study abroad
Studying abroad can be both exciting and daunting, but knowing how to prepare can help reduce your anxiety about living in a different country. (Illustration by James O’Toole, Grand Valley State University)

The Ultimate Study Abroad Checklist for a Smooth Semester Overseas

From pre-departure to returning home, here’s everything you’ll need.

College /// Thoughts x
study abroad

From pre-departure to returning home, here’s everything you’ll need.

Studying abroad is an experience that every student should check off their bucket list before they graduate. Living and studying in other countries not only opens your mind to different cultures and ways of life in a structured academic setting, it helps you connect your own cultural identity and life experience with an increasingly globalized world.

That being said, going abroad is not for the faint of heart. You might be overwhelmed with the quantity and diversity of programs available to you, or maybe the thought of traveling alone internationally makes you feel underprepared to take on the world. It is easier than you might think to transform your mindset from that of the timid traveler to the exuberant explorer; all you need to do is equip yourself with the knowledge to make the most of your study abroad experience, with a fraction of the stress others face.

Picking a Program

Check with your university’s study abroad office or international studies office for programs recommended by your school. Many schools have their own study abroad curriculums while also providing opportunities for students to apply for other third-party programs.

Be sure to pick a program that best fits your needs by connecting with universities that excel in your area of study.

Documents

Be sure to make three printed copies of all of your important travel documents. This includes your passport (passport title page, visa page and entry stamp page), any necessary visas (do this as soon as possible!) and insurance cards.

One copy will remain at home with your family, one will go in your checked bag and the other in your carry-on. That way, if you end up in Italy but your luggage doesn’t, you’ll still have the freedom to move around until your checked back returns from its impromptu journey to Scandinavia.

Finances

Be sure to call your credit card company and bank to let them know you are going out of the country. If they are not notified beforehand, and a purchase you make in Rio de Janeiro appears on your credit card history, your credit card company might freeze your account under suspicion of fraudulent activity, leaving you in a bind.

That being said, be sure you know how you will access your money while abroad. Think about conversion rates and potential fees associated with withdrawing money abroad.

Communication

Figure out what your cell phone usage will be like abroad and what potential costs you might accrue during your trip or with an international phone plan. Also make sure to establish communication expectations with friends and family at home while you are abroad — will you call/text/facetime once a week or every other day to check in?

How often you communicate with friends and family back home is a decision you have to make on your own, but it is important to remember that you are going abroad to fully immerse yourself in another culture and step outside your comfort zone. While calling mom every evening might be what you need to destress after a long and tiring day, it can also pull you out of your cross-cultural experience and make you more homesick than you would be otherwise.

Preparations for Your Specific Destination

Research all areas you will visit while abroad to become aware of any potential medications or vaccinations you may need before departure. Also make sure you plan how you will access any prescription medication abroad, because other countries may have different regulations when it comes to certain medications.

Register with the State Department in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to make sure you are registered with the U.S. embassy in your host country. STEP sends you safety alerts from the region in which you will study and keeps your loved ones at home in the loop with potential obstacles you may face, including severe weather, national holidays and acts of terrorism.

Cultural Awareness

Be sure you are up to date with the cultural expectations, economic stability and history of your host country, as well as current events. If you enter your new country already knowing a thing or two, odds are your host family and new classmates will be very appreciative (and not to mention impressed) of your conscientious attention to their culture.

Align this new knowledge with your own cultural values, and be aware that those around you may have different expectations and standards of behavior. Go into your cross-cultural experience with an open mind, and you will find that studying abroad will be a much more enjoyable experience than if you spend the whole time comparing a new culture with your own.

What to Pack

Pack light.

I’m sorry, could you repeat it one more time for those in the back? Why of course.

Pack light!

Although you might get tired of wearing the same clothes over and over again, it is smarter to arrive in your host country with a little less than you think you will need. You will be grateful for this when you have to drag your luggage down multiple blocks on a busy city street!

Also, students often will make purchases while abroad, and you don’t want to have to suffer the consequences when you want to bring back more than you can carry, such as having to pay additional fees if your bag is overweight or having to purchase another bag altogether.

A Good Attitude

It is important to seize every opportunity you get to go out and try new things and connect with the community you will be spending time in. The people who get the most out of their study abroad experience are those who explore! This doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money on expensive excursions or experiences. Talk to locals and ask about favorite restaurants or parks off the tourist-weary path so you can be sure you get an authentic cultural experience wherever you may be.

It is also key to remember that not everything is going to go perfectly all the time. Keeping a positive outlook is crucial when flights get delayed or the weather is bad. A good attitude can turn unexpected setbacks into new opportunities for growth and self-discovery.

Growth Mindset

If you are studying abroad specifically to learn another language, avoid speaking your native language in your host family’s home or in your classrooms. Speaking a language is the best way to really learn it, so get off your phone and connect with the living, breathing people around you!

It can be difficult and uncomfortable, especially for those who are naturally extroverted conversationalists who have a lot to say. Come to terms with the fact that you will probably sound like a 3-year-old for the first few weeks as you become more comfortable with the grammar and colloquialisms of the language you find yourself immersed in.

Whew! That was a lot of information. Are you nervous yet? With all of these tips in mind, your study abroad experience will only be what you make it! So get out there and study abroad! If you don’t, someone else will, and then they’ll have a story you don’t. And nobody wants that, do they?

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