Instead of explaining all the red tape, I am going to give you some advice for the journey itself. This part of the process may seem like the easy part, but it can sometimes be completely demoralizing. The better you prepare yourself, the more fun you will have and the more you will learn.
If you are going to an English speaking country, feel free to ignore the foreign language section.
- If you aren’t academically picky and still have not chosen your host university, always choose the location with the most pleasant weather.
- Use high-quality, lightweight, rolling luggage.
- Change batteries before you leave. Batteries tend to be more expensive abroad.
- Bring your own deodorant, lotion, and other toiletry items. They may not be available in your host country.
- Stuff your 2nd and/or 3rd pair of shoes completely full with socks and other small stuff.
- Bring something unique that makes people want to talk to you. Musical instruments, juggling materials, art supplies, etc. are good ideas. I brought my banjo to France and it was a great conversation starter.
- Bring a headset if you bring a computer. You can use services such as Skype and most instant messenger services to talk to family and friends. You can also talk to people you meet abroad to practice your language skills.
- Bring your pillowcase from home. It helps sometimes on lonely nights to have something familiar.
- Bring an umbrella.
- Bring earplugs for both plane rides and your bedroom. You never know how loud it will be.
- Leave anything “dry clean only” at home.
- Bring a few unique things from home to give to new friends.
- Mail yourself a huge care package before you leave if you know your address abroad.
- Rent a bike if it is not too expensive.
- Be wary of international travel passes. It is often cheaper to buy individual tickets when dealing with long distances.
- If you plan to use local public transportation for an extended period of time, avoid single tickets, as these are more expensive for short distances. Look for passes valid for at least a month.
- Make your own map as you go. This makes it easy to keep track of places important to you.
- Use Trivago to find your plane tickets. Trivago compares hundreds of websites and I always find the cheapest tickets here.
- Sometimes it is cheaper to buy two round-trip tickets instead of one because of a quirk in airport ticket algorithms. Run both searches and compare.
- Know your host country’s currency. For some items like school supplies and some common bathroom items it may be cheaper to buy them once you get there instead of buying them beforehand to take on the plane.
- Change money/make withdrawals sparingly and in large quantities. This will save you money in the long run by minimizing ATM fees and commissions.
- Don’t expect travel to be cheap. Factor in the cost of meals and a place to sleep and you wiil realize how expensive it is to travel without a group.
- Don’t always pay with big bills unless you want to look like a tourist for your entire stay.
- Find out if your student card/ID can get a discount anywhere.
- Wear all of your clothes twice except for socks, underwear, and jeans. Wear socks and underwear once, and jeans as many times as possible.
- For free meals, go to local churches during holidays. They often have food available.
- Look around at local shops, street markets, etc. for stuff you can sell on Ebay to collectors.
- See if you are eligible for a tax refund on any large purchases before leaving.
- If you must find your own place to live, be aware of local electricity, water, and electronic services costs.
- It is better to have a smaller place close to school than a larger place far away.
- Know if a deposit is required and how much it may be. In France it is customary to pay a deposit of TWO MONTHS rent up front.
- Learn to be late (or early). Other cultures have a different concept of time; adapt and flourish.
- Take your camera with you everywhere. You never know what you may see or what to remember.
- Be firm but kind if your coordinators are not helping you enough.
- Find out more about any local minority cultures. Often these people will have good tips and stories about what it was like to integrate.
- Acquire a local addiction. If everybody else takes a nap in the afternoon or buys bread in the morning, follow suit to further immerse yourself.
- Learn the proper etiquette for cell phone use, asking questions in class, and for mealtimes.
- Go to small local places where it is not crowded. People will often be interested in talking to you.
- Don’t be afraid to ask to have money changed or for directions. If somebody says no, ask somebody else.
- See your doctor before leaving, especially if you have prescriptions that require regular check-ups.
- Learn to meditate or enjoy relaxing periods of time alone to recharge. Culture shock is real!
- Avoid laptop addiction. It is very easy to become a recluse in a new country. Try to limit your computer use and make the most of your time.
- Buy fruit and vegetables. Even if it is just apples and carrots, try to have a balanced diet or you risk becoming sick.
- Have an emergency plan. Know exactly what you will do and where you will go in case of an emergency.
- Maintain a reasonable sleep schedule; you may feel like you are on vacation, but don’t forget that you are still in school.
- Bring warm clothing to wear at night if where you are headed has cold winters. Heaters are notoriously finicky.
- Never put yourself in a dangerous situation such as local uprisings, strikes, or riots. It may seem fun to be a part of things like this, but you are not a citizen and you might find yourself deported.
Keeping in Touch
- Send your friends back home handwritten letters.
- Find things unique to your host country to send back home such as strange candy or trinkets.
- Get the contact information of any new friends you make so you can keep in touch once you return home.
- Try a sport. Even if you hate sports, take advantage of the opportunity to participate in a sport unique to your host country.
- Use your host college’s bulletin board. This is a great place to find new friends, textbooks, and more.
- Learn to spell your first and last name rapidly and clear with the proper accent.
- Find children’s books which you loved when you were younger that are translated into your foreign language. I’m currently on the fourth Harry Potter in French.
- Play computer games in a foreign language. I play the French version of Lord of the Rings Online.
- Before leaving home, learn how to greet people, say goodbye, politely ask a general question, thank people, and how to express that you are having an emergency if you have no background whatsoever in the language.
- Bring something to record conversations so that you can practice and listen later. (Ask before you record anybody.)
- Date somebody who speaks your target language!
- Local libraries may have English sections for books and movies. If they don’t, most of the films will at least have English subtitles. Don’t buy anything from back home until you check out the library first.
- Practice your reading skills by accepting any free publication in your target language every chance you get.
- Find English-speaking friends who are willing to not speak English.
- Don’t carry around a bilingual dictionary. It is better to ask to have any words you don’t understand explained.
- If you find you have too much free time, try to get a 10-15 hour a week part-time job. This is a great way to meet people and work on language skills.
- Ask for help/advice even if you feel annoying. In some cultures, only the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
- Make a scrapbook as you go. I used a sturdy local phone book and pasted all of my tickets, tour brochures, etc. within.
- Keep a journal or blog. You may think you will never forget what happens abroad, but it happens. The more you write down, the more you will remember.
- Lower your expectations. I am not telling you to be a complete pessimist, but the equation “Reality / Expectation = Level of Contentment” holds true for study abroad. Realize that there will be good and bad days and that it is up to you to make the most of both.
- Sometimes you will learn more abroad if you fire first then aim. If you spend all of your time thinking about how you will act in a new place, you’ll never do anything. Just go for it.
- Never forget that you are responsible for your own experience. If you want something, make it happen.