You did it! You scored an amazing study abroad program for next semester. But now the reality of being in a different country is finally setting in, and you might be nervous about leaving your comfort zone. Studying abroad is an incredibly valuable experience. It’s going to be the adventure of a lifetime! You’ll advance your education and learn more about yourself and the world, too. There is so much to do to prepare to study abroad.
Here is a handy guide to make sure that you head off to your study abroad experience prepared.
1. Get all your travel documents.
Your college or university has likely given you a list of the documents you will need or has provided the appropriate forms. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research on your own. The first and most important document you will need is a passport. Your passport should expire no less than six months after your anticipated return. You may have a hard time getting a visa if your passport expiration is within a six-month window. The average time to get a passport in the United States is four to six weeks. If you are a citizen of a foreign country, it might take longer to get your passport—so start the process sooner rather than later. If you are permanent resident of the United States, make sure that your green card is easily available to you. You will not be allowed to travel without it. A student visa is the next piece of documentation you are likely to need. This will vary by destination. You should also have a letter from your college stating that you are studying abroad and are a current student.
[Make sure to read the Student Advisor Study Abroad guide before you go.]
2. Take care of immunizations and future medical care.
Talk to your doctor about where you will be traveling and make sure your immunizations are up to date. Some immunizations have more than one injection, and they need to be spread out over several weeks. You should also have proof of your medical insurance while traveling and talk to your insurance carrier about what to do in case you get sick while you are in another country. It also helps to take a picture of your insurance card and email it to yourself in case you lose it. If you take any medications or supplements, get well stocked and pack some of each in two different parts of your luggage just in case your luggage gets lost.
3. Plan what you will do with your money.
You don’t have to carry a stash of travelers checks or hide money in your socks these days. Most countries widely accept credit cards, and you can withdraw cash easily from banks. Check with your bank about fees associated with withdrawing money abroad, or apply now for a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees. Remember though, a two- or three-dollar fee is worth it to avoid carrying around large sums of cash. It is a good idea to have some cash on you, however, and these days, most international banks don’t charge withdrawal fees. Hundred dollar bills have better exchange rates. It’s a good idea to get a money belt or something similar to carry currency and your passport discreetly. There is no need to carry more than two or three cards.
4. Stay in touch.
Traveling abroad feels less isolating than it did even five years ago. Several cell phone providers have now started to offer free international data. This means that you can text, get directions, and chat with friends and family just as you do now. Even though cellular charges can be outrageous, tools like Skype and Google Hangout are free. Pick a cellular plan that works for you, and then make sure to create your Skype and Google Hangout accounts. Practice using them with your parents and closest friends so that technical glitches down the road do not cause you any stress.
[Learn French online from MIT, for free!]
5. Pack light and smart.
Depending on where you will be, traditional rolling bags may not be your best choice. The cobbled stoned streets of Europe are not friendly to this type of luggage. If you will be in a place that is more urban, then you should be okay. Travel backpacks are your safest bet. They are roomy enough to pack all the necessary things and easier to lug around. At the same time, invest in a good luggage lock (they run around $6). Be sure to get one that is TSA approved. Luggage handlers have master keys to these locks so they are able to get into your bag if needed without breaking open your lock. This way, you can keep your items safely locked away if you leave your luggage somewhere. When you pack, take only the bare necessities: three or four pairs of pants, five to eight tops, one or two nice outfits for dinners or going out, necessary undergarments, and two to three pairs of comfortable shoes. Check the weather for the time you will be there. You might need a heavy coat, gloves, hat, and a scarf as well as some warm boots, but if it’s hot, you’ll want to prepare for that, too. You are likely to pick up some things abroad, so leave a little space in your luggage for the return trip.
6. Find out what you can and can’t bring back.
Speaking of leaving space in your luggage, take the time to research what you can and can’t bring back into the country. Some souvenirs you may want to buy might be on the banned list, or may need to be packed in your checked luggage as opposed to your carry-on bags. You wouldn’t want to spend money on items that are going to be taken away from you!
7. Don’t forget these other items!
If you have any worries about the water where you are traveling, a water bottle with a filter is another great item to bring. You will be able to find bottled water virtually everywhere, though. Bring some snacks that can also remind you of home-sweet-home when you travel. And don’t forget your toiletries!
8. Get a guide book now.
You will likely not be on your own, but get familiar with the city where you will be and some of its customs. It is important to also learn about the best modes of transportation since one of the first things you will be doing is getting yourself from the airport to your temporary home. If you will be staying with a host family, it is appropriate to bring some small tokens or gifts as a thank you. Be conscious of safety. It is easy to assume your time abroad will be carefree and safe, but you should also be aware of your surroundings. Read all travel advisories so you are well informed. Mark all the things you want to do while you are there.
[Reverse Culture Shock? How to extend the learning experience once you get back.]
Your time abroad will fly by in the blink of an eye! Plan well so you can make the most of this adventure. Studying abroad in college is one of the best experiences you can have in life. Not only will you be exposed to a new culture, you will breathe it, experience it, and live it full time. Being prepared now will mean a better experience later. Good luck, and enjoy your trip!
Purvi Mody is the co-owner of Insight Education and is an education contributor to the Daily News, Mercury News, and StudentAdvisor. She has been interviewed for several articles and books, as well as radio and television shows. She has worked with students across the United States and other countries including India, China, Korea, Dubai, and the UK on the increasingly complex college admissions and financial aid processes.