Based on anecdotal information, most of the incidents resulting in injury or death of students while participating in study abroad involve:
use and abuse of drugs or alcohol
sexual harassment and assault
mental health issues/stress
diseases and illnesses that exist in the host country
Resources and information about each of these issues can be found below.
Precautions When Accepting Food and Drink
Be cautious about accepting drinks (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) from a stranger. Use the same caution you would have about accepting a drink from a stranger in the United States while you are overseas. Also be cautious about accepting food from a stranger.
Risk upon Arrival
Travelers, especially those having just arrived abroad, are often targets of crime and at higher risk of harm, because they:
Are unfamiliar with their surroundings
Might not speak the local language well
Are clearly recognizable as foreigners
Have not yet learned the social norms or unwritten rules of conduct
Are eager to get to know new people and the local culture
Are naive to the intentions of people around them
Are carrying all their valuables with them when they first step off the plane, train or boat
Keeping in Control
In addition to the circumstances involved with being new in a foreign country, which are often beyond one's immediate control, there are many situations that students can control. Some controllable factors that place students at greatest risk include:
Being out after midnight
Being alone at night in an isolated area
Being in a known high crime area
Sleeping in an unlocked place
Being out after a local curfew
Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs
Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
Nonverbal communication (like body language and hand gestures) considered harmless in the U.S. may be offensive to people in other countries. The list of gestures and phrases considered rude in other countries can grow beyond the obvious.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Keep yourself free from sexually transmitted diseases by using protection (like condoms or abstinence). Also, remember that "no" may not always be interpreted as "no" in other countries. Inform yourself about the types of diseases prevalent in the area in which you are traveling.
International Sources of Information
Inform yourself as much as possible about your new environment, making use of as many different sources as possible: online, the library, television and radio news programs, and the newspaper. Don't limit yourself to U.S. sources. Instead, contrast the U.S. information with that provided by other countries.
Beyond tuning into yourself, make it a point to try to understand what locals are communicating to you: how they feel about you and U.S. citizens in general: how you are fitting with their values: and how well you understand them. Obviously a stronger grasp of the native language will help you with these things, but even knowing a few essential phrases can be immensely beneficial.
How to Dress
It is often best to dress conservatively by local standards so you can't be identified on sight as a tourist or a U.S. citizen.
Jewelry and Other Valuables
Be cautious with how you display valuables (does it look like you're flaunting wealth?). Leave your good jewelry at home, and keep money in a safe place like a money belt or hidden pouch under your clothes.
Becoming Aware of Your Surroundings
You should be aware of your surroundings, remembering to:
Pay attention to what people around you are saying
Find out which areas of the city are less safe than others
Know which hours of night are considered more dangerous
Stay and walk only in well-lit areas
Avoid being alone in unfamiliar neighborhoods
Know where to get help (police station, fire station, phones, stores, etc.)
Do not touch suspicious items like letters or packages mailed to you from someone you don't know
Know what is "normal" and "not normal" to see on a daily basis in the areas you frequent
Do not respond to explosions or gunfire by going to a window; seek cover away from windows and exterior walls
Avoid political rallies, which can increase tensions and emotions or breed angry mobs for which a U.S. citizen may serve as a scapegoat.
Try not to engage in conversations about contentious political issues with locals and avoid retaliating against hostile or bigoted remarks about Americans.
A moderate amount of anxiety and stress is a natural part of everyday life, and is usually an indication that your body is responding to the problems it must overcome. Jet lag, a new language, exotic foods, registration, beginning classes, and even changes in the weather can take their toll. Recognize that if you are tense, slow down and try to relax. Use the same stress-relief techniques you use at home: exercise, meditation, reading, etc.
Be Prepared to Respond to Emergencies
Ask for help with basic questions. Where will you get help in case of an emergency? What will you do if you are a victim of a crime or are injured? What if someone else needs help? How will you get help to leave a country? Be prepared for what might happen. Locate the police station that serves your neighborhood. Locate the nearest fire-alarm box and learn how to report a fire. Identify the hospital emergency room nearest to your home and know what to do in case of an accident. Keep emergency numbers near your phone at home and if you have a cell phone, clearly name them as your emergency contacts. Check to see if your host country has a similar "911" system.
Keep a Low Profile
Walk away from trouble and take a passive approach to potentially volatile situations. Do not give information about your school, the students or professors. Do not act like an "ugly American." Americans are known throughout the world as loud and obnoxious. If you decide to follow this role, both you and your country look bad, and the stereotype is confirmed to the people surrounding you. Being drunk for some people leads to obnoxiousness, so if you are one of those individuals, try to restrain from drinking too much. You represent America when you are overseas.
Stay in Contact
Make sure the resident director, host family or foreign university official who is assigned the responsibility for your welfare always knows where and how to contact you in an emergency and your schedule and itinerary of where you are traveling, even if only overnight.
It is important to note that different cultures have different norms in regard to gender. Women and men should both be aware that the ways people interact vary widely by region and country. Issues around dating and sexuality can be particularly difficult in a cross-cultural setting. Such things as eye contact, the way one dresses, body language, who you go out with as a group or individually, send very different messages by regions and culture. Observing interpersonal interactions within a culture can be useful in helping you choose the way you communicate verbally and non-verbally with others in that country.
Keep in Contact with Home
Your parents and friends will have concerns while you are away. Please keep in contact with them on a regular basis and let them know how you are. If you make plans to call at a certain time, make every attempt to call at that time. Otherwise, people may worry unnecessarily. If you plan to travel, leave your itinerary with your host coordinator and with your family.
Develop with your family a plan for regular telephone or e-mail contact. That way, in times of heightened political tension, you will be able to communicate with your parents directly about your safety and well-being. Many students are creating (or using existing) blogs to keep in contact with friends and family while abroad.
Female travelers are sometimes more likely to encounter harassment, but uncomfortable situations can usually be avoided by taking the following precautions:
Dress conservatively. While short skits and tank tops may be comfortable, they may also encourage unwanted attention.
Avoid walking alone late at night or in questionable neighborhoods.
Do not agree to meet a person you don't know in a nonpublic place. Be aware that some men from other countries tend to mistake the friendliness of American women for romantic interest.
Exercise the same precautions you would in any U.S. city and use common sense. Carry some form of identification with you at all times (your name, host country address, host country phone number, passport and visa number). Never carry large amounts of cash. Use money belts or a concealed purse for your passport, visa, money, credit cards and other documents. You will look like a tourist, at least for a while, and people may "target" you, so be aware. Pickpockets will take advantage of your jacket pockets in the most surprising of places. Keep important items on your body, and keep your pack closed. Do not wear expensive clothes or jewelry, or carry expensive luggage. Never leave any luggage or bags unattended.