What to Do Before You Depart for Your First Trip Abroad

What to Do Before You Depart for Your First Trip Abroad

Chapter 3: What to Do Before You Depart

You’ll need to take several steps before traveling abroad for the first time. We’ll help break down pre-departure planning into easy, manageable steps. In this chapter, we’ll cover everything you need to know about passports and visas as a first-time traveler. We’ll also answer questions about travel insurance, credit cards, internet access, and other topics you need to consider before you depart. If you have additional questions, please feel free to give us a call and we’ll be happy to help.

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How to Get a U.S. Passport for the First Time

Getting a passport is not just a required step—it’s a symbol of your courage and adventurous spirit. In this section, we’ll cover what you need to know about the passport process as a first-time traveler and answer top questions.

Two students jumping for joy at sunset

1. What Is the Passport Application and Passport Renewal Process?

According to the Department of State, a new traveler who has never owned a passport must take the following steps:

  • Fill out the form: New passport applicants must fill out the DS-11 form.
  • Gather documents: Collect the required documents to complete the application process. These include evidence of citizenship for both you and your parents or guardian if you’re under the age of 16, evidence of your relationship to your parents, and your parent’s government-issued identification. For example, you can use birth certificates and a parent’s driver’s license to fulfill the above.
  • Get your photo: You’ll need to submit a photo with your passport application. The photo must be a 2-by-2-inch color photo taken within the past six months.
  • Calculate fees: Calculate your passport fees using this fee calculator and determine how you’ll pay for the passport when you submit your application. For example, if you submit your application at a passport acceptance facility, you’ll need to pay the fee with a check or money order.
  • Submit the application: Submit your application in person at a passport acceptance facility. Use this tool through the Department of State to search for a passport acceptance facility near you. A passport acceptance facility may be a post office, public library, or other government building.

Applicants who wish to renew a passport can fill out the DS-82 form and renew by mail if the passport was issued when the individual was over the age of 16.

2. How Long Does It Take to Get a Passport for the First Time?

It typically takes four to six weeks for the government to process a passport application. This processing time applies to all passport applications. It’s worth noting that processing times vary depending on the time of year. For example, it may take longer for your application to process during the summer season when many people travel. It’s best to apply as early as possible. If you need your passport sooner, consider expediting the passport process for a fee.

It typically takes 4-6 weeks for the US government to process a passport application

3. Can I Get a Passport in One Day?

Under normal circumstances, you cannot get a passport in one day. However, if there’s a serious emergency, you may be able to get a passport within three days by calling the Department of State. Otherwise, you can still expedite the passport process. To expedite the process at an acceptance facility, you’ll need to include a $60 fee with the application plus the regular application fee to get your passport in less than four weeks. If you need your passport in less than two to three weeks, you’ll need to make an appointment with a passport agency or center and explain you have urgent travel plans.

4. How Much Is It to Get a Passport for the First Time?

First-time passport fees vary by age. A student traveler under the age of 16 can expect to pay a $95 fee for a passport book and card, plus a $35 acceptance fee. Anyone over the age of 16 are charged a $140 application fee for a passport book and card plus a $35 acceptance fee.

5. How Do I Get a Passport If the Government Is Shut Down?

During a government shutdown, which puts a pause on department funding, you can still apply for a passport and receive the passport during the regular time frame of four to six weeks.

6. How Do I Check the Progress of My Passport Application?

You can check your passport application status by either logging onto the Online Passport Status System or calling the National Passport Information Center. You’ll need your last name, date of birth, and the last four digits of your Social Security Number to check your status.

7. Can I Get a Passport at the Post Office?

Thousands of post offices around the country accept first-time passport applications, and they may even take your photo. You can search for a post office with passport acceptance services through the Department of State or the United States Postal Service site.

How to Know If You Need a Visa to Travel

A first-time traveler may have heard of the word “visa” but may not know if it’s something they need to worry about. In this section, we’ll share everything you need to know about tourist visas to help you determine if it applies to you and your adventure abroad.

1. What Is a Visa and Why Is It Required?

A visa is an official document permitting you to visit a country for a certain amount of time. A visa is provided by the country you plan to visit. It might be a paper document or a stamp on your passport. The purpose of a visa is to limit the duration of a visitor’s stay within a foreign country. Many countries, such as most Western European countries, Latin American countries, Canada, and Mexico, do not usually require United States citizens to have a visa if they plan to visit for three months (90 days) or less.

A visa is an official document permitting you to visit a country for a certain amount of time.

2. What Countries Do You Need a Visa to Visit?

Rustic Pathways provides all students with info they need to apply for visas. Some countries will require you to apply for a visa several months before you travel, while others will provide them when you arrive.

Some countries require a tourist visa such as:

  • Australia
  • Cambodia
  • China
  • Cuba
  • Laos
  • Tanzania
  • Thailand
  • Vietnam

You can learn more about your destination and visa requirements through the Department of State. You may be able to apply for a visa online depending on the country you want to visit.

3. How Long Does the Visa Process Take?

How long it takes to get a visa depends on the country. For example, a United States citizen may expect a visa for Australia to be processed and approved within a day. However, it takes four business days or longer for a visa application to process in China. The Chinese Embassy recommends applying for a visa a month before your planned arrival date.

Travel Insurance

Besides a passport, and possibly a visa, you’ll most likely want to purchase travel insurance before you head abroad. This section will explain how travel insurance works, and why it’s worth it.

Teenage girl zip lining on a Rustic Pathways student travel program

1. What Is Travel Insurance?

Travel insurance covers specific events up to a limit according to the policy terms. Items that are covered depend on the policy. You can think of travel insurance as a way to reduce the financial impact of an unexpected event that may occur while traveling.

2. What Does Travel Insurance Typically Cover?

Depending on the plan you choose, travel insurance may cover:

  • Trip interruptions
  • Trip cancellations
  • Lost luggage or damage
  • Emergency evacuations
  • Theft or other crimes
  • Medical treatment (most important)
  • Accidents
  • Travel delays

3. Do You Need Travel Insurance?

It’s recommended to purchase travel medical and evacuation coverage any time you head overseas. Even if a student has excellent health insurance at home, they may have to pay out of pocket for medical expenses abroad without international travel insurance. Contact your current health insurance provider to find out what they cover if you’re injured while abroad. It’s up to you if you wish to cover personal belongings. Consider how much you’ll be bringing, how long you’ll be gone, and the associated risks.

For medical insurance, you’ll need to choose a primary or secondary plan. Primary travel medical insurance replaces your current health care plan and allows your health care coverage to take over when the travel insurance runs out. Secondary coverage lets your regular medical insurance pay while you’re overseas and picks up other costs that your insurance won’t cover.

4. When Is Travel Insurance Not Necessary?

If you’re not worried about losing money due to a trip cancellation or lost baggage and are traveling domestically, it may not be necessary to purchase travel insurance before your trip. Also, some credit cards provide baggage and other coverages, so be sure to also look into the policy of the credit card you used to pay for your trip. However, any time you head overseas, it’s critical to have travel medical and evacuation insurance.

5. What Is International SOS and How Is This Different From Travel Insurance?

International SOS is a leading provider of medical and travel services. It has more than 27 assistance centers around the world, 35 clinics, and a fleet of air ambulances to ensure members have the best medical assistance no matter where they go. At Rustic Pathways, we have partnered with International SOS to help keep our students safe and healthy. All student travelers traveling with Rustic Pathways have access to International SOS services for an $85 fee.

It’s important to know that International SOS does not replace travel or medical insurance. International SOS is a medical assistance company providing 24/7 service when needed. It does not cover the costs of medical care. However, many insurance companies use International SOS to provide medical assistance.

6. Do I Need a Vaccine to Travel Abroad?

You may or may not need vaccines before you travel depending on the country you plan to visit and your medical history. A vaccine can protect you from diseases that are rare in the United States and keep you healthy while you enjoy your adventure. We recommend getting vaccinated at least eight weeks before you depart as some vaccines require more than one dose to be effective.

First, research your host country to find out if you need a vaccine. Look at your program itinerary and the locations you’ll be visiting. If you are traveling through rural areas, you may need more vaccines. We’ve created a quick guide to help you find out if you need a vaccination for your program. This page also includes links to the CDC Traveler’s Health site where you can learn more about the required and optional vaccinations and medications for your destination. If you have vaccine questions after you enroll in a program, feel free to contact International SOS for recommendations or more information.

If you discover you need a travel vaccine, you can visit a local travel clinic or your general physician and discuss your needs. If you can’t find a travel clinic, talk to your general physician as they can likely direct you to the right place. You may also visit Passport Health to find a travel clinic near you.

Lastly, check with your health insurance provider to make sure your vaccines are covered under your plan. Some vaccines and medication may be covered while others might be an extra charge. It always helps to know what to expect.

How Much Money Do You Need to Travel With?

Deciding how much money to bring depends on a lot of different factors. Do you plan on buying souvenirs? Or are you more interested in saving money for your next adventure? It also depends on where you plan to travel. Some countries have a higher cost of living than others. In this section, we’ll provide some tips and help you decide how much money you’ll need for your journey abroad.

1. Understanding Currency Exchange

Before you travel abroad, it helps to understand the basics of currency exchange. A currency exchange rate tells you how much your money is worth in another country. You might think of it as a charge for purchasing cash in another country. Foreign exchange traders decide what the rate will be, and prices constantly change.

You’ll need to consider exchange rates before you depart. This will determine how much money you’ll need to enjoy your trip with a foreign currency.

2. How to Estimate Currency Conversion From USD to the Local Currency

Estimating a current currency can be a little tricky, especially since rates are constantly fluctuating. To simplify the process, you can use a currency calculator to help you determine how much currency you’ll want to buy in another country. A currency converter makes it easy to see how much one United States dollar (USD) can buy in another currency.

3. Should You Pay in the Local Currency or Use USD When Using a Credit Card Abroad?

When you use a credit card abroad, whether at an ATM or in a restaurant or store, you may be asked if you would like to pay in the local currency or the currency of your home country. To avoid a high exchange rate, we recommend paying in the local currency and trying to avoid letting an ATM or card machine convert the currency for you. This process is known as dynamic currency conversion and typically costs you more money than if you paid using the local currency.

To avoid a high exchange rate, always pay in the local currency

4. Typical ATM Withdrawal Fees Abroad

Using an ATM can be a great way to get money in the foreign currency if your bank has an institution where you go. It can also cost less to use your bank’s ATM than a currency exchange booth. Some banks with international branches allow you to withdraw cash with fees as low as 1 to 3 percent, or don’t charge any fees.

5. How to Estimate How Much Spending Money You’ll Need for Your Trip

Here are a few ways to estimate how much money you’ll need while you’re traveling:

  • Consider what’s already paid for: Understand what costs are included or are already accounted for such as housing accommodations, food, activities, or other expenses you’ve paid for before you depart.
  • Consider where you’re going: Understand the relative cost of living in the host country. For example, it’s typically less expensive to spend time in a South American country than a Western European country, so you may not need as much spending money. Compare the cost of living to your home country and how much you usually spend.
  • Talk to someone who’s been there: Consider talking to someone who has been to the host country before to learn about their experience. Ask them if they wished they took more spending money, or if they took too much.
  • Talk to your Personal Travel Advisor: If you’re traveling with Rustic Pathways, your Personal Travel Advisor can provide some insight into the host country so you know what to expect and have an easier time calculating how much spending money you should bring.

6. Should You Have Any Local Currency With You Before You Arrive in the Host Country?

No. All Rustic Pathways programs provide an opportunity for students to convert whatever money they bring to the local currency as soon as they arrive in country.

We recommend researching your host country for specific information on how much to bring and what to expect of banks and ATM services abroad. For students traveling with Rustic Pathways, we offer suggestions on how much spending money students will need on each of our program pages. For example, with our Wonders of Laos program, we recommend student travelers bring $150 per week for souvenirs, snacks, and any other extras.

When and How to Apply for a First Credit Card

A credit card can be a great way to fund your trip and cover costs while you’re in a foreign country. If you choose a card with low foreign transaction fees or a card that has no foreign transaction fees, you can save big on that expense. However, you need to be at least 18 to get a credit card without a parent or guardian’s help. Even if you’re under 18, you still have options when it comes to credit cards. We’ll show you what steps you need to take to get a credit card for your journey abroad.

1. How to Get a Credit Card If You’re Under 18

Student travelers who are too young to get their own credit card should discuss options with their families. It’s important to have a backup plan in an emergency, and a credit card can come in handy. Plus, credit cards give both parents and travelers peace of mind. Here are some options to consider:

  • Add the student traveler to a parent’s card: One option is to add a child as an authorized user to a credit card account. This is very easy to do and gives the student access to a higher credit limit. It can also help build a child’s credit history. With this option, parents can discuss spending limits and monitor charges.
  • Get a prepaid debit or currency card: Prepaid debit cards are used the same way as a credit card, but are not associated with a specific account. This eliminates the possibility of over overspending. However, sometimes prepaid cards come with fees such as foreign transaction fees and foreign ATM fees. You’ll want to research what’s out there first.

Whether you apply for your own credit card or use one of the alternative options listed here, you’ll want to make sure you contact the credit card company and your bank before you depart to let them know that you will be out of the country. You can call the toll-free number listed on the back of the card and you’ll want to tell the operator which country (or countries) you’ll be traveling to and how long you will be out of the country. This will prevent your credit card company from assuming your account has been stolen or hacked and they will know not to freeze your account or withhold funds for the duration of your trip.

2. How to Know If a Credit Card Charges a Foreign Transaction Fee

A foreign transaction fee is a charge that appears on your credit card bill after you make a purchase in a foreign currency or which has to pass through a foreign bank. Foreign transaction fees typically range from 1 to 3 percent. Usually, a fee is added after the credit card company converts the transaction.

Unless a credit card has no foreign transaction fee, it’s usually not something advertised. You’ll have to check the terms and conditions or contact your credit card company to learn more.

3. How to Get Your First Credit Card If You’re Over 18

If you’re older than 18, you may be ready to get your first credit card. However, it can still be tough. Try to find credit card companies that are open to first-time cardholders and accept applicants with little or no credit history. It’ll also help if you have a source of income, such as through a part-time or full-time job. If nothing seems to work, a family member may be able to help by cosigning.

Technology Tips for Traveling Abroad

Obviously, you’ll need a way to keep in touch while traveling, and your family will want to be updated now and then. Traveling to a foreign place, especially a remote location, can pose particular challenges when it comes to technology and internet access. That’s okay—we’ll show you how to prepare. And, if the internet or cellular service is limited, it’s good to take a break from technology sometimes anyway. Who needs a phone when they’re snorkeling in Fiji? Rustic Pathways will always have you covered in the event of an emergency.

1. Will You Need an International Calling Plan?

Whether you’ll need an international calling plan depends on the duration of the trip, the country you’re visiting, and cellular service providers, among other factors. For shorter trips, you’re most likely not going to need a calling plan. The best thing to do is to consult with your phone company or service provider to learn more about their rates and plans and the best solution for your trip. Your provider may offer an affordable international plan from your host country. If your company does not offer an international plan, consider upgrading to a plan temporarily that provides more data, and check the coverage in your country to determine how much data you’ll need.

Consult with your phone company to learn more about their international calling plans

If you plan to use your phone a lot, you might consider buying an international phone meant specifically for traveling. They often come with reduced international roaming and data rates. Other options:

  • Use free or low-cost calling, texting, or video applications like WhatsApp, Viber, Skype, FaceTime, or Facebook Messenger.
  • If you have an iPhone, you can use iMessage to send texts wherever Wi-Fi is available.

2. How to Get Internet Access While Traveling

You may be wondering if the internet will be available while you’re abroad. This will vary significantly based on the host country. For example, China is one of the most restrictive in terms of what may be accessed, so Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and many other social media, news, and email sites and services are not available when traveling there.

Location within the countries may also make a difference. In rural areas, for example, internet access is not guaranteed, while urban areas are more likely to provide internet access. Some ways to get internet access abroad include:

  • Use the internet provided by cafes, coffee shops, or restaurants that have a Wi-Fi sticker on the door.
  • Buy a mobile broadband plan and portable USB modem to receive internet access.
  • Purchase a SIM card with a prepaid plan and internet access included or an inexpensive phone with an internet browser when you arrive at your destination.

It’s important to know that the internet will most likely not be readily available in remote locations, and communication may be limited. With Rustic Pathways, many students spend time exploring rural areas that do not have internet access. This can actually be a big advantage!

Imagine immersing completely in a new culture without the distraction of cell phones or the internet. Disconnecting from technology enhances a student traveler’s experience, what they learn, and the relationships they develop during their trip. It transforms the way they see the world, their lives, and the lives of those around them because they can give their full attention to their experience. Parents can enjoy knowing their child is becoming more independent as they take a break from technology.

3. Can You Use Wi-Fi Internationally Without Charge?

You can use Wi-Fi for free in businesses that offer customers free Wi-Fi. You might find free Wi-Fi in hotels, airports, cafes, hostels, chain restaurants, coffee shops, and other types of businesses. With this option, you can connect to Wi-Fi free of charge and use apps such as iMessage or Skype to communicate with others back home. Just make sure to turn off your phone’s data to avoid unwanted charges.

4. Should I Take a Professional Camera When Traveling?

Most travelers won’t need a professional camera to take quality photos of their travels. A cell phone camera can be an excellent option for most travelers. A cell phone camera is convenient, lightweight, and easy to carry with you, and there’s likely no need for an additional point-and-shoot camera.

On the other hand, if you’re traveling for a photography workshop or are a skilled photographer, traveling is the perfect time to bring a professional camera to capture the colors, people, and natural beauty your journey. In such a case, don’t forget to pack:

  • Extra batteries or charger
  • Camera manual or instructions
  • Lenses
  • Tripod or camera stand if available
  • Memory cards
  • External hard drive for backing up photos

5. How Do I Protect My Camera When Traveling?

Here are ways a photographer can keep their camera safe and their pictures protected while traveling:

  • Use a padded case to hold the camera.
  • Use a plain bag that does not have any logos on it.
  • Keep the camera in a shoulder bag while walking around.
  • Carry the camera with you on the plane.
  • Keep the camera clean.
  • Consider insuring the camera and equipment in case it gets lost or stolen.

6. Can I Bring My Camera in My Carry-On?

Yes, you can bring your camera in your carry-on bag, and it’s probably the best choice to keep your camera safe. Most airlines allow a carry-on bag as long as it’s not bigger than 9 x 14 x 22 inches. Personal electronics, in general, are allowed in carry-on bags. Your camera may need to be X-rayed individually through security, so it helps to keep it at the top of the bag. It’s always a good idea to check your airline rules before you depart.