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Prepare for studying abroad

Date of publishing: 2016.09.21     Published by Attila M.

How can you prepare for your international life?

You got accepted to a study abroad program, so things suddenly got real. You are excited about living and studying in a foreign country but at the same time you are a bit baffled about how to get started. You got a lot on your mind and there are tons of things to do before moving to another country. So what are the most essential steps before you go to study abroad? When and how to settle everything at home in order to open a new page abroad?

Some international students like to act spontaneously, they think they do not need plans or any serious preparation to study abroad, because they can deal with problems as they appear. Well, that is one way to go, chaos has its beauty too. Nevertheless the vast majority of the international student community leaves no stone unturned to make the most of their study abroad experience.

Don't get me wrong here.

Even the most profound preparation will leave you with surprises, last minute changes and loads of adventure abroad. But at least you will have a pool of ideas to decide where to turn and what to do next.

In this article we collected and prioritized a list of activities to consider before going abroad. We followed a more or less chronological order, however keep in mind that your individual schedule may differ based on the requirements of your home or host institution.

Must prepare before studying abroad

1. Host country research

This is how the study abroad game begins. If you truly want to have the time of your life when studying abroad, you always need to research your destination. Get information from travel guides, host university pages, forums and people who studied in your target country. Learn about culture shock in a foreign country and get ready for the first steps of studying abroad.

Do not worry about removing the surprise factor in the process. That is simply impossible. Preparation is about preventing some capital mistakes that could cost a lot of money or cause unbearable stress abroad. Surprises will be waiting for you every corner anyways.

2. Goal setting before studying abroad

Your study abroad program may become unproductive or downright useless in case you do not have clear goals from the very beginning. Some international students are pretty determined about what they want to do abroad, but it is not a big deal if you do not have your life goals carved in stone in your early twenties.

However it is highly recommended to set crystal clear goals before your semester abroad. Blind horses don't get far, do they? Even if they do, they will have no clue where they are and what exactly they achieved (though if being clueless is your goal, you are all set).

Make some educational, career and traveling plans. Envision yourself learning a foreign language and getting acquainted with different cultures abroad. Set reasonable expectations and be ready to adjust these plans on the go.

3. Work on a budget

You already estimated your costs of studying abroad and you have a plan to finance your international studies>. Set a pessimistic, realistic and optimistic budget, so you know how much you can save or how much you may need to spend in the worst case, a.k.a. you know how deep is your pocket. If you hang out with people who can afford spending twice as much as you do, your life abroad may turn into a nightmare early on. Do yourself a favor and try to stick to your pre-established budget (make reasonable adjustments if needed).

4. Consular services

It is always a good start to check official information sources like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in your country. You can find tons of information about traveling and living abroad and get some country specific recommendations to get along in your host country.

5. Arrange your accommodation

Either your host institution offers you a placement or you have to find a place to live while studying abroad. Anyhow, look for reviews about the dormitory or apartment offered by the host institution, because sometimes the quality, price or the real chance to get a placement is not satisfactory. Do some research about the available rent types and prices in your host country and decide which type of accommodation is the best for you.

If you prefer a calmer administrative pace, arrange your accommodation 3-6 months before starting your international adventure, however most of the time you will find something 1-3 months before your arrival. If you leave the accommodation search for the last month, you are going to have some sleepless nights, but no need to worry. Many international students arrange only a temporary place to crash for the first weeks abroad, so they have time to figure out later where to live in the bigger part of their study abroad program.

6. Apply for student visa

This is not a Visa credit card commercial so bear with us. Visa is practically a stamp in your passport (made by the immigration authorities) that allows you to enter a foreign country. Check with your embassy whether you have to apply for a student visa. Usually your host institution sends you the details and the necessary documents to get started with the visa application process.

When you have all the documents (e.g. passport, ID photo, student visa application form, insurance, medical forms) you have to go to a visa center, pay the visa fee (50-150 USD) and wait 1-10 days till they issue your visa. Keep in mind that your passport must be valid 6 months after the end of your study abroad program.

7. Buy your tickets

Buying a plane ticket gets more complex if you need a visa to enter your host country. If you bought the ticket, but won't receive your visa in time, then you won't be able to travel. So either wait till you have your visa in your hand (or you are fairly certain that you will have it in time) or book flexible tickets if they are worth it.

Some gurus say you can book the cheapest plane tickets on Tuesdays at 3 p.m. (Eastern Standard time, EST "-0500") and 3 months in advance. Well, good luck with that. In case you do not want to wait for the alignment of the stars and other higher forces to support you, consider the following recommendations when booking your tickets.

  • Compare ticket prices: use sites like It's worth checking the price a couple of times before buying a ticket.
  • Check the airline providers' site: book your tickets without paying commission
  • Browse in incognito: that way you see the original fares when you return to a site to book your tickets
  • Alternative ways of traveling: go by bus, train or have a roadtrip with friends or family
  • Book your tickets for Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday
  • Do not worry about layovers: get some valuable international student experience.
  • Airports, dates and time zones: double check these before booking your tickets
  • One-way fares: check the price of one-way tickets, consider using different airlines
  • Airmiles: yes, definitely collect your well-deserved bonus points, but be sure that it really is the cheapest way to fly. Some destinations may be cheaper with local or regional airlines.

8. Get your prescribed medication

Consult your doctor and get what you need for the period of studying abroad. Do not forget your allergy medicine, especially if you have no clue how to explain 'bee sting' in the language of your host country. It is recommended to:

  • check the country specific limitations: there may be restrictions for taking more than 3 months worth medication
  • request vacation fills in time, because your pharmacy, insurance provider and doctor may need time to give refills (they may prescribe only 1 month worth).
  • always keep the doctor's letter with you to prove that you need that medication.
  • check with the manufacturer if your prescribed medication is temperature or pressure sensitive

9. Academic arrangements

If you are doing an exchange semester abroad, most probably you will need a preapproved learning agreement. The learning agreement is a document proving that the host institution offers courses that can be accredited in your home institution. Talk with the professors or student office representatives at your home university to fully understand the credit transfer process. Do not just call, you better go to the office personally before leaving for your exchange semester.

As a full-degree international student you may inquire about the course registration process (if you have not r eceived such information) some weeks before you start your program abroad.

10. Debit card/credit card issues

You may have to notify your bank or credit card company that you are studying abroad (usually in the USA). Check your security settings (e.g. withdrawal limits: frequency and amount) and be sure to have online access to your banking information (transactions and money left).

Ask your bank about the international withdrawal fees (expect at least 5 USD + 0,05% commission). Inquire about where you can withdraw money (train stations and stores may not accept it for security reasons). Cards with embedded chips are more often accepted, but VISA and MASTERCARD can be globally used.

You might get better terms if you open a bank account abroad, however monthly international transfers from your parents (or from your own accounts) could be costly too. Do the math in advance.

11. Emergency phone numbers

For sure you already have the numbers of your closest relatives and best friends. We also recommned to save the following, host country specific phone numbers:

  • the embassy or consulate of your home country
  • ambulance, firefighters, police
  • international office of the host institution
  • friends from the host culture

You may write these on paper as well and keep them in your wallet. In case you purchase a new phone or a simcard in your host country, check whether you still have these emergency numbers. If you want to be extra prepared, you may put some of these numbers on speed dial. Though be careful with putting the police on speed dial: you do not want to pocket call them or have a drunk conversation after a successful party.

As soon as you made some new friends abroad, be sure to add their numbers in your phone. You may use the host country code as a tag, so you can easily find international friends (e.g. UK Olivia, USA Scott).

12. Copy your personal documents

Make at least three copies of your passport and insurance documents. Keep them in separate places: carry one with you, leave one at home and one at your accommodation abroad.

In most countries you are required to have the original passport on you. In case something happens with your passport (gets stolen or you lose it) it is much easier to apply for a new passport with the copies in your hand.

13. Get a decent suitcase

You do not have to buy the most expensive or most stylish suitcase for your study abroad program, but do not take a case that is falling into pieces. If you save too much money on quality, you may end up having to buy a new bag for the way back.

14. Register to vote

Many international students forget about their home countries for the period of studying abroad. To some extent they are right to do that, but if there is a major election or referendum, you can still use your right to vote. Get registered in your home country, so you can vote via mail or electronically.

15. Know the local currency exchange rate

Wherever you go to study abroad, you better know the USD or EUR equivalent of the local currency. It also won't hurt if you check the currently used banknotes, so you will be less confused when you encounter with 20.000 and 50.000 banknotes in some countries.

16. Tank up some local currency

You need about 100-200 USD worth cash for your first days abroad. The exchange rate of rare currencies often feels like a daylight robbery, so do not change more than 200 USD worth money, unless you want to support the international banking system.

Should prepare before studying abroad

1. Get ready to stay in touch

Surely your loved ones want to hear about you and your international experience, so be kind and give a sign of life every once in a while. International phone calls can get insanely expensive, so go ahead and download some free voice and video call applications on your phone and laptop.

Skype, Whatsapp, Viber or Google text/voice - any of these will do the trick. You may also need to invest in a webcamera (20-40 USD) in case your laptop or phone doesn't have a built-in camera.

2. Get a medical checkup

Some countries require a medical checkup to issue a visa and your destination may reuqire vaccinations too. Beyond that it could be useful to have a routine medical checkup, if you didn't have any in the past year.

3. Prepare for cultural stereotypes

What you think about other cultures is one thing, but have you ever thought about how different cultures perceive you? Get some insights about how your host country sees you before you go abroad. The easiest way would be to find and talk with a co-national who was studying there earlier.

The pile of stereotypes usually exponentially grows with the size of the economy of your country, though Hollywood and the media also have their fair share in strengthening certain stereotypical behaviors. All in all, educate yourself on what others will "expect" from you.

4. Learn the alphabet and a few phrases

You will study abroad in Germany, Italy, France, China, Korea or Russia (and the list goes on) but you do not speak the local language at all. Make an effort. Learn the alphabet (or basic characters), sign up for free online lessons or get a teacher to reach the "I will survive" level in your host language.

Learning a language one hour a day for 3-6 months can do wonders.

Use a frequency dictionary. The 1000 most often used words cover a big chunk of the daily conversations. Your early life abroad will be a whole lot easier if you can express your basic needs in the language of the host country.

5. Know the local grading system

Seems quite basic, doesn't it? Why wouldn't you know such things?

Some countries use a version of the A, B, C, D, E, F grading that is close to the USA, while other countries use percentages. There are various scales, you can find 1-4, 1-5, 1-10, 1-20 grading and the higher number might mean worse grade (like in Germany and Czechia).

Smart to prepare before studying abroad

1. Make local connections

You can contact co-nationals who are still studying in your target country. That is easy.

It is more complicated to contact locals. Language learning sites and other communities are the best way to do that, because people there are more opened to make international connections. To be more precise, they went there to connect with international people.

Certain groups on Facebook, Meetup, Couchsurfing or Polyglotclub are a good start. Don't be pushy and be honest. Show interest in their culture and make an effort to learn their language, even if that extends to a couple of expressions only.

Practice shows that local women are willing to help international men and women, while local men rather show interest in international women only. Long story short, you may have to start dozens of conversations to make a real connection and build trust online with people from the host culture. This is important for you in order to get on the right track and make the most of your study abroad experience.

2. Get ready to document your life abroad

Document your study abroad experience with many photos, videos, write a diary or even a blog. First of all, you can provide help for future international students. Secondly, these documented moments, a.k.a. memories can keep you motivated to maintain your international lifestyle.

Do not overdo it. You don't have to be the selfie king, even if you have a selfie stick or a complete selfie kit. Take a photo, shoot a short video, then put away all your electronics and enjoy the moment.

3. Prepare for Jetlag

If you are going to cross more than 4 time zones, most probably you will experience some Jetlag. Your body may need a whole week to adjust to the new time zone, because your regular 24 hours long day got several hours longer or shorter.

You may start to adjust your sleeping regime a week before your trip. If you are traveling west, go to bed 1 hour later every day, if you are traveling east, go to bed one hour earlier. For instance, if you go on an exchange semester from New York to London, you are crossing 5 time zones to the east, so your goal is to go to bed 5 hours earlier than usual – in 5 days it is possible to do that. It may save your first week abroad.

4. Tag your luggage

Write your name, phone number, destination and even your e-mail address on your luggage tag. Also, put something on the outside of the luggage to make it easy to distinguish it. A colored textile, a drawing, a sticker - whatever you got at home.

5. Apply for international student ID

Your host institution will issue your student ID, though it may take a month and it is mostly valid inside the country. Getting an ISIC card costs maximum 10-20 USD and it can come in handy when you travel up and down in the region of your host country. Check the kind of discounts you can enjoy and whether your host country accepts international student cards.

6. Arrange transfer to the host city

It might be cheaper and also faster (no standing in line or waiting for a taxi) if you book your transfer to the city roughly a week before your trip abroad.

7. Back up all your data

Your thesis, your project, your family photos - whatever you got on your laptop or phone, upload or store them somewhere safe. That could be your desktop computer, another laptop or an external hard drive that you leave at home.

It is painful enough to lose your phone or laptop, you don't want to lose years of photos or other important documents. It takes a couple of hours only. Do it 1-2 weeks before you go abroad.

8. Synchronize your docs

You have plenty of free place on Dropbox or Google Drive, synchronize them with your laptop and phone, so whatever you are working on is going right to the cloud.

Not so fast with the pictures and videos! If you allow certain apps to synchronize your personal things, others may have access to it from home (change password before leaving). Check twice before you share a study abroad folder with your parents. If you keep some really sensitive stuff on your phone, it might be smarter not to automatically synchronize everything, but only certain folders.

9. Get some offline stuff

Download a free and offline map of your host city and other cities you may be traveling through. Download the touristic map of the things you want to see on the first week abroad. Get an offline dictionary, there are loads of dictionaries that even pronounce the words for you.

10. Bring some souvenirs

It is a cliche, but everyone loves them. Your culture is the most precious thing that you can give to others. Buy a couple of small, symbolic souvenirs that you can give to your first new friends abroad and to your host family.

It should not cost more than 5 USD per item. The idea here is to make a nice gesture and not to create an awkward moment by giving an expensive gift to someone who came 'unprepared'.

11. Get a mental note of your room

Take a last glance at your room before you go away for a semester or a year. Be ready that your room will be used as a guestroom, a clothes dryer or a playroom for your siblings.

Come to an agreement with the right people (usually parents) about how they utilize the extra space while you are studying abroad and put away the fragile or sensitive stuff.

Don't try to plan for the impossible

Don't try to be ready for everything. There is a certain amount of surprise everywhere and studying abroad will definitely multiple those surprises. If you do most of these steps, you already did a lot to improve your study abroad experience, even before it started.

Apply what you have learnt on our site, so you can conquer your fears, conquer your challenges and conquer yourself to become a better person abroad.

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Prepare for studying abroad