As soon as I arrived, I felt so unprepared for studying in the UK. Other American students studying in England—or other destinations in the UK—may think, like I did, that the system and lifestyle will be fairly similar. But alas, although both countries speak English and love J.K. Rowling, they are very different and it can be difficult—like, REALLY difficult—for students to adjust.
No matter how prepared you are, there are still going to be unique challenges that only come with the experience of studying in the UK. Learning how to cross the street or striking up conversation with that stranger in class is just the half of it. But lucky for you, studying abroad will teach you so much about yourself and your world.
Sure, part of study abroad programs in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland is learning from your mistakes, but there’s no need to reinvent the (error) wheel. That’s why I’ve put together this handy list of tips that serve as a how-to in reverse—what not to do. My tips and experience will help you adjust more easily to life abroad in the UK. Before you hop on that flight across the pond, peruse my mistakes and how YOU can avoid them.
My best tips for what not to do
Here’s my best advice for international students studying abroad in the UK:
1. Don’t bring only one debit card and cash.
My bank accounts shut down when I was out of my home country because my card got flagged as being stolen. I ended up relying on friends and my limited cash for the first two weeks.
The things you may take for granted at home become very crucial abroad, like getting a bank card. When studying in England, a bank card and English bank account are necessary to avoid foreign transaction fees and get a SIM card. Paying with a UK bank card is easiest and you can withdraw cash for free at most UK ATMs.
In America, you can normally walk into a bank and get an account within a few hours. For American students studying in England, it can take a few weeks to get an account set up. This is because there will only be a select few banks that will allow study abroad students to create accounts, and these banks require that students get a bank letter from their university, book an appointment, and then wait usually 1-2 weeks for their card and banking information to arrive by mail.
Needless to say, American students studying in England may spend their first few weeks without a UK bank account. Before you leave for the study abroad program, make sure that you have sufficient cash and at least two international debit or credit cards.
2. Don’t only make friends with other people from your country.
In most study abroad programs, there will be an introductory orientation in the first week. This is a perfect opportunity to meet people and going to these events is so important. I sat beside my friend Brooke and we became instant friends for the rest of the semester abroad. Because students are so far from their families and facing unique challenges, their friends are essential to navigating study abroad in the UK.
Over the course of our trip, there were less and less opportunities to get involved with exchange students and English students on campus. Simply, if you don’t join a club or sports team at the beginning, courses, travels, and other commitments become more pressing. If something on campus sparks your interest, do not be afraid to get involved—it’s all part of studying in the UK.
It’s important to know that all international students, regardless of where they are from, are going through the same experience. Everyone is there to explore a new country and meet new people. Going up to someone and asking them where they are from is an easy way to start conversations while studying in England and could lead you to make lifelong friends.
It’s much easier to stick with friends from America while studying abroad. At first, the cultural differences may make it hard to make friends with people from other continents. By asking these people about their cultures, I learned a lot more about the world. Although I loved my friends from America, I wish I would’ve been more open to meeting people that didn’t always share cultural similarities.
3. Don’t book the wrong train tickets (it’s easier to do than it sounds, trust me!).
Study in England for international students comes with the exciting ability to travel to Europe’s greatest cities on weekends. The first time I booked a trip, I was so excited to go to London that I didn’t double check the date I was booking my train for. I booked the wrong date and then the wrong city. Within about ten minutes, I had booked myself on three separate trains to London, and obviously lost quite a few pounds in the process.
By far the easiest and cheapest way to get around the UK is by train or bus. Studying in the UK usually makes you eligible for a Railcard, saving you ⅓ off all train trips. Figuring out the train system isn’t difficult; American students studying in the UK should not have any issue as it’s similar to the transit in America’s big cities.
Although train travel in Europe is very easy, it can also be easy to make simple mistakes. Make sure to double triple check reservation details, wait for flight confirmation emails before exiting the site, spell your information correctly on any declaration or flight check-in, and always read through the airlines’ additional fee policies (they’ll zing you with baggage!). This seems like the easiest part of travel, but it causes headaches if you mess it up.
4. Don’t bring the wrong gear.
The backpack I bought for study abroad didn’t count as carry on size for many of Europe’s airlines. I ended up having to pay a bit more in baggage fees because of it, and it always slowed down my travels when I had to check my bag. My 10L carry-on backpack barely fit everything I needed for weekend trips, but I was able to make it work.
If I could repack, I would bring my 65L traveling backpack with all my essentials, my 10L carry-on, and an additional carry on sized backpack or suitcase for the overhead compartment. If you plan to travel during study abroad like I did, a bag fit for the carry on space in overhead bins is necessary.
Packing for study abroad programs is difficult and everyone makes mistakes. Most american students studying in England will need more stuff than can possible fit in a 65L backpack. Sometimes, it’s better to bring more bags, because the clothes or household items packed would cost more if you had to buy everything new in the UK. Simply, packing light makes things easier, but may result in you buying more during study abroad programs England.
I didn’t bring any items beyond clothes and a few pictures, which made it hard for me to feel at home while studying in the UK. Things like a thin blanket, favorite books, mugs, posters, and decorations will make you feel more at home abroad and assist with the initial transition. There’s a happy balance to find when packing between the essentials and the comfort items to bring.
5. Don’t lose touch with your friends back home.
When you study abroad in the UK, you’ll quickly learn how to say “How are you” in a lot of different ways. For British people, ”You alright?” and for Aussies, it’s “How you going?” The first time an Australian friend asked me that, I responded with “Yeah, I’m going by train to London in a little bit.” It still worked in the conversation, but I was a little embarrassed when I realized that the question was basically just them saying hey….
In all seriousness, study in the UK for international students is never an easy thing to adjust to—regardless of where they come from. It isn’t just traveling Europe on the weekends and taking nice Instagram pictures. Adjusting to a new country is very difficult, and that’s where I found my friends to be so important.
However, when I went abroad, I was focused on trying to figure out my own life. Because of this, I didn’t really take the time to sit down with my friends abroad AND back home and ask them how they were doing. I was too busy traveling Europe and studying for my exams to go for coffee with my friends, let alone have virtual happy hours/late night Skype dates with my friends back home. In the later months of my study abroad program, these people became so important to my life and my well being.
Studying in England gives you the unique opportunity to meet people from around the globe. Make sure to make time to get to know these people and learn from them—support each other when study in England becomes difficult.
6. Don’t spend every weekend in London.
I love London and I don’t regret traveling there a lot, but I still feel that I spent way too much money on tube fares, expensive chic cafes, and pub food. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world and I found it very difficult to keep within my budget.
Instead of going to London, I could’ve had more money for my other trips in Europe. I especially wish I had explored more of Eastern Europe and stepped off the beaten path instead of just visiting the main cities like Paris and Dublin. They are popular for a reason but this also means they will be more expensive to travel to and for students on a budget, it may be better to travel elsewhere.
Americans studying abroad in the UK may not know much about Eastern Europe’s countries like the Czech Republic, Croatia, and Slovenia. These countries are becoming more and more popular for student travel because they are affordable, and show students cultures that we aren’t normally exposed to in school. If you really want to experience Europe’s diversity, you have to go beyond London and Paris.
Next steps to finding study abroad programs in England
Before you leave for studying abroad in England, you’ll likely feel nervous and excited. Every student feels like that. It’s inevitable that your study abroad won’t be perfect and you’re going to make some mistakes as well.
How to Study Abroad in the UK in 5 Easy Steps
- Decide where to go. Figuring out where to study abroad in the United Kingdom isn’t easy. The gorgeous Scottish highlands? Somewhere in Wales? A major city in England? Don't let the haggis hold you back—choose a place that's right for you.
- Your major courses or something more fun and experiential? You don't only have to take classes that pertain to your major back home (though it never hurts to knock out some credits towards graduation). Look at your course options and decide what combination of required classes and just-for-fun-or-because-you-want-to-learn-it classes are out there. Choose from literature, the sciences, education, psychology, and more!
- Choose from the best study abroad programs in the UK. Pay attention to past participants’ reviews, program/university reputation, location, and your ease of getting credits. Some schools or providers may even provide contact info for student ambassadors or past international students if you want the REAL dirt.
- Plan your finances. Sort out funding before you go to afford daily essentials and splurge in travel (in addition to program costs and airfare). Do your research to have an idea of how much your study abroad program will cost.
- Talk to your home university. Getting all your ducks in a row is largely dependent on what your home university requires. Talk to a study abroad advisor or the equivalent at your university to see what choices are available to you.
You’re now ready for studying in the UK!
But that’s where support from university advisors, family, and friends come in - they help you get through all of it. The mistakes are small details compared to how many amazing experiences you’ll have while studying abroad in the United Kingdom.