Study Abroad 101: What To Know as a First Time Student Abroad

by Megan Lee

This whole studying abroad thing can't be all that difficult, right? You've got eager advisors full of answers, brochures and program descriptions up the wazoo, and you've even read reviews from past participants and chatted with study-abroad-alum friends and classmates.

And although in your head you can logically say "I got this," there is still a tiny voice in the back of it saying, "But do you really?" Truth be told, there is a lot that goes into an international adventure. But don't worry, we've got your back. Read on to learn everything you need to know as a first time student abroad.

Students getting food from a buffet outside

Picking up more than your casual “hello” has its perks - some could include meals with the locals!

Photo credit to Megan Lee

1. You need the right documentation

Studying Abroad means traveling to another country; wahoo! In order to do this, you will need a brand new kind of identification, a passport. Passports can take a few weeks to process, so it is best to coordinate as early on as possible.

You will be asked to show your passport as you leave the United States, as well as when you enter the new country. You may also be required to have a visa for studying abroad; this all depends on the country you are headed to. We recommend checking in with your advisor to make sure you know exactly what you need, and making digital and physical copies of both your passport and visa.

Veteran traveler tip: Bring a pen with you on the plane and keep your passport handy, as you'll likely need to fill out a bit of paperwork before entering your study abroad destination.

2. Plane tickets are best purchased three months in advance

Your mom or grandma might try to get you to purchase your ticket six or more months in advance, but while they are giving you the gift of peace of mind, it is actually costing them a great deal more than necessary. Actually, the most ideal time to purchase your ticket is in the three month range prior to your departure, as this is when the price is typically the lowest.

Your plane ride will be a great start to the adventure. You can choose a window or aisle seat (depending on the strength of your bladder!), you might get your own personal TV screen for a movie marathon, and the food isn't as bad as it once was. Enjoy!

Veteran traveler tip: Set up flight alerts on or Airefare Watchdog to get instant updates on when the price drops!

3. Consciously protect your valuables

You will likely be traveling with a few of your most prized possessions in tow, maybe your laptop, your smartphone, your iPod, your passport, some nice jewelry, or money. It is essential that you actively make an effort to keep track of your belongings.

While theft isn't necessarily a greater risk abroad than at home, you will likely be more distracted (due to all of the awesome fun you are having!). Before you leave your dorm, apartment, or homestay, place your money in a money belt or in various places on your persons. Lock up any possessions you leave behind!

Veteran traveler tip: Avoid wearing flashy clothes or accessories that draw instant attention to your economic status.

Hiking in the mountains

Master these tips, master your study abroad!

Photo credit to Megan Lee

4. Get your bank and online password situations in order

One of the greatest frustrations you might encounter while studying abroad is a snafu with your bank. Make sure you alert them in advance and give them specific dates about when and where you are studying abroad. In this way, you will significantly decrease the chances of having an "uh oh" moment when your ATM card or credit card is declined suddenly.

Many study abroad students choose to travel with a debit card in lieu of cash. Students take out sums of money from the ATM as needed, as foreign ATMs distribute money in the local currency. This helps avoid long lines at the bank.

Veteran traveler tip: Take off the secondary password protections for your online passwords, especially if every time you login from a new IP address or computer it sends a text message password or similar process for accessing your account.

5. Bring good walking shoes

Let's face it. Very few Americans walk anywhere; we usually hop in our cars for a five minute drive to the store and will choose to drive across a big parking lot to get a closer spot to our next errand.

Life is not like this in many other countries. You'll be walking a lot more than usual, especially as you continue to explore all the nooks and crannies of your study abroad destination. While your high heels are cute, they simply won't cut it along the cobblestone streets or long city blocks. Do yourself (and your lower back, feet, and overall sanity) a favor by investing in a good pair of walking shoes.

Veteran traveler tip: You don't have to sacrifice style for comfort. Find shoes with thick soles and padding to ensure your day look transitions to night in a cinch.

6. You can restock your essential toiletries abroad

If you have a certain affinity for specific cosmetic brands, you may be better off stocking up on your precious serums prior to studying abroad. However, if your hair shines whether it’s Pantene or not, and you don't mind swapping your Old Spice for a new scent, it will not be difficult to find soaps, shampoos, laundry detergent, make-up, contact solution, or other toiletries abroad.

The perk of the latter option is that some of these items may be significantly cheaper abroad. The perk of the former is that mom and dad might foot the bill if you just toss it in the shopping cart nonchalantly. It's up to you!

Veteran traveler tip: Unfortunately, this fact doesn't always ring true when it comes to feminine products; it might be worth it for girls studying abroad to come with enough for the entire duration of their program.

7. So, uh, where should I live?

Your study abroad program might have a number of different housing options, anywhere from a shared apartment to a dorm on an international university campus to a homestay. While the options are plenty and varied, there is no right or wrong choice when it comes to choosing your overseas living situation.

That being said, in order to have the most effective, immersive, and interesting experience possible, we do recommend that students consciously push themselves out of their comfort zone and seek housing that is less isolating than a private apartment. Engaging with foreigners, whether local or not, is a really powerful experience, and it would be a shame to be so insular when the opportunity presents itself.

Veteran traveler tip: Discuss your options with your advisor well in advance and choose the accommodation that best suits YOU (not your friends, classmates, etc).

8. Medicines and Insurance

If you are taking prescription medications already, you would be wise to coordinate with your doctor to fill these for the duration of your study abroad program. It would be unreliable to expect your study abroad destination to have your specific drugs at the ready.

Over the counter drugs can be easily found abroad but sometimes have different names; all it takes is a quick Google search to figure out what to look for in the local pharmacy. You may be pleasantly surprised by the number of familiar pharmaceutical brands in your study abroad destination!

If you do encounter a need for medical services abroad, try not to panic! Most foreign countries will have decent medical facilities to take care of you. Make sure you travel to the clinic or the hospital with your passport and insurance card in tow. It is likely you will have to pay for the medical expenses upfront and later claim them through your insurance.

Veteran traveler tip: Bring a credit card solely for medical emergencies. While we hope you never have an experience that will cost you upwards of hundreds of dollars or more, it is better to be safe than sorry!

9. Cultural sensitivity

Studying abroad comes with some responsibility on the student's part. As you will be living and functioning within another culture, it is important that you keep in mind the local cultural norms. This might influence the way you dress, the way you speak, and the way you interact with the locals.

It is important for travelers to practice sensitivity throughout their journeys, as your behavior may otherwise offend others unnecessarily or bring a bad name upon all travelers.

Veteran traveler tip: A great first step in showcasing your interest in the local culture is to pick up some simple phrases (or more) in the local language. You'll be surprised and pleased with the pleasant response to your Spanish or Italian greeting versus a casual "hello."

10. Embassies, safety, and places you probably won't want to go to

If you get into a pickle while studying abroad, your first point of contact will likely be your study abroad resident programming staff. However, if an emergency occurs, you would be wise to book it straight to your country’s embassy. Have the number and address of its location on your person to avoid potential mix ups in these hectic circumstances.

Caution: if you are caught doing an illegal act while studying abroad, you may end up in jail, and there's not much your country, your family, your friends, or your program staff can do about it. That's right, you'll be under a foreign jurisdiction, so if you'd rather spend your days abroad having fun and not behind bars, don't flirt with violating any local laws!

Veteran traveler tip: Not all laws in foreign countries are the same as back home. Familiarize yourself in advance, stay away from sketchy areas and people...just keep your rebellious-side in check.

Other little diddies - a fruit basket of tips!

Plugs. First time students might be surprised by the way the plugs look in other countries! That's right, what you’re used to may not (and likely won’t) work abroad. You will need to either purchase an adaptor in advance (a quick online search should warrant a slew of options) or while in country (certainly cheaper, but slightly more inconvenient).

You will also need to pay attention to your study abroad destination's voltage situation, otherwise you might end up with ruined hair dryers or cell phones (been there, it blows...literally).

Jetlag. It's REAL! Jetlag is a blanket term to describe when you're tired after a longhaul flight (Feeling tired? More like a zombie). As your body adjusts to your epic time travel, you will find it difficult to adjust to a new time zone. It can take up to one or two weeks to fully settle into a new time zone, so be patient as your body adapts. Avoid taking naps, and embrace your inevitable early bedtimes or early risings.

Photos. If you're keen to document your entire experience with your camera in hand, you'd be wise to bring a few extra SD cards to swap in, or to purchase a big-daddy 16GB card from the get-go.

Laundry. Laundry will cost you a pretty penny during your study abroad program. To offset the costs, you might choose to start hand washing your clothes and hanging them to dry. Other students haul them to the nearest laundromat, or it may be possible that your accommodation is equipped with a washer and dryer. No matter what, make sure you budget extra money to cover these impending costs.

Now that you have this entire article memorized, you will enjoy a 100% smooth, challenge-free, and easy-going experience abroad...NOT.

Traveling, by nature, entails some chaos. There might be missed connections, unexpected last-minute changes to the plan, or other sudden roadblocks. If you learn to roll with the punches and laugh a little, your study abroad experience won't just be for fun's sake; you'll also learn a ton and grow as a person significantly (which bodes really well for your future!).

And before you know it, you'll be a second-timer, third-timer, -nth-timer student abroad.