Preparing to study abroad is overwhelming. After all, when was the last time you packed for such a long trip? Will everything fit into your suitcase? What travel documents do you need? What about currency exchange and vaccines? Ease those concerns by planning for your study abroad trip well in advance.
Apply for a passport.
Traveling abroad requires a valid passport. Its application process can take anywhere from two to six weeks, so it’s important to apply as soon as possible. Doing so in advance will save you from the last-minute rush and expedited fees. If you’ve never held a passport before—or if your previous passport was lost, stolen, damaged, issued before you turned 16, or issued more than 15 years ago—you must apply in person at a passport agency near you. A passport book costs $110, plus a $35 service fee for first-time applicants. You must also submit passport-style headshots with your application; you may have to pay to have these photos taken. If you already have a passport, check its expiration date. If it has already expired or will expire within six months of your expected date of return, renew your passport. Renewal requests can be processed by mail if your previous passport is undamaged and submitted with your application; there is a $110 fee for a new passport book.
Learn about student visa requirements.
To exit and reenter the United States, you must have a passport, but your host country might have its own entry requirements. Some countries require you to pay a fee or provide a tourist visa to enter. Search the requirements for your destination. Keep in mind that the information you uncover only applies to brief tourist trips. As a student enrolling in a university for a few months to a year, you will probably be required to hold a student visa as well. Sometimes you will need to apply for your visa before you leave the United States. Other countries allow you to adjust your visa status after arrival. Contact your school’s study abroad office, your study abroad program, or your host university for specific information and support.
Meet immunization requirements.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that all travelers stay updated on routine vaccines, including those for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, chickenpox, polio, and the flu. Other destinations might have additional requirements. In some parts of the world, you could be at risk for yellow fever, malaria, meningitis, typhoid, and/or hepatitis A. Protect yourself by receiving all recommended vaccines for your destination and region before you depart. Visit your doctor or a travel clinic near you to learn which immunizations are best for your situation.
Register your travel information with the United States embassy.
The U.S. State Department provides a free service to citizens and nationals called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Enter your itinerary and receive travel warnings and alerts by email. In case of a crisis or emergency while you are abroad, the embassy or consulate can get in touch with you directly or help your friends and family reach you. Similarly, make sure that family and friends back home have a copy of your passport and visa in case they need to locate you.
Arrange your housing.
Some study abroad programs coordinate your living situation for you. They may require you to stay with a host family or in a dorm. Other programs give you a choice of accommodations while abroad, and you might be able to live on your own in an apartment you find for yourself. Indicate your preferences to your program early if you have your heart set on a certain option.
Research your destination before you go.
Learn about the region, country, and city where you’ll be living before you arrive. Pull up your new address on Google Maps and take a virtual tour to familiarize yourself with the neighborhood. Look at blogs, maps, and travel books to pique your interest and prepare yourself for more than just your regular vacation.
Study abroad students are essentially ambassadors. They represent their home schools and the United States while abroad. Remember this. Locals may be eager to speak with you, to practice their English, or to ask for your opinion on global issues. Be careful about engaging in any heated discussions. As an ambassador, you should listen respectfully to others and voice your opinions respectfully in turn. Keep in mind that foreigners in some parts of the world may show animosity toward the United States. Do not take comments personally. To navigate tough conversations, read the news from your host country and your home country. Pay particular attention to international topics.
Build a list of must-sees and should-avoids.
Staying in a country for a summer, a semester, or a year gives you plenty of time to get to know the land. But with weekend trips and classes, time can slip away from you. Before you go, start a list of sites you definitely want to visit and neighborhoods or areas that you should avoid for safety reasons. Update your list as you go.
Pick up key phrases in the local language or dialect.
You might have a great translation app on your phone, but it will be useless until you can connect to the internet. Consider keeping an old-school language dictionary in your carry-on. If you aren’t fluent, earmark pages that can help you flag down a taxi and get directions.
Airport ATMs and currency stations generally offer the worst exchange rates, so you might choose to exchange currency at your bank before you leave the United States. The amount really depends on the cost of living in your destination country. No matter where you go, you probably don’t want to arrive with wads of cash strapped to your body. Aim to have a week’s worth of cash with you upon arrival. You should at least have enough to hop in a taxi, buy groceries, and place a phone call. When you’re settled, you can start hunting for ATMs and currency exchange houses that offer better rates than the ones in the airport. Consider opening a bank account with a bank that refunds all ATM fees.
Inform your bank and credit card company of your travel plans.
Banks and credit card companies monitor your spending; if they notice unusual charges coming from a foreign country, they might freeze your account to protect you from fraud. To prevent a situation like this, notify your bank and credit card companies about your upcoming study abroad trip. Let them know where you’ll be traveling and for how long. It’s easy. Swing by your local branch, update your travel settings online, or call your bank’s customer service line.
Arrange campus housing for your return.
Where will you live when your study abroad term ends? Take time now to figure it out. If you wait until the last minute, you’ll be scrambling to find a reasonably priced sublet or a short-term lease. Make your plans early to prevent unnecessary spending later.
Pack lightly but accordingly.
In most countries, you’ll find hygiene and toiletry products similar to the ones you use in the United States. Bring a travel-size amount of soap and shaving cream, and plan on buying the rest when you arrive in your destination. If you can’t live without your medicated face wash, that’s okay, but limit yourself when it comes to stuffing your bags full of heavy beauty products. They’ll start to weigh on your suitcase and your wallet. Rethink your plan to bring a hair dryer, especially if you’re spending more than a month in the country. You can buy most beauty appliances cheaply abroad, and you won’t have to worry about voltage converters or electrical adapters.
Prepare for illness.
Medical standards differ country to country. In some destinations, you’ll encounter fewer doctors and restricted access to medical technology and pharmaceuticals. When you’re packing your bags, think twice before ditching the Advil or Allegra. Over-the-counter medicine can help you treat common traveler’s illnesses until you can reach a doctor or make an appointment.
Stock up on your prescription drugs before you go.
It’s impossible to refill every prescription in every part of the world. Talk to you doctor about getting an advance prescription. Similarly, some personal items, including tampons with applicators, contact lenses, and refillable water bottles, are less available outside of the United States. If you can’t live without a hygiene or health product, research its availability in your host country and decide whether you should purchase extra ahead of time.
Check with your insurance company about coverage while you’re abroad.
U.S. health insurance plans provide limited to no coverage when you’re abroad. To find out about your specific coverage, call your provider. If you receive medical care abroad, you often need to pay for treatment upfront, even in countries with universal health care. Your program might offer a specific travel medical insurance plan to cover you during your time abroad. Otherwise, consider buying your own plan from a U.S. company. There are dozens out there, so get multiple quotes before purchasing your best and cheapest option. Your medical insurance probably doesn’t cover all travel issues, either. Consider buying supplemental travel insurance to cover emergency evacuations and repatriations, lost luggage, and missed flights.
Page last updated: 01/2019