path. All organizations, no matter what their cause or mission will need interns to help with programming, communications, their website, development, and things like that, so it’s a good idea to not accept the mission of your organization as your job description.
Internship compensation and travel allowances vary, so do your research
Just like in the United States, the financial benefits of internships can vary. As an intern, you may receive compensation that volunteers wouldn’t usually expect. As you budget for your internship, find out exactly what benefits you can expect to receive during your internship. Since most internships last for under a year, having lodging provided or at least ready advice on affordable, safe housing is definitely something worth asking about. Even if the organization does not assist in any way with intern housing, they should at least have a good idea of where previous interns have lived and can provide advice based on that. You should also ask about health insurance, as many programs recommend that interns and volunteers have at least some form of travel insurance.
Questions to Ask Potential Internship Opportunities
Once you’ve chosen a few internships that you think are right for you, you can begin your application process, which usually starts with establishing contact with the project or placement organization. As you do your research and learn more about the internship opportunity, here are ten questions to ask to get a good idea of what to expect if you were to choose and be accepted to the internship opportunity.
- What is the application process for the internship?
- How long does the application process take and are there any firm or suggested deadlines?
- What are the exact duties associated with the internship?
- What kind of team does the intern work with? Who does the intern directly report to?
- What kinds of benefits do interns receive, monetary or otherwise?
- Is there available intern housing? If not, is there a safe places where previous or current interns have found housing?
- To learn more about the day-to-day life of the internship, are there any current or previous interns that you could e-mail for advice?
- What skills are you expected to bring to the internship?
- What skills should you expect to gain during the internship?
- How should someone who wants to intern them prepare for the internship?
This list of questions isn’t exhaustive, but they will help you decide if the internship is right for you and what steps you should take to pursue the internship further.
Funding and Budgeting for Your Internship
As I mentioned earlier, many internships provide some sort of compensation. However, an unpaid internship is by no means a bad internship. Many strong organizations simply aren’t able to use their funding for interns as they work to spend as much money as possible on their cause. On the other hand, if your internship does have compensation, you may be responsible for paying for your own travel or spending money. In any case, it is a good idea to create a realistic budget for your internship abroad and make a plan for funding yourself. While there are many ways to fund a trip abroad, such as crowdfunding through Volunteer Forever, there are a couple of things you should consider like your budget.
Traveling or living abroad has many, many unexpected costs. And you’ve got to plan as if they all came at once.
Trust me on this. In one month towards the end of my stay in Malaysia, I had the good fortune of getting into a fender bender, dropping my Mac book, and having to come up with two hundred dollars for grad school application fees all in one paycheck. Since my small stipend barely covered my daily cost of living, I ended up having to cancel my end-of-school trip to afford all of my small catastrophes.
Preparing for your intern abroad trip can cost several thousands of dollars.
Before you leave the country, you’re going to want to have all of the appropriate clothing, gear, and technology needed for your life abroad. You’ll also need to make all of your medical preparations, such as vaccines and anti-malarial medications, and those can be expensive even with health insurance. Depending on your living situation, you also might need to pay for a storage room for all of your belongings. Make sure you keep all of these costs—before, during, and after your trip—well documented in your budget.
Find out exactly what kinds of fees you’ll need to pay to enter and leave the country.
Although traveling on a tourist visa can be free or very cheap, staying in a country longer than a few months can require you to pay for expensive work visas, visa renewals, and other consular fees. Your internship placement organization or organization should be able to provide you with information about these costs, but you may want to make a call to the country’s embassy for correct information for your budget. In my experience, embassy websites aren’t always up-to-date, so make sure you can speak to a reliable source as you plan.
Exchange rates can change, and this doesn’t always work in your favor.
While it is impossible to plan for the extremes and you’ll probably be fine, try to keep it in the back of your mind that currency exchange rates do fluctuate, and that it’s good to consider this (or even do a bit of research) as your budget your life in your new country.
Recommended International Internships
Although working in the volunteer abroad area for a few years and interning abroad myself has taught me a lot about the world of international volunteer placements and internships, there are so many organizations to choose from that, while I do not have experience with them personally, are highly recommended by other volunteers and interns who have been in your shoes before. Here’s a snapshot into what a few organizations have to offer:
Since 2003, Maximo Nivel has offered volunteer, intern, study, and teach abroad opportunities in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. 25,000 volunteers, interns, and teachers have signed up to travel with Maximo Nivel, which partners with local organizations on placements where you can learn, explore, and make a difference. Maximo Nivel’s internships are affordable, starting from $1525 for a four-week practicum – costs cover placement, housing, meals, and Spanish lessons. These internships are also flexible, starting from four weeks with the option to stay in-country as long as you’d like, and with the option to earn university credit.
With Maximo Nivel, you can choose from a variety of internships in Costa Rica, including education, medical care, business, special education, human rights, or hospitality and tourism. If you’re interested in business development, you can work with local entrepreneurs in nonprofit and for-profit sectors to assist with daily operations, client service, sales, and much more. If you’re a medical student, consider an internship in one of the best healthcare systems in Central America – through this placement, you can work in an assisted living facility or in a small local clinic. Learn more about internships in Costa Rica here!
Maximo Nivel also offers several internship options in Guatemala, including special education, hospitality and tourism, human rights, medicine, micro-business, and education. If you are passionate about human rights, Maximo Nivel offers the chance to work with a community organization, NGO, or a government agency to advocate for women and indigenous groups. Through Maximo Nivel’s special education internship, you will travel to Antigua to provide hands-on assistance to local teachers in a special needs classroom. By working with students and giving teachers much-needed help, you can make sure they receive the attention they need. Click here to learn more and to register.
Finally, if you’re looking for a South American internship, check out Maximo Nivel’s programs in Peru, where you can choose from education, healthcare, human rights, hospitality, or special education. On the education internship, you will work in a private bilingual school to teach English to students, help with lesson planning, and assist with classroom management. In the hospitality and tourism internship, you will have the wonderful opportunity to work in a boutique hotel, travelers’ hostel, tour agency, or restaurant to learn all about client outreach, marketing, social media, public relations, sales, and guest services. Learn more about interning in Peru here!
Global Vision International (GVI) is an excellent organization that provides impactful and adventurous internships worldwide for travelers who’d like to expand their education and build their careers. With placements available in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe, GVI has a wide range of internships that not only will boost your resume, but that also will immerse you in a new culture and make a difference to community organizations, researchers, and development initiatives globally.
One of GVI’s most popular internship opportunities right now is their wildlife conservation internship in South Africa. During this program, you’ll spend 12 weeks assisting with predator research, learning about different conservation techniques, and picking up technical skills needed to observe and track wildlife. For the second half of your 24-week internship, you’ll work either in a safari lodge or with a conservation organization. This is an excellent opportunity to learn all about Africa’s wildlife, and even get up close with South Africa’s Big Five – and after successfully completing your internship, you may even be able to continue working with GVI or one of its partner organizations. This internship costs $9,495 and includes staff support, meals, orientation and training, project equipment and materials, 24-hour in-country support, and more.
If you want to pursue a career in marine biology or environmental conservation, GVI’s Mexico marine conservation internship may be the perfect program for you! Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, you’ll spend your internship improving your diving skills, compiling research on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, conducting turtle nesting surveys, and honing your professional marine conservation skills. As with GVI’s South Africa internship, you may be able to work with GVI or one of its partners after completing your internship. You can sign up for 6 to 20 weeks depending on your availability, with a starting cost of $4,690.
Ready to take your love of scuba diving to the next level? GVI’s PADI instructor internship in Mexico includes marine conservation training, divemaster training, and placement at a dive shop, along with world-class training for the dive industry with PADI certification as a Master Scuba Diver Trainer. For your first 12 weeks, you’ll receive marine conservation training – making you uniquely qualified to work as a scuba instructor in Marine Protected Areas – then your PADI Divemaster Course for the next 12 weeks after that. You’ll cap off your internship with GVI’s Instructor Development Course and Master Scuba Diver Trainer Course. This 30-week program costs $14,465 and includes pre-departure and in-country support, meals, orientation, project training and equipment, weekly evaluation with your mentor, PADI certifications, references, and much more. Click here to learn more about this internship and to apply!
Internship Placement Location: Italy, China, South Africa, Laos, Brazil, Nicaragua, Belize, Peru, Thailand, Argentina, Tanzania, Costa Rica
Internship Lengths: Internships vary based on availability
Types of Internships Available: Wildlife conservation, film, and photography, human rights, animal rehabilitation, Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), marine biology, renewable energy and sustainability
What Volunteers Have to Say:
“My experience at Esperanza Verde was good. I was a volunteer there for two months. The most difficult part of Esperanza Verde for me was getting to the site. After getting to Pucallpa (the closest major city), you take a two hour taxi ride to the town of Curimana. This is where the volunteers can use the internet (very slow) and make international phone calls. When you get to Curimana, you get dropped off at the port and cross the river to the other side. From there it’s another 45 minute taxi ride to Bello Horizonte. From there, you have to get someone to cross you again to the other side of the river to get to Esperanza Verde. I also spoke very little Spanish before I left. This made it a little more difficult to communicate with taxi drivers. However, you should not have much trouble getting there if your Spanish is OK. Apart from working, you get a chance socialize with people from all over the world. You are around fresh air all the time and you can take all types of nature walks in the forest. Overall, the Global Nomadic team was very supportive in both helping me prepare for the trip and facilitating my travel. If you like animals and the Amazon, then I believe you will benefit from spending at least a few weeks at Esperanza Verde.” -Gurinder Jung
Internship Placement Location: Manu National Park, Peru
Internship Length: Six Months
Types of Internships Available: Wildlife conservation, conservation research, wildlife management, community education
What Volunteers Have to Say:
“I undertook a six month internship with the crees foundation at their research centre – the Manu Learning Centre – in the Peruvian Amazon. I had an amazing time and learnt so much. As a volunteer you get experience of all the conservation research projects at the MLC – including monitoring endangered blue headed macaws, camera traps, butterfly traps, mistnetting, pitfall traps and nocturnal surveys of amphibians and reptiles…
The 12 week work placement went so fast. You are kept busy leading specific projects that are assigned to you but also working on other projects as well. By the end of the six months you are effectively an expert in your field – whether it’s frogs, snakes, butterflies or birds! Highlights of my time with crees include camping in primary rainforest, climbing up a 30m tree, catching a rainbow boa and watching tadpoles develop into beautiful frogs. Overall I had an amazing experience and made friends for life. The community at the MLC is friendly and welcoming and it is more like a home than a workplace. My time in the Peruvian rain forest totally transformed my view of the world. I learnt so much about the rain forest and conservation research” – Liv
Putting It All Together
Interning abroad is an excellent opportunity for you to gain valuable career experience while serving abroad. Although pursuing an international internship can seem like a lot of hard work, almost anyone who has completed an internship will agree that it is well worth the effort. My advice to you is to plan carefully, be open-minded to interning in a different area of the world or field that you originally planned, and make the most of the connections you’ll make abroad. This internship will be more than a memory as you proceed through your career—it will be your inspiration as you continue to work for change both abroad and at home.