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Pre-Departure Tips for Study Abroad

June 14, 2010

Although I have been traveling almost since I was born, I have never had an experience quite like the one that lies ahead of me. For one thing, I’ve spent very little time outside of the U.S. and Europe. For another, I have never spent more than 3 or 4 months abroad at a time. And finally, whenever I have gone abroad for that long, I have always been with my family. Now I am about to leave for a country I’ve never been to for 5 months without anyone I know. This means more preparation than I have ever put into a trip BY FAR…

Because we are inundated with information on how to prepare for this experience from the moment we begin the application process (which can be hella overwhelming), I thought I would share with you my pre-departure tips for studying abroad. While I don’t recommend using these as a substitute for the excellent information in your guidebooks/handbooks/brochures/info sheets, I do hope that they will serve as a sort of model “to-do” list, which you can edit, expand and build upon as you go through this process. Mine are written from the perspective of a U.S. student going abroad, but many of them can probably be adapted to your unique background/experience as well.

I recommend taking the following into consideration when you create your own pre-departure to-do list:

  • How much you have traveled abroad (outside of the U.S., or your home country): If you haven’t traveled abroad before it will be really important that you do a lot of reading and research before you leave. At the bare minimum, read the study abroad handbooks and read about the country where you are going (their culture, customs, etc). If you are more accostomed to traveling internationally, you may not find the study abroad handbooks to be as critical, since you will be more used to adapting to different cultures. HOWEVER, you should still read up on the country you will be visiting and living in. It doesn’t matter how experienced of a traveler you are. Every country (and even every region of a country) is different and you should have at least a general knowledge of the country and culture you are about to immerse yourself in. Wikipedia can be helpful for this, as are the U.S. Department of State Country Reports. Travel books as well as the “Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands” book series can also be helpful. As is the ever-useful Google search. One more note: if you have traveled abroad extensively, but never for more than a month or two at a time, be sure to educate yourself about culture shock.
  • Where you are going and whether you speak the language: In general, the more different/remote your destination is from your home-country, the more preparation you are going to have to do. Whether or not you speak the language can also affect how you prepare. If you do happen to be going somewhere where you don’t speak the language (or if you are still learning) I definitely recommend picking up a pocket language dictionary that translates both to and from the language. Try to at least learn a few basics before you leave, such as how to say “hello,” “how are you,” “thank you,” “good morning,” etc. People will like and respect you a lot more for trying to use their language and it will also make you feel more at home.
  • Your living environment abroad (apartment, dorm, host family home; alone, with room-mates, etc.): Among other things, this will affect what you pack and how you budget (for food, etc). If you are living with a host family, you will also want to consider bringing them a small gift.
  • How much travel you intend to do outside of your destination city/country: Among other things, this will impact your what you pack, how you budget, and your required/recommended vaccinations. And now for my . . .

Pre-Departure Tips for Studying Abroad

  • Register with the U.S. Embassy. I never even knew this was possible until this year, and it turns out that it is not only possible, but is also free and easy to do! Just go to, create an account, and you will be able to enter trip information for as many trips as you want (as far as I can tell). This seems like a good idea to do whenever you travel abroad so that in case of emergency, you can be found and helped more quickly.
  • Talk to Locals, or Others Who Have Studied Abroad in your destination country. Chances are, there will be some people from that country at your school, or at least people who have studied abroad there. Contact them and ask if they would be willing to have coffee or lunch with you to talk about their home country or study abroad experience and give you some tips. Bring a list of questions or just let them talk and ask questions as they come to you. Most people are delighted to have the opportunity to talk about where they are from or what they did when they studied abroad. This will give you great insights that are difficult to get from any handbook. If you can’t find people to talk to from your school, try contacting your study abroad program and ask them if they can put you in contact with someone who has studied abroad in your destination country. Set up a phone or Skype conversation and start taking notes! Some examples of things to ask include: where to go, what to eat, what to pack, safety tips, where to travel, their favorite experience, the experience that wasn’t worth it, etc.
  • Sign a Power of Attorney. At the very least, you will probably want to make a parent or family member a co-signer on your bank accounts while you are abroad. Another option (if you don’t want to put someone else’s name on your bank accounts, or if you want to give someone the right to conduct other business on your behalf as well) is to sign a Power of Attorney form that will basically give whoever you choose the legal capability to make decisions, sign documents, etc on your behalf. There are many types of PoAs so you will definitely want to do some research to determine which one(s) will work best for you. You will have to get it/them notarized (often by a lawyer) in order for it/them to be effective. You should also double-check with your bank to ensure that a general PoA will allow that person to make transactions for you. It may be that they have to get additional documentation/permission from you before they can accept a PoA in your absence. Get more than one original made of each, and be sure at least one original of each is kept in a safe place.
  • Know the Visa Requirements and Required Vaccinations for your Country, and anywhere you intend to travel to while you are abroad. Your study abroad program should provide you with visa requirements. Be sure to pay close attention to these and meet any deadlines! If you can’t get your visa until you are abroad, be 110% sure to bring everything you need with you! Many countries will have required vaccinations that you have to get in order to enter the country. Some of these must be in your system for at least 10 days (or more) before they become effective so do your research early, and plan your appointments accordingly! Visit to learn about required and recommended vaccinations for your country. Even if it isn’t required, you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor (or a doctor in a travel clinic) to discuss your trip and make sure you are healthy and up-to-date on your regular vaccinations.
  • Create an “Important Information” Sheet for your parents/guardian and yourself. You may want to include: “in case of emergency” information (who to contact first from your program or school, embassy info, helpful links, etc), banking info (debit & ATM card numbers, bank contact info, routing number, answers to security questions, etc), insurance info (policy numbers and contact info for your regular and travel insurance), info about where you’re staying (address, phone numbers, etc), your Resident Director and study abroad program’s contact info, contact info for important offices at your school (financial aid, billing, health services, study abroad office, etc), and other important information or numbers (social security number, student ID number, Driver’s License number, passport number, and/or where to find copies of all of these and other important documents). Be sure to delete this off of your computer after you print copies for yourself and your family. Keep your copy in a very safe place! Guard it like you would guard your passport.
  • Make Several Copies of Important Documents for yourself and your parents/guardian. Some of the documents you may want to copy include: your passport (I prefer color copies for these. Make at least 3 copies for yourself and 1 copy for your family), your bank and credit cards (both sides, and make sure all of the information is legible!), your driver’s license (both sides, same rules apply), your insurance cards (ditto), your itinerary, your official study abroad acceptance letter (it might seem odd, but I’ve needed copies of this for 2 different things already and I haven’t even left yet!), your immunization records, and any other medical records you might need. Keep your copies in a very safe place when you travel! I bought a small accordion folder to hold everything so I can keep it all organized and carry it on the airplane with me. Once you arrive, keep your folder in a safe if possible (you may want to ask your program if they have access to one if you don’t), or lock it in your suitcases at the very least.
  • Contact Your Bank/Credit Cards to let them know you’ll be traveling out of the country and to find out information about withdrawal charges, and other charges that might apply if you use your cards abroad. This will help you to avoid having your accounts flagged (not fun if you are in another country and trying to get access to money) or unintentionally racking up lots of surprise fees.
  • Pack Light! I’m thinking about writing a whole post about how to pack light, but for now let me just reiterate the (painful) advice that you’ve probably heard 3,000 times already: pack light! You will not believe how relaxing it feels to have to fit your entire life for 4+ months inside two 50-lb. suitcases. I know that sounds crazy but it is true. Stick to basics that you can mix-and-match, don’t pack a ton of toiletries or jewelry (you can always buy the former when you get there and you won’t want to risk losing or having the latter stolen), think comfort with accessories to add some style, and if you can fit it, bring an extra duffel bag inside one of your suitcases. I know that this is especially challenging for the girls, but I’m telling you, you do not want to be lugging a bunch of overweight baggage through a foreign airport/city. For one thing, you will immediately be identified as a spoiled American (AKA a pickpocketing/theft target) and for another, you will be exhausted from a very long flight. Ask yourself: can I buy this there? Can I live without this for a few months? Would I rather have this filling my bags, or something great that I buy while I am there and want to take home with me?

Alright, that’s all I have for tonight! I’m spending the next three days with my grandparents until I leave on Thursday so I need to get my rest. Tomorrow I’ll be up early to run, work, spend time with Mimi and Papa, and finish up some last-minute errands and packing!

Sleepy and happy,

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010 12:52 pm

    Hola Makena,

    Great pre-departure to-do-list! I overpacked the first time I studied abroad… 🙂
    I hope you have a fabulous experience in Argentina!

    Best regards,

    Terri Morrison
    President, GTC and Co-Author:
    Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: the Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries (A Library Journal Award Winner)
    Dun & Bradstreet’s Guide to Doing Business Around the World


  1. Everything You Need to Know Before You Study Abroad in Buenos Aires « Study Abroad Bryant – Buenos Aires

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