Once you find a great study abroad program that aligns with your goals, it’s time to actually begin preparing yourself for the big trip.
What should you pack for study abroad? Do you need travel insurance? How should you handle money and phones while abroad? These are all important questions to answer, and we’re here to help! Read on for our best tips on how to prepare for studying abroad.
1. Apply for a passport and visa
You must have a valid passport to travel and study abroad. If you already have one, be sure to double-check that it's not expired and that it won't expire within 6 months of your intended return to the US. Also, make sure that you have blank pages in your passport if you've traveled abroad before.
For passport newbies, 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 6 to 12 months to get a passport, so make sure you start on this one well in advance. Yes, you can expedite the process, but it'll cost extra. It's better just to be timely.
If this is your first passport, don't forget to bring:
- Your birth certificate
- 2 recent passport-sized photos (these can be taken at local Walgreens, Kinkos, or most other photo-printing places)
- Certified identification (like a driver's license)
- Your passport application
- A form of payment
If you're 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, so look up your intended study abroad destination's regulations on the State Department's website. You can also 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! These can also require a physical and a background check, based on the country, so ensure you’re prepared for that.
If your study abroad trip is during the summer, or under three months long, you may not need a visa. Most countries will allow students to enter the country for up to 90 days on a tourist visa. However, this isn't true of all countries so definitely make sure you check and double-check what kind of visa (if any) you'll need.
2. Visit a 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's 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.
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). Prescription drugs must be carried in correctly labeled containers to prevent being mistaken for illegal drugs. It's also wise to bring a prescription or note signed by your doctor.
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 let's hope it never comes to that!).
Your health insurance provider might cover you abroad (not all do, though), but even if it does, there are a couple of things that travel insurance will cover that health insurance won't. For example:
- Coverage if your flight is delayed/canceled
- Lost luggage
- Stolen personal belongings
- Evacuation in the case of a health emergency or natural disaster
4. Shop around for an affordable 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.
Additionally, student travel agencies can provide the oft-most flexible and inexpensive tickets for students traveling abroad.
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! Fortunately, most airlines will let you change your ticket for $100 + the difference in price, while some tickets even come with free changes.
We also recommend doing your research before planning to arrive 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 with your visa. A bit of research can help prevent a disaster at border control!
5. Research your destination's local customs
Before traveling abroad, take some time to better familiarize yourself with your host country. Understanding the culture, history, geography, economy, government -- and anything else – will help you avoid faux pas and improve your immersion. Your study abroad experience will be enriched and your time spent more meaningful if you put in the work to make the most of it.
Even better, talk to others who have been there and seek opportunities to watch movies and read more about the country and its culture. Additionally, it would help to avoid accidentally offending others (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!).
6. Refresh your language skills
While this depends on the country you’re traveling to, it’s a good idea to learn basic phrases, or “survival” phrases of the country’s language. This will allow you to communicate with fellow students more effectively, and will help you navigate your surroundings more easily. Any genuine attempt to communicate with someone in their primary language shows that you are making an effort to immerse yourself in their culture, and will go a long way in building respect.
Beyond just that, learning basic phrases will help you navigate day-to-day situations, such as ordering food or asking for directions and will generally help you feel comfortable and confident in your surroundings, as you will be able to navigate simple interactions with greater ease.
To prepare for your study abroad experience, enroll in language classes, ask fluent friends for help, or download apps, like Duolingo, and podcasts to use on your daily commute to school -- every little bit helps!
7. Prepare your finances
There are a few essential steps to take in regard to finances before heading off:
Set up an online account
If you don't already have an online bank account, definitely set it up. It's the easiest way to manage your money while abroad. Most international travelers use their ATM/debit or credit cards to get cash in the local currency. Additionally, ensure you have a credit card that has zero international transaction fees. These can add up quickly if you’re using your credit card for daily purchases.
Tell your bank and credit card companies you'll be abroad
You'll need to notify your current bank and credit card companies about your plans to study abroad. Otherwise, you risk getting locked out of your account while abroad (they might flag it as fraud).
Pack some extra cash
For those first few days, and in case of emergency, it’s recommended that you bring the equivalent of $100-$200 in the currency of your host country. If you are unable to obtain the currency at home, the airport is a great option to withdraw cash at an ATM right as you arrive.
Read more: How to Budget for Study Abroad
8. Start packing!
There is one piece of advice that is shared by countless study abroad alum; pack light! Additionally, ensure to double-check with your airline to learn their luggage allowances to avoid fees. Personally, I'd suggest packing no more than:
- One checked bag.
- One daybag (e.g. a backpack) as your carry on.
- One personal item, like a purse.
While it may seem intimidating to live out of a couple of bags for an entire semester, If you check two bags, you'll only be weighing yourself down (literally) and making that end-of-study-abroad trip unnecessarily cumbersome. Personally, I love traveling with my 46-liter Osprey bag and a tote. It's been my go-to luggage for everything from 2-month to 2-year-long trips.
Some other useful packing tips include:
- Bring travel-sized toiletries to get through your first two weeks and stock up once you arrive.
- Plan to buy a cheap towel/sheets on arrival instead of wasting space on that.
- Stick to 3 pairs of shoes -- 4 if you must.
- Bring power adapters for your electronics.
- Leave the blow dryer and flat iron at home. The voltage differences in most countries (including most of Europe) will fry them. Get a cheap one in the country and leave your nice stuff at home.
- Bring a few momentos of home to help with homesickness.
- If you wear glasses or contact lenses, be sure to bring extra pairs with you.
Ask your study abroad program for a suggested packing list, or read the Go Overseas Ultimate Study Abroad Packing Guide, and keep in mind that many of the items you may want to bring will be available overseas. Note the weather in the country you are studying in, as packing your winter coat for January south of the equator might not be necessary.
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 on and write about your study abroad experience. Small souvenirs from your life back home also make great gifts for new friends or host families.
9. Plan out how you will contact loved ones
Before purchasing an international plan with your existing carrier, research the cost of a cell phone plan in the host country, as it is likely much less expensive. As long as it comes with data, you can use apps like iMessage or WhatsApp to call and text your loved ones without racking up international charges.
While goodbyes 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!
Additionally, the days of needing to unlock your cellphone to use with other carriers is behind us. A law passed years ago requiring phones to be sold unlocked. If your phone isn't unlocked, you can call your cell phone carrier and ask them to unlock it for international usage.
Prepare yourself mentally and enjoy the journey
While goodbyes 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.
Even though you can never expect to be fully prepared upon arrival, we hope these tips will help you have the most immersive experience possible!