The reading level for this article is Expert

Business travel abroad can locate and cultivate new customers and improve relationships and communication with current foreign representatives and associates. As in domestic business, there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting with a client or customer.

The following suggestions can help companies prepare for a trip. By keeping in mind that even little things (such as forgetting to check foreign holiday schedules or neglecting to arrange for translator services) can cost time, opportunity, and money, a firm can get maximum value from its time spent abroad.

Planning the itinerary

A well-planned itinerary enables a traveler to make the best possible use of time abroad. Although travel time is expensive, care must be taken not to overload the schedule. Two or three definite appointments, confirmed well in advance and spaced comfortably throughout one day, are more productive and enjoyable than a crowded agenda that forces the business person to rush from one meeting to the next before business is really concluded. If possible, an extra rest day to deal with jet lag should be planned before scheduled business appointments. The following travel tips should be kept in mind:

  • The travel plans should reflect what the company hopes to accomplish. The traveler should give some thought to the trip’s goals and their relative priorities.
  • The traveler should accomplish as much as possible before the trip begins by obtaining names of possible contacts, arranging appointments, checking transportation schedules, and so on. The most important meetings should be confirmed before the traveler leaves the country.
  • As a general rule, the business person should keep the schedule flexible enough to allow for both unexpected problems (such as transportation delays) and unexpected opportunities. For instance, accepting an unscheduled luncheon invitation from a prospective client should not make it necessary to miss the next scheduled meeting.
  • The traveler should check the normal work days and business hours in the countries to be visited. In many Middle Eastern regions, for instance, the work week typically runs from Saturday to Thursday. In many countries, lunch hours of two to four hours are customary.
  • Along the same lines, take foreign holidays into account.
  • The business person should be aware that travel from one country to another may be restricted. For example, a passport containing an Israeli visa may disallow the traveler from entering certain countries in the Middle East.

Other preparations

Travel agents can frequently arrange for transportation and hotel reservations quickly and efficiently. They can also help plan the itinerary, obtain the best travel rates, explain which countries require visas, advise on hotel rates and locations, and provide other valuable services. Since travel agents’ fees are paid by the hotels, airlines, and other carriers, this assistance and expertise may cost nothing.

The traveler should obtain the necessary travel documents two to three months before departure, especially if visas are needed. A travel agent can help make the arrangements. A valid passport is required for all travel outside the country. If traveling on an old passport, you should make sure that it remains valid for the entire duration of the trip.

Visas, which are required by many countries, are provided for a small fee by the foreign country’s embassy or consulate. To obtain a visa, the traveler must have a current passport. In addition, many countries require a recent photo. The traveler should allow several weeks to obtain visas, especially if traveling to developing nations. Some countries that do not require visas for tourist travel do require them for business travel. Visa requirements may change from time to time.

Requirements for vaccinations differ from country to country. A travel agent or airline can advise the traveler on various requirements. In some cases, vaccinations against typhus, typhoid, and other diseases are advisable even though they are not required.

Business preparations for international travel

Before leaving the country, the traveler should prepare to deal with language differences by learning whether individuals to be met are comfortable speaking English. If not, plans should be made for an interpreter. Business language is generally more technical than the conversational speech with which many travelers are familiar; mistakes can be costly.

In some countries, exchanging business cards at any first meeting is considered a basic part of good business manners. As a matter of courtesy, it is best to carry business cards printed both in English and in the language of the country being visited. Some international airlines arrange this service.

The following travel checklist covers a number of considerations that apply equally to business travelers and vacationers. A travel agent or various travel publications can help take these considerations into account:

  • Seasonal weather conditions in the countries being visited.
  • Health care (e.g., what to eat abroad, special medical problems, and prescription drugs).
  • Electrical current (a transformer or plug adapter may be needed to use electrical appliances).
  • Money (e.g., exchanging currency and using credit cards and travelers’ checks).
  • Transportation and communication abroad.
  • Cultural differences.
  • Tipping (who is tipped and how much is appropriate).
  • Customs regulations on what can be brought home.


Foreign customs regulations vary widely from place to place, and the traveler is wise to learn in advance the regulations that apply to each country to be visited. If allowances for cigarettes, liquor, currency, and certain other items are not taken into account, they can be impounded at national borders. Business travelers who plan to carry product samples with them should be alert to import duties they may be required to pay. In some countries, duties and extensive customs procedures on sample products may be avoided by obtaining an ATA (Admission Temporoire) Carnet.

The ATA Carnet is a standardized international customs document used to obtain duty-free temporary admission of certain goods into the countries that are signatories to the ATA Convention. Under the ATA Convention, commercial and professional travelers may take commercial samples; tools of the trade; advertising material; and cinematographic, audiovisual, medical, scientific, or other professional equipment into member countries temporarily without paying customs duties and taxes or posting a bond at the border of each country to be visited.

The following countries currently participate in the ATA Carnet system: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada (certain professional equipment is not accepted), Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Gibraltar, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India (commercial samples only), Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Ivory Coast, Japan, Luxembourg, Mauritius, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka (certain professional equipment not accepted), South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, Germany, and Yugoslavia.

Applications for carnets should be made to the same organization. A fee is charged, depending on the value of the goods to be covered. A bond, letter of credit, or bank guaranty of 40 percent of the value of the goods is also required to cover duties and taxes that would be due if goods imported into a foreign country by carnet were not reexported and the duties were not paid by the carnet holder. The carnets generally are valid for 12 months.

Cultural factors

Business executives who hope to profit from their travel should learn about the history, culture, and customs of the countries to be visited. Flexibility and cultural adaptation should be the guiding principles for traveling abroad on business. Business manners and methods, religious customs, dietary practices, humor, and acceptable dress vary widely from country to country. For example, consider the following:

  • Never touch the head of a Thai or pass an object over it; the head is considered sacred in Thailand.
  • Avoid using triangular shapes in Hong Kong, Korea, and Taiwan; the triangle is considered a negative shape.
  • The number 7 is considered bad luck in Kenya and good luck in Czechoslovakia, and it has magical connotations in Benin. The number 10 is bad luck in Korea, and 4 means death in Japan.
  • Red is a positive color in Denmark, but it represents witchcraft and death in many African countries.
  • A nod means no in Bulgaria, and shaking the head from side to side means yes.
  • The “okay” sign commonly used in the United States and the United Kingdom (thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers raised) means zero in France, is a symbol for money in Japan, and carries a vulgar connotation in Brazil.
  • The use of a palm-up hand and moving index finger signals “come here” in the United States and in some other countries, but it is considered vulgar in others.
  • In Ethiopia, repeatedly opening and closing the palm-down hand means “come here.”

Understanding and heeding cultural variables such as these is critical to success in international business travel and in international business itself. Lack of familiarity with the business practices, social customs, and etiquette of a country can weaken a company’s position in the market, prevent it from accomplishing its objectives, and ultimately lead to failure.

Some of the cultural distinctions that firms most often face include differences in business styles, attitudes toward development of business relationships, attitudes toward punctuality, negotiating styles, gift-giving customs, greetings, significance of gestures, meanings of colors and numbers, and customs regarding titles.

Firms must pay close attention to different styles of doing business and the degree of importance placed on developing business relationships. In some countries, business people have a very direct style, while in others they are much more subtle in style and value the personal relationship more than most of us do in business. For example, in the Middle East, engaging in small talk before engaging in business is standard practice.

Attitudes toward punctuality vary greatly from one culture to another and, if misunderstood, can cause confusion and misunderstanding. Romanians, Japanese, and Germans are very punctual, whereas people in many of the Latin countries have a more relaxed attitude toward time. The Japanese consider it rude to be late for a business meeting, but acceptable, even fashionable, to be late for a social occasion. In Guatemala, on the other hand, one might arrive anytime from 10 minutes early to 45 minutes late for a luncheon appointment.

When cultural lines are being crossed, something as simple as a greeting can be misunderstood. Traditional greetings may be a handshake, a hug, a nose rub, a kiss, placing the hands in praying position, or various other gestures. Lack of awareness concerning the country’s accepted form of greeting can lead to awkward encounters.

People around the world use body movements and gestures to convey specific messages. Sometimes the same gestures have very different meanings, however. Misunderstanding over gestures is a common occurrence in cross-cultural communication, and misinterpretation along these lines can lead to business complications and social embarrassment.

Proper use of names and titles is often a source of confusion in international business relations. In many countries (including the United Kingdom, France, and Denmark) it is appropriate to use titles until use of first names is suggested. First names are seldom used when doing business in Germany. Visiting business people should use the surname preceded by the title. Titles such as “Herr Direktor” are sometimes used to indicate prestige, status, and rank. Thais, on the other hand, address one other by first names and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications. In Belgium it is important to address French-speaking business contacts as “Monsieur” or “Madame,” while Dutch-speaking contacts should be addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” To confuse the two is a great insult.

Customs concerning gift giving are extremely important to understand. In some cultures gifts are expected and failure to present them is considered an insult, whereas in other countries offering a gift is considered offensive. Business executives also need to know when to present gifts – on the initial visit or afterwards; where to present gifts – in public or private; what type of gift to present; what color it should be; and how many to present.

Gift giving is an important part of doing business in Japan, where gifts are usually exchanged at the first meeting. In sharp contrast, gifts are rarely exchanged in Germany and are usually not appropriate. Gift giving is not a normal custom in Belgium or the United Kingdom either, although in both countries, flowers are a suitable gift when invited to someone’s home.

Customs concerning the exchange of business cards vary, too. Although this point seems of minor importance, observing a country’s customs for card giving is a key part of business protocol. In Japan, for example, the Western practice of accepting a business card and pocketing it immediately is considered rude. The proper approach is to carefully look at the card after accepting it, observe the title and organization, acknowledge with a nod that the information has been digested, and perhaps make a relevant comment or ask a polite question.

Negotiating – a complex process even between parties from the same nation – is even more complicated in international transactions because of the added chance of misunderstandings stemming from cultural differences. It is essential to understand the importance of rank in the other country; to know who the decision makers are; to be familiar with the business style of the foreign company; and to understand the nature of agreements in the country, the significance of gestures, and negotiating etiquette.

It is important to acquire, through reading or training, a basic knowledge of the business culture, management attitudes, business methods, and consumer habits of the country being visited. This does not mean that the traveler must go native when conducting business abroad. It does mean that the traveler should be sensitive to the customs and business procedures of the country being visited.

This International Trade article was written by on 3/1/2005

This article is used with the permission of Visit them online to learn business, read profiles of entrepreneurs, and participate in community forums.