Study abroad prep – 9 things you need to know
Published on May 18, 2015
#1. Apply for a passport & visa
You must have a valid passport to travel and study abroad. If you already have one, be sure to double check that it has not expired, whether or not it will expire within 6 months of your intended return to the US, or, for you lucky travelers, if there is a sufficient number of pages left for new stamps! US citizens can directly apply for a new passport at selected post offices, federal or state courts of records, or at a State Department passport agency. It can take anywhere from six to 12 months to get a passport, so plan accordingly!
If this is your first passport, don’t forget to bring your birth certificate, two recent passport-sized photos (can be taken at local Walgreens, Kinkos, or most other photo-printing places), certified identification, your passport application (found here) and payment when you apply. If you are renewing an old passport, you can leave behind your birth certificate in exchange for your expired passport.
In addition to a passport, you may need a visa to study abroad. Different countries have different visa requirements: check out your intended study abroad destination’s regulations here. That, or you can contact the nearest embassy or consulate of the country you plan on going to in order to receive information about visa requirements and any special travel restrictions. Similar to passports, visa applications can take several months to process so don’t delay in applying!
#2. Visit Your Doctor
Plan on visiting your doctor and getting a physical before you leave to ensure you are in good health. Bring along a copy of your medical records in case of an emergency overseas.
Furthermore, it is important to know the host country’s immunization requirements and become immunized before your departure. Most programs will advise you on the types of vaccinations you’ll need (if any) while abroad, but for the latest up-to-date disease information you may also want to contact the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Prevention (phone number 888-232-3299).
Also, if you have a critical medical condition that requires prescription drugs you may want to bring enough with you to last your entire time abroad (if possible). Prescriptions drugs must be carried in correctly labeled containers to prevent being mistaken for illegal drugs.
#3. Get Travel Insurance
It’s important to have a reliable health and accident insurance policy while you are studying abroad, as well as coverage for emergency evacuation and repatriation (but lets hope it never comes to that!). First, check with your current health insurance provider to learn if your policy will applies while abroad, or whether you will receive any form of coverage from your program.
If your health insurance policy does not cover you while abroad, you will need to purchase supplemental health insurance. The Council on International Educational Exchange offers inexpensive insurance for students, teachers and youth under 25 in the United States. Other companies that specialize in providing insurance to US students studying overseas include Student Travel Guard and HTH Worldwide.
Additionally, you may want to investigate the options available for both baggage and flight insurance.
#4. Buy a Plane Ticket
These days, finding cheap airplane tickets has turned into an art of timing and luck. Fares can vary greatly depending on when you want to fly and where you are buying your ticket from. A good place to start iswww.farecompare.com, which will quickly show you a comparison of the flights available for your preferred dates (which are oftentimes selected for you by your program provider!).
Additionally, student travel agencies, such as STA Travel and Student Universe can provide the oft-most flexible and inexpensive tickets for students traveling abroad. It may also be useful to call the airlines directly to find out what the latest deals are.
Before buying a bargain fare though, find out just how flexible flight date changes are. After all, you don’t want to be forced to buy a whole new ticket if you decide to stay overseas a little longer! We also recommend not arriving more than a few days prior to your intended program start date. While the few extra days may allow for a jump-start in adjusting to the new environment or jet-lag recovery, arriving early may create problems in immigration.
Get some Background Info
#5. Research your destination’s local customs, culture, and people
Take some time to better familiarize yourself with your study abroad country. By knowing even briefly your soon-to-be home’s culture, history, geography, economy, government, etc, your study abroad experience will be enriched and your time spent more meaningful. Talk to others who have been been there and seek opportunities to watch movies and read more about the country and its culture. Additionally, it would help to avoid those offensive foreigner-follies (such as pointing with your thumb or not slurping your noodles at dinner!)
The Department of State has quick notes on over 150 countries; these serve as a great starting point for up-to-date information for your intended travels (that is, if you can break away from Wikipedia for 5 seconds!) These “Background Notes” are available at www.state.gov.
#6. Refresh your language skills
Even knowing the most basic of phrases in the local language can make a world of difference in overcoming those first few days of adjustment. Enroll in classes, ask fluent friends for help, or purchase a pocket dictionary to read on your daily commute- every little bit helps!
Sort Out What to Bring
If you do not already have an online bank account, I recommend arranging this at your earliest convenience, as online banking is a good way to monitor your money while abroad. Most international travelers use their ATM/Debit or credit cards to obtain cash in the local currency. You will need to notify your current bank and credit card company about your plans to study abroad – otherwise you may be stranded abroad with an un-useable card! If you have any concerns about whether or not your cards are eligible to use overseas, contact your bank.
For those first few days, I recommend carrying between the equivalence of $100-$200 in the currency of your host country. Those days may be busy, but finding an ATM or bank should be relatively easy. If you are unable to obtain the currency at home, the airport is a great option for exchange upon arrival. However, conversion rates in airports tend to be slightly higher than other exchange places!
Traveler’s checks are still the safest way to carry your money abroad and are accepted in most places. They are a ‘protected’ form of cash which you can easily obtain from your local bank. Once you arrive seek out a local bank that accepts international ATM cards so that you can continue withdrawing money from your home account. Keep your money and documents safe by carrying them in a money belt around your waist or inside your shirt.
#8. Start Packing!
Two words: pack light! Be sure to double check with your airline to learn their luggage allowances, so as to not be surprised if you have to incur extra fees. Consider buying a sturdy traveler’s backpack which are more comfortable and convenient to carry than a suitcase. They are also handy for the many weekend trips you are likely to make!
Ask your study abroad program for a suggested packing list, and keep in mind that many of the items you may want to bring will be available overseas (i.e. save space and weight by buying shampoo upon arrival!) Note the weather in the country you are studying in, as packing your winter coat for January south of the equator might just be silly. If you wear glasses or contact lenses, be sure bring extra pairs with you! If you are bringing your own electrical appliances, plug adapters may come in handy.
Don’t forget to bring photos, recipes, and other mementos from home to help during those homesick moments. Consider bringing a journal or notebook to reflect and write about your study abroad experience. Small souvenirs from your life back home also make great gifts for new friends.
How else will you regale everyone back home with wonderful stories about the amazing time you are having?! Most students rely on two options for communicating with friends and family: cell phone or laptop.
It is best to check with your cell phone provider if your cell phone can work overseas. Many students opt to purchase a local pay-as-you-go cell phone upon arrival, while others simply purchase a local SIM card. To call back home, a locally purchased calling card is typically cheaper than making calls with your cell phone.
Another great option for communicating back home is through video chat. Skype, Facebook, and Gmail all provide built in video chat programs that make calling friends more simple and calling Mom and Dad slightly more difficult (but only until they figure out how to use it!) Many students struggle with deciding whether to bring a personal laptop with them on their study abroad program, though convenient, they are at greater risk for theft and could potentially take away from a successful immersion experience. Oftentimes, programs will provide or have access to public computers in the case of a student traveling sans-PC.
Prepare Yourself Mentally
While good bye’s can be tough, they’re a necessary part of this journey. And just think of all the excitement you have yet to come! Expect the unexpected! While studying abroad you will definitely encounter people with different concepts of time and personal space. Be ready to learn and observe these differences without being judgmental. It will be these very same differences that will undoubtedly enrich your understanding of your own culture.
The local citizens you meet while abroad will often be very curious about life in your home country. Typically, you will be asked about your country’s foreign policies of which you are sometimes expected to be very knowledgeable. Get in the habit of reading newspapers and news magazines long before you leave so you’ll be informed on current affairs in your home country as well as abroad. You may also want to educate your friends and family about where you’ll be going and what it is you’ll be doing. Having a strong support system will help you get through the challenges of living in an unfamiliar environment far from home.
While good bye’s can be tough, they’re a necessary part of this journey. And just think of all the excitement you have yet to come! Expect the unexpected!
Even though you can never expect to be fully prepared upon arrival, we hope these tips will help you hit the ground running!