I recently went to Korea for the first time, and noticed how my ‘new country’ checklist instinctively kicked in. I’ve talked with a couple other frequent travelers and put together a detailed checklist of the things we consider whenever we enter a new country so that you can feel prepared when entering a new country yourself. These are the things you’ll want to consider when crossing a new border for the first time:
Before you book a flight/train/boat be sure to check the visa requirements between your passport country and the new country you’re visiting. As an American, many countries have visa agreements that let me enter for 30-90 days without applying for a special visa.
However, some countries (such as China, Russia, Brazil, India, etc.) do require a special visa that takes time and money to apply for. I recently discovered a website called iVisa that lets you easily look up the visa requirements for your passport to enter specific countries, AND lets you get e-visas directly through their site. For some countries, they can give you a ‘letter of invitation’ which is the first step in applying for a visa, and then you have to go to the embassy in person to finish the process.
Many countries require that your passport doesn’t expire within an upcoming period of time (usually 6 months) and that you have an ongoing flight booked to prove that you have plans to leave the country.
When going through immigration, they’ll typically ask for the address where you’re staying, so it’s good to have at least one night booked, or if you’re staying with a friend, be sure to get the address from them before you enter the country.
Definitely research how long your visa is good for and if you need to apply for a special visa before committing to any travel plans.
2. Health and Safety
Before going to a new country it’s wise to check if there are any health, crime, or war advisories for that country. As an American I usually check the US Department of State site where you can search for detailed travel info by country.
You’ll want to check if you need any extra vaccinations–as I learned two days before my flight to Nicaragua. I had to get some last-minute vaccinations as I road tripped down the East Coast and technically the vaccines weren’t even working for the first couple weeks of my time in Nica. Oops!
Also check if the water is drinkable, or if you need to use bottled water to drink, brush your teeth and cook. Be especially careful of ice in your drinks and uncooked fruits and vegetables in countries with unsanitary water. Sometimes acting like a local works, and sometimes locals have antibodies you don’t. I travel with some antibiotics just in case.
Crime and War
You can also check if there are any particular crime or war advisories–especially as they relate to people of your nationality. Just be aware, this stuff is almost always overblown on the internet, especially/even on the State Department website. I went to the capital of Ukraine without doing this research and actually had no idea there was a war going on with Russia at the time. In that case it was totally fine.
Also, always always always get travel insurance! In the past I used Allianz Travel Insurance’s one year plan, which is rated the best for frequent travelers but only covers trips of up to 45 days. Otherwise, I’d recommend SafetyWing (which is what I use now). I’ve had great interactions with their staff, it’s super straightforward and easy to sign up, and just $37 for 4 weeks. You can leave it on auto-renew if you’re traveling longer and turn it off at any time.
Exchanging Money/Using Cards
When you enter a new country first thing you will usually want to exchange or withdraw some cash from the bank. I’m fairly certain airport money exchanges overcharge quite a bit, so I just exchange a small initial amount there. Donald agrees and suggests withdrawing money from an atm to get the best rate.
In some countries you can use your bank or credit cards to make purchases, but many are more cash-based. If your bank or credit card charges a fee for international charges then DEFINITELY don’t use it and just withdraw cash with a one-time fee.
Create a Formula
First thing, it’s important to figure out how that country’s currency relates to your own home country currency. As soon as possible upon arriving I create a formula in my head so that I can quickly get an idea of how much something costs in my own currency. I use the app XE Currency to check conversion rates but quickly getting a conversion estimate formula in your head is key. You won’t always have time to check rates while you’re out and about.
Figure Out What’s Reasonable
The next thing you want to do is to get a sense for what’s “reasonable” pricing in that new country. Otherwise it’s easy to end up spending way more than you should just out of ignorance. For example, I got charged $40 for a taxi ride in Nicaragua that should have been $5. For many places you can check Numbeo’s Cost of Living comparison to get a feel for how much you should expect to be spending, but ultimately you’ll want to just pay attention to prices when you’re on the ground and shop around a bit.
Also find out if it’s a barter culture or if you should stick with the given price. I remember in one barter culture a local advised me to ask for half the asking price immediately, then negotiate.
Unless there’s already a system in place, try to agree with your taxi driver on the price of the ride ahead of time so that they can’t give you an arbitrary price afterwards.
The last thing to consider about money is tipping culture. Many countries around the world tip and many don’t, and the amount of tip expected can vary greatly. Here’s a website where you can look up tipping policies in various countries. Take a moment to look this up so you don’t accidentally pay more than needed or ruin your server’s day! 😉
I like to have a general idea of the transportation system before entering a new country, but you’ll also want to find out more by talking to locals once you’re there.
The best way to avoid taxi scams from the airport (unless there’s a bus/train you can take) is to use an app like Uber/Lyft/GrabCar, etc. These services give standardized pricing so you don’t have to suggest a price yourself or trust a price your driver gives.
Of course also check out the public transportation system. In LA, the public transportation in Downtown is preferable to driving a car because the roads are confusing and parking is pretty tough and expensive, but if you want to go anywhere outside of Downtown then renting a car will be necessary. Otherwise you’ll have to spend a ton of money on Ubers or hours on public transportation.
If you’re thinking of renting a car then check and see if you need an international driving permit before you go.
I typically use Google Maps to check on transportation, but sometimes that won’t work. For example, in Nicaragua I used ‘chicken busses’ to get around, and there’s no official online presence for this transportation system. I just heard about it from other travelers once I was there.
Or in Seoul, Google Maps can give you info on the public transportation but not on the street details for driving and walking. You need to use Naver or KakaoMap. I learned this from locals once I arrived after discovering (to my shock and horror!) that Google Maps didn’t work.
You can do some research ahead of time, but nothing can compare to getting on the ground and talking to people to find out how things really work and what people actually use. 🙂
First off, if you’re from the US I’m going to highly recommend T-Mobile. If you’re not, just skip this next paragraph as it’ll make you jelly. ?
I use T-Mobile personally and here’s why: super cheap monthly fee and unlimited text and data in nearly every country in the world at no extra cost. Yes it can be slow and I’ve heard it doesn’t work in Vietnam, but overall, if you enjoy traveling to many countries it will save your tush. I absolutely love landing and being able to turn on reception right from the airplane to check messages and contact friends who are waiting or look up transportation to where I’m staying. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it definitely helps you feel more connected and has proven to be an invaluable resource in so many situations.
If you don’t have T-Mobile, you’ll want to either purchase a local SIM card, a prepaid phone, or MiFi. To use a local SIM your phone needs to be unlocked, which means you can pop open a slot to change out the SIM card and replace it with one from a different mobile service provider. This will change your phone number to a local number (except in iMessage which uses your Apple account).
Using MiFi is one way to get around this, since it’s a device that creates a portable wifi connection for you. Here’s a MiFi that can pair with to 5 devices and provides global Wifi without a local SIM card. It also has a slot so you can buy and insert a SIM card if you’d like, as that’s often a cheaper/faster option. Otherwise, you just need to pay a fee for the amount of data you use through their service.
I personally wouldn’t go the prepaid phone route, but I know some people who do. One reason would be if your usual phone is locked and you can’t just change out the SIM, or if you don’t want to change your number. But then in most situations I’d just recommend MiFi.
Toilets are different around the world and I don’t know about you but sometimes that freaks me out. ? Best to be prepared.
Bidets of various kinds are quite common in Asia and Europe. Usually there will be toilet paper available as well, but some places only have bidets and no toilet paper. Sometimes there’s no bidet and you’re just expected to bring your own toilet paper. I usually keep a pack of tissues on me just in case, as a ‘no toilet paper’ situation has happened to me in China, Japan, and Malaysia so far. ?
On the other hand, sometimes there’s toilet paper but you’re not allowed to flush it, as the plumbing is not made to handle it. In Nicaragua, Mexico, and Thailand I’ve stayed in places that had trash cans in the bathrooms for your toilet paper. Even though it was strange to me at first, I would recommend you follow that directive.
One time a group of friends and I ignored that rule at our Airbnb in Mexico and flushed the toilet paper anyway. It seemed to be fine for a while and then got massively plugged and we had to use the bathroom at the restaurant downstairs for like two days.
Also, I feel like this shouldn’t need to be said but I would never recommend flushing sanitary supplies as it’s so rare to have plumbing that can handle it.
Note that if a toilet doesn’t flush but there’s a bucket of water nearby, that’s probably to flush. Dump water into the toilet until your waste has passed through.
Final Thoughts on Toilets
Within a single country/city/bathroom there can be multiple different toilet set ups. I guess the main thing is just to figure out the rules by reading signs and talking to locals, and be prepared for anything. I’d recommend always carrying some tissues as well as hand sanitizer (in case there’s no sink or soap).
The good thing is that we’re all humans who have to release our waste and generally want to be clean. Just learn what the various toilet set ups are for whatever new country you’re in so that you don’t accidentally mess up the plumbing or get caught in a ‘bring your own toilet paper’ (but you didn’t) situation. ?
Being able to communicate some basic things like ‘how much,’ ‘do you have,’ ‘where is,’ and ‘thank you’ is really useful, but the problem is often understanding the response. If you can learn how to count that’s great, but oftentimes the seller will have a calculator so they can show you the price or they’ll gesture with their fingers.
I’d highly recommend downloading whatever language you need in the Google Translate app so that you can look up phrases without wifi, and there’s also a photo feature so that you can point it at a phrase, menu, or sign in another language and as long as the font isn’t too fancy it will overlay a translation over the picture in real time.
So there’s your checklist for entering any country like a boss. Is there anything I’m forgetting? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Can you think of a friend who needs these tips? Go ahead and share it with them. ?
If you liked these travel tips, also check out my article, “Six Essential Travel Items for Comfort and Sustainability”.