Accepted into a study abroad program? Check. Feeling totally prepared? No. “Abroad” may sound like a passport to freedom but there are crucial things that need to be planned for before touching down.
Studying abroad, aside from going to college, is the first really independent time in a student's life (at least it was for me!). And with independence comes much much more responsibility. So while mom and dad are still on the same continent, accept their help and prepare the best you can before crossing over into a whole other world.
The university is great for checking off the visas, tickets, schedule and housing but that is seriously the tip of the iceberg. Here are the most important.
There's that thing called the bank
Probably the most important prep: have a plan for money. Figure out if your current bank has a sister bank. Most banks will have international partner ATMs that don't charge a foreign transaction fee. Sister banks vary between countries so it is important to check with your bank before you go. (I use Bank of America, so in Italy I used BNL Paribas.)
International transaction fees can really add up and really, it's not worth it for the convenience. If the bank does not have an international partner, there are two options:
- Open an account with a bank more suitable for international travel
- Schedule large withdrawals throughout the semester to cut down on fees
But what about almighty plastics? I would recommend not relying on a debit/credit card abroad. Cash can be crucial and the last place you want to be stuck without any green is in a foreign country. Even if most major cities and bigger establishments take cards, there are also a lot of places that prefer cash. In Florence, for example, cash is what makes the world go round.
Figure out the phone situation
How connected do you have to be? It depends on how much you need to Instagram. Most students choose to buy an international SIM card once they arrive and replace it their original with it (making sure to keep it in a safe place! You'll need it again). But not all phones can be unlocked. To find out if it's possible, check with the service provider well before you leave.
The second option is to buy a cheap international phone. Local cell phone companies are in most big cities and offer short, cheap plans to last a semester.
If you're a free bird like me—or learned the hard way that your phone won't unlock—there is still the option of just not using your phone without Wi-Fi. It's actually liberating.
Time to choose your own adventure.
Develop a communication plan
It can be hard to stay in contact with friends and family because of time zones. Especially when mixed with a busy class schedule, by the time school is over the parents are sound asleep. Before taking off, or even every week, set up designated time to catch up. Scheduling is a must. There are several programs you could use for this. Phone not recommended (insane fees!). Try out Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, or any of these alternatives we mentioned a few months ago.
Scammers love to target students
The school will suggest researching the area so that you have a better understanding of the culture, the history, traditions, etc. That's cool. But what they don't say is that it is also crucial to do some research before hand on what to expect as a student/foreigner. In all types of international travel, safety is important.
Students are especially susceptible to pick-pocketing and scams. Search blogs and reviews of bars/clubs for red flags. Certains ones can be known for stealing phones, charging extra money, scams, etc. (This also goes for cabs, restaurants, “hidden” attractions.) The best way to get this information is from a student who has studied abroad in that particular location before.
There's also a lot of people trying to sell cheap weekend/spring break trips to students. Kinda goes without saying but do the research and do not book a trip before looking up the company offering this deal.
Keep traveling on the cheap
Saving pennies can be tough on a student budget but luckily there are ways to travel that will not break the bank. Hostels are always a good option for students abroad, unless you'd prefer Airbnb which can also be cheaper than a hotel but that's a personal decision.
Here's a couple of key points that are helpful for traveling on next to nothing:
- Consider if you really, really need an ISIC card.
- The actual price breakdown between Airbnb vs hotels vs hostels.
- Hostels sometimes offer free breakfast. Free Wi-Fi is almost always included. More established hostels will organize activities like a free BBQ night, etc and more. Hostelbookers and Hostelworld are some of the best places to book. If cleanliness is a thing, try to stick to reviews with over 90% on the cleanliness score.
- Prices are always the most expensive at the main tourist drag. Sometimes all it takes is a few side streets off it for prices to plunge dramatically.
For a more comprehensive list of suggestions, check out this post.
Get a journal and/or start online blog
I tried really hard to keep a journal from my training bra days until college but it wasn't until I studied abroad that I really got into it. I found that as opposed to feelings about things of little significance, I was writing about an entirely new world. This was not a time I wanted to forget. It was like sticking a little flag on a great memory so I could find it easier.
Blogging is also a great way to keep track of things but it's also a great way to share experiences with friends and family. This really comes in handy when every family member and friends wants a detailed description of what happened in the past week. “Read my blog post! Like it on FB!” Voila, problem solved.
The biggest regret I heard from students who studied abroad is that they wish they had spent more time in their study abroad country. Especially in Europe because everything is so close, students get excited and leave every weekend on another whirlwind multi-country adventure.
Getting to see the world while you have it at your fingertips is wonderful but you might never have the experience of finding a “home” across the world again. Feeling connected to a place comes from time spent exploring the country and getting to know the people. Not bad advice: Use weekends for trips within the country,and longer weeks and breaks for international travel.