College is packed with amazing opportunities for life experiences outside the classroom, and studying abroad can be one of the most fulfilling. Programs are available all over the world—often directly through your school or academic summer programs—and range from a few weeks to a whole year or more. On top of the class credit, there’s no better way to get a cultural education, immersing yourself in the language, food, and community of a foreign country.
To have the best experience possible, you’ll want to be prepared. “There are benefits to being flexible and carefree while abroad, [and] proper preparation can help alleviate some unnecessary stress,” says Sarah Bube, a former graduate assistant in the study abroad office at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. “By preparing, students are able to have a greater appreciation of their surroundings and feel more secure and safe.”
Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Before making the decision to go abroad, find out if credits are available for the programs that interest you and review other ways to keep your academic goals moving forward.
Look into advisories from the US Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pertaining to the place you’ll visit—as well as surrounding areas and countries—for anything that should be on your radar, like disease outbreaks or political turmoil.
They may be quite different from those in the US. For example, look into the legal driving age, alcohol and other drug regulations, and even the times when people can be out at night.
- “Research as much as you can about the country you’re going to: the slang, the language, the cultural practices, manners, etc.,” says Olivia E., a second-year graduate student at the University of Indiana.
- You will want to know the appropriate ways to respond to situations ranging from being invited for a meal (and demonstrating appreciation when dining or receiving help) to making eye contact, hand-shaking, dressing, and speaking with people who are older or younger.
- People who have traveled to the region may also have thoughts about the experience for travelers of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds, or the climate for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender visitors.
- Get your necessary immunizations. Make an appointment four to six weeks before traveling to allow time for adequate preparation. Some vaccines require multiple doses that need to be spread out.
- Get prescriptions for anti-malarials or diarrhea treatments if it’s recommended in the area you’re traveling to. “Always seek a specialist to discuss health risks while abroad [and] obtain medications for diarrhea, malaria, etc.,” says Marc Robin, a registered nurse at the International Traveler’s Clinic in San Diego, California.
- Consider medication for high altitudes if applicable.
- Make sure any medical issues are addressed before leaving and that you have a plan for managing them while away.
- Get prescriptions for any medications you may need, including birth control.
- Get a letter from your health care provider regarding any medications or other medical equipment you will be bringing. You may need this at customs.
- Make sure you have health insurance that covers you overseas. Not all plans do this, but many schools and study abroad programs offer policies you can sign up for. Call your health insurance company to find out its policy and any exclusions that might apply to certain activities.
- “Students should not assume that they will be able to purchase their medications while abroad,” says Dr. Anthony Hartzler, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. “If you take medications regularly, take along an adequate supply to last the duration of your trip. Keep them in your carry-on bag in case your luggage is lost.”
- If you wear contact lenses, bring extras and also have a durable pair of eyeglasses just in case. (If you wear glasses regularly, bring an extra pair.)
- Bring a first-aid kit.
- Bring any over-the-counter medications you’ll need in their original containers (such as pain relievers or allergy medicines).
- Be prepared for making international calls and/or sending texts. Call your cell phone company to alert them that you’ll be traveling. Some plans have international data built in, while others will charge a daily rate (usually expensive).
- Look into getting an international SIM card with a local number, which you can pop into your cell phone when you arrive. It may be a cheaper way to stay connected.
- Let your banks and credit cards know that you’ll be traveling. Otherwise, they may flag a charge abroad as suspicious and freeze your account.
- Know how to report a lost or stolen card and have it replaced if overseas.
- Bring photocopies of important documents, like your passport, bank numbers, etc. Keep them in a place separate from your actual passport in case it’s lost or stolen.
- Leave copies at home with your family.
- Learn where local medical care options, clinics, hospitals, etc. are and whether you’ll need a translator when visiting.
- Learn the subway, bus, and other travel routes, and always have a plan for returning home, especially at night.
- Look for tourist information centers in new cities you visit (usually designated with an “i”). Particularly if you don’t have international data, these can be helpful spots for maps and info on things to do, public transit, etc.
- “Some of the biggest risks to travelers are no different from the ones we face at home,” says Dr. Ben Katz, MD, director of the International Travel Immunizations Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. “People are more adventurous when traveling and [are sometimes] more sexually adventurous. Be at least as careful when you’re overseas as you are at home. Use seat belts, helmets, [and] if sexually active, use [protection] every time.”
- Check travel advisories for mentions of pickpocketing. Even if it’s not a high risk in your area, avoid wearing expensive jewelry and carrying valuables, and be discreet when using electronics like your phone. It’s always safest to carry money and other valuables in a front pocket or zipped cross-body bag. (You can also buy a cheap money belt to wear under your clothes.)
- Use a “buddy system” when traveling and avoid being out alone, especially in an unfamiliar area.
- Have access to a phone that allows you to make emergency local calls.
- In most countries, you’ll need to exchange your money. Use only approved money-changing locations and avoid street money-changers.
- In addition to cash, have savings and/or a credit card accessible for emergencies. Keep in mind that if you seek medical care, for example, you’ll likely have to pay up front, even if insurance will eventually cover the cost.
- One of the best parts of traveling to a new place is the food. Just be careful—Dr. Katz explains that, in some places, it’s not safe to eat anything that’s not cooked and still hot, or any fruits and vegetables that you haven’t washed yourself.
- Davis Smith, MD, a physician at the University of Connecticut, advises that thin-skinned fruits and vegetables that grow close to the ground—such as strawberries, carrots, and lettuce—are at high risk for contamination with fecal matter, especially in countries with limited sewage facilities. Thick-skinned fruits that you can peel yourself, such as bananas or mangos, may be safe.
- Also beware of water—just because locals can drink it doesn’t mean you can. A travel clinic can advise you about specifics; if necessary, drink sealed, bottled water.
- Studying abroad can be a wonderful adventure, but that doesn’t mean every moment will be amazing. “Be prepared for it to be not as fun as everyone says it is. If you have a good time, that’s good, but know that there is a possibility that you will feel lost, lonely, and insecure,” says Maggie M., a fourth-year undergraduate at Ithaca College in New York.
- If you have an existing mental health condition, such as anxiety attacks, bipolar disorder, or clinical depression, develop a plan with your health care provider. Have your prescriptions on hand, as well as emergency numbers for reaching people back home. Also look into where and how to get help locally if necessary.
- If feelings of sadness or anxiety, or other concerns, are impeding your life abroad, seek support from friends, family, and health care providers.
- Don’t wait to see a doctor if you have symptoms. It’s possible to contract an illness when traveling whose symptoms show up later.
- If possible, consult the travel clinic or health care provider you consulted before traveling and mention all the places you traveled while abroad.
- If you used medical care while traveling, make sure all bills are paid or insurance has covered them. Don’t assume this will happen automatically.
- Inform banks and other institutions that you’ve returned home. Turn local phone service back on if it was turned off.
- If you were studying abroad, follow up with your program and the corresponding office at school to make sure credits are transferred, etc.
- Thank instructors, host families, and others who provided guidance while you were traveling.
Sarah Bube, former graduate assistant, Purdue University Study Abroad Office, West Lafayette, Indiana.
Anthony Hartzler, MD, infectious disease specialist, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, Texas.
Ben Katz, MD, director, International Travel Immunizations Program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois.
Marc Robin, RN, International Traveler’s Clinic, San Diego, California.
Davis Smith, MD, physician, University of Connecticut, Mansfield, Connecticut.