Studying abroad is an exciting and rewarding experience, but it definitely requires a lot of research and background knowledge. When I left to go to Barcelona, I thought that I was pretty well-prepared, but I quickly realized that I was not, at all. There is a lot more to it then just going to school and having fun on the weekends (or weeknights). Here are some things you should definitely know before you leave to go abroad.
1. Make sure your credits will transfer.
This is so important. I know, I know, you already know. But, my Freshman year I knew a senior who had to take 24 credits each semester because she had studied abroad the spring of her Junior year and none of the credits transferred. You don’t want that to be you. So check, and check, and check again. Once you get there, check again. Don’t wait until you’ve come back, and your school says that you’re missing 16 credits to realize that none of them transferred.
2. Learn Military time.
This is a useful skill to have. Since pretty much every other country besides the United States goes by military time, it’s handy to know. I was pretty lucky since I have been using military time since I changed my Facebook language to English (UK), which changed all the times to military time, so I had become familiar with it. But booking plane tickets and things, everything is in military time, which can get confusing if you don’t know it. (14:00 does not equal 4pm).
3. Know some background information about your country.
It’s good to have some information about where you are staying, so you aren’t the ignorant American stereotype. Also, studying abroad is all about immersing yourself in a different culture, and learning about it, so you can have a head start if you do some research beforehand. At least know who the President or leader of the country is. Also, know what is going on politically, economically, etc. When I was in Spain, there were a lot of riots going on because of the poor economy. Frequently on my way home from class, I would see protestors walking down Passeig de Gracias. One day, a lot of teachers were cancelling classes because huge riots were taking places, and when I went to the scene after, there was graffiti and trash every where. So read up at least a little so you know current events and won’t accidentally get stuck in a riot. Or, as what happened on our first week, there was a street festival right outside, ending with a carnival! So if you have some information, you’ll know how to find these.
4. Learn how to use a map.
This is HUGE. If you’re like most students, you live off WiFi when you’re abroad, so you can’t just search Google Maps wherever you are and find directions. And even if you do have some sort of plan in the country you’re staying, it usually doesn’t work when you travel. I can’t even count how many times my roommate and I got lost trying to find our way around Barcelona and other places. In Dublin, we got so lost that we realized that we weren’t even on the map of the city anymore. If you can use a map, this will definitely help you when you’re traveling.
5. Which banks you can use.
It’s good to have a knowledge of what bank you can use to take money from. Some companies even have partnerships with overseas banks, so you can take money out without huge fees. I had an account at my small local bank so I didn’t have that, but I knew plenty of people who had to use specific banks so they could get money without having to pay a lot.
6. Living arrangements.
When I went to Spain, I had no idea where I was living or who I was living with. I didn’t even bother to try looking up my roommates in the Facebook group, which I definitely should have. I stalked them after I met them, of course, but still it would have been nice to have a little contact before. And, it would have been better for me to scope out my apartment. I had the address, I just didn’t do anything. Before I got that, I wasn’t even sure if I was living in dorms or something else. And, if you are staying in a home stay, be prepared to have a lot of rules, and don’t plan on breaking them because it’s disrespectful to the family taking you in. If you’re traveling, don’t just show up to a country, make sure you have a hostel or friend to stay with first. If you’re living in an apartment like me, learn to cook a little, so you can make the fajitas, not that awful grilled cheese sandwich (that’s what it looked like AFTER my roommate cooked it…).
7. Currency exchange.
Keep an eye on the currency exchange in the weeks before you go (and definitely while you’re there!) so you will know how expensive or inexpensive it will be, so you can kind of plan out your expenses. Of course, you have no way of knowing exactly how much you’ll spend while you’re there (and for me at least, it was just a teeny bit more than I was expecting), but knowing the exchange rate will definitely help. And keep an eye on it. If you see it going down, that would be a good day to go grocery shopping or whatever, and on the days that it’s higher, you’ll want to stay away from spending money.
This is also very important. I would look up the weather and everything would be in Celsius, so I would have no idea what that actually meant. Which meant that I didn’t know how to dress for class, because I didn’t know if it was cold or hot. It also meant I was woefully unprepared when I traveled to London at the end of January and didn’t realize just how cold it would be. So know how to convert, or at least have some sort of idea of what Celsius is, so when it says it’s 8 degrees Celsius, you know that it’s 46 degrees Fahrenheit.
9. Electronics and converters.
Make sure you have the right converters for your country. You don’t want to show up without any, or with the wrong ones. Of course, you can buy them after you arrive, but it’s always better to be prepared, especially if you’re going to a country that doesn’t speak English. It could take you a while to find a store that sells them. And if you know you’ll be traveling a lot, buy a pack of them. When I went, my parents and I just pack that had all different kinds of converters, so I would always have the right one when I went somewhere.
10. Places to go/see/things to do
I had NO IDEA what sights there were to see in Barcelona. Sagrada Familia? Never heard of it. Gaudi? Who’s that? Don’t let this be you! Even if you’re not a big sightseer (I’m not, obviously), you’ll still want to have an idea of what famous sights there are, to give you something to do beside school and party. And when you travel, it’s good to have an idea of the sights where you’re going, so you can plan out your trip a little to make sure you get everything you want. You never know when you look things up, you can often find discounted tickets online, or you can find some pretty cool stuff. We did a lot of free walking tours, which sound kind of lame but we’re actually way more fun than walking around ourselves, and it’s a good way to get familiar with where you are. Plus, going to see the sights is a good way to learn some more history about where you are. And it makes you seem more cultured to other people. I was lucky I had a very active/informed roommate who did a lot of researching sights, otherwise we would never have found the park with the labyrinth maze you see in the photo, which was absolutely stunning, and fun.
So while you’re busy packing and saying goodbye to all your friends and family (it’s only three months! Goes by quicker than you’d like), bear all of this in mind. Change your phone clocks to military time (I’ve had it for three years, I love it. Never set an alarm to 8pm when I meant 8am). Check the currency exchange. Do some research in your spare time. You’ll definitely thank yourself for it.