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Date of publishing: 2016.09.21     Published by Attila M.

Accommodation guide abroad

Decide where to live abroad

How to decide where to live while studying abroad?

Moving abroad presents several questions after you have been accepted for a study abroad program. Your host institution may offer dormitory placement (hall of residence), you may look for a host family or a number of housing agencies with reliable apartment renting services. In some cases you have to find a place abroad on your own. Choosing the right type of accommodation has a crucial impact on your overall study abroad experience.

For starters, think about:

  • what are your goals with studying aborad?
  • what languages do you want to practice?
  • what kind of cultures do you want to immerse in?
  • do you want to build a local or international network?
  • what level of comfort and privacy do you need?
  • what can you actually afford?
You have to prioritize your personal needs and search for a place to stay in your host country with your primary goals in mind. Even if personal or professional networking abroad are not among your primary goals right now, we recommend you to meet as many local and international people as possible. You can learn so much from other cultures and you can teach so much to them - do not let this opportunity slip through your hands.

Main accommodation types abroad

  • Homestay: you are living abroad at a family
  • Dormitory placement: you are living abroad with international or local students
  • Shared or studio apartment: you are living abroad alone or with flatmates you choose

The golden rule here: always be kind, flexible and open for cultural exchange, but never compromise with anyone who means harm to you (either physically or mentally). If you feel that a problem could escalate or already escalated, raise the issue at your host institution or local friends and try to resolve the dispute in a civilized manner. If it does not work, pack your things and move to another room/flat/house or else your life abroad will turn into a misery. Moving from one place to another while studying abroad happens moderately often, so do not feel ashamed, if it was truly necessary.

In this guide we describe the most popular types of housing abroad and draw the advantages and challenges of each option. Based on the pros and cons you can make an educated decision about where should you live abroad. At the end of each section we provide you with some professional tips to overcome accommodation speficic challenges. Do not worry, any choice will be a good choice, as long as you are aware of what you want to get out of studying abroad.

Host family

Living at a host family while studying abroad

A local family rents out a room for a monthly fee. Your host institution, a housing agency or even you can arrange your homestay directly with the host family. Usually you sign the contract before arrival, and you pay for the first month when you arrive to the host family (or before arrival to the agency, if they arranged your homestay). They will be ready to receive you by the time you packed all your luggage.

Your host family may treat you as a family member or as a tenant. Ideally you experience first-class cultural immersion in the local culture by participating in family events, such as family dinners, trips and other activities (you may need to bear the financial costs fully or partially). Host parents may help you with cultural adjustment and advise you on culture-specific behaviors and norms. On the other end of the scale you might be treated as a simple tenant: your host family provides you a room with keys, shows you where to wash your clothes and the only thing they share is the wi-fi password.

The house rules are outlined in the contract you signed and it might contain unexpected limitations. Smoking and drinking may be prohibited, internet, television, phone usage could be limited and some rooms, facilities could be restricted from use as well. Housework and additional 'help around the house' might be included in the contract, so check all pages before you accidentelly sign up for babysitting after classes.

Living abroad with a family gives you a unique insight to local life with all of its pluses and minuses: you are with the family in good times and bad times, even though you didn't have a marriage vow.

Living in a homestay arrangement ideally means:

  • reduced culture shock and faster cultural adjustment
  • increased cross-cultural competence
  • improved language skills
  • social activities: dinners and trips with the family
  • high level of comfort: home made food and laundry at hand
  • host family members can be friends for life
  • wide range of connections, networking through the family members
  • a sense of belonging to a family
  • a relatively cheap way to live abroad
  • often there is no need to pay a deposit (minimum financial risk)
  • you have a regular life rythm (parents wake up to work on weekdays)

In some cases living in a homestay arrangement means:

  • household chores and babysitting (for most international students these are cons)
  • possible limitations: smoking, drinking, inviting friends and your partner(s)
  • internet, electronic devices and even the fridge can be under family supervision
  • your life might be invaded or consumed by the family's problems
  • annoying habits of family members
  • bad relationship with certain family members

Tips for living with a host family:

  1. Look at the experience and references of the host family.
  2. Understand your environment: if there are little kids, dogs or cats - prepare for them.
  3. If the family is reluctant to provide something that you need, buy it for yourself instead of depending on when they are willing to give it to you (internet or specific household gadgets).
  4. Kindly ask for an explanation if you do not understand something or feel uncomfortable.
  5. Show empathy and try to help, but you are not there to solve long standing family problems.
  6. Read your contract and be aware of the limitations and responsibilities that family stay imposes (additional verbal arrangements do not guarantee anything, so minimize them).

Dormitory / Hall of residence

Living in a dormitory or hall of residence while studying abroad

Dorms are designed to take in a large number of people, or in this case more precisely, international students. Your host institution may offer a place for you to live in the dorms, that can be a single room or a shared room. Yes, you may have roommates.

International student dormitories are often close to the campus, but they could easily be off-campus. You may also look for a youth-hostel or other dormitory type placements individually.

If you have been granted a dormitory placement, your university will book a room for you in advance and you can do all the paperwork after you arrived to your host country. Some dormitories require payment upon arrival, but often you can pay within a month. You will sign a contract with the dormitory, where the rules often prohibit drinking, gambling while smoking is allowed in the designated areas.

On campus dormitories mean less time to get to your classes, whereas off campus dorms could lead to hours of commuting, so check the location before accepting any kind of placement.

Intercultural, co-national or local roommates may be your best buddies or worst enemies. Language barriers and cultural differences may arise, but this intercultural environment is a quite valuable experience while studying abroad. Be open-minded, flexible and always discuss the problematic issues. Set the house rules together in the beginning of the semester abroad and stick to it.

Depending on the rules (and how they are enforced) living in a dormitory abroad often means trading your day life for the night. You rarely find a quiet moment before 2 am, but that's the beauty of it. Your patience and cross-cultural competence will improve significantly while living abroad with culturally different people.

Living in the dorms ideally mean:

  • a sense of beloning to a multicultural environment
  • an opportunity to make loads of international friends
  • roommates and flatmates may become best friends abroad
  • an energetic life abroad with international dinners, movie nights and parties
  • a cheap way to live abroad, especially if it is offered by the university
  • co-nationals might be close to you, easing cultural shock
  • gym, laundry and other facilities in the neighborhood
  • grocery stores and supermarkets across the street
  • on campus dormitory placement means less commuting
  • almost no financial risk
  • a safe environment (dozens of familiar faces)

In some cases living in dorms mean:

  • hard core partying or night owl roommates and flatmates who will barely let you sleep at night, but expect you to walk on tiptoe when they sleep at 2 pm
  • you are the acting cleaning personnel after fellow international students made a mess
  • prohibition of alcohol consumption and smoking is limited to designated areas only
  • modest language learning opportunity (if you spend too much time with co-nationals)
  • an artificial environment, a bubble without learning about other cultures
  • your roommates or flatmates use your stuff without asking
  • you never have space in the fridge or never get in the shower
  • privacy issues in case of one or more roommates
  • no one has a corkscrew when you need it
  • you always run out of toilet paper

Tips for living in a dormitory abroad:

  1. Join the late night events OR use earplugs to slash the noise level (earplugs do miracles)
  2. Define the cleaning order on the very first day you meet your roommates and flatmates. Simple as that, people should clean their own mess within a reasonable time.
  3. Bars are open till late night and some international students will rent a place in the city. Legal alcohol consumption in the city center often means much less hassle than fighting the rules in the dormitory. Or go ahead and fight the rules, but do not fight the law abroad. Know your limits, not many want to sleep at the local police station in a foreign country.
  4. Use the local language as much as possible, or at least a common world language (other than your native tongue)!
  5. Get out of your room and befriend international people. Living in a dormitory while studying abroad is practically designed for this.
  6. Shared kitchen tools (frying pan, pots) should be bought together and cleaned after usage.
  7. The kitchen shelves and place in the shared fridge should be fairly divided.
  8. If someone regularly occupies the common areas (bathroom, kitchen) for an incredibly long period of time, bring it up and agree on a schedule or reasonable time limits.
  9. If you have several roommates and no chance to move to a single room, you have to compromise on privacy. You may adjust your schedule to your roommate(s), so you have some alone time. Build a good relationship with your roommate(s), so even when they are there, it does not bother you. Sharing is caring they say.
  10. Due to the various indiviual needs, sharing food and water is very difficult, if not impossible. Discuss in the beginning whether you want this or not. Then respect others' decision.
  11. Buy a corkscrew.
  12. Stock loads of toilet paper rolls to avoid 'accidents'.

Shared / Studio apartment

Living in a shared or studio apartment while studying abroad

Studio apartment: you have a small private flat for yourself.

Shared apartment: you share a flat with 2-3 people and you have a private room.

You may pay for an agency to find a studio apartment or a single room for you or you can rent a place abroad on your own. If you know someone in the host country, you should reach out and ask for help with searching for an apartment abroad.

You have several additional financial obligations in comparison to the previous forms of accommodation. In general a shared room in a rented flat is more expensive than dormitory or host family arrangements and a private studio apartment is even more expensive. In any case, you will pay one or two months worth deposit plus the first month of rent up front. So you must have 3 months worth rent money at hand, but of course at the end of your international studies you get back the deposit (if the place is intact). You sign an agreement with the housing agency or with the landlord directly.

Your own studio apartment is by far the most convenient, granting you ultimate freedom abroad. Nevertheless most international students only want to rent a room, so that means 3-4 people renting an apartment together. Early birds join groups to find roommates or flatmates before they start their study abroad program, but if you did not manage to team up with international or local students in advance, you will find flatmates when you meet the international student community at your host institution.

You may choose a temporary dormitory placement or a hostel till you find a room to rent. The best option is to choose flatmates based on sympathy or native langauge (this is why co-nationals tend to search for an apartment together).

Living in a shared or studio apartment ideally means:

  • privacy (especially in a private apartment)
  • you can invite anyone any time
  • there is no institutional level prohibition on alcohol consumption and smoking
  • you have the freedom to choose the location where you want to live abroad
  • you choose the people you want to live with
  • minimal culture shock due to the possibly co-national flatmates (or established sympathy)
  • you can easily dive into the night life of the city
  • relatively high level of comfort

In some cases living in a shared or studio apartment means:

  • isolation from locals and the international student community
  • constant headache about a bossy foreign landlord
  • local neighbors may complain about the noise
  • there is no immediate support if you don't speak the local language
  • all the sharing issues and cleaning mentioned in the dormitory placement description (problems around shared bathroom, kitchen and appliances and messy flatmates)
  • troubles with getting back your deposit at the end

Tips for living in a rented room or apartment abroad:

  1. Move out of your comfort zone and engage in a conversation with your flatmates, locals and international students with different cultural background.
  2. Landlords may practice different level of supervision. In case the landlord bothers you on a regular basis, ask for legal advice at your host institution or from local student organizations. It is even better to invite a local person to clarify the issue with your landlord or agency.
  3. There might be sensitive neighbours. They may even threaten you with calling the police. Or your neighbors may be loud at night on a regular basis. In any case, seek for legal counseling at your university or ask for the help of student organizations to resolve the issue.
  4. You may need to fix something urgently and you do not speak the local language. Keep at hand the phone numbers of the consulate, international student coordinator or local friends.
  5. Shared kitchen, bathroom and applicances present the same problems as the dormitory placement. Sit together in the beginning of the semester abroad to set the rules.
  6. Even if you always paid your rent in time and you gave back your room or apartment in perfect condition, in some rare cases your landlord or the agency might want to keep your deposit. They exploit the situation that you have to travel back to your home country or that you do not speak the local language. Seek for legal help, do not let them take what is rightfully yours.

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Accommodation guide abroad