Preparing to study abroad can be stressful – there’s so much to do! We’ve assembled this checklist of essential things you need to do before studying abroad.
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Make sure your passport and/or your passport picture is up to date. Give yourself plenty of time before you leave! Passport offices are usually busy, and your passport will usually take a while to arrive in the mail.
Don’t want to wait in line to get your passport photo taken? Check your study abroad office on campus! Some campuses offer passport services – I was in and out of the office in 5 minutes.
Make Copies of Important Documents
It’s extremely important to make copies of your passport, visa papers, important contacts (in case you lose your phone), and credit card info (with the company’s number so that you can call if your card is lost or stolen). Keep a copy for yourself, and leave a copy with someone back home.
You may want to make a couple copies of your passport & visa. I usually kept a copy with my host family, and carried a copy on me when I traveled. If you lose your passport, it’s much easier for your U.S. Embassy to get you a new one. Plus, in some countries it’s essential that you carry a copy of your passport/visa.
Tell Your Bank & Credit Card Company
The most important thing you need to do is to let your banks and credit card companies that you’re going abroad. You don’t want to land in another country, only to find out that you’ve been locked out of your accounts! Have information ready when you call. They’ll want to know when and how long you’ll be gone, and what country you’re going to.
If you’ve already planned trips outside of your host country, let them know that too. In the event that you take any spontaneous trips, be sure to keep your banks and credit card companies up to date.
Get a Card With No Foreign Transaction Fees
Getting a credit or debit card that has no foreign transaction fees is absolute essential before you go abroad. Foreign transaction fees are usually at least 3%. That cost can really add up, especially if you’re purchasing flights and train tickets.
Tip: When you use a card in a foreign country, sometimes the card reader will ask you to select USD or the local currency. Always choose the local currency. Otherwise, an extra “conversion” fee is tacked on by the vendor!
Know Which Banks You Can Use
When you’re researching banks and cards, also take ATM fees into account. Some American banks have select foreign banks that they partner with, making transactions free at those select branches. Many charge fees regardless. Other banks, like CapitalOne, have no ATM fees.
If you have to pay a fee, take out cash in larger amounts. There’s no sense withdrawing money in $20 increments if you have to pay a $5 fee each time.
Tip: If you’re traveling with a group of friends that you trust, pool your money before you go to the ATM. When I was abroad and multiple people needed to take out cash, we would Venmo it to whoever had a free (or low) ATM fee. They would take out everyone’s money, and we’d all get it fee-free (or split the fee)!
Take Out Cash
You will need cash, especially in Europe. Before leaving the states, take out enough foreign cash to get you through your first few days, just in case anything goes wrong with your credit or debit cards. £200 was a good amount for me, and that amount of cash lasted well into the semester since I primarily used cards.
Sign Up for Venmo
If you plan on traveling with friends, Venmo will come in handy to split costs and pay each other back. It’s super important that if you don’t already have a Venmo account, you sign up before you leave. You can use it in foreign countries, but you will NOT be able to sign up once you’re abroad!
Check that all of your vaccinations are up to date, and look up the specific vaccinations that you need for the country or region you’ll be studying in.
Go to your doctor and get your prescriptions for the full time that you’ll be abroad. You need to tell your doctor how long you’ll be gone. Pharmacies have limitations on the amount of medication they can administer at once, so your doctor may need to write a special request to submit with the prescription.
As a general rule of thumb, try not to refill your prescriptions in a foreign country. Ingredients may vary slightly from the medicine you’re taking in the U.S., and your semester abroad is not a good time to test your reaction to new medications.
Also make sure that you check that your prescription medications are legal in the country you’re going to. It’s rare that they’re not, but different countries have different regulations, so it can happen.
What happens if you slip and come crashing down your host family’s staircase, causing a grade 3 ankle sprain? (I speak from experience). Does your school cover travel insurance, injuries, trips to the doctor, etc? Or is that something you’re responsible for obtaining yourself? This is something to discuss with your study abroad office, and they will guide you in the right direction.
Register with the U.S. Embassy
The United States has embassies around the globe. You can register online so that your records are kept with the embassy closest to where you’ll be studying abroad. If you plan on traveling outside of the country you’re studying in, you can also enter trips into their system. In the event of a national emergency, the U.S. Embassy will know where you are supposed to be.
Since we registered with the U.S. Embassy, when there was a local emergency were notified very quickly via email. We also received helpful updates that let us know about major travel notices (like a main train station closure for an entire weekend).
Know Emergency Numbers
Have the numbers of your host family, your program directors, and anyone else that could help you in an emergency. Look up the equivalent of 9-1-1 in the country you’re in. It’s always better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
Always Tell Someone Where You Are
When you go on trips outside of your host country, tell people back home, tell your host parents, and tell your program directors. When traveling anywhere that you’re not familiar with, someone needs to know where you’re going to be.
Learn the Basics
If you can, enroll in a language class at your college the semester before you study abroad. The German class I took while abroad was very infrequent and quite horrible. Our professor didn’t teach the basics until we were already way too far into the semester. My roommate and I resorted to teaching ourselves the basics with Mango Languages.
Being in a foreign country and not speaking the language is a lot less scary when you at least know numbers. I’d recommend learning basic phrases, as well as directional and transportation words.
Know what you’re going to do for phone service during your semester abroad. Are you going to buy a foreign SIM card for your phone? Get a cheap flip phone for emergencies? Do your host parents have an old phone you can borrow? Are you going to add an international plan to your current service? (This is usually the most expensive option).
It’s absolutely essential that you have a working phone that can make calls in case of an emergency.
My roommate and I survived on Wi-Fi the entire semester, but our host parents had old phones that we bought pre-paid cards for. We carried those around so that we used to be contact them (and each other) when there was no Wi-Fi available.
Clear (or Buy) Storage Space
You’re going to want to take a lot of pictures! Before you leave, clear some space off of your phone and cameras. I recommend paying for Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, or some other cloud storage. Your phone and memory cards are going to run out of space fast!
Download Offline Maps
This is possibly the most important tip in this post. Get the Google Maps app on your phone, and download offline maps of the cities you’re going to. This saves a copy of the city’s map to your phone, so you can access it without wifi or phone service. Your map will even show your location and which direction you’re facing. Trust me when I say we would not have been able to navigate Europe without this.
Whatever your transportation method is, chances are, there’s an app for that. Download any apps that you’ll need to get around – like airline apps and train/bus schedule apps. Flights and trains get delayed and rerouted, so it’s a good idea to have a way to quickly get updates.
Research luggage restrictions before leaving to study abroad. Look up foreign luggage restrictions, not just the restrictions for your flight going there. European luggage is often smaller, and most airlines will only let you take a single carry-on for free. Plan ahead for your weekend trips, and bring a backpack or a small piece of carry-on luggage that you will be able to use as your main travel bag.
Prepare for the Weather
Prepare for all the weather, and layer, layer, layer! Look up temperature ranges for the months you’ll be there. Pack light but pack appropriately. Be prepared for snow and rain and know what you’ll wear on your body and your feet if this weather occurs.
Don’t be caught unprepared. During the weekend we spent in Amsterdam, the canals froze over. We were absolutely not prepared for that weather, and we ended up wearing every item of clothing we brought for the weekend, all at the same time. It was not enjoyable in the moment, but it made for some hilarious photos to look back on.