The First-Time International Traveler’s Survival Guide

published Mar 26, 2017
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(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

So, you’ve never left the country before, but your sense of wanderlust is strong. Going abroad can feel super intimidating and the process might seem overwhelming, but it’s totally worth it to get to experience the world and finally visit the places you’ve been dreaming about. If you’re a first time international traveler, here’s what you need to know.

Getting Your First Passport

If you’ve never left the country before, chances are you probably don’t have a passport—and unless you’re only traveling within the US or to a US territory (like the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico) you’re going to need one. Here’s how it works:

If you’re applying for a passport for the first time, you’ll need to file in person. First, you have to fill out the DS-11 form from the US Department of State. You can find the form here, as well as forms to renew your passport if you have one. You will also need proof of your citizenship (for example, your birth certificate if you were born in the US) and your identity (your license or state ID with both your signature and your photo) and you must have photo copies of them.

You’ll also need to bring a recent (within the last 6 months) color photo of yourself that meets State Department requirements. It should be 2 inches by 2 inches with a white or off white background, and show a full front view of your face. You can find out all the requirements here, and you can usually get your photos taken and processed at chain drugstores like Walgreens, warehouse stores like Sam’s Club, post offices, shipping stores like UPS, and even college campuses, according to USA Today.

Once you have your photo (by the way, you should get several copies just in case), your extra documents and your form filled out, you’ll need to turn it in to your local acceptance facility—you can find yours here, but they’re usually places like post offices, libraries or local government offices—along with the application fee ($140 for a passport book and card for adults over age 16, or $110 for just the book or card—you can read more about the fees here) and execution fees ($25). If you need an expedited passport because you’re traveling very soon, you’ll have to make an appointment at your regional passport agency, and pay an additional $60 fee.

Routine passport processing time is 6 weeks, but if you’re getting an expedited passport, it’ll take about 2-3 weeks.

Do You Need a Visa?

You may be under the impression that you only need a visa if you plan to move to another country or work abroad, but there is such thing as a tourist visa, and depending on where you’re going you might need one. To find out the requirements for your chosen destination, head to the US Department of State’s Country Information page and search the country you plan to go to.

If your chosen destination does require you to have a visa, you can learn more about applying here—you’ll need your passport, a completed nonimmigrant visa application, a photo that meets the requirements, and to pay the $160 application fee (other fees may or may not apply, and you may need additional documents).

(Image credit: Alicia Macias)

Flights, Transportation and Lodging

International flights are often expensive, especially depending on where you go, but it’s also totally possible to get a good deal—you just need to know where and when to look to get the best airfare. Thrifty Nomads has a super helpful guide to booking cheap flights (you can read the full guide with tons of tips here!) but some of the important takeaways are to do any online searching in incognito mode, use the right kind of search engines—like Skyscanner and Google Flights, be willing to work with budget airlines, and book in advance.

Where you plan to stay will depend on the kind of trip you’re taking and where you’re going—if you’re backpacking through Europe, for example, your lodging experience will certainly be different than if you were planning a luxurious beach week somewhere. Depending on what you plan to do, your budget and where you plan to go, you might be staying in a hostel, an Airbnb or a hotel—unless you have the option to stay with friends or family.

Booking hotels is fairly straightforward, but you should make sure to research and pick a hotel that has good reviews and is close to the things you want to do while you’re there so you don’t have to travel far or spend a lot of money on transportation every time you want to go anywhere. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, has all the resources you need, from what different rooms are like to safety concerns and packing lists. If you’re new to Airbnb, this guide from Mashable can help—just make sure you do some research on the area your Airbnb is in so you know you’re in a safe place that, like your hotel, is close to the things you want to do and where transit is accessible, especially if you aren’t renting a car.

Speaking of renting a car, you should also be sure to do your research on what your destination’s public transit is like, how taxis work, and whether or not you can (or will even want to) rent a car and drive there. In some countries, you’ll need an international driving permit to rent a car, or it might be easier and less expensive to take taxis or buses. Some countries offer transit passes for tourists that also double as admission to local attractions, so look into those as well. If you’re unsure of what transportation will be like at your chosen destination, check the country’s travel website (many of them have websites completely dedicated to tourism that will have important information) and read through forums—Reddit is a great option—to learn details from people who have visited there before.

Travel Insurance (Yep, That’s a Thing!)

Travel insurance—depending on the plan—can protect you if you have to cancel your flight, if something happens to your airline and even if you have a medical issue when you’re abroad, among other things. Of course, travel insurance costs extra money, so you may be tempted to skip it if you’re on a budget, but if you’re leaving the country, it’s a must.

Every plan is different and some won’t cover the circumstances you need, so you should shop around before you choose one, but the right plan will be totally worth it, even just for the peace of mind. Travel insurance plans are usually between 4 and 10 percent of the cost of your trip, and your best bet is to buy it early on and go directly through a travel insurance company, through your travel company itself, or through a travel agent or other third party if you plan to use one, according to Huffington Post (you can read more about travel insurance here).

What’s the Deal With Exchanging Money?

Credit cards are definitely the preferred method of spending across the globe, but there are times when you will likely need cash—you might need it to pay for a taxi, pay bus fare, get something to eat or buy any number of things from smaller stores and markets, so you should have some on hand. Keep an amount on you that’s enough to cover an unexpected cash expense, but not so much that if you lost it, it would be devastating—that amount varies from person to person, so take what feels right for you.

You can exchange money at a number of places—your bank, airport kiosks, and some stores, for example. And depending on your bank—be sure to check their policies ahead of time—you may be able to use your debit card at ATMs abroad, which should dispense your money in the local currency. NerdWallet has everything you need to know about exchanging your money in this post, and US News has a great guide to what kind of money you should bring with you.

In general, when it comes to spending on travel, you should come up with a budget, and then be prepared to spend just a bit more—save a little extra room, just in case. The other thing you need to consider when it comes to money? Make sure you let your bank know that you’ll be traveling abroad—and where and for how long—before you leave, otherwise they may think any charges on your credit card or ATM card are fraudulent and put a hold on your account. Frustrating at best, but completely trip-crippling at worst.

(Image credit: Leszek Czerwonka)

What About Your Phone?

Technically you don’t need to bring a cell phone with you while you’re traveling, at least not if you’re into the idea of disconnecting completely. But for many people, not having that connection to home is not an option, so you’ll need to figure out a plan for your phone while you’re abroad. Smartphone users can turn off their cellular data and use WiFi to text through iMessage and apps like WhatsApp (and can use them to take photos and post to social media as well if you want—just be careful about using public networks if you’re typing in any sensitive information on your phone, since they’re unsecured) but that doesn’t help if you need to make a call or get in touch when you don’t have an internet connection handy.

In those cases, you have a few options—you can buy a prepaid phone for use when you’re abroad, you can use your current phone (if it’s unlocked) with a prepaid SIM card, or you can use your existing plan’s roaming options and take your current phone with you (although that will likely be very expensive). NerdWallet goes into more detail about these options in this post, and you can also read more about international phone plans in this post from the NY Times.

Language Tips and Tricks

In many countries, not knowing the language will be fine and you can get by with English regardless, but if you’re going to a country where you don’t speak the language at all and you’re worried it will be an issue, there are ways you can prepare that don’t involve learning the entire language (unless you want to, and you should totally go for it!). First of all, you should absolutely learn key phrases—be sure to learn things relating to food, restrooms, getting directions, and of course, courtesies like “excuse me,” “thank you,” and please,” as well as how to ask if someone speaks English.

Trip Advisor also suggests using gestures, carrying a notepad with you to draw or write out what you need to ask, using a translator app, and coming up with a plan ahead of time for getting from the airport to where you’re staying. You should also carry your hotel or hostel’s business card—or a notecard with the address where you’re staying on it—in case you need directions getting back to your room. When in doubt, stop in a hotel or restaurant to ask questions or for directions.

As far as translator apps go, Travel + Leisure has a helpful roundup of reviews on the best ones, so you can find one to suit your needs.

Handling Healthcare and Safety Issues

If you’re worried about receiving healthcare abroad while you’re traveling for any reason, definitely be sure to find a travel insurance plan that will have you covered just in case. You should also check with your health insurance provider to see what options you have and if they’ll cover you while you’re traveling. To know where to seek medical care if you need it, the US State Department has resources on doctors and hospitals abroad that you can look into. The other thing to consider? You might need to get certain vaccinations to visit different countries—to find out if you do, search by your destination here.

In general, you should know where the US embassy is located in the countries you plan to visit (you can see the full list of embassies here) in case you’re not sure where to go if any sort of emergency or issue arises.

Additional Resources

For real advice from real people, this Reddit thread is full of interesting advice (seriously, over 600 comments!) from people who have traveled across the globe and can help you plan, save and get excited about your trip.

When it comes to planning trips to specific destinations, Lonely Planet is a must-read. The site has full, comprehensive guides to just about everywhere you can imagine, and can help you with everything from booking your flights and lodging and buying travel insurance to figuring out where to eat and what to see on your trip. Lonely Planet also has a forum where you can go to get advice and see what other travelers are sharing.

Happy traveling!