Studying abroad was the best decision I made while in college. It opened my eyes to a different culture and experiences, I met some amazing people, and I got to travel more in that 9 months than at any other time in my life combined. Although you will get a packet of logistical information from your study abroad program about visa requirements, registration, and other legal necessities for participation in the host country, below are some tips so you can really get the most out of your study abroad experience.
1. Read Up. Read up about your study abroad destination. Try and read the local newspaper and familiarize yourself with the general state of affairs in the country and city you will be visiting. Pick up a travel book, like a Lonely Planet, to get to know the major monuments, transportation, local sites, as well as the good and bad areas of town. Read RateYourStudyAbroad.com’s reviews of your program and other programs in the area, as well as other blogs devoted to the student experience abroad. Check out Glimpse.org, abroadview.org, and transitionsabroad.com for first hand accounts of student expats and their experiences while abroad. Not only will you be able to converse with the locals better, enhance your own experience with insight into the cultural quirks of your country, but you will be more in the know compared to your other study abroad participants.
2. Travel. There is no easier time in your life to travel than when you are young, have the time, are willing to go the extra mile to save a few bucks and adventurous enough to check out the out of the way towns and festivals. If you are in Europe, head over to Munich for Okterberfest in the fall, check out hiking the Alps in October, before the ski crowds, high prices, and cold move in, go to the Greek Islands in May before the crowds roll in and when the weather is great or Southern Spain in the winter months. Investigate opportunities for cheap travel within your region. Check out RateYourStudyAbroad.com’s Helpful Links section for links to websites and resources for low cost airline, lodging, package travel, as well as travel blogs.Don’t forget that much of the world travels by train and bus, which can be both cost effective and one of the more interesting cultural experiences you will have. There is nothing quite like sitting on a 10 hour bus ride with a family and the family pet pig or catching a taking an overnight train to your destination and bundling up the cost of lodging and transportation all in one.
3. Student Discounts. Take advantage of student discounts if they are available in your study abroad country. Depending on the country you study in, student discounts can save you money at museums, tourist attractions, transportation, shopping outlets, and even the movie theater. Also, many hostels and other businesses have negotiated discounts for holders of the international student card or ISIC which you should take advantage of.
4. Communication Abroad. Figure out how you will be communicating with your loved ones and friends back in the United States, your new friends and the locals in your new home, as well as the local emergency number (it probably isn’t 911). For calling your friends and family in the United States, as well as others with an internet connection, VOIP options, including Skype and Vonage may be a great, cost effective option for you. You may have to invest in a microphone and speakers for your computer, if you don’t already have them, but these VOIP options are cheap, reliable, and you can call anywhere, as long as you are by your computer. As far as keeping in touch with your local friends, check into cell phone plans that are available. Some countries do not allow you to sign up for a monthly cell phone plan unless you have a local bank account, but most countries offer pay-as-you-go cell phone plans that can do the job for only slightly more than the cost of a monthly plan. Don’t forget to also check out the landline options while you are abroad, for calls made locally (from landline to landline as well as landline to cell) and internationally (from landline to landline as well as landline to cell). Sometimes landline rates can be quite reasonable.
5. American Food. If your idea of comfort food is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chances are you should stock up on peanut butter before you leave the US. Most countries have either their own version of some American foods, or nothing at all. You may not realize until you are already abroad, but you will come up with food items you CANNOT LIVE WITHOUTand that you cannot find anywhere abroad. In my experience, living without a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, brown sugar, real BBQ sauce, or even American ketchup made the one trip my mother made to come and visit that much more exciting because she brought these staple American items I had been missing so much.
6. Money. One thing you will notice after your first month of living abroad are the foreign transaction fees your credit card company charges on all purchases made in another currency as well as the transaction charge for most ATM withdrawals. Although the bank offers no service for these fees, which range from 2 to 3 percent of the charge, they can add up quickly. So if you are not planning to open up an account at a local bank, check to see if your American bank has any agreements set up with international banks and affiliates, to cut down on this expense. Capital One does not charge foreign transaction fees on credit card purchases, but does on ATM transactions. If your bank does not have any special arrangements with a foreign bank, another idea is to withdraw a large sum of cash each month and go through that as needed. Don’t forget that if your debit or credit card is lost or stolen, it can be difficult to replace quickly. Check out this article from the NYTimes Here to read more about credit cards while abroad.
7. Do Something Different. Many who go abroad are happy to spend time with other Americans, party until all hours of the night at different bars and dance clubs, and speak in English for the duration of the trip. However, I encourage you to do something out of your comfort zone, whether it is studying in the local language, living in a homestay with a local family, joining a local club or sports team, volunteering or finding an internship locally, or simply getting off the beaten path when you travel. Not only will you get a better flavor of the cultural nuances and how things work in the country you are living in, but you will be more resilient and gain a different view of the country you are in. Don’t forget that when you return to the United States, you and others will be most impressed and have the best memories of how you integrated into new environment.
8. If you Play a Sport, Get Involved. Although most Americans associate college sports with intense practice and competition schedules, the rest of the world does not think of college sports in that way. At most colleges, there are sports clubs and teams with more casual practice and competition schedules. Not only can you play a sport that you love, but you can meet other students and it is always a great study break. Depending on your skill level, you may also think of giving lessons in your sport, or volunteering your time coaching a youth team or league. If you do plan to play a sport overseas, don’t forget to bring your gear, as sports equipment can either be difficult to find or very expensive. Click Here for an article on one student’s experience with swimming while living in Paris, France.
9. Act Like a Local. You will always be an American, but it is worth reading up and respecting the history of the country and people you are living with. Take behavioral cues from locals, especially in regards to dressing more conservatively in churches and the local tolerance for public drinking. Know what is an appropriate tip when at a restaurant and for a cab ride.
10. Take Pictures. Studying abroad will provide memories that will last a lifetime, make sure you capture these moments to share with friends and family as well as to reminisce in later years. Using photo sharing websites like (ophoto.com, flickr.com, webshots.com, shutterfly.com, kodakgallery.com, etc.) may help you organize your photos, without taking up a lot of space on your hard drive. Many of these sites also allow you to create photo albums and photo books (check out Blurb.com for photo books, as well) that will allow you to create a hard copy version of your experience abroad.
I am a contributor for the website, http://rateyourstudyabroad.com/. RateYourStudyAbroad.com is a new open source database of student reviews written about the more than 7,000 study abroad programs open around the world. Check out “RYSA in the News” to read features about us in college newspapers and our latest press release.