This time three (!!!) years ago, I was returning from my study abroad experience in France and preparing for a whole new journey in London. Time really flies—it feels like just yesterday I was freaking out about moving to a country I had never visited before, anxiously awaiting the day of my departure.
I still think about my study abroad experiences almost daily. I communicate with friends I made abroad; my career path and goals changed after I went abroad; my outlook on life and the world around me changed as well.
To make the most of your study abroad experience, there are several dos and don’ts of study abroad you should follow. Coming from someone who’s been there before, following these practical study abroad tips will help you make the most of your time in your host country.
DON’T hang out with only Americans
It can be tempting (and perhaps much easier) to surround yourself with fellow countrymen and women when you study abroad. Many programs stick you in classes or housing with your classmates from home. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to have friends who get it. But, they aren’t the only friends you should be seeking out.
What to do instead: Immerse yourself in local culture and befriend locals.
This can be hard depending on what country you are in or what type of academic setting you find yourself in but hear me out. If you go abroad and only hang out with your friends from school or from the program, you’re missing a huge chunk of the study abroad experience. Yes, you went abroad to see a different part of the world, but you will only truly understand that new part of the world once you meet locals.
Try: living with a host family (not only will you become immersed in local culture, you’ll most likely become fluent or close to it) or living in student housing. I lived with a host family who didn’t speak English, so I really had to rely on my French skills and speaking abilities. I became much more confident in my French skills and gained a unique insight into the life of a Parisian family.
I am a recovering over-packer. I like to be prepared for any possible situation. I went to Paris with one huge suitcase and to London with two and definitely didn’t need nearly as much as I packed.
What to do instead: Pack half of what you need.
A good rule of thumb is to lay everything you want on your bed and take exactly half of what you think you’ll need. Remember, you’re not going to space or to the middle of nowhere. No matter how secluded your study abroad destination is, there will be places to shop. If you do over pack and find yourself wearing very little of your wardrobe, give away what you don’t wear to charity.
Study abroad packing essentials for Europe: Waterproof shoes (or waterproofer for your shoes); scarves, hats, gloves (if you’ll be there during winter); comfortable walking shoes; dark clothing; a warm jacket; umbrella.
DON’T spend every weekend traveling
Most people use study abroad as the opportunity to travel to a new country every possible weekend they can. While you should, of course, use your study abroad experience to visit places you have always wanted to visit, don’t forget that you chose your study abroad destination for a reason.
What to do instead: Try to explore as much of your host city as you can.
Because I studied abroad for a year, I really had the opportunity to balance exploring London and traveling Europe. Because I had a miserable schedule (classes Friday evening and Monday morning), my weekend travel to other countries was severely limited. Instead, I took advantage of activities in London and took several day trips from London. I also had a six-week spring break during which time I traveled Europe with a friend.
Try saving out-of-country travel for long weekends and breaks you have in school. Set aside time during your semester or year to experience everything you want to in your city.
DON’T plan all your weekend trips before you go abroad
Yes, we all have ideal trips we want to take when study abroad. I basically wanted to go to every country in Europe. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. In all reality, planning all your weekend trips won’t work.
What to do instead: Make a list of the places you would like to visit in an ideal world. Research the basics (how to get there, how much it will cost, etc.), but don’t book anything, at least not until you know your class schedule or where your friends want to go.
Also, be open to spontaneity. Some of my favorite trips were completely spontaneous—one night in Caen for the 100th anniversary of D-Day? That was planned 3 days before leaving. A weekend trip to Amsterdam? Planned 2 days before, after finding super cheap first class train tickets from Paris. Sometimes the best trips aren’t planned well in advance.
DON’T wait til the last minute to do the touristy things in your host city
I fell victim to this one myself. Don’t wait until the last minute to visit all the touristy sights in your host city. By the time it’s time to leave, you’ll be dragging your feet whilst feeling rushed about hitting up all the iconic sights.
What to do instead: Set up time during your first few weeks in your host city to visit the “must-see” sights. Make a list of what you really want to see, grab a friend and go! You will thank yourself at the end of your time abroad and won’t regret not visiting iconic places.
Studying abroad in London? Check out these must-see sights in London for first-time visitors!
DON’T forget the “study” part of study abroad
Every program is different. On my Paris program, I had minimal homework and maximum time to explore the city. I was also in class for almost 6 hours a day 4 days a week. In London, I had 10 hours of class a week but tons of reading and work (being enrolled at LSE is serious business).
What to do instead: Feel out your classes. Will they require actual work? Or, can you get by just by showing up and paying attention? Ask people who have been on the program before you and make a plan. I would stay on top of my reading as best I can so I could have most of my weekends free. My grades counted, so I really wanted to do well. This could be completely different for you.
If you’re enrolled in a foreign school and maybe don’t have that much work, use it as a learning experience to see how different students behave in class or how professors teach. I picked up a lot of differences between U.S. and UK academics whilst studying abroad.
DON’T spend all your money
I know what you’re thinking—obviously you don’t go abroad wanting to spend your money. But, with exchange rates, multiple currencies and delicious food, you’ll find your money will go away very fast. I know mine did!
What to do instead: Research the cost of living of your host city.
Use an app like XE Currency to see how exchange rates fluctuate a few months before you arrive. Create a budget and [try to] stick to it: will you eat out every night? Will you have to cook your own meals or will they be provided in your dorm or through your host family? Do you get a meal stipend? How often will you travel? Will you stay in budget accommodations?
However, don’t forget to treat yourself every once in awhile. Sometimes you need that nice meal or that overpriced pastry!
Try: Asking for a student discount everywhere you go. In Europe especially, you can get a student discount for just about everything. If it’s not free, you’ll get a heavily discounted rate for museums, transport and sometimes even food for having a student visa and/or a student ID. It’s wonderful to be a student!
DON’T forget to document your experiences
With the prevalence of social media, it’s almost second nature to post photos and videos of your study abroad experiences. This is great—you’ll never forget cool places you saw or awesome trips you took! However, I do know some people who just don’t do this.
Try: Keeping a journal for your study abroad experiences.
It can be a photo journal, a physical journal or an online journal—whatever draws you in most. Just make sure to document what you do or how you felt when you were traveling. You’ll regret not having those types of things documented a year or two after you’re back home and trying to reminisce on your experiences!
DON’T expect to get by on only English
Yes, most people will speak at least a few words of English. Some might speak English flawlessly, especially in tourist hotspots. But, don’t rely on English alone.
What to do instead: If you are living in a country where English is not the native language, make an effort to learn that language.
Even if it’s just the bare bones basics, it will go a long way and will help you feel even more at home in your new home. If you plan on traveling, be sure to learn basic phrases in the languages you will need. I always tried to learn please, thank you, yes, no, “where is”, 2, and check/bill. Even if the person I was speaking to switched to English, they were more likely to open up and help me out if I made an effort in their native language. *This will really get you far in France*
For example, in Florence, the ticket person didn’t know English (which even to me is weird) so, I used my very basic Italian skills to say “tre adulti, un ragazzo” to get our tickets. In France, I was able to commiserate with a French woman about a fire drill at the train station (still one of the best moments of my life). Learning a foreign language will get you far, my friends!
DON’T get an international data plan with your U.S. carrier
This will cost you hundreds of dollars of unnecessary money.
What to do instead: Get a pay as you go plan in your host country, using an unlocked smartphone or even a burner phone.
I always had two phones: my American phone turned to airplane mode, used only for photos and when I had wifi and my burner phone, used for texting my host family and friends and making calls and whatnot. Phone plans abroad tend to be much cheaper and solely pay as you go, so they are super easy to get.
In the UK? Visit Carphone Warehouse and ask for the cheapest plans. I got O2 for £20/month. EE was also good.
In France? Visit Orange and ask about the monthly plans they offer. Mine was €20/month. For either country, I never ran out of data.
DON’T have FOMO about what you’re missing at home
Yes, you will get homesick. I only really got homesick when my grandmother passed away during the middle of exams and I couldn’t travel home. I was also worried that all my friends would move on and forget about me. Turns out, most were jealous that I went abroad for a year and wished they had done so as well.
What to do instead: Embrace your time abroad as a time of personal, academic and professional development.
Be sure to keep in contact with friends and family through FaceTime, group chats and social media, but remember why you studied abroad. You’re having the adventure of a lifetime and you need to embrace!