An international PhD is a term used to refer to an academic doctoral program that is attended by a student outside of his home country. This is not the same as a degree in international relations, international law, international economics, or any other topics that study international phenomena. Instead, it has to do with the location of the school that offers the PhD in relation to the student's home nation. In fact, an international PhD can be completed in any number of subjects. The key to an international PhD is that the accrediting institution accepts students from other countries, which many universities do.
There are a number of reasons for students to apply for international PhD programs. Of course, living in another country can be an exciting adventure and a great way to meet new people and make new friends. The key reasons that one may apply for international PhD programs, however, is because he is looking for an institution that specializes in or has a strong department for the topic that he wants to research and write about in his dissertation. A PhD program is a highly focused program in which a student delves deeply into a specific corner of his subject.
As such, depending on a student's field of study and his specific interests within that field of study, there may only be a few universities in the world that are well suited to the student's research goals. Therefore, sometimes students who may otherwise be happy to stay in their home countries will complete an international PhD simply because the only program options are abroad. This is especially true for students who are from small or developing countries.
Some students who do complete PhD programs in their home countries still find themselves spending a portion of their time abroad. It is quite common for students to go abroad for research-gathering missions. This is especially true for people who work in fields related to sociology, anthropology, political science, and earth sciences.
This list is most certainly not exhaustive and there are plenty of other fields in which PhD students will spend part of their time traveling for research. However, they do provide some good examples of the types of fields that may require international travel. These fields often require research that cannot be completed in a laboratory or a library. Rather, research for these fields much be completed on location.