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How to Study Abroad Guide: What to Do When You Arrive

Congrats – you’ve made it! Once the jet lag wears off, the real fun begins. There are just a few things you'll need to sort out before you can really start enjoying your adventure abroad. Here’s your guide to everything that happens next.

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1. The first few days

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. So, now what?

If you haven’t already, figure out your money situation

Do your research before heading to the currency exchange booth at the airport. Many countries these days are 'cash-free', where it's actually easier to use your debit card from home. Just make sure to call your bank before you go to let them know you’ll be abroad! If you do need cash, be sure to research the exchange rate. Currency exchange places usually won’t have a good exchange rate compared to your debit card and a local ATM. Be aware that there might be foreign transaction fees when using ATMs outside your country.

Buy last-minute items

Hopefully, you didn’t waste space by bringing full sized shampoo from home! 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 bedsheets as well. Reward yourself for all of your hard work with a snack.

Get a phone

You have a few options here that largely depend on what sort of money you can spend, and what the rules are with your phone carrier back home.

Option 1: Use the phone you brought from home with 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.

Option 2: 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 as 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 only, this is a good option.

Option 3: Use your phone with an international plan from your home carrier

This is probably the most expensive plan, but it will depend on your home carrier’s fees. Think about how much time you'll use your phone outside of wifi areas. It may be worth looking into for the sake of convenience.

Option 4: Go without a cell phone plan and just use free Wifi

This is the riskiest option, but it’s also the free option. Turn off your data from your home carrier using Airplane mode 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 or one where you already speak the language. It's also a good option if your parents or loved ones are okay with potentially not being able to reach you at all hours!

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2. Adjusting to different study expectations

Your new school might have very different expectations than your school back home, and this can be one of the harder adjustments you might have to make depending on the atmosphere you’re already used to. There are three main ways the study expectations may differ: oversight, evaluation, and formality.

Different levels of oversight

Oversight refers to how much direct attention students get from their teachers. 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. In this case, you might be in an actual classroom less often – but that might not mean the course is any less rigorous or that attendance is not important.

While all schools have their own cultures and customs, universities in Europe and Australia tend to be more student-driven, with less of a focus on attendance and less oversight overall. American universities will have more oversight, more assignments, a greater focus on smaller assignments, and more time spent with a professor.

Different levels of evaluation

Some countries focus more on final exams and others place emphasis on a variety of evaluation methods. These may include attendance, in-class participation, individual assignments, group assignments, final projects, essays, or midterm exams. If you’re used to taking two exams a semester, completing many assignments weekly might seem completely overwhelming. If you’re used to being evaluated on many assignments throughout the semester, having so much pressure on only 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 the A-F grading scale, you might find it hard to interpret a '1' in the Czech Republic or a '6' in Switzerland. However, both are actually excellent and equivalent to an 'A' on the A-F scale! Keep this in mind when you begin receiving results back on tests. You may have to translate your grades for your home university if you are studying abroad short term.

Different levels of formality

The student-teacher relationship inside the classroom will also differ depending on where you decide to go. If you study in Sweden, you will be calling your professors by their first names. However, this is not appropriate in many other countries, such as Germany. You might also have to consider the language you use with your professors. In many languages, there are two forms of 'you', where one is used informally with friends and the other is more formal for use with professors (like the French tu vs. vous). It’s probably safest to go with more formality at first. You’ll learn soon enough what’s considered normal when interacting with your professors abroad.

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3. Adjusting to your new culture

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

Culture shock happens when you leave the culture you’re accustomed to for something new. It's very real, and even if you’re a frequent traveler, you probably won’t be immune. 

There are generally four stages of culture shock:

  1. Honeymoon stage: Everything will be super exciting - the new people, the nightlife, the delicious food - and you could see yourself staying in your host country forever.
  2. Frustration or negotiation: You might feel anxious from the language barrier or frustrated by the differences in the things that impact your day-to-day life, such as technology, social life, or transportation. This period of anxiety doesn’t last forever.
  3. Adjustment: Here, you’ll finally find your footing in the local culture.
  4. Acceptance: In the final stage, you will feel fully comfortable living abroad!

How to beat culture shock when you’re studying abroad

Culture shock can trigger a lot of anxiety, especially when you’re in the frustration stage. However, there are some things you can do to combat these feelings as you adjust to your host country.

Accept these feelings!

There’s no point in beating yourself up for a very common and normal experience. You’re allowed to be unhappy! It feels lousy to struggle when you’re abroad because to all your friends and family at home, 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 back home who already 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 your loved ones every now and then can provide a strong source of comfort. 

Find some positive people

It can seem super difficult to make friends abroad, but you’ll find that in reality, most people are as eager as you are to make a new friend. There are tons of options to find friends when living abroad, usually through signing up for activities, social clubs, or perhaps even by joining language exchanges. Try finding people who are more on the positive side, yet still validating of your very real frustrations. 

Stay busy

It may be tempting to stay home when you’re feeling down or frustrated by a language barrier. But doing nothing is worse than facing your fears. Check with the international office to find opportunities for part-time jobs, or 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 you're feeling anxious about not understanding the people around you, learning a bit of your host country’s language could help. While you likely won’t become fluent during a shorter study abroad program, you can probably master enough to have a basic conversation. See if your program allows you to enroll in a beginner’s language class or use free apps for language learning that can provide a crash course.

Try to integrate into the culture

Try new food, greet people using the local language, or maybe try a new style trending abroad! The point isn’t to become someone else when you travel, but rather to try living a bit differently. Withdrawing from the public and only talking to people from your home country might be an easy short-term solution, but it’s not realistically sustainable or possible for most. Studying abroad always seems to pass quickly, and know that any discomfort or frustration you have will fade just as fast. 

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How to beat homesickness

Studying abroad can bring a lot of emotional ups and downs. It’s totally normal to miss home, especially as you’re adapting to a new culture and educational system. Yet, 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. They’re all in the same shoes as you even if they’re not vocal about it, so reach out! It helps a lot to talk about your feelings and process your thoughts with someone who can understand. 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!), take frequent casual walks around the city and explore local museums and cafés. 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 journaling 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, so find the best activities that help you feel calmer inside. This might look like going outside and reading a book for pleasure. Or, you could take the time to meditate or practice yoga. Video chatting with friends back home may help, or even Netflix and a nap. Think about what fits you, and schedule some self-care sessions during your week.

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. Reach out to your school for international student counseling services if needed. 

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 if you DO speak some of the language but it feels awkward to practice), start by taking baby steps. Order coffee in a new language. Try saying hi to someone new. Do things that make you a little nervous, a little it at a time. You’ll be grateful you did when you return home!

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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 that orientations can be quite long. Even so, definitely don’t skip this one. Going to orientation abroad is not just crucial for information purposes, but also because it's usually your first face-to-face interaction with people and a great way to make friends. By going to this event, you’ll suddenly be surrounded by tons of students just as lost or confused as you are. You can bet that they'll want to bond with you over it!

Join a student club

Whether it’s a sports club, a student union, a sorority or fraternity, or even a knitting circle, joining some sort of student organization is a great way to meet people with similar interests as you. Don’t feel awkward about going alone. People at clubs are there because they want to meet other people too.

Get a roommate

Depending on your living situation, consider getting a roommate or two. If you are already required to have a roommate, take advantage! Go to orientation together, cook meals together, or plan to meet up at the library. Even if you don’t really feel like they are a great fit for friendship, they may be able to introduce you to other people.

Plan an outing

Maybe you already 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 pub 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!

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How to Study Abroad Guide: Overview

We know it's difficult to get started. In this guide, we’ll explain how to study abroad in full, from how to pick a program to how to bounce back from homesickness, and everything in between!

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Why Study Abroad?

There are so many reasons why study abroad programs are life-changing experiences for many international students. Learn more about how studying abroad can help build your future.

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What Can I Study Abroad?

Wondering about what you can study abroad? This section of the How to Study Abroad Guide will talk about the different kinds of degrees and programs you can study overseas. 

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Preparing For Study Abroad

Now that you have chosen a program and received your acceptance, where do you go from there? Discover more about housing, budgeting, and packing for your overseas travels in this section of the guide.

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After Study Abroad

So, you have had an incredible adventure and are looking at your options after your time is up? We have some ideas for you. Find out more about how to put study abroad on your resume, and what to do if you want to stay in your study abroad country.

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Last update: 07 Sep 2022

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