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How to Budget for Your Internship Abroad

Managing money while interning abroad

Money makes the world go ‘round, they say. Whether or not you believe that, it does keep a roof over your head and a nice meal of fish and chips or paella in your belly while you’re interning abroad.

Transportation becomes more of a budget concern when you're interning abroad than, say, studying abroad.

That being said, you’ll need to make sure you budget your money well for your time abroad, especially when it includes an internship -- paid or unpaid. There’s no excuse for being late to work because you can’t afford a bus or train pass for your commute!

Don't know where to start? Then let us help you with tips on how to budget for your internship abroad.

Outline a Budget Before You Leave

Housing

Finding somewhere to live is perhaps one of the most important things you’ll need to do before going abroad (or upon arriving), and it will likely be your biggest expense. If you are interning abroad on a program, then you may receive assistance on this (and if you are paying a program fee, housing might even be included in your upfront costs).

If you're left to organize housing independently, you mind find it is easier to wait until you arrive in country to seek out your housing, and you may worry that any online research you do will not give you a good sense of what to expect price-wise.

However, you should be able to reach out to a contact at your host company who can help you out, or at least put you in touch with someone who can. If they can’t help you find housing, they can at least help you gain a sense of what monthly (or weekly) rent prices are like.

Savings Tip: For those with a tight budget, consider looking into student or dormitory housing (in summertime this may be more available for non-students) or, better yet, a homestay. Not only could this save you money on extras like utilities, but you may even get meals included in the deal! And, of course, it’s another great opportunity for cultural immersion in your host country!

Sample Housing Costs in Popular Intern Abroad Destinations*
  • Australia - $1400/month
  • China - $800/month
  • England - $1600/month
  • France - $1200/month
  • Mexico - $700/month
  • New Zealand - $1200/month
  • Spain - $2000/month

* Based on accommodation fees for CISabroad Internship Programs

Meals

budgeting for meals while interning abroad

If you aren’t so fortunate as to find yourself in a homestay with 2-3 free meals per day, this could be something that adds up quickly in your budget. Especially in an internship atmosphere, you may feel pressured to eat out every day if eating lunch together is part of your host country or host company culture.

Keep this in mind (you definitely don’t want to appear rude by always turning down lunch offers) and try to include one meal eaten out per day when building your budget. Thankfully, lunch time is usually a cheaper time to eat out with special deals just about anywhere in the world you go!

Prepare yourself to grocery shop and prepare your own meals the rest of the time if you’re looking to save money. Though, again, this may not be possible if you are living somewhere without a kitchen, and in some countries (like Thailand) it may actually be cheaper to eat out than cook for yourself at home. Ask around at your internship and keep an eye out for what the locals do. Eat where they eat and you’ll probably save a fortune!

Savings Tip: Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch was only half-right. If you’re going to go out for drinks anyway, you can save some money with free tapas in Spain or an aperitivo (often a small buffet) in Italy. Or if you’re in a hopping city like Shanghai, with a little digging you could probably find a special event with free food and drink almost any night of the week!

Transportation

Transportation becomes more of a budget concern when you’re interning abroad than, say, studying abroad. You won’t be living in dorms a few minutes away from your classes, and you will (likely) need to be at work on time every day.

Look into the costs of weekly or monthly transportation passes in your host city before you go so you have an idea of how expensive this might be. Some cities may include all forms of transportation under one pass, others may require different passes for buses versus metro. Some may have “all you can ride” passes, others may just be a “pay as you go” system.

Savings Tip: If you have a student ID card, or even proof of residency, you may be eligible for a discount. So do your due diligence and figure out the best deal for you.

Other Necessities: Phone & Health insurance

Participating in a professional experience abroad often comes with a few more obligations. You may be required to show proof of local or international health insurance. You also may be expected to be reachable outside work hours by your colleagues, so a phone may be more necessity than luxury. These recurring costs can also add up, so be sure to make some room in your budget for them.

Don't just pick a random sum, make an educated guess based on your top "must do" trips or activities. Then (if you can!) double that.

Savings Tip 1: If you’re going abroad through a program, there’s a good chance you can get a special rate on health insurance through them. (You may also be able to use your current health insurance while abroad, so check into that!) If you’re under 26 and still on your parents insurance, make sure you’re covered abroad -- you may not need anything extra.

Savings Tip 2: As for your phone, you may be able to unlock your U.S. phone and just buy a SIM card while you’re abroad. However, if you don’t need the bells and whistles on your phone, it may actually be cheaper to buy a very basic pay-as-you-go phone once you’re there. Check out the special offers and see if you can get a deal (pssst, we have a guide to student cell phone plans in Europe if that's where you're headed!)

Fun Extras

Budget for fun while interning

While the main focus of your internship abroad should be gaining professional experience, you are abroad and you should make the most of your new surroundings! However, if money is limited then your best bet is to set aside a certain amount for these fun extra activities.

Don’t just pick a random sum, make an educated guess based on your top “must do” trips or activities. Then (if you can!) double that.

New possibilities are going to come up, it’s the nature of being abroad. You never know when a colleague is going to invite you to join them on a big night out on the town or to their summer cottage in the country.

Don’t say yes to things you absolutely can’t afford, but try to leave some flexibility for these kinds of unforeseen opportunities.

Savings Tip: Again, if you have a student ID card it can be your best friend! It can get you discounts on museum entries, travel passes, lodging, and so much more. Ask around or spend some time trawling the internet and you may also find some great sites or Facebook pages dedicated to free things to do and free special events and happenings in your host city. Make the most of it!

Bring the Right Card

Chances are you are going to be using some money from your home bank account and potentially a credit card to cover expenses while abroad. Make sure those ATM cards and credit cards aren’t going to cause you severe monetary pain!

If you already have a bank account open, see what kind of foreign exchange fees and foreign ATM fees your bank charges. If you’re lucky, your bank might have some kind of partnership with a bank in the country you’re going to, which may result at least in waived ATM fees (ideally on both ends!).

Just like at home, it’s worth doing some research into the best bank and account for you.

The Global ATM Alliance is one example, which includes heavy hitters like Bank of America, Deutsche Bank in Germany, Westpac in Oceania, Barclay in the UK, and more.

If you don’t already have a bank account, or are willing to open a new one, banks such Charles Schwab and Capital One (online accounts) don’t charge foreign currency exchange fees or foreign ATM fees. Charles Schwab may even refund you any charges an ATM abroad charges you!

Pretty much the same thing goes for credit cards. Capital One and Discover are a couple examples of credit cards that don’t charge foreign currency fees.

Opening a Bank Account Abroad

If you’re going to be abroad for more than a few months, it is probably worthwhile to open a bank account. And if your internship is paid, then there’s a good chance you will have to open an account.

The process for opening a bank account abroad can vary. Generally speaking, you will at the very least need a form of identification -- most likely your passport -- and most likely a local address.

Especially if you are getting paid, most countries will probably require you to register for some kind of identification number (similar to a social security number in the States). This will also likely come in handy when opening a bank account.

Just like at home, it’s worth doing some research into the best bank and account for you. Some accounts may have fees -- which may be able to be avoided if you have a regular deposit every month or even if you have a student ID. Other accounts may have better interest rates or additional benefits, which may be worth seeking out.

Ask for Advice

There could be a variety of discounts on all kinds of things based on your status -- whether it’s as a resident, a student, an intern, or even for the specific company you work with. Don’t be afraid to bring up budgeting questions in conversation with a colleague or your supervisor. While you shouldn’t bank on it, if you make your host company aware of your concerns on your daily expenses, you may be surprised by some generosity.

For example, maybe your company even has a history of providing extra perks like transport passes or cell phones to their interns, or maybe it’s something they would consider doing moving forward once they’re aware of this as an issue. Especially if you aren’t getting paid, these kinds of perks might not be so unthinkable.

You're providing a service and helping them out, after all! Of course, you should never flat-out ask for anything like this, but bringing it up in conversation and asking for advice might just work to your advantage.

Track Your Expenses

Interning abroad

While keeping a spreadsheet of all your expenses may sound over the top, if you’re on a serious budget it can be a lifesaver.

Carry around a small notebook with you and jot down every expense -- every snack, coffee, beer, water, souvenir -- and update your spreadsheet regularly. You’ll be able to see where your money is going, and seeing your spending habits can really help you keep on a budget.

Or, use Mint -- an app and website that will link to your bank account and credit card to track what you're spending. You'll have to enter cash expenses manually, but it's super easy and you can do it right on your phone. They'll even notify you if you're overspending in certain areas.

If at the end of the week or month you see that you’ve spent enough euros on espresso to pay for a couple weekend RyanAir flights to other countries, that perspective may just help you curb your unnecessary spending.

Request a Tax Refund

If your internship is paid, save all your pay stubs! There’s a good chance some of your earnings were withheld for taxes (and potentially some form of social security) in your host country, and you may be able to receive a refund of some or all of this money! A quick Google search should give you an idea if this is something you might be eligible for.

If your internship is paid, save all your pay stubs!

In some cases, it could be as simple as filling out and filing a form, in other cases it may be more complicated. Chances are, there are companies out there that can do the work for you for a fee.

Come Home Not Broke!

With a little extra effort, you can find yourself on the plane back home with a little thicker wallet and more than just enough money left over for a snack in the airport (actually -- make sure you budget to have a little extra money when you come back!)

The great thing about interning abroad is that you are putting yourself out there and working hard, which should result in a little compensation -- in some way -- more than deterioration of your funds as compared to some other endeavors overseas.

Even if you max out your budget and come home feeling a little bit poor, you are (cheesy as it may sound) richer in experiences! And the other great thing about interning abroad is that down the road it WILL pay off.

That experience will look awesome on your resume, and could very likely help you land a better-paying job faster and more easily than your peers without international experience. Long term: more money in the bank. Go you!

Photo Credits: Madi Burgess.

Rachael Taft

Growing up in the Midwest, Rachael couldn't wait to get out and see the world. She's studied abroad in Italy and Thailand, interned abroad in Sydney, worked abroad in Australia and Fiji, and traveled to 30+ countries, including backpacking solo across South America. In addition to working in international exchange, Rachael obsesses over all things her blog Girl, Unmapped.