It’s my opinion that everyone who studies abroad has a unique experience. Different mindsets and personalities — and, of course, destinations — mean that no study abroad trip is going to be the same. But, while the overall experience of being away from home differs from person to person, there are still plenty of aspects of studying abroad that will be similar for everyone. Based on my semester abroad in New Zealand in 2008, I’ve compiled some tips and tricks to share with potential study abroad-ers. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, and is only based on my personal experience, but hopefully it can answer a question here or there, or make you think about something you hadn’t considered before.
Passports and Visas
First things first. If you’re going outside the US, you will need a passport. These days, one is even required to cross into Canada or Mexico (or, more precisely, required to cross back into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico). So getting a passport should be the first thing to accomplish on your to-do list after you decide to go abroad. Get a jump on your application, as the process can take up to a few months if things get backed up. And it isn’t free, either (in 2012, it’ll cost you about $140). You can get an application from your local post office, and can get your passport photo taken at a store like Walmart or Rite Aid.
Certain countries (most, even) will require you to have some sort of visa — most likely a student one if you’ll be studying there. The type you'll need will vary depending on where you’re going. Some countries don’t charge for these visas — you just have to apply and send them your passport. But others do charge, even for visitor's visas. For example, my visa to just visit China for a week in 2007 cost $100. But my student visa to study in New Zealand for 5 months was free.
Your study abroad program should help you out with any necessary passport and visa applications. But if you’re not sure what you’ll need, visit your intended host country’s immigration website and do a little investigating on your own.
Keep an eye on travel deals. Flying (especially internationally) isn’t cheap. If you’re studying abroad through a program, find out if they offer a discounted group flight. Otherwise, start your search early, and sign up to receive e-mails about airline deals and updates if it’s an option.
Be aware of when you need to arrive, as well. If you’re booking your own flights, pay attention to things like duration, layovers, and where you’re headed. For example, when I went to New Zealand, I had to be there on July 7 for orientation. Which meant I had to leave the U.S. on July 5, because flying to New Zealand over the Pacific requires you to cross the International Date Line and lose a day. So, that year, I skipped right over July 6. The best thing to do is to arrive a day or two before you absolutely must be there, if possible. This way you can get unpacked, settled in, and maybe even have some time to explore the city you’ll be living in.
If you’re going somewhere really far from home, keep in mind that you’ll likely have a very long overnight flight. My advice is to bring a good book, take advantage of the in-flight entertainment, try your best to sleep on whatever your new time schedule will be (this will help with jet-lag later), and get up and walk around the cabin at least every couple of hours to keep your circulation going.
When it comes to communication while you’re abroad, there are a few options. If your current phone has SIM card capabilities and is unlocked, the easiest thing to do is to buy a SIM card for the country/region you’ll be studying in. That way you can just use your current phone. However, if you choose to go this route, you’ll need to find out if your current cell service provider operates overseas, and, if so, what international and domestic calling/texting rates are like. Or you could opt to sign up for a phone plan from a local provider using your own phone when you arrive at your study abroad destination (perhaps a better bet if you’re planning to use your phone in-country a lot, as you’ll get better rates).
If your current phone has no SIM card, you can always buy a phone when you get there (perhaps a pay-as-you-go phone, so you’re not locked into any sort of contract). Here some research into plans and phone models beforehand would be smart. Again, though, this would only be a worthwhile option if you’re planning to use your phone in-country a lot (such as texting fellow international students and new friends). International calling rates probably won’t be cheap, and it’s likely you won’t be able to use an inexpensive phone purchased overseas anywhere else in the world.
If you don’t want to purchase a phone and plan that can only be used abroad, there are also some phone rental companies that allow you to rent a phone and SIM card while you’re gone. This is a good compromise option, but can sometimes be pricier than just buying a pay-as-you-go phone.
If none of that sounds appealing, phone cards are also always an option, though most people don't use them anymore.
My communication tool of choice while abroad? Definitely Skype. To use Skype, all you need is a computer with a microphone, and an Internet connection. Skype is free to download, and free to use Skype-to-Skype. So if you and Mom both have Skype running on your computers, you can chat online for hours at absolutely no cost. If your family can’t download Skype (my house, for example, was still running on dial-up Internet when I went abroad), Skype gives you the option to call landlines and cell phones, too, for a slight charge. When I was in New Zealand, for example, I was able to call home at a rate of 2 cents per minute – not too shabby. Skype also has video capabilities, so you can see your loved ones while you chat (camera obviously required for this feature). But for the video to work well, I’ve found you need to have both a strong Internet connection and a fast processor.
Packing to go to a foreign country for 4 months or longer can be a daunting task. If you’re indecisive like me, it could take you weeks to whittle down your wardrobe to just the essentials, and then get everything to fit into two suitcases. Most international airlines will only allow you two suitcases and one carry-on with your ticket, and most these days will also charge you for each bag. So packing smart is essential.
Here are some tips:
• Firstly, know what kind of weather/climate to expect. If you’re going to the southern hemisphere, realize that the seasons will be opposite of those in the northern hemisphere. So if you’re going to New Zealand in July, know that it’s technically winter there that time of year, meaning you should bring a good coat and things that you can layer. But even if you’re going to a country in the spring or summer months, it’s always good to bring a jacket and some cool-weather clothes, too, just in case. Also, good walking shoes are a must, no matter where you’re going.
• When choosing clothes to take, you should also make sure to take into account the culture of the place you’re headed. Is it considered scandalous for women to show a lot of skin? If so, you can probably leave the mini skirt and halter tops at home.
• Don’t overpack. Airlines WILL charge you an arm and a leg for overweight luggage, or if you have too many pieces. Take what you’ll absolutely need, and you can always go shopping once you’re there. You’ll fit in better that way, anyway.
• Unless it’s something you know you won’t be able to purchase abroad, you can leave your toiletries at home. Perhaps take little travel-sized bottles of shampoo or contact solution for those just-in-case moments, but wait to pick up the larger bottles until you get there. You can eliminate a lot of weight by simply removing the conditioner and body wash from your suitcases.
• Before you start packing, find out what sorts of things will be provided in the place you’ll be living. Do you need to provide your own towels? Sheets? Pillows? If so, this needs to be taken into consideration, and will definitely take up a good portion of your suitcase space if you decide to pack it. My advice is to take two towels (you can always buy more there if you need to), a warm blanket, and perhaps an inexpensive set of sheets or a sleeping bag. Pillows can be purchased when you get there. You could technically buy all of your bedding when you get to your destination, but, in New Zealand, for example, bedding wasn’t cheap. So if you have room to pack it, take it with you. You can always give bedding away or donate it when you leave if you don’t want to take it back home. (This will also free up space in your suitcases on the return journey for souvenirs and gifts.)
• If you’re having space issues in your suitcases, I recommend buying a set of space-saving, vacuum-sealed bags. These are great to squish down bedding and sweaters. However, beware that removing the air from your clothes will not make them any lighter! Make sure to weigh your suitcases before heading to the airport.
This probably isn’t going to be the first thing you think about when you decide to study abroad, but it is an important topic to consider. Depending on what study abroad program you’re using and what country you’re headed to, there may be multiple housing options available to you.
Homestays: In a homestay, you are placed with a native family in their home. You’ll get your own bedroom and still pay rent, but you’ll likely benefit from home-cooked meals and a family-oriented atmosphere. A homestay is ideal if you get homesick easily, or if you’re going to a country where you don’t speak the language. Staying with a native family is a surefire way to pick up words and phrases, and a great setting to practice language skills in. The downsides could be location (perhaps they live in a suburb that’s difficult to get to using public transportation), lack of privacy to some extent, and things like having a curfew and taking into account family values (i.e. you may not be able to go out often or have friends over). Also, many programs only offer homestays if you request them.
Campus housing: Some universities abroad will have housing that is affiliated and/or owned by the institution. An accommodation office will place you in an apartment, usually within walking distance from campus. This is convenient, but can be pricey. Some will let you specify housing preference, but often it’s the luck of the draw. When I was in New Zealand, for example, I had one friend living in a single-room apartment by herself (which she requested), I had other American friends all living together in one apartment (after some room shifting and with a little luck), and I was placed in a flat with four New Zealanders — two guys and two girls. The co-ed living surprised me simply because I hadn’t thought about it as a possibility before, but it didn’t bother me. However, if sharing your living space with members of the opposite sex while abroad would make you uncomfortable, make sure to inquire about it beforehand. While living in campus housing can be more expensive and unpredictable, the upside is that, if you have an issue, the university is there to help you out.
Other housing: If the university you’ll be attending doesn’t offer housing, your study abroad program will likely help you find someplace to live. If this is the case, make sure to research your options, and try to get an idea on prices before settling on a home away from home. Take into account pricing, proximity to campus, and what kind of public transportation will be available to you. If it’s going to take you over an hour to get from your flat to campus every morning, you may want to keep looking.
Expect some degree of culture shock, even if you’re going somewhere where they speak English. Maybe they drive on the opposite side of the road. Maybe their primetime TV is much cruder than what you’re used to seeing. Maybe they have very different values and opinions from where you come from. For instance, I was surprised in New Zealand to find such a relaxed university atmosphere, a lot of new slang to use, and a fashion scene where both men and women wore skinny jeans and Ugg boots. Not really earth-shattering differences, but enough to take me by surprise every now and then.
Obviously, if you’re going to a non-English-speaking country that has had little European influence, expect the culture shock to hit harder and deeper. Do some research before going to get a feel for the country’s history and customs. Know what types of practices could be considered offensive. Maybe learn a few phrases in the native language. Once there, take some time to soak everything in. Try not to make judgments right away. And definitely do not automatically accept that any assumptions you may have about the place are universally true. Places — and people, especially — will continually surprise you.
Keep an Open Mind
As I mentioned in the culture shock section above, don’t base your mindset off preconceived assumptions. Don’t buy into stereotypes or listen solely to what others have said about the place you are going. You need to experience the place and its culture on your own — with an open mind! — and come to your own conclusions, whatever they may be.
Even if you decide your destination is nothing like what you expected, or you discover that you don’t really like it, the experience alone will help you learn a lot about yourself.
Travel and Explore
In-country travel is often cheap abroad, and you can often get discounts as a student. Take advantage! Get to know the country you’re living in. Yes, you’re there to study, but you’re also there to explore a place that’s not “home” and have adventures that you can tell your friends and family about later. Make the most of your free time.
And, while you travel, learn the value of hostels. Not only are hostels cheap accommodation, but the way they are set up will allow you to connect with fellow travelers from around the world. Perhaps you’ll pick up a travel buddy. Perhaps you’ll meet someone from your hometown halfway around the world. Perhaps you’ll learn some travel tips, or get hints about travel deals and discounts. Perhaps you’ll learn what sites are must-sees, and which ones can be avoided. Or perhaps you’ll just enjoy the company of others who are just as interested in traveling and exploring as you are. Half the fun of traveling is the people you meet along the way.
Budget, Budget, Budget
If you’re doing as much in-country (or even out-of-country) travel as I did when you’re abroad, then your budget will likely be an important area to keep an eye on. Studying abroad is not cheap, and traveling abroad often isn’t, either. Before deciding that you want to visit everything within a 1,000-mile radius, remember to keep in mind everyday living expenses like groceries and bills. You don’t want to forget to factor these into your budget.
When you do start planning your excursions, it’s my advice to do a lot of research and planning before taking any big trips. Know what you want to do where, and get an idea of how much everything is likely to cost. Figure out if booking a tour or exploring things on your own will be cheaper. This way, you’ll know if your bank account can support your adventurous streak.
Of course, obsessing over your budget won’t lead to a whole lot of fun. And, sometimes, it’s exciting to just improvise on the road. But keeping your budget always in the back of your head will help you avoid having to live off peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for your last month abroad.
Here are some budgeting tips for when you’re planning a trip:
• Combine free or cheap things to do with perhaps one or two more costly activities to balance things out. Perhaps visit a free museum or take a scenic drive, and then splurge on parasailing or bungy jumping. For example, when I was planning a trip to Queenstown, New Zealand, I knew I wanted to purchase an adventure package that included jetboating and a helicopter ride. I knew this was going to cost about $250. So other things I added to my itinerary included a gondola ride and downhill luging ($20 total), and a trip up to Deer Park Heights for some scenic views ($20 per car).
• Also consider where you’re going to stay while traveling. As I mentioned earlier, hostels are a great accommodation option. If you’re just going on a weekend trip, definitely book a hostel bed to keep costs low. If, however, you’re going on a longer trip, apply the above advice to where you’ll stay. Book most of your rooms at hostels, but change things up where you can, with perhaps a night at a country bed and breakfast, or at a swanky luxury hotel. Splurging once or twice on a long trip won’t break your budget, and can help break up the hostel scene. Plus, if you’re traveling with others, you can split the costs of the B&B or hotel room, and end up paying roughly the same as you would at the hostels.
• Lastly, consider transportation. Do you have enough time to book a train or bus ride, as opposed to a flight? If so, you can save some money, and see some of the country along the way. If your journey is taking you far, start looking at flights early to get the best deals. Also, consider transport when you arrive at your destination — are there public buses or trains that can get you to all the things you want to see? If not, you may want to consider renting a car. Especially if you’re traveling with others, renting a car can be less expensive than you might think because you can split the costs. And, having your own vehicle will make getting to those off-the-beaten-path destinations a lot easier.
And don’t forget to always, always ask about student discounts. Many places will advertize student rates, but others won’t — you just have to ask. For example, some restaurants in New Zealand even offered deals for students (such as buying one meal and getting a second half off on certain days), but you had to ask and show ID to get the discount. Even though student rates may only save you a couple of dollars here and there, those couple of dollars will start to add up!
Studying abroad should be both a learning experience and an adventure. Embrace your time away from home. Learn something about yourself. Take tons of pictures. And, most of all, have fun!
*This post was sponsored by a third party.