Health, Safety, and Etiquette
Precautions should be taken when traveling in any foreign country or to any large city. While we believe that all our program locations are safe to travel and study in, we have also developed the following policies and resources to help ensure our students’ safety.
SRAS provides the following services and products on standard programs with each student’s health and safety in mind.
Insurance. All students are required to have health and accident insurance and to carry their insurance information at all times. Most program fees (see individual program pages) include full health and accident insurance for all students based on arrival/departure dates (and up to two days before and after). Students may additionally request optional property insurance (at extra cost) to cover laptops, cameras, or other valuables brought abroad. Contact SRAS for more details. Students are issued insurance cards with all relevant information and a 24-hour international contact number. Administered by Cultural Insurance Services Internationals and underwritten by The Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, the plan (with no deductible per accident or illness) covers medical expenses up to $250,000 and several other services and instances. All of SRAS’s standard study programs include automatic enrollment in the plan. Download the full brochure in PDF here. Students whose home university requires enrollment in their own insurance plan must provide SRAS with proof of this insurance.
Orientation. Students receive extensive pre-departure materials and upon arrival have an orientation session focused on safety issues and getting a sense of their surroundings as quickly as possible. Pre-departure materials include the infromation on this page about health, saftey, and ettiquite. SRAS also provides extensive online city guides and a program-specific guide, downloadable from the student’s SRAS online account after program acceptance, with all relevant contact information and specific university- and program-related orientation information.
Cell Phones. In all locations except Poland, SRAS programs of at least three weeks in duration include free local cell phone rental. In Poland, the orientation program described above includes helping the student purchase and activate a local number and, if needed, an inexpensive cell phone.
Student Cards. SRAS provides a student card that all students must carry at all times. The card provides all necessary contact information (university, embassy, SRAS) needed by the student or anyone assisting the student in an emergency. Our local representatives, because they are physically closest to the student, handle the first stages of any emergencies in consultation with us.
SRAS Personnel. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to facilitate communications in the event of emergencies. We have permanent SRAS staff in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In all locations we work closely with designated representatives of our partner institution to provide on-site logistical and emergency support to students. Local questions regarding classes, housing, and other non-urgent questions are generally handled by the university/school representative – with an SRAS staff member just a phone call or email away to assist when needed. We do not provide resident dorm directors. When/if needed, a member of our staff can fly to another city. Students and their parents are provided with phone numbers at which we can be contacted at any time in the event of an emergency.
- Contact SRAS with any further questions or concerns.
- Pharmaceuticals: Read our packing and preparation list for important information on the effects of jet lag and how to treat them. If you require specific prescription medications, see that list for information on purchasing or bringing medications abroad.
- Doctors: Whenever possible, contact the insurance company before going to a doctor. In the case of SRAS-provided insurance, this will be done via the international toll-free number on the card. Often, there is a specific, recommended clinic for the specific illness that will accept the insurance directly. Recommended clinics will often be more “western-style” and, where possible, English-speaking. SRAS will provide you with an interpreter when needed. Most universities have an on-campus clinic (poliklinika) or a partnership with a nearby hospital or clinic. Emergency numbers are listed on your student card (see Safety Policies, above), which you should carry at all times.
- Glasses/Contacts: Make sure you know your prescription. New eyewear can be ordered with no optometrist visit needed. Disposable contact lenses and solution can be easily found.
- Immunizations for diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and tetanus should be up to date. Immunizations against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and typhoid, as well as immuno-globulin injections are also recommended. Those planning on visiting rural areas as part of their program or for hiking, bicycling, etc, should also consider an immunization against rabies and take precautions against tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease. Information on vaccination and other health precautions may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at 1-800-232-4636 or at CDC.gov.
- Water: You will be provided specific guidelines for water in your area, but generally, you should plan on drinking filtered or bottled water while abroad.
- Food tends to be quite high in fat in all SRAS locations. Bring stomach medications to help you acclimate during the first few days. If you are concerned about your figure, eat less. With higher fat and calorie content, you should need less food to feel full anyway.
- HIV and hepatitis infection rates in Eurasia have risen significantly in recent years. Be cautious if visiting tattoo parlors or engaging in sexual activity. Note that transmission awareness in many areas is low and some young people will still see use of a condom as an indication that you don’t trust them. It is up to you to insist on being safe.
- Cigarettes: Russia has banned public smoking. Cafes, restaurants, and even bars are now smoke-free. Poland and Ukraine also have bans in place, although enforcement seems to be lighter. Kyrgyzstan has no ban and smoke can be hard to escape in eateries and bars. If you smoke, stick to brands you know and purchase them in major supermarkets to reduce your risk of purchasing counterfeit.
- Alcohol is considered part of the local culture in all SRAS locations. Rules of hospitality dictate that guests be invited to eat and drink, and a hospitable host will make an effort to overcome any resistance to such offers. If you do not wish to consume alcohol, simply state that you do not drink for health or religious/philosophical reasons. While you will likely meet resistance, in the end, many will congratulate you on your decision not to drink.
- Fitness is alive and well in SRAS locations. Most universities have areas for jogging nearby and franchise gyms have opened in most major cities (though they tend not to be cheap). See our city guides for specific gyms and exercise opportunities.
- Allergies and colds: You will be moving halfway across the world to a completely new ecosystem. Many allergens and microorganisms will be different than those you experience at home. Bring your preferred medication for allergies, common colds, headaches, and stomach aches. It’s good to have something you know and trust when you need it.
- Daylight comes at different times than you may be used to; most SRAS locations are further north than much of the United States. This can aggravate jet lag and, over the long term, cause depression and sleep disorders in those who are susceptible to them. We have found that exercise and vitamins are very effective for managing this.
- Climate: You will be given a guide for your program that includes specific packing recommendations. Our general Packing Guide can also help prepare you appropriately for the weather. You will never regret having a good hat, gloves, waterproof shoes, and an umbrella.
Student safety is SRAS’s top priority. Use big-city common sense (no matter where you are) and keep your wits about you. Stay aware of your surroundings and act responsibly.
- Make sure you read the page on visas and registration and follow it carefully. Know your rights and responsibilities under the law.
- When going out at night or in the early morning hours, stay in a group. Go out as a group and come back as a group.
- If you drink, drink responsibly. Keep your wits and judgement intact.
- Stay away from people associated with drug sale or use. If you think there may be drugs in the area you are in, leave. If you happen to get caught in the same crowd as someone who possesses drugs, there is little that can be done to disassociate you from the guilty parties, and the penalties are very harsh.
- Never be afraid to walk away from a situation you think might be dangerous. Never be afraid to run.
- If you see people drinking and being loud, walk around them quietly. They aren’t usually dangerous, but they are likely drunk, which means they could do something stupid.
- Especially in bars, try to keep voices down. A foreign language spoken loudly can offend the locals of any country.
- Valuables should be kept within your field of vision and/or directly next to your body.
- Do not carry valuables (passports, wallets, cell phones) in jacket pockets. Jacket pockets are generally loose and away from the body; pickpockets couldn’t ask for a better target.
- In restaurants, do not hang purses or backpacks over the back of your chair. Purses generally go between you and the back of the chair. Locals will also sometimes place the purse on a seat next to them, often with their jacket over the top.
- Do not leave valuables in open areas – even in a locked dorm or homestay room. Put electronics and valuables in a concealed area. Turn off electronics before concealing them.
- Use an app for hailing cabs. Always know where you are going (general direction at least). Taxis that wait outside of bars and clubs or which already contain other passengers pose a high risk for scams.
- In cities with subways, never get in a subway car alone or where there is only one other person or one group of people, especially when the group is all young men.
If you have any questions, contact an SRAS consultant.
- Dual Citizens have special safety and visa issues. Click here to read more.
- Anti-Americanism is generally on the rise around the world. America features prominently in foreign news reports. News stories about American foreign policy, as well as racism and inequality in America, are common. You may find that locals are curious, perhaps even passionately so, about your personal opinions on these issues. Americans need not fear being American abroad; locals will generally separate their perceptions of governments from culture and people (with the latter two commanding far greater respect). However, you should remain respectful in conversations. State your views and listen to those of your conversation partner with interest and respect. Learning what people think and why they think it is one of the greatest lessons you learn while abroad. As in all cases, however, if a situation feels like it is getting out of hand or if a conversation partner is belligerent or drunk, do not be afraid to walk or run away. (We will also admit to telling some people who ask rudely for our nationality that we are Canadian just to avoid a conversation).
- Racism and xenophobia are unfortunately alive and well the world over. Most SRAS students report having an enjoyable, constructive time abroad. Most locals are generally tolerant and accepting with, at minimum, a “live and let live” attitude. However, in SRAS locations, just as everywhere else in the world, there are some people who feel the need to publicly express their bigotry. Usually they target people who come from former Soviet republics, Africa, and Asia, or people they deem to “look Jewish,” “look gay,” and so on. Sometimes people are targeted for other random reasons or for no particular reason. You should avoid groups of young men who all have shaved heads or close-cropped hair. The police stop non-white foreigners much more often than Slavic- and white-looking foreigners. However, all foreigners in all SRAS locations, no matter what their appearance, need to be able to confidently present their necessary documentation if stopped by the police.
Most tourists and students from Western countries, however, never experience such intolerance. If you are concerned about this issue, please contact an SRAS consultant to find out how to reduce the chances you will be affected by it. These methods include staying in larger groups, avoiding rowdy locals, and always keeping alert of your surroundings. SRAS currently maintains a “Minorities Abroad” project on its student site to better inform people of the issues involved.
- Members of the LGBTQ+ community may have particular cause for concern, especially since Russia and Kyrgyzstan have passed “homosexual propaganda” laws. Students who believe that this may affect them should familiarize themselves with the law (the link is to the Russian law; the Kyrgyz law is modeled on the Russian law and is very similar). In Poland, Ukraine, and Georgia, there are groups who are fanatically homophobic and transphobic; discrimination and even violence against sexual minorities can and does occur. That said, the people who commit violence are vastly outnumbered by members of the local population who believe that everyone should live in peace. We do not recommend that students broadcast their sexuality (regardless of orientation), but you should feel generally safe in being yourself as long as you remain carefully aware of your surroundings and follow the general safety guidelines presented in this guide.
Here are some rules of etiquette that you should follow when abroad:
- Locals do not wear shoes in the house. When you enter residences, leave your shoes by the door. You will probably be offered a pair of tapochki (slippers).
- Shoes do not go anywhere anything else goes. It’s rude, for instance, to have one’s feet on public seating areas (and in Kyrgyzstan it’s actually illegal!).
- Do not use obscene words in any language. Taboos against using profanity are much stronger in some of our locations than in the US, and the risk of genuinely offending somebody is much higher.
- Never assume that someone doesn’t understand English.
- All SRAS destinations are countries of hospitality, where feeding each other is a bit of a national pastime. It is common for young females, for instance, to invite young male acquaintances to tour their town (if they are from the suburbs or nearby region) or to their parents’ home for dinner. We recommend you go. There are generally no strings attached and it’s usually a good opportunity to practice your language.
- Chivalry is not dead in these countries. Men offer to carry bags for women. Men are expected to give up their seat on public transport for older people, pregnant women, and families with young children. Men are expected to pay for 100% of any date.
- Women do not generally shake hands with men but may kiss friends (men and women) on the cheek as a greeting.
- Be considerate of gifts, favors, and hospitality, but know that locals will offer you food and drink until you turn it down (usually multiple times).
- When giving flowers, give an odd number of stems. An even number is given only if someone has died.
- Don’t whistle. It is a bad omen and/or considered rude to most locals.
- Don’t shake hands through a doorway. It is bad luck and bad form; wait until you have entered the room, then offer your hand. When leaving, shake hands before opening the door.
- In most SRAS locations, it is tradition that one provides birthday cake (or candy or fruit) for others on one’s OWN birthday. Many will even invite groups of friends out and treat them to dinner (although the friends will usually bring presents for the birthday boy/girl).
My semester back home so far has been incredibly influenced by my semester abroad with SRAS and I find myself talking about it almost daily. Since many of my classes touch on the region (Europe after Socialism, Central Asian Politics), I’m able to add comments and insights unavailable to me before. My contributions to our Russian club have also been greatly enriched. Thank you for everything you did to facilitate this experience and going out of your way to ensure our success.
At a time in my life when I was at a crossroads regarding where my career might take me, this course showed me a path that truly inspired me, and I haven’t looked back since.
The program here is wonderful. All of my teachers have been extremely helpful and I have made friends both here in the dorms and with others who live in the city and find that I often have many opportunities to practice Russian outside of the classroom. The university also has a speaking club which is comprised of both Russian and foreign students solely for the purpose of speaking practice in Russian. Already I feel that my Russian has improved immensely,especially my listening and speaking.
I spent Fall and Spring with your program in St. Petersburg and it was truly the highlight and culmination of my University experience and just a banner year! I can’t thank you enough for or gush enough about your program. I recommend it to just about everyone I talk to, whether or not they’re interested in learning Russian.
I wanted to find a program that combined my love of Russia and my passion for environmental studies. Because of my interest in environmental issues, Lake Baikal had always been a site of interest to me. Studying abroad in Siberia gives you the opportunity to see a completely different side of Russia and the Russian people. Just think, few people at home even know that Siberia is anything but a wintery tundra!
I’ve studied in Irkutsk and St. Petersburg with SRAS, but [Bishkek] is, by far, my favorite because of the intense focus on speaking skills. I spend about three hours, 4 times a week speaking one-on-one. It’s such a unique opportunity! The people are also especially friendly here. My homestay is fantastic, the coordinator is a never-ending wealth of help, and the food of Central Asia is delicious.