Of all the opportunities college brings, the chance to immerse yourself in another culture with very few strings attached stands out. When else will you have the freedom to leave almost everything behind to live, study and even work in a foreign country for weeks or even months? Not that it’s as easy as simply signing up for your school’s next study abroad session! Even an international vacation requires plenty of forethought – and cash – so prepare yourself to do some serious planning long before you ever hand your passport to a ticket agent. For instance…
Make sure that passport is up-to-date. If you even had a passport as a kid, there’s a good chance it’s expired. The routine passport application can take five weeks or even longer to process, and expedited service still takes two to three weeks. Faster turnaround is possible under certain circumstances but why go through the stress? Check your passport or apply for one if you’re even considering studying abroad.
Know your budget from top to bottom. That means before you go. A travel budget calculator can help you figure out transportation costs, what you need to set aside for accommodations and a ballpark per day spending limit. There are huge discounts on rail passes, hostel stays and other expenses just for students in many countries but be realistic. Traveling abroad is never cheap. Careful planning means it doesn’t have to bankrupt you, though.
Connect with local students. As mentioned, student discounts are everywhere but you may have to ask for them and present your college ID to get them. Reach out to students in your host country before you leave to find out about free museum passes, reduced rail passes, free tours, hostels and inexpensive events happening during your stay. Forget what the guidebooks say – what do they think you need to know? What do they recommend you visit, eat and do?
Pack light and pack smart. Overpacking means baggage fees, and sometimes a padlock and a chamois can be worth all the extra undies in the world. Think mix and match staples when it comes to clothes, e.g., black tops and jeans can be dressed up all kinds of ways. Remember, you may need to save space for power adapters, your laptop and whatever souvenirs you plan to bring home. Bringing your phone? Switching carriers may pay off. T-Mobile, for instance, has no roaming fees. Hint: Should you find you’ve underpacked, you can always buy what’s missing.
Make a must-do list but be flexible. Read up on where you’re going and make list of activities or sights you think will prove memorable or valuable in the future. Plan to learn from your experiences abroad and be open to change. Maybe instead of visiting Madrid you end up in Barcelona (and loving it). Maybe you plan to spend every free moment on Brazil’s beaches but you end up volunteering. It’s all part of enjoying living abroad.
Know the risks. Be safe! It sounds paranoid but if you’re coming from the safety of suburbia you may be surprised at what’s routinely going down at your destination. Theft, road accidents and medical emergencies happen – be prepared to avoid them and if you can’t, to deal with them like a native. Find out what areas are generally considered safe and which are risky for foreigners. And don’t get so incapacitated you make stupid decisions.
But the best tip students studying abroad or even thinking of studying abroad can take to heart is this: be brave. Don’t let a language barrier stop you from having a conversation. Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten (i.e., tourist) path. And don’t let homesickness prevent you from fully immersing yourself in the culture around you. Home will still be there when you get back.