15 Essential Tips for Students About to Study Abroad

By Dani Thomason

So you’ve decided to make the best decision of your life by studying abroad? Bravo! Whether you will be eating endless gelato in Italy, exploring the rainforests of Costa Rica or basking in the sun in Australia, those four months will be unforgettable. So now it's time to prepare yourself. How do you even begin such a daunting task? Well, here is a list of 15 tips to consider before flying to your new home away from home.

1. Plan, Research and then plan some more

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Even though you are only studying abroad in one city, that doesn’t mean you are limited to seeing just one place! Many students spend their free weekends in different towns, cities, or even countries (especially if you are studying abroad in Europe where everything is just a couple-hour plane ride away and also much cheaper than any flights we are used to in the states). My suggestion is to look into the weekend destinations you might want to visit before you go. I personally started my research with websites like pinterest.com, which will just be the spark for your wanderlust.

2. Grow your piggy bank

No matter how much you save, you will always feel like a broke college student. That’s because you have never in your life blown hundreds of dollars on just one weekend of experiences (well maybe just in Vegas) and then repeated several weekends in a row. My best advice is to save as much money as possible beforehand. Trust me: you would rather spend your money on an experience abroad than an expensive jacket before you left. Let travel be your motivation to work hard and save your money!

3. Choose the Right Credit Card

You will find that most countries (specifically in Europe) all have chips on their debit and credit cards. This is now mostly standard in US but in case your card is still just sporting a magnetic strip be sure to get the chip because it gives you extra security. Make sure to go to your bank and inform them about your travel plans and while you are there, inquire about their foreign fraud protection, and their foreign withdrawal fees from ATMs and transaction fees. Finding the right card with low fees can save you hundreds while you’re abroad. Also, make sure you have more than one card. It's possible that your bank may find your spending abroad as fraudulent and decline your transaction. Come with at least two cards for back-up so you don’t run into any issues and make copies of the fronts and backs of all of your cards to report any thefts that may occur.

4. Figure out a phone plan

With Whatsapp, Viber, Facebook messenger or any other texting apps these days, it is definitely not an issue communicating with your friends back home. However, all these apps need Wi-Fi, which can be near impossible to find in some places abroad. Especially if you are traveling solo, it is a good idea to either buy a cheap prepaid phone card once you get to your new country or figure out an abroad phone plan with your current provider.  Get a data plan sufficient enough to use when trying to find that restaurant or club while wandering the streets of a new city.

6. Make sure your flight home is flexible

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Many students regret coming home right after their study abroad program finishes, especially for students who are studying abroad second semester.  Stay longer and  take full advantage of those extra summer months. Unless you have cleaned out your bank account, consider having a flexible return date so you can hit more destinations.

7. Don’t come abroad with a whole new wardrobe

Of course it may be necessary to buy a warmer jacket or a new pair of comfortable shoes, but don’t go too crazy. I say this because most likely your new country will have very different style trends than in the U.S. I didn’t even touch half of my laid back Southern California beach clothes when I got to Europe. You don’t want to stand out like a tourist by the way you're dressed. You are also going to want to adapt your wardrobe accordingly when you come abroad, so hold off on your shopping spree until you see what you really need!

8. Keep a journal or blog

If there is one thing that students regret the most, it's not documenting their time abroad. Whether you just keep a travel journal that you write in once a week or you set up a full blog so your family and friends at home can keep up, make sure you jot down some of your favorite memories. It will be your greatest souvenir you take back home with you. You might even want to download the app 1 Second Everyday which as the name suggests allows you to take a 1 second video each day and this turns into a video you can cherish at the end.

9. Buy a camera

Whether you decide on a mirrorless, DSLR, drone, or Gopro, I highly suggest investing in a good camera before you leave. Phone cameras have excellent quality these days but are a lot less flexible than a real camera. Also, getting into photography while abroad is a great hobby to start! Having pictures after your study abroad experience will be your most treasured keepsake (along with your journal). Don’t just depend on having a photographic memory, go buy yourself a camera. Make sure you think through its size and weight since you will be lugging it around constantly so something too big and heavy might feel like a burden. I recommend going mirrorless because they are small and light but take fabulous photos. Also make sure it has wifi capability or get a wifi SD card so you can transfer the photos to your phone and share them without having to download them to a computer.

10. Learn the language

The better you know the language of your host country, the more comfortable you will be. I realize this is easier said than done. At least come to your new country knowing the basics of their language. It can be very hard  moving your entire life to a foreign country and not being able to communicate to the locals. Not knowing the language immediately sets up a barrier which can be very daunting when you're already in a vulnerable situation. Also, if you at least know a little, most locals will appreciate the fact that you’re showing some effort. While you’re there work to speak it as much as possible and you won’t believe the improvement you’ll see by the time you come home.

11. Don’t pre-book every weekend trip before you get there

Before getting to Barcelona, I wanted to have every weekend trip booked and planned out. If I had actually gotten around to booking these trips I would have really regretted it. You will meet so many new people that you'll want to travel with! Of course, for the weekend like Easter in Rome or St. Patrick's Day in Ireland, I would definitely book those in advance because the prices will go up. For the rest of your trips, hold off until you arrive. Also be sure to take weekend trips to really explore your region. You may make another trip to Europe to visit the major cities like Paris, London, and Rome, but you may never get the chance to really explore your region again.

12. Be on top of all your study abroad paperwork

Yes I know, this is the boring part about the studying abroad experience, however it's still important. Stay on top of all the due dates for visas, medical forms and class enrollment. You would hate to go through the application process, get all excited, and then have to stay at home because you didn’t do your paperwork on time. Just Do It!

13. Arrive with some of your country's currency

Go to your bank a week before your flight and get out a couple hundred dollars worth of whichever currency you will be using. The last thing you need is to get to your new country and have no local cash and possibly have trouble with your debit card.  When you get off the plane you will want to grab something to eat or a taxi, and cash is best.

14. Have some idea of a budget

This will give you an incentive to budget as well as manage your spending while abroad. Of course, once you get there you might adjust things but working out how much you can spend on travel, food, partying, etc. will ensure you’re not in huge debt when you get home. If you have trouble budgeting with a credit card take out cash so you have a better idea for when you hit your limit.

15. Invest in a pair of walking shoes

You don’t have a car to depend on for transportation, so you'll be using either public transport, or walking a LOT.  You’re probably going to want to walk everywhere anyway after eating so many new, delicious foods. Save yourself a few pounds and money by exploring new cities by foot! One fashionable option can be to get some boots with a low heel and some comfortable inserts.

BONUS TIP: Be Independent!

This can be very hard for people. I know it was for me. It's very easy to follow along with the rest of the crowd by booking every trip with friends or even studying abroad with people from home. I know half of the kids that study abroad go with someone from their home university but if you want a true and authentic experience, go solo. You get to call the shots on where you go or what you want to see without feeling obligated to please others.

This is a time in your life when it’s OK to be a little selfish. Make sure you prioritize your travels with what’s important to you. You never know when your next experience of a lifetime might be.