Background: During placements abroad, healthcare students are confronted with different personal and professional challenges, related to participation in practice. This study investigates when and how students respond to such challenges, and which coping and support mechanisms students use to overcome these. Methods: Twenty-five international students shared their experiences about physiotherapy placement in The Netherlands. Using a critical incident technique, we asked participants to recall events where participation was affected by an unforeseen situation, in or outside the clinic. Further, we explored students’ strategies of seeking support within their social network to overcome individual challenges. Two researchers applied thematic analysis to the interview data, following an iterative approach. Team discussions supported focused direction of data collection and analysis, before conceptualizing results. Results: Participants described a wide range of challenges. The scope and impact level of challenges varied widely, including intercultural differences, language barriers and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, students’ personal context and wellbeing. Mechanisms employed by students to overcome these challenges depended on the type of event (personal or professional), making purposeful use of their available network. Conclusion: Students involve clinical staff, peers, family and friends during placement abroad, to make deliberate use of their support network to overcome challenges in participation, whereas the academic network remains distant. Findings may help reflect on the roles and responsibilities of academic staff and other professionals involved with placements abroad. Healthcare programmes should ensure support before, during and after placement is within students’ reach.