Guide to Studying Abroad

Finger Lakes Community College students at a butterfly conservatory in Costa Rica
A semester abroad can be one of the most exciting, enriching experiences you’ll ever have. Here’s what to know, and how to do it for less. Photo: The LEAF Project

Studying abroad is a general term for taking classes toward a college degree in another country. Program choices vary – you can find study abroad opportunities through your own college or through other colleges, organizations, or companies.We’ll take a look at some of the benefits and drawbacks, the costs (and how to keep them down), and some other tips to help you get the most out of your experience.

Pros of Studying Abroad

  • Studying abroad comes with all the same benefits as other international travel. You’ll broaden your world view and gain a more global perspective while learning about new cultures and seeing the world. It can be one of the most exciting, enriching experiences of your life.
  • Immersing yourself in a country where English isn’t the primary language is a fantastic — maybe even the best — way to learn a new language. You’ll also perfect the art of nonverbal communication.
  • It can help you set yourself apart on resumes. Only 10% of students study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education. Studying abroad can show a prospective employer that you’re responsible and can handle difficult situations outside of your comfort zone. You can also play up organizational skills (as traveling and living internationally requires them), strong communication skills, and whatever other applicable experience you gained while traveling. The experience can serve as an excellent talking point during job interviews, too.
  • Earn college credit and learn in ways you may not be able to in your home country — for example, studying ancient cultures in Egypt or Peru, art history in Paris or Florence, or English literature in London or Dublin.

Cons of Studying Abroad

  • It can be costly. Depending on what you’re studying and where, a study abroad experience can cost more than it would to simply pursue your degree at home.
  • There are several additional costs besides tuition that you’ll need to consider. Housing, transportation to and from the country, transportation while there, food, health insurance and/or traveler’s insurance, and entertainment are just a handful of other costs to take into account.
  • Sometimes the course load or work required is underestimated. Depending on the course, students may often have difficulty separating a study abroad experience from a vacation. When you’re studying abroad, it’s still school — so you’re going to have required classes to attend, homework, studying, and projects to complete, unlike most vacations.
  • The duration that you’re abroad – a semester or year – can mean that you’re missing out on taking other required coursework you’ll need to graduate. This can extend the time you’re in school (and your student loan debt) if you haven’t carefully planned your track.
  • The study abroad experience can be quite stressful for some students. You’re far away from your home, family, and friends, dealing with language and cultural barriers, living in an unfamiliar place, and still dealing with everyday responsibilities including studying and schoolwork, paying bills and maintaining a budget, possibly working, and more.

Ways to Save on Studying Abroad

The average cost of studying abroad for one semester was $17,785 during the 2012-2013 year, according to the Institute of International Education. But just like there are plenty of ways to save in college, there are also ways you can save with studying abroad.

Apply for Scholarships

Scholarships aren’t only for your home college. You can find scholarships for studying abroad as well — search for them the same way you’d search for regular scholarships. See what scholarships are offered for study abroad programs at your current college, potential colleges you’d be attending abroad, on scholarship search engines, and with various organizations you’re affiliated with.

Where do you want to study? This can help you find scholarships as well. Look for any cultural organizations that may offer study abroad scholarships. For example, the National Italian American Foundation offers scholarships to study abroad in Italy.

In addition to searching the usual places, check out scholarships just for studying abroad. Here are just a few examples:

Pick a More Affordable Destination

A semester in one country can cost a lot more, or a lot less, than in another country. It’s going to cost a lot less to study abroad in South America, Africa, and much of Asia than it would to study in Australia or Western Europe. When choosing a destination, research what the cost of living in that area is. How much will housing, groceries, food, and transportation cost you?

Go for Less Time

If you want the experience of going to school in another country, but don’t want to go into debt to get there, consider going for a shorter period of time. Instead of spending an entire year abroad, go for a semester, or a shortened summer term. You can even find programs that run during spring break or winter break.

Consider Working While Abroad

Depending on the country you’re visiting, you may be able to work while you’re there, if you apply for the appropriate documentation, such as a student visa. It may also be possible, though not always advisable, to pick up part-time cash work, whether it’s tending bar, tutoring students in English, or even busking for tips. You’ll not only gain valuable work experience for your resume, you might even end up with a more in-depth cultural experience while at the same time alleviating some of the costs of your journey.

Decide Whether to Live With a Host Family or On Your Own

Many programs require you to live with a local host family while you’re studying abroad, while others allow you to rent your own flat (apartment) or live in dorms at the foreign university.

If you have the option, staying with a host family might be the most economical choice, as your meals and utilities will also be included; it’s also an excellent way to absorb more of the culture and language, and can make for an easier transition for students who are nervous about living on their own in a foreign country.

But compare costs: Depending on the program, you might pay less recruiting a few friends from your program and renting a flat together. Don’t forget to factor in that you may need to pay for electricity, heat, and other utilities.

Save on Communications

Sooner or later, you’re going to get homesick — don’t worry, it happens to everyone — and anyway, your family back home is going to want to know you’re safe. Make sure you both download Skype (or a similar VoIP service) before you leave. You can then make unlimited free calls via Internet connection. If you want to call Grandma and she doesn’t have Skype installed, you can still use it on your end to make extremely discounted calls to landlines or cell phones back home.

If you must make a phone call from a regular phone, buy a calling card with a good rate for U.S. calls — and pay attention to the connection fee. For example, the rate might be just 2 cents per minute, but with a connection fee of 50 cents per call — which means a $5 phone card will only get you a handful of brief calls at the most.

Make sure to call your cell phone company before you leave and ask them if it’s possible to suspend your service while you’re away, beginning a few days after you’re scheduled to arrive (just in case you get delayed). For in-country communication while you’re abroad, you have a few options:

  • Use Wi-Fi only. You can bring your smartphone with you — remember to bring or buy a power adapter if needed — turn off cellular data, and keep it on airport mode so you don’t incur any roaming charges. Then you can still use it to text, email, keep up with friends on social media, and call home via Skype whenever you’re on a free Wi-Fi connection.
  • Buy a SIM card. Alternatively, with some phones, you can replace your SIM card once you’re in your host country, allowing you to use your own phone with an international provider. If you have an iPhone, when you call to suspend your service, ask your wireless provider to unlock your phone so you can use an international SIM card while abroad (some U.S. providers will only do this for you if you are traveling overseas). When you arrive in your new country, buy a micro SIM card from local cellular company (e.g., Vodafone), and purchase some pay-as-you-go phone and data credits. Install your new SIM card — be sure not to lose your original SIM card, you’ll need it when you get home! — and you’ll have a temporary international phone number and full use of your phone. When you run out of credits, you can buy more at a convenience store or phone shop.
  • Buy a cheap mobile phone. If that sounds like a lot of work, you can buy or rent an inexpensive mobile phone, without the smartphone bells and whistles, and top it up with pay-as-you-go credits during your stay. You’ll have an international number, and you’ll be able to call and text locally while you’re abroad.

Study Abroad Checklist: How to Prepare

OK, you’ve decided to go. Here’s how to make sure you get the most out of your experience.

Learn About Your New Home

There’s a lot of information you’re going to want to know about your destination country. Read guide books and travel blogs, check online forums on sites like TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, and do as much research as you can to properly prepare for your trip. Here are some questions to think about:

  • What will you need to enter the country? Depending on the country, you might need specific forms of identification or vaccines.
  • What are the safety concerns? Is crime or terrorism a problem, and where? What types of crime are being committed, and how can you protect yourself?
  • Are there any health concerns? Make sure you have all necessary vaccines.
  • What are the cultural differences? In some countries, it may be considered offensive to wear shorts, while in other countries, nude beaches are the norm. Knowing these differences can help you decide what types of attire to pack so you’ll feel comfortable and won’t stick out as a tourist.
  • What the laws and regulations? Certainly you’ve heard horror stories of westerners being imprisoned or worse for engaging in promiscuous behavior in conservative Arab countries or possessing drugs in Asian countries rife with drugs. Know and respect local laws and customs.
  • What will the weather be like? This will also help you determine how to pack.

The U.S. State Department’s website is a fantastic starting point to learn more about these issues and other general travel recommendations.

Does Your Health Insurance Cover You Abroad?

Unfortunately, people often learn that their health insurance doesn’t cover treatment abroad until after it’s too late. No one anticipates a health issue – especially young, healthy college students. But protect yourself, and call your insurance provider to learn whether you’re covered abroad. Learn the extent of what you’d be covered for as well.

If you’re not covered or your coverage is limited, you’re going to want to get some type of insurance while you’re traveling. The good news is that international travel medical insurance is surprisingly affordable — at least in comparison to the cost of U.S. health insurance. This can give you peace of mind while also protecting you from financial disaster in the event that something did go wrong.

Be Certain Your Courses Will Count

You’ll want to confirm with your current college that any courses you’re taking abroad will count toward your degree. Otherwise, you can end up wasting your time and money on redundant or ineligible credits.

Mark Your Calendar

Now that you’re headed abroad, mark down important dates: any information sessions to attend at your college, due dates for any fees, and arrival and departure days.

Bring Your Student ID

In addition to having your passport and other identification with you, don’t forget to bring your student ID. You can get big discounts on everything from museum and event admissions to train tickets, flights, and subway passes, as well as other perks.

In most cases, your school ID should suffice, but check whether services in your destination country will require an International Student ID Card (ISIC). This universal student ID is valid just about everywhere and can be purchased for about $25.

Start Making a List

Once you learn about the country you’ll be living in, you’ll have a better idea of what you’ll need to bring — and what to leave at home. Here’s the beginning of a checklist:

  • Passport, license, and other forms of identification
  • Student ID
  • Different payment options
  • Maps, guide books, and other resources
  • Any required material for the course
  • Clothing: Keep it basic. Items that you can mix and match allow you to pack lightly, which means you’ll be more mobile and have less chance of getting charged an overweight baggage fee. Be prepared for the climate.
  • Comfortable shoes: Opt for shoes that are versatile but also allow you to walk comfortably. If you’re able to walk places, you’ll spend much less on transportation costs, and it’s the best possible way to take in the sights of your host country.

How to Protect Your Money and Yourself When Studying Abroad

When you’re studying abroad, you want to protect yourself and your money just as you would anytime you’re traveling internationally. Here are some ways to protect yourself:

Know the scams. Tourists, especially those studying abroad, can be prime targets for scams. Learn about common and current scams by visiting the U.S. State Department’s website, and use your common sense.

See how your cell phone’s going to work abroad. Call your cell phone provider to inquire how international travel works with your current plan, including your data. You may need to switch plans or switch phones to avoid hefty fees.

Diversify your money. There’s a lot of debate on what is the best form of payment to use when traveling internationally. To be safe, bring one or two credit and/or debit cards as well as some cash. You never know if an ATM will eat your card or if you’ll run into problems using your card. Also check that your current PIN code will work in the country you’re visiting; some foreign ATMs don’t accept longer PIN codes.

Understand how credit cards work abroad. Credit cards work differently when you’re traveling internationally. Here are some things to do before you go:

  • Call your credit card company to find out if your card is widely accepted where you’re traveling.
  • Ask what types of fees are associated with international travel.
  • Alert them of your travels so they don’t freeze your account because of suspicious transactions.
  • Make a copy of the front and back of your credit cards. If they get stolen, you can report it to the local police and the U.S. Embassy, and contact your credit card company immediately.
  • Store the international number for each credit card onto your phone. Also, email yourself these numbers in case your phone gets lost or stolen.

Protect your debit card. If you’re bringing a debit card, do all of the above for your debit card (i.e., understand any fees, notify your bank, and make copies). Plus, transfer any excess of money into a savings account. Keep what you intend to use for the trip in your checking account, along with a bit more for emergencies. This way, if your card gets stolen, the thief can’t wipe out your entire savings.

Keep track of your purchases. If you see any fraudulent charges, contact your credit card company immediately.

Don’t carry all of your money and credit cards in one place. If your purse, backpack, or wallet gets stolen, you’ve now lost everything.

Consider a money belt. Pickpockets abound in many countries. You can wear a money belt securely under your clothes, and use it to keep some of your credit cards, money, and your passport secure.

Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) offered by the U.S. Department of State. This free service enrolls your trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy so you’ll receive important information about the condition of that destination that could affect your safety. It also allows the U.S. Embassy to contact you in the event of an emergency – such as a natural disaster or civil unrest.