Studying abroad can be daunting, whether you’re going for a term, a year, or your whole university career, and it’s important to feel confident before you jet off for your adventure. It can be overwhelming, those last few weeks before you leave, and then adjusting to your new surroundings, and the last thing you need is realizing you’ve forgotten something important, or you notice you don’t know something you desperately need to know. Whether its how to say “hello” in Japanese, or how to get to the doctors if you need it, there are a few little hints and tips that can help you on your way.
1. Where you’re going
No, that doesn’t mean you need to know your way to the nearest supermarket, or where the best bars are. Those things come with exploring and experience, and part of the fun is finding those things for the first time. But you need to know how you’re going to get around. The first step is knowing how far the distance is between your accommodation and your university. If you can walk it, brilliant – Google Maps and your favorite shoes at the ready, and you’re set to start your university experience. If you’re further away, consider cost and ease. In some places, particularly capital cities such as Paris, taxis are expensive and it makes far more sense to take the underground or the bus, which is really easy in the city.
If you do opt for public transport, make sure you’re clued up on the route you want, and the general times you can hop on. In cities, they are generally really regular, and you shouldn’t be waiting too long, but remember that there will be certain times when the underground or buses are extremely busy, and other times when they simply stop running. I know myself the feeling of losing track of time, only to find a closed Tube station and faced with a long walk back. Having a general idea of how these things work, you’re already ahead and won’t face any nasty surprises on your first journey, and you’ve gained the key to the city.
2. How you’re going to pay for things
Currency cards, conversion rates, overseas banks, withdrawal charges – it’s enough to make the mind spin. But it’s important to know. Currency cards are useful for shorter-term trips; they allow you to top up your card from your own current account, and then draw out your desired currency from an ATM whilst you are abroad. There are various options on the market, with the post office, supermarkets and various travel companies such as STA travel offering their own versions. These vary in terms of withdrawal charges, and some do not allow you to take money back off the card once its on, so shop about and make sure you get the one that’s ideal for you. If that option isn’t for you – for example if you’re going away for a longer amount of time – the option is always there, but again, shop around and see which of the country’s banks are best for students, and which allow you to open an account for a shorter amounts of time.
If you’re from England and want to use your English bank card whilst abroad, the first thing to do it to tell your bank. Otherwise, there’s a chance they’ll cancel your card if there are transactions in a country that weren’t expecting. You also have to be aware of which banks charge large withdrawal charges when abroad; HSBC, Lloyds, Halifax and Santander are known for charging high rates abroad, usually at a maximum of £1.50 per transaction, which can easily add up to a whole lot of money. Which.co.uk offers an excellent guide to which cards are best to use abroad.
3. The language
Its good to know the basics at the very least. It means you know how to be polite, how to ask for directions, read signs, or ask for help. Nobody is expecting you to be fluent – if you are, it’s a wonderful bonus – but a little bit goes a long way. There are plenty of ways to get to grips with your desired language. Most universities run a Languages For All course, which can either run alongside, or be part of your degree and is tailored to your skill level, whether you’ve done your GCSE or A-Level in it, or you’re a complete beginner.
If that option isn’t there, there are loads of online courses you can take too. Duolingo is a free app which offers a range of languages, and you can do it wherever you like, whenever you like. If all else fails, a little pocketbook of useful phrases always comes in handy, and before you know it you’ll be chatting like one of the locals.
4. How to stay safe
When I arrived for my university trip to Cape Town, I was talked through all of the safety tips for the campus and the popular student areas of the city. We were told how to contact campus security, and what to do if something happened, as well as which areas of the city are great to explore, whilst others are best avoided. It’s something that is incredibly useful in every city, and means that you feel confident that you’re going to have the best time possible, without any unfortunate, scary or dangerous hiccups along the way. Make sure you know the emergency numbers of the country, and what the protocol is if something happens. And then if there are campus contact points and numbers, make a note of those too – you never know when it could come in handy. I kept a note of mine in my purse so that I always had it at the ready.
Food is one of my favorite parts of traveling. Tasting authentic dishes in the heart of a city is pure bliss. But if you’re going to somewhere unfamiliar, it’s a good idea to know what kind of cuisine is typical, and when shopping in supermarkets, it’s helpful to know what is typically on offer and what isn’t. This is particularly important for any person who has any dietary requirements. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, find out if that’s common in the country you’re traveling to and what kinds of foods will be on offer for you.
If you have an allergy or intolerance, it’s essential to know how to communicate that in the native language, and make sure you are understood. A common way of making sure this happens is by carrying a card which explains, in the language of your choice, your dietary requirements and what needs to be done about it, so you can simply show restaurant staff and you can guarantee that there will be no issues with translation.
6. What to pack
Sunnies and a pair of flip flops aren’t needed in winter, and nobody wants to be caught out without an umbrella. Check up on the typical weather before you jet off. On my trip to Cape Town, everyone assumed it would be warm and sunny; after all, it is Africa. When we were reminded that countries in the Southern Hemisphere have winter when northern countries have summer, I shrugged it off – how cold could it really be? The answer to that was really cold, especially on an evening, and the jumper that I packed was a godsend. Listen to people who have been, and make sure you pack accordingly
A big worry for a lot of students about to embark on a study abroad program is whether they have enough money to sustain themselves through a whole year of study and exploration, and many opt for a part-time job. If you have a student visa to study abroad, there are restrictions upon if you can work, on which jobs you can work, and for how many hours. If you are allowed part-time work, typical allowance is around a maximum of 20 hours per week, although this varies massively with countries and conditions. The best way to find out if you’re able to get a job whilst abroad is to check with the embassy for the conditions in the country.
The best kind of jobs for students studying abroad is one which will get you immersed in the culture of the country. Find out what jobs are typically available for students in the area you’re staying; often bar or nightclub jobs can be popular, or if you’re looking for something that’s easier to work around your studies, tutoring English is a popular option among students. Another important thing to do is to research workers’ rights in your country, such as what is the minimum wage and what you’re entitled to as a worker, so you’re clued up before you head into the workplace.
8. Vaccinations and health care
This is something that needs organizing in advance, as some vaccinations need to be done a certain length of time before your trip. A quick internet search will tell you all you need to know about the vaccinations you need; the government website will give you a list of what you need for whichever country you’re headed to. Or if you’d prefer, your doctor can give you a run-down of what you’ll need. In the UK, a lot of vaccinations are free on the NHS, which means all you have to do is make an appointment and you’re on your way. But others, such as rabies, are not and will need to be paid for – so make sure you budget for that!
But the health doesn’t stop once you’re there – make sure you’re insured for anything that may go wrong. If you’re headed to somewhere in the European Union, make sure your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is up to date, which means that health care is free if and when you need it.
9. Driving, drinking and all things age-related
Whilst you’re abroad, a lot of social time may revolve around drink – I know mine did – so make sure that you know what you’re doing. First things first, know the legal drinking age. In most places, it’s 18, but with obvious exceptions like the U.S., where it’s 21, so it’s always best to check before you’re caught with a glass of wine in your hand. It’s also best to know the culture around drinking. If the drinks that are consumed there are much stronger than you’re used to, then take it slow, and don’t try to keep up with the locals – it’ll only end in a terrible hangover. Know your limits.
Another aspect that comes into play when considering age is whether you want to drive whilst you’re abroad. Hiring a car can be a great way to see places that you wouldn’t get the chance to ordinarily, but make sure you know the restrictions for hiring a car before you plan your great adventure. To hire a car in most European countries, the minimum age is 18, but some even reach as high as 25.
It’s also a great idea to check how much insurance will cost you, as this varies based on your age, and even the country you’re from, as well as if your licence is valid in that country. Road conditions and driving protocols can also vary, so it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself in for, – for example if roads are particularly icy as can be the case in Iceland.
10. Embrace it!
Above anything else, it’s important to realize that what you’re about to head off into is an adventure of a lifetime and after making endless lists and researching countless things, it’s time to enjoy it.