Thinking of studying abroad next semester? Great! Study abroad is a unique experience full of incredible opportunities to go out into the world and embrace new people and ideas. But it’s also a fabulous opportunity to make a lot of mistakes.
I spent a semester in Italy during my junior year of college, studying Italian art and culture in Florence. It was an amazing experience, yet there are a few things I would change if I could do it all over again.
- Find the study abroad program that is best for you
- Investigate financial aid and scholarships
- Budget properly
- Take care of business
- Do not take much luggage with you
- Do not have unrealistic expectations
- Learn the language spoken in your host country
- Do not miss your orientation days
- Meet new people
- Focus on your studies
- Take care of your health
- Explore the country you’re in (and the countries around it)
- Try the local food
- Play it safe
- Have fun!
In this article, I will give you tried-and-true study abroad tips to make sure you have a blast during your time abroad. If I had followed this advice, my study abroad experience would have been even more enjoyable:
- I would’ve saved around $1,780 in banking fees and travel expenses.
- I would’ve boosted my GPA from 3.15 to approximately 3.78.
- I would’ve visited 1 more Asian and 5 more European countries.
- I would’ve made a countless number of new friends with whom I would’ve shared a myriad of fun moments!
To help you avoid common study abroad mistakes, I’ll reveal the best study abroad websites and the best online language-learning resources, and I’ll tell you how to travel virtually for free.
1. Find the study abroad program that is best for you
There are thousands of study abroad programs in hundreds of cities around the world. You should first determine your motivations and goals to choose the most appropriate program for you. No matter whether you are interested in studying, volunteering, or working abroad, there is a program out there for you. You can choose from field-based programs to cultural exchange programs.
There are many ways to arrange study abroad programs:
- Study abroad organizations (providers or agents)
- Study abroad departments at your university
- Study abroad departments at other universities
- Directly with a foreign university or language school
You can find information about study abroad programs on the web, from your teachers, and through guide books and study abroad directories published by Peterson’s and the Institute of International Education.
Generally, university programs are the most expensive, but they may include such benefits as academic credit or travelling faculty and chaperones.
2. Investigate financial aid and scholarships
Think about what funding you have available through financial aid and scholarships, your savings or your family, and student loans.
- Scholarships: Search the web or go to org. In addition, many study abroad agents also provide a variety of scholarships or discounts.
- Financial aid: In general, you can receive financial aid from both federal and state governments if you are earning academic credit. Check out the S. Department of Education website, and research the process with your study abroad or foreign language department.
- Student loans: There are a lot of student loans available, but be careful: they may have high interest rates and may require a guarantor.
If you need time to save money like I did, find a job to help reach your goal.
3. Budget properly
Create a budget and estimate your study abroad expenses ahead of time. There is no universal way to calculate a budget, because each person will have different needs while staying abroad. So consider how much money you will need to eat out, buy groceries, pay rent, buy souvenirs, travel in your destination country, pay for transportation, and more.
Before you leave, do online research about the exchange rates and costs of living in your study abroad destination country. You can also use Numbeo, a site that lets you compare the cost of living in your city with other places. Here you can find more excellent budget tips on packing and traveling.
Take into account that many stores overseas do not accept credit cards or U.S. currency. And finally, check with your bank to find out what fees they charge for withdrawing cash abroad.
4. Take care of business
Be prepared. Before leaving, make sure your important documents are in order. You should take the following documents with you:
- Passport (keep a copy in your luggage)
- Entry visa (if needed)
- Study abroad confirmation
- Travel insurance info
- Your housing address and phone numbers
- Friends’ and family’s contact info
- Copy of any medical prescriptions
Make copies of all important documents, and email copies to yourself to be on the safe side. Leave a copy with a friend or relative.
Now do some research about the country in which you are going to study, and find as much information as possible about the local area you will live in.
I read local newspapers in English to make a list of places I wanted to visit and to be aware of current events and customs. I also bought a map of Florence and read reviews about nearby shops and restaurants so I could make plans in advance.
5. Do not take much luggage with you
Over-packing is the most common regret of the majority of students who study abroad. The rule of thumb for any traveler is to only take what you can comfortably carry. Besides, if you take too much luggage, you may become a target for thieves.
Unless you are planning to move to the middle of nowhere, you are sure to find everything you need for your everyday life in your new city. And don’t forget to leave some space in your bags for the things you would like to buy to bring home!
Besides, you are probably going to travel within your host country, that’s why you should consider getting a backpack. Here are some valuable tips on staying organized during your trips.
6. Do not have unrealistic expectations
Do not expect too much from your study abroad adventure, and you will not be disappointed.
You are not likely to be staying at a five-star hotel, the weather will not be perfect every day, and you are not going to like every class, teacher, and person you meet. There will be good days and bad days. You will be able to manage the hard times more effectively if you don’t expect your studying abroad to be fun and easy all the time.
If your reason for taking part in students exchange program is to learn a foreign language, try to set reasonable goals for yourself. You can’t learn a new language in a matter of days or weeks. It takes time and effort.
7. Learn the language spoken in your host country
Do not assume that everyone speaks English. Most countries are quite happy speaking their own languages. Of course, you can find English speakers in tourist areas and capitals, but you shouldn’t expect it.
Learn some language basics (at least a few conversational phrases) before you go, and take a course when you are in your host country.There are many professional companies that offer language courses. For instance, if you’d like to go to China, you can use Go Abroad China to find language courses and internship and study abroad opportunities there.
You can listen to free language podcasts on iTunes and find some free language courses online:
- Duolingo claims that, according to an independent study, 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full semester of language education at an average U.S. university.
- Ielanguages.com offers free lessons and audio recordings by native speakers.
- At Openculture.com, you can learn 48 languages for free.
- SurfaceLanguages contains words and phrases in many different languages along with audio, flashcards, and language-learning games.
- At loecsen.com, you can learn basic words and expressions you will need for your trip.
- Lingualia is a social network for language learning that adapts the course to your needs.
You can also learn a new language using the tandem languages learning method in which two students with different native languages work together to learn with and from each other. Find an online partner and practice any language with a native speaker who is learning your language.
Do not be afraid to improve your language skills by speaking the new language with local people. Native speakers are often flattered when you try to address them in their language and are usually very friendly. You are likely to get more respect from local people if you put some effort to communicate with them in their native language.
8. Do not miss your orientation days
Orientation may not seem like the most exciting experience, but it is often full of important information about various programs and departments that your university offers. You will also meet your fellow students and faculty members and take a tour of the campus. Start getting involved and make the best of it.
9. Meet new people
Do not limit yourself to hanging out with people who come from your home country and have the same cultural background as you.
Meeting new people is a great opportunity to master your foreign language skills and immerse yourself in a new culture. It can foster your cultural awareness and social knowledge. It will also improve your confidence and make you stand out.
Socialize and get acquainted with people from other cultures. Take advantage of studying abroad to make friends with locals and other international students.
You can meet new people and find friends all over the world through CouchSurfing, a global community of over 12 million travel enthusiasts. You can also join a local Meetup group to find people who share your interests.
You will add more value to your study abroad experience if you live with a host family or in a dorm with local students. You will get a full picture of how locals live.
10. Focus on your studies
Always remember that you are a student, not a tourist. While you are enjoying your time abroad, you should devote an equal amount of time to your studies as well.
Balance your social and academic life. Don’t fail classes. It is a waste of money and will damage your GPA. And by the way—attending classes is one of the best ways to meet new people.
11. Take care of your health
Take care of your body while you are away. This is especially important because your body will already be vulnerable from the difficulty of adjusting to a different time zone, a new schedule, and foreign foods.
What should you do to stay healthy?
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat healthy food.
- Drink plenty of fresh water.
- Exercise regularly for at least 30 minutes every day.
Taking care of your body will help you stay productive and enjoy every minute of your study abroad experience.
12. Explore the country you’re in (and the countries around it)
Make the most of your study abroad experience. Looking back, I can’t remember a single day that I did not go out and explore my host city Florence, known as the cradle of the Renaissance.
My key reason for participating in the study abroad program was the opportunity to travel around Europe, and I’m sure that travel is major motivating factor for you, too.
The rise of the sharing economy, better bus options, and new budget airlines make traveling around Europe astonishingly affordable.
- Budget airlines are the cheapest option to travel around Europe. Companies like Transavia, Easy Jet and Ryanair offer cheap flights throughout Europe.
- Buses in Europe are much cheaper than trains. With low-cost bus services like FlixBus and Eurolines, you can travel around Europe even on a tight budget. Busabout is a hop-on, hop-off bus service. You can get on and off whenever you want along one of their set routes.
- Sharing rides is a growing trend, especially if you’re traveling short distances. The biggest player in this field is BlaBlaCar.
- Hospitality networks such as CouchSurfing connect travelers with locals who are willing to give them a place to stay. Other similar services include Be Welcome, Hospitality Club, and Global Freeloaders.
- Apartment rentals. On apartment rental/sharing websites, you can rent a couch, a room, or an apartment much cheaper than a hotel room. With Airbnb, you can rent unique accommodations from local hosts in 191+ countries. To get help with finding housing or roommates, just visit Beroomers where you can find accommodation in more than 60 destinations in Europe and the USA.
13. Try the local food
Trying the local cuisine will allow you to really experience the culture of your host country. Besides, mealtime is a fantastic way to spend time with your host family or your new friends.
You can book home-cooked meals while you travel through MealSharing.com, a website that can help you discover home cooking in 150+ countries.
WithLocals.com offers you a unique chance to experience the local culture and to get to know local people by sharing a meal in a family home. As I adore Italian cuisine, I enjoyed eating Italian food cooked according to traditional recipes.
14. Play it safe
Crime is a reality in any country of the world. Take steps to ensure that your trip abroad is as safe as it can be.
Never go out alone at night, and learn about your school’s emergency response services.
Don’t forget to register with your embassy, and if you are studying in the United States or India, you can download Circle of 6, a free app that connects you with preprogrammed hotlines or friends so you can prevent violence before it happens.
15. Have fun!
The point of any study abroad experience is to have a lot of fun while learning about a new country. So you should treat it as an amazing adventure, no matter where you go or what you study.
Be flexible and keep in mind that participating in a study abroad program is about living your real life in real time in a new country.
Study abroad is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences of your life—take advantage of it by avoiding these common study abroad mistakes.