BACKGROUND: International nursing electives have been identified as a positive learning experience for students. However, whilst there are risks associated with international student placements in general, there is a scarcity of research specifically relating to student nurse's experiences of risk. OBJECTIVE: This study aimed to investigate UK undergraduate student nurse experiences of risk during an international placement. DESIGN AND METHODS: A phenomenological methodology was applied and semi-structured interviews were conducted with student nurses who had recently returned from an international clinical placement abroad. SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS: Ten, second year student nurses, studying on a pre-registration diploma/BSc (Hons) Nursing Studies/Registered Nurse programme from one UK University participated in the study. FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS: Findings from the study highlighted that students felt that three types of risk existed; physical risk, clinical-professional risk and socio-cultural risk. Perceptions of risk were influenced by sociological theory relating to the concept of 'the other' and students attempted to reduce risk by employing strategies to reduce 'Otherness'. They also applied psychological theory relating to heuristics such as 'safety in numbers.' It also emerged from the study that exposure to perceived risk enhanced learning as students reported that it encouraged personal and professional development in particular and so assisted students in their move toward self-actualisation. It is suggested, and intended, that findings from this study can be applied to the preparation of students to further enhance their safety and learning experience during international placements abroad. Copyright 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.