Studying abroad for a semester is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not many people get to experience. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, only 2.3% of Canadian students went abroad to study in 2015. Of those who have had the chance to spend a semester abroad, most would agree that this was the highlight of their degree. Some might even describe it as one of the best experiences in their life so far.
Although undertaking such a big project requires a large amount of preparation and involves being away from home in a completely foreign environment, studying abroad has the potential to be a highly rewarding accomplishment. It has been said by many students, upon their return from international studies, that this has been a catalyst to a life of travels.
Whether you or a friend are thinking about taking that leap into the unknown during your studies, here are 10 tips to make this experience as enjoyable as possible.
1. Familiarize Yourself with your Host Country
Take some time to research the culture, the customs and the do’s & don’ts of your host country. While nobody wants the embarrassment of a cultural faux pas, this can be easily avoided by being well informed beforehand! Try to learn a bit of the language with apps like Duolingo or from a travel guide phrasebook. Locals are always flattered by foreigners going the extra mile by communicating with them in their native tongue. Don’t forget the Google Translate app, which can be a lifesaver when it comes to deciphering a menu for instance.
2. Establish a Budget
Studying abroad will necessitate great planning skills and it all begins with a bulletproof budget. You might have to save a lot of money before leaving, but make sure to search for grants which can alleviate some of the financial burden. Here are the items for which you will spend the most:
o Flights: Unless you leave for more than one semester, a return ticket should be your only expense. For European or Asian destinations, consider putting aside a small budget for low-cost flights if you plan on taking side trips.
o Visa costs: Check your government’s foreign affairs website for up-to-date visa requirements, procedures and contact information for foreign embassies.
o School material: In some countries, textbooks expenses can be pretty steep, so don’t forget to take this into account while setting your budget.
o Travel insurance: Don’t skip this step, talk to a travel agent representative now in order to be well covered during your semester abroad. The last thing you want is to be on your own in the event of an emergency.
o Cost of living: This includes your accommodation as well as food. Whether you decide to cook for yourself or eat out will greatly affect your budget.
o Transportation: This cost will vary depending on whether you have to use public transit, buy a bicycle or even rent a car to get around.
o Activities: Socializing can easily break your budget if you don’t pay attention to how you spend your money. Be smart about it!
3. Make Sure All Your Travel Documents Are Valid
The first thing to verify is the expiry date of your passport. The rule of thumb is that your passport should be valid for a minimum of six months before your return date. It is very important to also check the number of remaining pages in your passport. You should have at least two full pages left before entering any country to avoid problems. If you need to get or renew your passport, keep in mind the time necessary and the costs involved to issue it.
For certain countries, you will be required to apply for a student visa. Because bureaucracy is very unpredictable from one country to another, allow yourself enough time for the visa application.
Some colleges or universities might ask for proof of a valid travel insurance policy in order to finalize your registration. Contact your travel insurance representative to find the plan best suited for your needs.
4. Notify Your Bank of Your Travel Plans
To avoid any surprises while you’re abroad, call your bank to let them know about your trip and any other side trips you might take. Some banks can charge significant foreign transaction fees, so check what sort of plan you can have with yours. If possible, it could be worth looking into opening a bank account abroad. Lastly, consider bringing more than one credit card and bank card in case of theft, loss or just if the ATM decides to eat your card.
5. Gather All Your Personal Documents
Before your big departure, collect all your important documents (passport, diploma, birth certificate, credit cards, visa, latest transcript, health report, etc.) into a folder that’s easily accessible in case you need it when you reach customs. Make photocopies of everything for safe-keeping and leave a copy with your emergency contact at home. Additionally, put all the scanned copies of your documents on a cloud-based service such as Dropbox as backup.
6. Make a Packing List
The golden rule of packing is to not over pack! Find a few clothing pieces that can be used in different combinations and leave the rest at home. Don’t forget to bring a few “comfort” items and food that will uplift your spirit when you feel homesick. Take some pictures of your friends and family to decorate your room. Furthermore, be aware that some prescription drugs which are legal in Canada might not be legal where you are going. Contact your medical practitioner to ensure that you have enough medication for the entire duration of your trip. Finally, to reduce the weight of your luggage, carry travel-size toiletries and buy the full-size version when you arrive at your destination along with anything else you might have forgotten.
7. Look for Accommodation Before Leaving
Try to find a place close to campus or easily accessible with public transit. Alternatively, university dorms are a great way to make new friends. Many other exchange students tend to favour this option. For a more local contact, you can look into a homestay experience. This will give you a deep understanding of the culture and provide you with the opportunity to practise the language while being fully immersed. Get in touch with the department responsible of international students to help you find the perfect accommodation.
8. Meet New People
Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone to make new friends. Nowadays, with social media, it is very easy to get in touch with prospective students. Join Facebook groups of international students at your host university (even before you leave), take part in organized activities for exchange students, share meals with people from your dorm and try to engage with local students to learn more about their culture. As intimidating as it can be to approach new people, you will learn that relationships made during a semester abroad have the potential to develop into lifelong friendships.
9. Start Planning How to Fill Your Free Time
With all the excitement and distractions of visiting a new destination, you might want to start organizing your weekend escapades well in advance. Look for free things to do such as walking tours, local exhibitions or must-see attractions. Stay ahead of the game on trending activities or food specialties by checking websites like Insider, Instagram or travel blogs.
10. Don’t Forget to Study and Attend Classes
Doing a semester abroad might seem like all fun and games, but remember that your grades still count towards your curriculum. You do need to pass all your classes unless you want to add another year to your degree!
Opening yourself to the world during your studies is the best way to enjoy a new culture while pursuing your education. Spending a semester abroad is definitely an unforgettable experience. If the chance to participate in an exchange program presents itself, you should seize the opportunity with both hands.
Article by Nomad Junkies team