How to Study Abroad
Welcome to educations.com’s ultimate guide on how to study abroad! Studying abroad is life-changing, but it can be a confusing process. In this guide, we’ll explain the process in full, from why you absolutely should study abroad, to how to choose schools, and even how to bounce back from reverse culture shock (and everything in between).
Table of Contents
1. Make a plan
We believe everyone should study abroad! There are so many reasons why studying abroad can be a life-changing experience. If you still need convincing why you should study abroad, consider these:
1. You’ll become more independent. Whether you’re traveling outside of the country for the first time, or even living alone for the first time, studying abroad pushes you to become independent and self-sufficient. There are of course challenges that come with this, but it’s incredibly rewarding. Students often say studying abroad was a period of huge personal growth for them.
2. You’ll learn about another culture. It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling across ten timezones or just the next country over. Studying abroad exposes you to new people, a new way of life, and a new culture. Our society is more global than ever, and these experiences will expose you to different types of people that will make you a better employee, student, and person overall.
3. You’ll stand out to future employers. You’ll gain valuable skills studying abroad, and employers will take notice. You’ll be a stronger communicator, have better interpersonal skills, and gain street smarts that will help you think critically, no matter your profession.
4. You’ll broaden your education. Say you’re an archeology student--studying in a country where you can actually go on-site to ancient ruins will be so incredibly valuable. No matter the field you’re in, studying abroad will simply expose you to new paths to pursue your passions, or even investigate new ones. The world has so many outstanding universities--so look beyond your current school and explore the possibilities.
5. You’ll learn more about yourself. When you remove yourself from an environment you feel comfortable in, you should expect a lot of personal growth to happen. It’s not always easy to leave your home city and move to a completely new environment--even if it’s just a few months! But stepping outside of your comfort zone can be truly invigorating. Even in the most stressful moments of homesickness, language barriers, and dealing with foreign currency, you’ll learn to rise to the occasion and find out what you’re truly made of.
6. You’ll gain valuable travel skills. Traveling well is indeed a skill, and it’s one that all global citizens should have. Not only will you learn the social norms of a new place, but even figuring out things like public transportation provide you with valuable life skills.
7. You’ll expand your network. If studying abroad for the personal growth and opportunity to expand your education isn’t enough, do it for the friendships. It can be scary to make new friends, but it’s so rewarding. You may realize you have so much in common with someone who lives in a different country. Whether or not you’re bonding with someone else from your country who is on the trip with you, or making friends with a local, expanding your network is great for your social life, your career, and your own growth. And with friends abroad, you’ll always have an excuse to go back!
8. You’ll immerse yourself in a new language. Learning a new language can be an exciting experience, especially if it’s been years since you've learned one in school. Even if you’re just learning the basics, you’re still exercising a part of your brain. And going to a country where they speak the same language as you is still a fascinating experience--you’ll learn new slang and speech patterns, and see your own language through totally different eyes.
9. You’ll go on new adventures. You don’t even need to hike a mountain to go on a study abroad adventure--trying a new food might be adventure enough. But you’re still exposing yourself to new things you wouldn’t be able to expose yourself to at home. And while you can (and certainly should!) take pictures for Instagram and your friends back home, you’ll probably be so wrapped up in these new experiences that you’ll put your phone down and just enjoy.
10. You’ll bring all of these new skills home with you. Coming home after a semester (or years) abroad can bring forward all sorts of emotions. Reverse culture shock is real! But those emotions mean you’ve changed, and have likely brought a lot of skills back with you. You might even realize how much you’ve missed your home country, and gain a new appreciation for it.
Many people when they think of studying abroad think of taking a semester abroad during their bachelor’s degree. While this is common, it is by no means the only way you can study abroad. In fact, you can study abroad at almost every level of your education-- even if you’ve been out of school for years!
You don’t even need to be at the university level to study abroad. You can do anything from a summer abroad program for a few weeks to a year-long exchange. Studying abroad in high school could be an excellent way to differentiate yourself when you’re applying to universities, and is good life practice for living alone.
Foundation programs and Pathway programs are post-secondary programs that you can take after high school to further prepare you for university. If you want to study abroad, you might be eligible to participate in a foundation or pathway program that will assist you with language proficiency and teach you about the education system in that particular country, which will then allow you to thrive at your degree program abroad!
Associate’s degrees are degrees from undergraduate colleges that might be a stepping stone before the bachelor’s degree, or for other students, is a qualification by itself. While most common in the United States, you can find these programs in other countries too. They’re often two years long--and could be a great opportunity to study abroad before a bachelor’s degree.
Studying abroad for a semester or a year during your bachelor’s degree might be a great way to complement the education you’re getting in your home country--but it’s not the only way you can study abroad during your bachelor’s! You could also do your entire bachelor’s degree (3-4 years) abroad. Consider this option if a school abroad has a program that particularly interests you. You also don’t need to go during the school year--a summer program at your level could be perfect if you don’t have time to commit an entire semester or year abroad.
Completed your bachelor’s degree at home? It’s never too late to study abroad. Explore master’s degrees around the world! Depending on your field of study, going abroad for your master’s could be what you need to set you apart on the job market and could help give you good internship or work experience in another country. Whether you want to get an MBA or a master’s in anthropology, there’s sure to be an excellent program abroad for you.
Pursue the highest level of education abroad. Doctorate programs are often quite small and competitive, and sometimes only have a spot or two open each year. If you can’t find positions in your home country, looking abroad could be a great way to pursue your studies and expose yourself to new schools of thought and experts within your field.
Looking to master a new language? It could be time to pursue this education abroad. There’s just no replacement for interacting with locals, as opposed to self-teaching yourself from home. If you’re serious about becoming fluent, consider a language school abroad.
Certificates and diplomas
If you’re looking to study a very specific skill or just want to pursue a unique passion, a certificate or diploma program abroad could be just what you’re looking for. Take a pastry class in France or get a diploma in digital marketing. Studying abroad for these short-term courses could be a great thing to put on your CV to get ahead in the job market and learn a new skill.
Convinced yet? Studying abroad is truly life-changing, and you should do it. But first things first--a lot of planning needs to go into a study abroad application. When SHOULD you study abroad? Can you afford it? Which country should you even choose, and then how do you apply? Read on for all the details.
Two of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is when to study abroad and how to pay for it. It may also be a challenge to convince your parents to let you study abroad if they’re resistant. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to apply--let’s make sure it works with your life first.
When should I study abroad?
If you’ve just graduated from a bachelor’s program and you’re ready to go abroad for a master’s or Ph.D., it may be an easy decision when you can study abroad. But if you’re in the middle of your bachelor’s degree, when you go may matter very much. You’ll have to figure out where studying abroad fits in the midst of your other academic commitments, like internships, co-ops, and course requirements.
Depending on your university or major, you may have little choice. Not many schools allow freshman students to go abroad, and it is still uncommon during sophomore year. Junior year is a common time to go abroad, and it may still be possible senior year. Be sure to check with your university’s study abroad office or your academic advisor who can provide information on what’s most typical and convenient for a student at your school.
Can I study abroad as an engineering or pre-med student?
You absolutely can study medicine or engineering abroad.There’s a common misconception out there that for students majoring in pre-med or other STEM fields, studying abroad won’t work with their very structured academic requirements. This is untrue! While you may have to plan a bit more ahead if you have a lot of academic requirements, it is possible to study abroad, and will likely make you an even stronger med-school candidate. Contact your school’s office of pre-professional advising the second you know you want to study abroad. They’ll be able to work with your schedule to see how you can fit it in. While you might not be able to do a full year abroad, you can usually still fit in a semester, or at the very least, a summer program.
Can I afford to study abroad?
There’s no way to sugar coat it--studying abroad can be expensive, and it can be a huge deterrent to those who want to study abroad. But you have options, and how much it costs will depend on the country you go to and of course, how long you stay.
How much does it cost to study abroad?
According to the Institute for International Education, a semester abroad costs, on average, $18,000 a semester. Depending on how much you pay per semester at your home institution, this could be on par or even less. Beyond program fees, you’ll also have to consider airfare and cost-of-living. If you’re living in New York City, the cost-of-living might seem much lower in Costa Rica. And if you’re going to school in Stockholm currently, studying abroad in New Delhi might be quite affordable. Expect adding a good amount of spending money to that total as well.
"A semester abroad costs, on average, $18,000 a semester."
But there’s good news--you have many options, especially if you’re looking to study abroad at the bachelor’s level. For instance, if you are currently receiving financial aid to go to college, that financial aid will still go toward your study abroad program. You could also take out a student loan or accumulate some scholarship money. And, of course, if you can’t afford to go for a full year, a summer program would still get you that life-changing experience for a fraction of the cost.
How can I convince my parents to let me study abroad?
Your family might be hesitant to let you study abroad. Put yourself in their shoes--they’re probably just nervous, especially if you’ve always lived nearby or if you’ve (or they) never been out of the country before. But if you build your case, you can probably convince them.
First, be prepared--they’re going to have a lot of questions and you’ll need to have answers. Make sure you know how you’re going to potentially pay for it because they’re definitely going to want to hear that. Outline the many benefits of study abroad, and ensure them that you’ll communicate with them often when you’re abroad. If you approach the conversation with empathy, you’re sure to have a good chance in convincing even the most protective parents.
Once you know roughly when you’ll go and how you’ll pay for it (as well as getting the green light from your parents if you need it), the more fun stuff begins. Let’s decide where you should go!
Where should I study abroad?
Maybe you already know exactly what country or continent you want to study in--but which university? Or maybe you’re truly open to countries but you know you want to go to a top biology program since you’re pre-med.
One other thing to consider: Does your university partner with universities abroad? If so, this may be the easiest route for you, especially since it’ll likely be seamless when it comes to transferring credits. Many schools have partnerships with a variety of universities all over the world, so ask your study abroad office.
Check out our extensive study guides as well--we have in-depth info on what it’s like to study abroad around the world, depending by country.
If you have no country in mind yet
Consider your major.
If you’re an English major, it might not make any sense to study in China . But if you’re studying world literature specifically, studying in China might actually be an awesome idea. Certain countries are known for different things, and while there will likely be excellent programs in many countries, this can be a good starting point if you’re in the beginning of your search. Consider the following ideas:
Business & Finance: Think major cities that are hubs of business: London, New York, Hong Kong, Toronto, Sydney, and Tokyo.
English & Literature: Major literary hubs include Santiago, Oxford, Paris, St. Petersburg, Dublin, and Edinburgh.
Medicine & Public Health: Developing countries will often provide you with hands-on experience, but also think about where the best healthcare in the world is. Consider locations like Denmark, South Africa, Ghana, Thailand, or India.
Politics & Law: Political hotspots include Brussels, Geneva, and Washington, D.C.
Engineering & Technology: Think of innovation hubs like Singapore, San Francisco, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Stockholm, and Lisbon.
Visual Arts: Try a city with a rich cultural history of visual arts and tons of museums, like Florence, Paris, Barcelona, Beijing, or Chicago.
Performing Arts & Music: Theater and music hubs include (but are certainly not limited to) Havana, Nashville, London, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Berlin.
History: Whether you’re interested in archeology or just history in general, you can’t beat places like Athens, Jerusalem, Cusco, Alexandria, or Moscow.
Education: Consider studying in countries with the best educational systems in the world (Finland, The Netherlands, Japan, South Korea) or places where there’s a demand for English teachers (Vietnam, Colombia, Taiwan).
Consider your interests outside of school.
You’re more than just a student! So think of your interests outside of the classroom. Do you want to go somewhere with a beach? Do you want the ability to go camping? Is a hot culinary scene important to you? Consider the following ideas:
If you’re outdoorsy, consider countries like South Africa, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Norway, or Tanzania.
If you want to study near a hopping culinary scene, consider cities like Tokyo, Marrakesh, Rio de Janeiro, Dubai, New York, and Taipei.
If you’re an ambitious shopper, consider top shopping cities like London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Paris, and New York.
If you’re all about that cafe life, consider these cities with some of the best cafe cultures in the world: Stockholm, Seattle, Melbourne, Rome, Singapore, or Vienna.
If keeping a strict budget is important for you, you may want to consider cities with a lower cost-of-living. According to Numbeo, the countries with the highest cost-of-living in 2018 are Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Luxembourg, and Denmark. You might consider more budget-friendly countries--these, for example, all have a low cost-of-living, according to Numbeo: India, Mexico, Kenya, Peru, and Hungary.
If you already have a country in mind
If you already know where you want to study, now you have to decide where to apply. When you’re choosing universities, consider the following:
- Does the university offer a program that fits with my career goals? If you want to do an entire bachelor’s degree in biology in England and then go back home to the USA for medical school, you’ll want to be very careful that you’re meeting certain requirements so that you can apply to American medical schools. Do your research beforehand!
- Will I be able to transfer credits back to my home institution (if you’re going for a semester/year and not for the entire degree)? Some schools might be quite strict about what study abroad credits they will count for your degree, particularly when it comes to major requirements. Be certain, and have it in writing beforehand, that your school will allow that biology class you take abroad to be counted as your required biology class for your public health major!
Want to learn more about what it's like to study in a certain country? Check out our study guides on the countries below:
Where should I look for study abroad programs?
Once you’ve decided on a general location, now it’s time to get serious about making a list of potential universities.Try a few of these options:
Education search engines
While Google can be a good starting resource, using a more targeted resource like educations.com can help you by comparing programs and connecting with universities. This is a good starting point if you’re in the research stage. You can filter programs by country, city, school type, and category.
If you’re more focused on school rather than country, it may also be a good idea to check out ranking sites like THE, QS, and US News, which compile annual rankings of the top schools around the world. But take this with a grain of salt--just because a school isn’t in the top 20 doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an amazing program that’s uniquely suited to you and your interests.
The application process
Have a list of schools in mind? Now it’s time to start the application process. We promise it’s not as complicated as it might look! If you’ve applied to a university at home before, the process will likely look quite similar. Read on for exactly what goes into a study abroad application.
Before you do anything else, get organized. We recommend starting with a spreadsheet to help you keep track of deadlines. You may also want to keep checklists of requirements for each school. You should come back to this spreadsheet again and again throughout the process to update it. If a spreadsheet isn’t your style, you should try making a checklist or some sort of master document that you can return to.
Ready to apply? While the application process will vary depending on the type and level of school you’re applying to, here are the basic requirements that might be a part of your application.
Most programs want to see how you did at your last school, be it your undergraduate university or even your high school. Some schools have specific minimum GPA requirements that will have to meet in order to be eligible. Contact your current school as soon as possible to have them send your transcript to the school you’re applying to.
Depending on the grading system of the country, you may need to convert your grades or even get your transcript translated into another language.
Many international programs work primarily in English, and if English isn’t your first language, you will need to take a standardized test to show that you will be able to do the coursework. For most schools, this will be either the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Schools in North America tend to prefer the TOEFL, whereas the UK tends to prefer the IELTS--but both tests tend to be accepted worldwide, so be sure to check out each school’s individual requirements. You can check if you’re ready to take the IELTS with this test.
Depending on country, the schools you’re applying to might also require more general standardized tests like the SAT (which many American universities require for undergraduate students). If you’re applying to an American graduate school, you may need to take the GRE.
Motivation letter/Personal statement
Some schools will require you write a personal statement (sometimes called a study abroad essay) that explains why you’re applying to their program. It’s a chance to show your personality, your priorities as a student, and how the school will help you reach your dreams. Motivation letters vary in length, but expect around 500 words as an average.
Your motivation letter should do several things:
- Explain why you want to study at the specific university you’re applying to. Think of what they can offer you, and how you too can contribute to their institution.
- Explain why you want to study in their country, and not your home country.
- Show proof that you could excel abroad and at their university specifically.
Your motivation letter should not:
- Be a generic letter you send to all of the schools you’re applying to.
- Plant doubt that you couldn’t handle being an international student away from home.
- Imply that you’re studying abroad to party and only make friends.
Some schools will ask for one or two academic references to submit with your application. Often they’ll ask the teachers to submit references directly to the university, though sometimes you will be asked to send them in yourself.
Choose teachers who really know you and ones who you have a good relationship with. This might be teachers you’ve had recently. When you ask them for an academic reference, you might want to provide a CV and a list of schools you’re applying to, so they can customize their references. A good rule of thumb: Give them at least a month’s notice, and be prepared to send reminders.
Interviews are not very common, but you might be asked to do an interview over the phone or Skype. Interviews might sound scary, but they’re a great way to show your personality, and a good chance for you to ask questions and decide if the school is right for you--interviews are a two-way street!
Here are some questions you might encounter in a study abroad interview:
- Why do you want to study abroad?
- Why are you interested in this particular program?
- What are your long-term career goals?
- Have you been abroad before? How did you find it?
- What parts of COUNTRY’S culture are you most looking forward to?
- How would you get involved at our school?
- What do you do in your free time?
You should come with questions of your own, as well. But do research first and don’t ask questions that you could easily find on their website. Taking the time to do thoughtful research will show your interviewer you’re serious about their program and about studying abroad. It may help you to do a “mock interview” with a friend or family member before the real interview.
If you go into a study abroad interview prepared, you’ll be sure to leave a good impression. Send a follow-up thank you note via email after the interview!
Most programs won’t require this, but if you’re applying to a program that is writing-heavy or arts-focused, you may be asked to submit a sample of your work. For a literature program, this could include a research paper. For an animation course, this might be a portfolio of your best work.
Studying abroad can be expensive, but scholarships can be one way to majorly offset the cost. There are many places to look for scholarships, and scholarships will vary--they could provide several hundred dollars toward tuition or could even cover an entire program. But don’t overlook the smaller scholarships--any amount can go a long way in making study abroad possible for you. Unsure where to start? Let us be your guide!
Start with our scholarship guide
We’ve curated a guide of the top scholarships for students studying in 21 countries. We’ve already done the dirty work of researching scholarships online, so you know these are vetted and actually worth applying to. Some of these scholarships are associated with universities, but others are open to students looking to study anywhere in the country. In the guide, we give you the complete details like deadlines and eligibility.
Look at your university’s scholarship page
If you’re looking to study in a country that’s not included in our scholarship guide, you should look to see if the schools you’ve applied to offer scholarships for their school specifically. Most universities will have a page dedicated to this information. You may also want to investigate if your current university offers students scholarships to study abroad at other universities.
Explore government-funded scholarships
Some countries will help fund students who are looking to study there. It’s certainly worth a quick Google search!
If you’re an American student who is on financial aid at your home university, you will likely be able to get financial aid to study abroad as well. If you’ve taken out a federal loan, check out this list of countries that accept FAFSA. If your school has given you a private grant, you likely will be able to extend that to your study abroad studies. Be sure to check out your school’s financial aid office if you have any specific questions.
You did it! Once you get into a school abroad, the real fun begins. But perhaps you’ve been accepted by more than one school. You will have to decide which school to choose.
How to decide where to study if you have more than one option
First things first. Make a pro and con list of each school you’re deciding between. There are several things you should consider:
- Cost. What’s the tuition? If the schools you’re deciding between are in two different countries, what’s the cost of living in each? Does one school offer better financial aid?
- Student life. While you won’t get a true sense of the student life before you get there, you can look for clues on the university’s website. What clubs do they offer? Check out the schools’ social media. What vibe do you get? Could you see yourself there for several months?
- Academic offerings. Will both schools get you where you want to go? Consider school prestige. Consider whether the courses you’ll take will help you once you graduate.
- Your gut feeling. Don’t choose a school just because your parents prefer one. If you’re going to spend a few months or a few years out of the country, it should be somewhere you actually want to be.
Didn’t get an offer of admission?
If you weren’t accepted by any of the schools you applied to, you might feel very frustrated or disappointed. But keep in mind that many programs are extremely competitive, and just because they may not have thought you were the right fit now, it doesn’t mean they never will. Apply next year, and consider a wider variety of schools. With all of your experience, it will be even easier to apply next year.
Once you’ve officially accepted an offer, it’s time to do the logistical work of preparing to make the move. This can be very overwhelming, so we’ve broken down each thing you’ll need to do step by step.
Some programs will provide you with housing or make the arrangements for you--and if that’s the case, you’re very lucky. For those who are responsible for securing their own housing, here are the different types of housing you’ll encounter when you’re a student abroad:
Student dormitories. Student dormitories are great in that they’re furnished and provide you with instant access to people your age who are in a similar situation to you. Socially, this is an ideal scenario. In terms of privacy, you will likely be giving up a little privacy. All dorms are different, but you will likely share a kitchen and may share a bathroom. Check with your university for what they offer. Dormitories can often be a good value--they are often reasonably priced and are close to campus.
Homestays. Homestays are an excellent option for people who want to immerse themselves in the local culture. You’ll get a real experience by living with someone else (or an entire family) and can get the benefit of their wisdom and advice as locals. These places are also obviously furnished which are ideal for those who will only be in the country temporarily. Of course, here too you will have to give up some privacy. But it could be well worth it if you want to integrate yourself in the culture faster. Not sure where to start? Homestay.com is a good starting place. Your program may also be able to put you in touch with people.
Apartments. The most private of your options, apartments are great for those comfortable with more independence. Of course, depending on where you live, your apartment complex could have lots of students which may make it as social as a student dorm. Look for apartments that are fully furnished. Apartments can be expensive though, so you may have to get a roommate (or two). Apartment-hunting can also be tricky to navigate when you’re not able to visit apartments before making a decision. There are several resources you can use, though, to find apartments for students.
Things to keep in mind when looking for housing abroad:
Because you probably won’t be able to visit the apartment, be aware that some listings you see will be scams that will try to get you to spend a lot of money on places that aren’t worth it. To avoid this, check out these landlord redflags. We also recommend reverse Google Image searching to see if the photos that are posted are legitimate, or are stock photos that are used in multiple listings.
We also recommend prioritizing your safety, especially in large cities where petty crime might be common. Just because an apartment is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth sacrificing your sense of well-being over it.
Managing your money is one of the most difficult things to do abroad. With so many new experiences at your fingertips, it’s easy to blow money and justify it in the pursuit of YOLO. And it’s true--you DO only live once, so you should absolutely make the most of your study abroad experience. But you can do it in a reasonable way that’s within your budget!
Your budget will vary based on where you study abroad--there’s definitely no one-size-fits-all budget as some countries are more affordable than others. You’ll often see the range $3,000-$8,000 cited as an average for what you’ll spend over several months studying abroad.
Some basic budget tips to help you save money abroad:
- Bring your student ID everywhere. Many countries offer student discount cards, and often bringing your student ID around can get you into museums and other tourist attractions at a reduced price. Many stores and restaurants will offer discounts for students too.
- Prepare meals at home. Eating out can add up really quickly. If you’re on a small budget, cooking the majority of your meals at home is a great way to save money. You can still take advantage of local foods--but preparing them at home will cut costs.
- Find free activities. Sure, some things do cost money--but you’d be surprised at the number of things you can do for free. Research outdoor activities (including outdoor gyms), beaches, free museums, and festivals.
- Check your budget often. Making an ambitious budget before you leave can’t hurt, but you should revise once you get to the country and get a better sense of what things will cost. Also be sure to regularly check your bank account. Especially when you’re not used to foreign currency, you might inadvertently be spending more than you think you are.
- Research cheap ways to travel. If you want to travel even more during your study abroad period, research cheap ways to do it. Cheap airlines like Ryanair might be a good bet for you, and look at trains and ferries too. For inter-city travel, you might consider investing in a bicycle. It’s great exercise and might be cheaper than taking a subway or train. Also consider walking!
Is your flight date approaching? Better get serious about packing. Every region will require different items to bring, and many items you can buy there. Read on for our ultimate packing list (optimized for 6 months abroad regardless of location) and then for the region-specific style advice.
The Ultimate Study Abroad Packing List
- Passport (and copy of your passport)
- Local currency if needed
- Credit and debit cards
- Health insurance card
- Student ID
- Driver’s license
- Any prescriptions you take with the original prescription printed
CLOTHING, SHOES, ACCESSORIES
- 14 pairs of underwear
- 3-4 regular bras and 2 sports bras if you wear them
- 1 sweatshirt
- 2 jeans (one dark wash)
- 1-2 pants
- 1-2 shorts
- 2 skirts
- 2-3 dresses
- 2-3 tank tops
- 4-5 short sleeve shirts
- 2-3 long sleeve shirts
- 1 formal outfit (blazer and slacks or a nice dress)
- 2 athletic shorts or leggings
- 2 athletic shirts
- 1 swimsuit
- 2 pajamas
- 2-3 sweaters (one lighter, one heavier)
- 1 raincoat
- 12 pairs of socks, 1-2 pairs of tights
- 1 light jacket (denim jacket, for example)
- 1 heavier jacket (location dependent)
- 1 pair athletic sneakers
- 1 pair comfortable walking shoes
- 1 pair dressier shoes (flats, heels, nice loafers)
- 1 pair flip-flops
- 1 pair sandals (location dependent)
- 1 hat
- 1 scarf
- 1 pair gloves
- Tote bag
Toiletries take up a lot of space in a suitcase, so only bring small travel sizes to last you a week or two and then buy new stuff in your new country. You may even find some cool foreign brands to bring back with you! Here’s a list of what you should bring and what you should buy when you get there:
Bring from home:
- Deodorant or antiperspirant (might not be the same depending where you’re going)
- Your favorite makeup (can be quite expensive abroad)
- Over-the-counter drugs like Motrin or Benadryl (check country restrictions first, but know that not all of your favorite OTC medicines will be available in a drugstore abroad)
- Menstrual products if you use them (can be different from what you’re used to abroad)
- Travel sizes of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, facial cleanser, moisturizer
- Any skincare items you cannot live without and know you can’t buy there
- Travel toothbrush and toothpaste
- Contacts and contact solution
- Hair brush or comb
- Soap or body wash
- Face wash
- Laundry detergent
- Nail clippers
- Hand sanitizer
- Laptop and charger
- Phone and charger
- Power adapter/converter
- Flash drive
- Power bank/portable phone charger
- Camera and charger
- USB cable
Location-Specific Style Advice
Fashion and climate vary across continents, but we spoke to people who have studied in the some of the most popular study abroad countries on what items you’ll likely see on university students around the world.
American college students tend to dress in a very relaxed way to class. Many students wear sweatpants and sweatshirts or leggings and a t-shirt. But you’ll often see a lot of diversity in terms of personal style. Some people will dress up more, and expect to see “preppy” fashion on the East Coast and in the South--polos, button-down shirts, bright patterned skirts, and boat shoes. In cities like Washington, D.C. and New York, you’ll see more black and neutral colors and more trendy clothes. The West Coast is also quite trendy--think loose silhouettes, white denim, and bohemian style.
Unlike in the US, you won’t see sweatpants here in classrooms. Many UK students are quite interested in of-the-moment trends. All individual styles are welcome, but you can’t go wrong with a loose denim jacket, high-waist pants or jeans, leather jackets, white sneakers, black low boots, and branded athletic wear. And if you’re based in a city like London, take advantage of the amazing shopping!
First things first--you’ll definitely need a coat if you’re going to Sweden. Even the summer months won’t get too hot, and nights can be quite chilly. Swedish students are very stylish and tend to dress in a very similar uniform. Think white sneakers with loose, architectural pieces in black, white, and gray. You’ll see a lot of Fjallraven backpacks, too. Leave the sweatpants and university sweatshirts in your room, though--you won’t see them on the streets.
French students like to look good, so expect them to be wearing whatever the style du jour is. Think branded trainers, skinny jeans, a floaty tee, a patterned dress, or brogues. Skip the gym clothes, though. Wearing leggings is a sure sign you’re not from around here. Neutral colors are always a good idea, and if you go for something more bright and vibrant, keep it the center piece and pair with neutral basics.
Australian students have diverse style but comfort is important! On university campuses, expect to see low-key style: a lot of denim, white sneakers, sandals, and canvas tote bags. Depending on where you are in the country, it can be extremely hot so be sure to pack accordingly.
New Zealanders are casual and chic, and most certainly do not wear sweats to class. You’ll see a lot of black and gray here, and while those unaware might think that as an island country it’s just warm all the time--this is wrong! You will definitely need warm clothing in the summer, but it can be quite windy and cold in the winter, so bring a heavy coat. New Zealanders are into practical and easy style, but don’t mistake that for uninteresting. Prepare to see some edgy and androgynous looks.
“Don’t dress for the weather,” an Irish educations.com editor recommends. Ireland is known for its wet weather, but rolling up to class in rain boots and an Aran jumper is the easiest way to out yourself as a foreigner. Irish students are big into nightclubs, so bring or buy some club attire. During the day, though, you can’t go wrong with a neutral palette.
South Korean students care a lot about their appearances, so expect people to be wearing dressier clothes and makeup every day to school. Modesty is important in South Korea, so wearing low-cut shirts will not be very common. Whatever you do, don’t look sloppy or like you just got out of bed--people will think you don’t have your life together! Koreans are very trend-sensitive, so students will dress differently year to year. Bring classics and pick up some affordable street fashion while you’re there!
Japanese students are quite chic, and if you’re in a major city like Tokyo, you’ll see a lot of urban street style. Modesty is also important, so stray away from short shorts. Students definitely dress up to go to class, and you’ll even see students wear heels instead of sneakers.
Chinese students wear uniforms through high school, so university is the first time they can really express their personal styles. Expect to see bold looks and lots of colors and individualized tastes. While styles change and Chinese students definitely take note of trends, you’ll see less loose, baggy clothing here, and more “put-together” looks. Think purses instead of backpacks, dresses and skirts instead of jeans.
Congrats--you’ve made it! Once the jet lag wears off, the real fun begins. Here’s your guide to everything that happens next.
The first few days of being in a new country can be both exciting and completely overwhelming. You’ll probably be exhausted but there are some crucial things you’ll need to do. (You may want to first text your parents or friends that you got there safely! Trust us on this one.)
If you haven’t already, figure out your money situation
While many people will be quick to head to currency exchange booth at the airport when you arrive, do your research first. Some cities around the world are essentially “cash-free” and it will be easier to use your debit card from your home country (call them before you go to let them know you’ll be abroad!) But if you do need cash, be sure to research the exchange rate. Often time currency exchange places won’t have as favorable an exchange rate as your debit card might in a local ATM. And if you’re using a debit or credit card, be aware there might be foreign transaction fees or fees to use foreign ATMs.
Get a phone
You have a few options here, and it will largely depend on what sort of money you can spend, and what the rules are with your phone carrier back home.
- You can use the phone you brought from home, but get a foreign SIM card. If you have an unlocked cell phone, you can switch out the SIM cards for one from a local carrier. This is probably the easiest option, but it might not be possible if your phone is locked. Check with your carrier before you travel for rules and restrictions.
- You can buy a cheap flip phone just to use abroad. Another easy, relatively inexpensive option is to go to a local electronics store and buy a cheap phone. You’ll then be able to get a SIM card for a local carrier. The downside here is that this phone likely won’t be a smartphone, and you might not have the same access to apps and the internet like you’re used to. But for those who want to be able to text and call people within the foreign country, and just use their phone back home with wifi, this is a good option.
- You can use the phone you brought from home, with an international plan from your home carrier. This is probably the most expensive plan, but it will wildly depend on your home carrier’s fees. If you don’t anticipate using your phone that often and don’t plan on calling home a lot, it may be worth looking into for the sake of convenience.
- You could go without a cell phone plan, and just use your home phone with free wifi. This is the riskiest option, but it’s also the free option. Turn off your data from your home carrier and only use your phone when you’re connected to wifi. When you’re in your apartment and at school, you’ll likely have internet, but when you’re on the move, that’s when you’ll be off the grid. This might be an option if you’re in a country you’re very familiar with, one where you already speak the language, and a good option if your parents or loved ones are okay with potentially not being able to reach you at all hours!
Buy last-minute items
Hopefully you didn’t waste suitcase space by bringing full sizes of your favorite shampoo and conditioner! Now’s the time to stock up on the essentials. Go to a local grocery store or pharmacy and pick up a few items you didn’t pack. Depending on your housing situation, you might also need to purchase some linens as well. Reward yourself for all of your hard work with a snack.
Your new school might have very different expectations than your school back home--and it can be one of the harder adjustments you might have to make depending on the atmosphere you’re used to. There are three main ways the study expectations may differ: oversight, evaluation, and formality.
Different levels of oversight
If you’re coming from an American university, you might be used to a relatively high level of oversight compared to universities around the world. For instance, some universities might have a more student-driven learning process where you’re expected to take more initiative outside of the classroom to complete your coursework. You might be in an actual classroom less often--but that might not mean the course is any less rigorous. And attendance might not be as important. While all universities have their own cultures and customs, European and Australian universities tend to be more student-driven, with less of a focus on attendance, and less oversight overall. American universities will have more oversight, with more assignments, a greater focus on smaller assignments, and perhaps more time spent with a professor.
Different levels of evaluation
Some countries focus more on final exams, others place emphasis on a variety of methods of evaluation, including, but not limited to, attendance, participation, small assignments, group assignments, final projects, essays, and exams. If you’re used to taking two exams a semester, suddenly being expected to complete a variety of assignments every week might be completely overwhelming. And if you’re used to being evaluated on many assignments throughout the semester, having so much weight on one or two exams might seem scary.
You should also expect a difference in grading. Every country or region uses a different grading scale. If you’re used to A-F grading scale, you might find it hard to interpret a “1” in Czech Republic or a “6” in Switzerland (both are excellent, or an “A” if you use the A-F scale!). Keep this in mind when you begin receiving results back on tests. You may have to interpret these for your home university too, when you send back your transcripts.
Different levels of formality
If you’re from Sweden and have been calling your professors by their first names, you might be surprised that this would never be done in many other countries. You might also have to consider the language you use with your professors. In many languages, there will be two forms of “you,” where one is more informal and one is more formal (like the French tu vs. vous). It’s probably safest to err on the side of caution and go with more formality, but you’ll learn soon enough what’s considered normal teacher-student behavior.
Even if the country you’re studying in isn’t so different from your home country, you should still expect a bit of an adjustment period.
Culture shock is real, and even if you’re a frequent traveler, you probably won’t be immune. Culture shock happens when you leave the culture you’re accustomed to for something new. There are generally four stages of culture shock. First, you’ll go through the honeymoon stage. This is where everything is thrilling to you--the beaches, the nightlife, the delicious food--and you could see yourself maybe staying in your host country forever. Next, though, is the period of frustration or negotiation. You might feel anxious from the language barrier or frustrated by the differences in technology, hygiene, social interactions, transportation--or any of the other things that impact your day-to-day life. This period of anxiety doesn’t last forever, though, and eventually you’ll reach the adjustment stage. In this stage, you’ll finally get your footing in the local culture and things won’t seem so strange anymore. In the final stage, acceptance, you’ll be fully comfortable living in the new culture, and may even get “reverse culture shock” when you head back home.
Culture shock, especially when you’re in the frustration stage, can trigger a lot of anxiety--but there are things you can do to combat these feelings as you adjust to your host country.
How to beat culture shock when you’re studying abroad
- Accept these feelings! There’s no point in beating yourself up for a very common, very normal experience. You’re allowed to be unhappy! It feels lousy to struggle when you’re abroad because “you’re supposed to be having fun.” But that’s not always the case. Accept your feelings, recognize them, and start to reconcile with your new surroundings.
- Communicate with loved ones back home. It can be comforting to talk to people who know you really well when you’re feeling alone in a new culture. Of course, what you don’t want to do is only talk to people from your own culture. But texting Mom or Dad every now and then can provide a source of comfort.
- Find some positive people. It can be difficult to make friends abroad, but you’ll find most people are as eager as you are to make a new friend. Hanging out with people who are positive (but yet still validating of your very real frustrations!) might help you during the difficult phase of culture shock.
- Stay busy. It may be tempting to stay home when you’re feeling frustrated by a language barrier. But doing nothing is worse than facing your fears. Create some sort of routine that forces you to go out into the world--and bring a friend or two. There’s no need to do this alone.
- Learn the local language. If feeling like you can’t understand the people around you is a source of anxiety, learning your host country’s language (even a little) could help dissipate some of your culture shock. And while you probably won’t be able to become fluent over the duration of your study abroad program (unless you stay for over a year), you can probably master some basic everyday phrases and words. See if your program allows you to enroll in a beginner’s language class. If not, there are plenty of free online resources and apps (like Duolingo or Memrise) that can provide a crash course.
- Try to integrate into the culture. Try a new food, greet people using the local language, maybe try a new style trend--the point isn’t to become someone else when you travel, but rather to try living a bit like a local. Withdrawing from the public and only talking to people from your home country might be an easy short term solution--but it’s not sustainable or even possible for most people. You’re here to study and will be forced to go outside. Take advantage, and know that any discomfort or frustration you have will probably pass. And if it doesn’t--you’ll be home soon enough.
Studying abroad can bring a lot of ups and downs emotionally. It’s totally normal and common to miss home, especially as you’re adapting to a new culture and educational system. But there are several things you can do to ease the loneliness you might feel from time to time.
- Find comfort in others going through the same thing as you. Chances are you’ll be studying abroad with other international students. Reach out to them. They’re all going through the same thing as you, even if they’re not vocal about it, and they probably would like to talk about it and process together. You can also connect with friends back home who might have also studied abroad recently and know how it feels!
- Be active. Wallowing in your room might help for a little bit, but you may find it easier to get out of the homesickness rut if you’re outside doing something. Exercise with new friends (or go alone!), go on casual walks around the city, go to a museum or a cafe. Anything that gets you outside of your room will help!
- Create a new routine. Most of us like the feeling of a routine, and studying abroad typically forces you out of one. So, create a new one! Even if it’s something simple like working out in the morning before class, or having dinner at a set time, a new life structure is essential to help you get your bearings while you adjust to a new lifestyle.
- Schedule some self-care. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some ideas. Go outside and read a book for pleasure. Try a new sport. Do some face masks. Skype with your best friend from home. Take a nap.
- Talk it out! Whether you’re venting to a friend back in your home country or making small talk with classmates, don’t bottle up your feelings--let people know how you’re doing! You may be surprised by how helpful it is just to talk it out.
- Face your fears. Studying abroad is about stepping outside of your comfort zone. If you’re worried about interacting with locals because you don’t speak the language (or, especially if you DO speak some of the language but feel too awkward to practice), face your fears by taking baby steps. Order coffee in a new language. Try speaking to someone new. Go out alone into town. Do things that make you a little nervous. You’ll be grateful you did when you return home!
How to make friends during study abroad
Making friends is easier said than done sometimes, but one of the most rewarding parts of studying abroad is meeting new people from around the world and forging new friendships with them. Here are just some ways you can make friends easily abroad!
- Go to orientation. If you’ve been to a college orientation before, you probably know orientations are often not the most stimulating event you’ve ever been to--but don’t skip this one. Going to orientation abroad is often your first face-to-face interaction with people at your institution, and it’s crucial you go for information. But, it’s also a great way to make friends. By going to this usually-mandatory event, you’ll suddenly be surrounded by tons of students just as bored and confused as you are. And you can bet they want to bond with you over it.
- Join a student club. Whether it’s an intramural sports club, a sorority, or a knitting circle, joining some sort of student organization is a great way to meet people with similar interests as you. And don’t feel awkward about going alone--people at clubs WANT to meet other people too.
- Get a roommate. Depending on your situation, you might not have a choice over your living situation--but if you do, consider a roommate (or two). And if you already are required to have a roommate, take advantage. Go to orientation together, cook a meal together, whatever--even if you don’t really hit it off, they may be able to introduce you to other people.
- Plan an outing. Maybe you know a few classmates or neighbors but don’t yet consider them great friends. Deepen the friendship with some sort of activity. Go exploring, arrange a bar crawl, or just host a dinner party if you can. Don’t wait for someone else to invite you to do something--be the initiator!
Coping with reverse culture shock
Culture shock is hard, but dealing with reverse culture shock can be even harder because you don’t expect it. Reverse culture shock happens when you head home after integrating into your host culture. It can certainly be strange to realize that the world back home moved on without you and things may have changed. You may find yourself craving foods from your host country, or suddenly find yourself critical of your home country. It can also feel really lonely because you’ll realize people don’t want to talk about your study abroad experience 24/7. But just like culture shock, this too shall pass. Here’s how to deal in the meantime.
- Expect reverse culture shock to happen. You might be surprised at how weird it can be to re-enter your home country, especially the longer you’ve been away. But reverse culture shock happens, and there’s not much you can do to stop it.
- Stay connected with your new friends abroad. Or, bond with friends from home who are returning from their own study abroad experience. If you yourself haven’t studied abroad, it’s probably hard for you to relate to those that have--so don’t take it too personally if your parents or friends aren’t as interested in hearing you recount every moment of your time abroad. It’s not that they don’t care about your happiness--but it’s hard to get invested in all of your anecdotes if they’ve never been through the experience themselves. So, stay connected with all of your friends abroad! With apps like WhatsApp and Facebook, there’s no excuse for losing touch.
- Write out your feelings. Journaling it out can be cathartic in the face of less-than-interested friends and family, but don’t be afraid to think bigger! Online magazines and blogs might be looking for people to share their experiences. If studying abroad changed your life, look for ways in which you can talk more about it!
- Recreate your routine from abroad back home. Especially when you initially return, you may feel dazed and confused without your old lifestyle. If you find it helpful while you make the adjustment, continue any routines you established abroad back home. If you woke up at 6 am to run in France, do the same thing at home! Of course, it’s impossible to recreate your life abroad at home, but establishing a routine again can be a helpful coping mechanism.
- Plan a trip back! It’s normal to yearn for your host culture, and maybe even feel a bit critical of your home culture. But know that you can and should return to your host country. It’s just goodbye for now, not forever!
Using study abroad on your resume & in interviews
Now that you’re back, it’s time to take advantage of your new experience. Studying abroad exposes you to new people and ideas, and in our global society, this is a huge plus for employers.
If you graduated from an international program, you can easily list that degree under the education part of your resume. But if you studied abroad for several months but didn’t get a degree, it can be a bit trickier to determine where and how on your resume to show you studied abroad. Many students list the abroad program under education as well. You can also list it under work experience or volunteer experience if your program was more relevant to those categories. If you have a part-time internship or job, that’s definitely work experience. If you volunteered in any capacity, be sure to list that experience as well. Studying abroad provides you with skills that employers want--like the ability to communicate with people from different culture or learning a new language--and highlighting these will make you stand out from other job applicants. It’s also a good talking point in interviews…
If you can smoothly bring up your study abroad experience in a job interview, do it! If employers ask about your education, you can and should bring up your study abroad experience--but you can also use anecdotes from study abroad in other parts of the interview. When they ask about your strengths, perhaps you could give examples from when you were abroad. When they ask about a time you overcame challenges, you could briefly describe an anecdote abroad as well. But be careful not to share too much--all of the anecdotes need to be relevant to the job you’re applying for. Save the hilarious stories from your time abroad for your friends!
If you want to stay in the country
Perhaps you absolutely loved studying abroad, and now you want to stay. But don’t get ahead of yourself--there are likely legal barriers you’ll have to face first, and they will vary widely based both on your nationality and the country you wish to stay in.
You may be able to make the move easily if your country has an agreement with another country. For example, if your nationality is that of an EU member, you have freedom of movement throughout other EU states. But if you need a visa to stay in a country, read on to learn about the process.
Here are some steps you might take as you navigate this process:
- Get real. First, realize that just because you want to stay, it doesn’t mean you can beyond the confines of a visitor’s visa (which are often only 3-6 months long) or another student visa (which are also temporary). Some countries have strict immigration policies, with visa processes that are both long and selective. If after doing research you determine you won’t be able to legally stay longer than a few months in the foreseeable future, know that you can always come back as a visitor! You don’t have to immigrate permanently to a country to make that culture part of your life.
- Do as much research as possible. Start with your country’s immigration or state department website. Look for people who have made the move from your home country and see how they did it. Ask questions. You likely will have to prepare months (or even years) in ahead if you want to make this sort of move permanently.
- Determine which visas and residence permits you might be eligible for. Most countries have dozens of visa types, and most won’t apply to you. But look into work or internship visas, student visas, and if you have a foreign partner, visas that are based on relationships or marriage.
- Apply for the visa. There are likely a whole host of requirements you will have to fulfill. Depending on the visa type, you may be required to have a sponsor who can vouch for you. You might have to undergo a medical exam, an interview, provide bank statements, etc. As we said, this can get long and complicated! If you intend to get a work visa, you likely will have to get a company to sponsor you, but this is also no easy feat. Many countries restrict work visas to in-demand professions. But because countries are extremely varied in the strictness of their immigration policies, don’t give up! Sometimes it takes months (or years) to move to your dream country, but by doing research and planning carefully, you can hopefully make the move!