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What is it Like Living With a Host Family Abroad?

host mom in Madagascar

As a student or volunteer abroad, you'll likely have the option to live with a host family. At first, it seems like the obvious choice: it's affordable, gives you an instant support system in country, and can help you learn the local language and culture.

Before you decide if it's right for you, let Go Overseas help you understand what it's like living with a host family abroad

But then, you think about it a little more. You haven't lived with your own family for years. You like your independence and being able to dance to Katy Perry songs like a mad person whenever you want. These are complete strangers. You're shy and awkward and the idea of having dinner every night in a foreign language gives you a mild anxiety attack.

We understand -- living with a host family is different. So before you decide if it's right for you, let Go Overseas help you understand what it's like living with a host family abroad. Who knows? Maybe you'll have a host sibling who's just as in to spontaneous Katy Perry dance parties as you are...

What You Should Expect Living with a Host Family

Every home stay experience is just as different as the families who host. Regardless of if you're living with a family with three young toddlers in Senegal, or a single mom and her daughter in Spain, there are a few things you can expect from just about every home stay experience. While living with a host family, you should expect...

1. Your family may or may not have hosted other volunteers / students before

There's always a good chance that your host family has had experience hosting before. If this is your case, your host family should be well aware of what you'll need help with, what you're capable of accomplishing on your own, and sensitive of one another's cultural differences.

At the same time, there's always a chance you're the first -- that's OK too. Just try to be understanding and patient. Both you and your family are learning a lot from living with each other!

2. Your family should have been thoroughly evaluated and interviewed

Your program provider should have interviewed and evaluated your family thoroughly to make sure they meet their standards and can provide a safe and comfortable living environment for you. To make sure you end up in the right family for you, make sure you ask your provider the following questions:

  • How long has the family been hosting volunteers/students?
  • What meals are they promised to provide?
  • Will I be sharing my room with another person?
  • Am I expected to provide my own food on the weekends?
  • How old are the children, if any?
  • How far away is the home from school/volunteer site/internet access/restaurants?
  • Will the family adapt to any dietary restrictions I have?
  • What is transportation like around the community?

3. To eat the same food that the rest of the family is eating

host brothers, Malagasy children

If you have any special dietary restrictions, let your program provider know well before they assign you to a host family.

This way, they can ask your host family "are you OK hosting a vegetarian / a person with a nut allergy / etc.?" and make sure you're placed with someone willing and capable of accommodating you.

Even so, you may have to be flexible and patient (not every culture "gets" vegetarianism -- for example, in Senegal "vegetarian" means you still eat fish).

If you have no restrictions, expect to eat what your host family is eating. It's just plain rude not to! (Hint: In cultures where they tend to feed guests a lot, there's usually a polite secret phrase to say "great food, but I'm full". LEARN IT.)

4. To be respectful of their house rules

Does your family wait up for you to get home before locking up? Do they feel uncomfortable with you bringing a friend home? Do they expect you to do the dishes or keep the bathroom a certain way? Ask about these rules and be respectful of them -- it's the least you can do to say thanks!

5. To learn the language much faster

Your host family is a great resource for practicing the local language and creating a total immersion environment. Families with small children are especially helpful, since they're already used to coaching their little 4-year-olds through tough pronunciations and explaining simple concepts.

6. To feel uncomfortable in certain situations

Living with a host family means getting very familiar with each other and spending time in each other's personal space. Add different cultural norms and perspectives on what personal space is (in some places, it's not a concept at all), and you're sure to have an awkward moment or two.

Despite all the awkward moments and cultural differences, expect to fall in love with your host family.

Little host brother barges in your room while you're getting dressed? Your host mother hand washes your underwear? Your host sister bluntly asks you about every-single-detail about your love life? These things happen!

7. Your family will include you on family events and holiday celebrations

You're part of the family, after all! If you're living with your host family during important holidays or celebrations, like weddings, birthdays, or funerals, expect to get an invitation.

8. To get a second family that will be hard to leave

Despite all the awkward moments and cultural differences, expect to fall in love with your host family. Expect that when it comes time to leave, both of you will be adamantly making promises to stay in touch and see each other soon. They're your second family now! How lucky are you?

What You Should NOT Expect When Living with a Host Family

And of course, there are a few things that you absolutely shouldn't expect from your host family.

  • To be coddled
  • To have the same amount of independence as you did at home
  • To have a live-in maid
  • For your family to use English for your sake
  • To treat your house like a hotel
  • To come and go as you please without being respectful of your host parents
  • To have your friends come and stay with you

Stories From Living With Host Families Abroad

As we mentioned before, no two experiences living with a host family are alike -- and what better way to learn about personal experiences than hearing stories from a few individuals who have had this experience?

Natalie: studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain

Chinese kid and student

For Natalie, a college student who studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain for a semester, having a host family helped her “get to know the area better through a local perspective, feel comfortable in a foreign place, gain a better cultural understanding, and practice speaking the language on a regular basis.”

Having a stand-in family while far away from her own was a huge perk for Natalie, especially when she got sick and needed extra help.

The only drawback was a slight lack in independence, like having curfews and feeling obligated to eat massive amounts of food at meal times, but she says the benefits far outweighed this one factor.

The best thing about living with a host family according to Natalie is that her relationships “developed into those similar to a real family."

She anxiously looks forward to the time when she can return to Sevilla and visit them.

Alex: studied high school abroad in Russia

Alex, a high school exchange student in Moscow, had a brief but pleasant experience with his host family. He “mostly communicated through the host brother, as the parents did not speak any English,” but they were still welcoming and generous.

The apartment had only two bedrooms, but they made sure Alex had his own room. Alex “had studied Russian for two years, but was still not very good, which made it tough to communicate. If I had been there longer than a month, or was taking courses while there, I might have learned more.”

Staying with a host family is not for everyone, but it's an affordable and unique accommodation anyone going overseas should think about it.

Another downside, which was mostly due to his age, was he felt “trapped in the house, obligated to do whatever the family was doing.” Overall though, he’s still happy he participated in the exchange program and had the chance to experience life first hand in Russia by living with his host family.

Mandi: language program in Costa Rica

House in Costa Rica

I lived with a host mom and two sisters in San Jose, Costa Rica while taking a month long language course at the University of Costa Rica. For me, I wanted to live with a host family as a way to get extra Spanish practice outside of class.

Once there, however, I found it tough to force myself to interact with my new family -- my Spanish skills were still pretty low, and I'm a shy person.

Since my stay was only one month long, I didn’t have time to break out of my shell enough to feel fully comfortable and improve my Spanish skills.

Even so, I loved living with my host family. I got delicious, authentic breakfast and dinner every day. I had my own room in a quiet neighborhood, with another American girl in the house, and a few more down the street.

Despite the language barrier, my host mom went out of her way to make sure I was comfortable. My only regret was that I didn’t get to stay longer and build my relationship with her!

Dennis: volunteered in India

Dennis, a German man who volunteered in India for a year, had an unusual, and less than ideal, host family experience. He was one of five volunteers all living with a family of four. The family had only expected two volunteers.

“I remember my stay in the host family was very chaotic,” Dennis said. “Before arriving in India I thought I would be the only volunteer living in a family who are experienced and excited to meet me. I imagined living in a happy family who is patient, would help me to adjust to my new environment and would try to help me integrate. I thought after maybe two months I would be considered a family member.”

Having a host family helped Natalie "get to know the area better through a local perspective, feel comfortable in a foreign place, and practice speaking the language on a regular basis."

But, this wasn't the case. The family was overwhelmed and unhappy with the situation. Finally, after an argument between another volunteer and the host father, all volunteers were asked to leave.

However, Dennis does not look back on the experience as negative. “If I think back, there are many things I could have and should have done differently. But at the time, I was only 19 and just tried my best to make it work,” Dennis says.

If you end up having a less than perfect experience with your host family, here are some tips for dealing with a bad host family.

  • Be patient in the beginning when you're getting to know your family and the culture.
  • Even if you feel your family doesn’t respect you, follow their rules and continue to treat them with kindness.
  • Consider things you can change to make it a more positive experience.
  • Talk with your program directors about the problem in the beginning so they can work with your family to make a change.
  • If you do decide to leave, don’t point fingers and accuse, simply say “This isn’t working out.”
  • If you're placed with a new family, don’t talk bad about your old host family -- this only breeds negative feelings.

Still Not Sure About Living With a Host Family?

To figure out if a home stay is right for you, take your time to weigh the pros and cons and make an educated decision. Ask yourself the right questions. Consider your goals, and decide whether living with a host family would help you meet them.

Questions to ask yourself before deciding to live with a host family:
  • How important is my privacy?
  • Will I be flexible enough to adjust to another family’s rules and quirks?
  • How much do I like living in a family environment? Would I prefer living with someone my own age?
  • Do I have the ability to be culturally sensitive at all times?
  • Is it important to me to not only learn the customs of my host family, but be involved with them?
  • How serious am I about learning the language?
  • Am I OK with sharing a room with someone I don’t know?

Challenge Yourself: Just Do It!

Staying with a host family is not for everyone, but it's an affordable and unique accommodation anyone going overseas should think about it. Overall, living with a host family will guarantee you a richer cultural experience, comfort, security, and perhaps even a second family in your new host country.

Really, whatever your hesitations may be, we strongly encourage you to challenge yourself and try it -- shy kid or not!

Get the other side of the story with what does your host family think about hosting?.

Look for a homestay family or explore study abroad programs.

Photo Credits: Mariana Andrade-Bejarano, Jessie Beck, Holly Lippman, and Alyssa Berkowitz.
Mandi Schmitt

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. She started writing for Go Overseas as a Columnist before coming on full time as the PR & Special Projects Director. Keep up with her on @Mandi_Overseas and Google+.