I thought I knew what to expect from Spain when I decided to study abroad in Barcelona.
I talked to friends who studied abroad there before, and my university’s study abroad office told me how to prepare. But once I arrived, enrolled, and started living in Spain, daily life was a surprise. I lived off of Nutella and protein bars for the first couple of days since I didn’t know the Spanish business hours. And when I finally bought a sandwich, I didn’t understand why people kept staring at me as I ate it walking to class.
Thanks to some trial and error, by the end of the semester, I was exploring the city on my own like a local. I joined classes as the only English speaker, had new Spanish friends to practice the language with, and I didn’t want to leave. Here are some tips to help you transition into the Spanish lifestyle while you study abroad in Spain.
Find a Local News Channel
Start reading Spanish newspapers before you arrive. That way, you can get a feel for what people care about there and find fun events to try.
Most of these are online, like El Pais and ABC. Once you arrive in Spain and classes start, consider picking up the physical newspapers on the street and at school. You’ll learn what’s going on in your new home country from the sources locals use, rather than trying to get integrated on your own and not knowing where to start.
Keep Yourself Safe
Spain has been making headlines recently for a variety of social and political issues that are still developing. Keep your eye on the news and what people are saying in Spain on social media; try to figure out what hashtags might be relevant to follow (hint: they may be in Spanish).
Additionally, be sure to enroll in any safety programs (such as the U.S. State Department STEP program or programs at your host campus). You may find there are unique ways your university communicates need-to-know issues to students a few minutes.
Many Places are Cash-Only
Depending on which city you’ll be living in, many places like restaurants, bars, and markets will only accept cash. Always travel with a small amount of cash in case you need (or plan) to stop and purchase something.
Additionally, try to sign up for a debit card and credit card that have no foreign transaction fees. This is advice that works for study abroad anywhere in the world, but carrying a few cards like this will make life easier on those occasions where you need to pull out cash from an ATM. It always helps to have a credit card handy for back-up to use for travel expenses and emergencies, too.
Pickpocketing is a Reality, but Avoidable
Pickpocketing is a real thing in Spain, unfortunately.
It happened to me twice while studying abroad, at times when I wasn’t careful. In particular, the advice about not carrying your smartphone in your back pocket and keeping your backpack/purse in front of you can be very helpful to avoid most easy pickpocket situations. In the end, most pickpockets (in Spain and elsewhere) are looking for an easy opportunity -- if you make it difficult for them, you’ll protect your belongings better
Additionally, here are ways to deal if you end up being pickpocketed:
- Carry a copy of your passport with you, and lock your real one in your room. Same goes for a back-up credit card -- leave one behind in case you need it later!
- Don’t carry all of your cash around -- make sure you always have some stashed safe in case you need it in an emergency.
- Report the issue to your school and the police if appropriate.
You’ll Learn to Enjoy Life
This is a broad statement, but Spaniards generally make an effort to enjoy their days and company with one another. From spending hours with one another over a meal to taking siestas to spend time with their children or rest, many of the stereotypes about life in Spain are actually symptoms of an effort to really enjoy life. Time is designed to move slowly; by studying abroad in Spain, you’ll learn to slow yourself down, stop stressing and rushing, and take time to enjoy your study abroad experience.
Similarly, meals are an ‘event’ in their own right. Unlike home, where many of us eat in front of the T.V. or on-the-go, meals in Spain are meant to be enjoyed together, and the meal is the central focus of the experiences. From tapa crawls to talking with the bartender over a sandwich and beer, meals are respected in Spain. It’s normal for a family to sit down to lunch and have their neighbors and friends join them at the table, eating and drinking until they order dinner.
Make Friends by Attempting the Local Language
While you may think everyone in Spain speaks Spanish (and they do!), there are also other languages are spoken throughout Spain: Galician-Portuguese, Catalan, Basque, and Occitan.
When you arrive for your semester abroad, find out what the local language is in your city, and learn a few phrases. People will respect you highly for attempting to connect with them in their language, even if you’re not very good at it.
Consider signing up for a language exchange program, where you can casually meet with a Spanish student over coffee to learn more about their language as they practice English. Google “Intercambio” to find a program in your city, and check out our tips on making the most of a language-learning partner.
Take Advantage of Student Discounts
There are lots of discount programs to sign up for as an international student in Spain. I used the International Student Identity Card, which provides student discounts on sightseeing, travel, and more. This ID card is also handy in other parts of Spain and Europe if you plan on traveling during your time studying abroad. Order one before you leave, since it can take up to four weeks to arrive.
Venture Outside Your Comfort Zone -- You Won’t Regret It
It’s really tiring being in a completely new environment with new people. But, make an effort to take a walk in a new neighborhood after class or grab a coffee somewhere new each week. You’re bound to stumble upon different experiences, and it will help you feel more connected to your community.
Keep Your Daily Routine
Study abroad is great, but it can be disorienting and uncomfortable to arrive in a new country and new way of life. The best way to manage this transition is to keep parts of your daily routine.
For example, if you run, find running paths to take near where you’re living or at school. If you enjoy grocery shopping once a week, try shopping at local markets and fresh fruit stalls to learn more about local Spanish cuisine. Or if you go to the movies a lot, lookup new genres to watch at a theater; watching a few foreign language films will give you a massive understanding and appreciation of your new home culture. Incorporating aspects of your daily routine into your new environment will help you adapt quickly and feel more at home.
Spanish Fashion is Wildly Underrated
Many people don’t realize that Spain is a leading country for fashion. In every major Spanish city, you can find opportunities to shop-til-you-drop, even if you don’t consider yourself a very fashionable person back home.
During my time abroad, I arrived looking distinctly American but was rocking decidedly Spanish styles by the end of the semester.
Embrace Travel Opportunities -- Inside Spain, Too!
Many people view study abroad as a platform for a little bit of studying and a lot of traveling; this is especially true in Europe where everything is so close!
Before you book every weekend with travel, consider what you can learn from exploring your host country. Spending a few weekends exploring more of Spain and your city will teach you a lot about the local culture, and how you react to it. Venturing out to a neighboring city on your own is an inexpensive way to try out solo travel, too.
Studying abroad is about making your experience your own. Hopefully, these tips will help you expand your comfort zone and grow into your new city. Some days will be frustrating and hard, but grab a café con leche and move on. No pasa nada.