Heading off for a semester (or year) abroad? By most accounts, you can plan on having a life-changing experience of one kind or another. You’ve signed up to something you can talk about for the rest of your life: the time you lived and studied in another country and culture, living it up and learning all kinds of new things.

Of course, each person’s experience abroad is radically different depending on their chosen destination, their previous travel experiences, and the kind of studies they’ll be undertaking. Regardless of what and where you’re studying, however, there are some useful tips that will help you prepare for studying abroad and to settle in to your new student life.

Related101 Study Abroad Hacks

1. Check Up on Local Media 

One of the easiest (and probably most fun) ways of preparing to go abroad is to watch/listen to some of the local happenings in your country of destination. Obviously this will be easier some places than others, but you’d be surprised what’s available on the internet these days. Be sure to check out:

  • Movies (both feature-length and independent. Check Vimeo and YouTube)
  • TV shows (like movies, you can often find these with English subtitles as necessary)
  • Radio
  • Podcasts
  • Music

If you want to spend a lazy afternoon sprawled in front of a TV show… make it a Mexican soap opera or a season of Father Ted. Spend a while browsing around YouTube searching out local musicians.

2. Follow Locally-Focused Social Media Profiles

Start following locals and tourism accounts in your destination country. Do this before you go—sign up to some interesting people who are posting right now in the place you’ll be living. If you can, I advise a balance between accounts like “An American in [INSERT YOUR CITY HERE],” and searching for more locally sourced information streams.

If you don’t speak the local language well, you can still learn a lot by following image-based social media. And you might be surprised at the number of people who are writing either bilingual or mostly English social media content. You’ve got the advantage of speaking a language many people are learning, which means  there are a lot of people willing to communicate with you. Take advantage of the resources out there!

3. Learn the Language 

This leads me to the most conventional, but possibly most important piece of preparation advice: study the language. Every tiny improvement you make before you go will make a world of difference when you arrive. You want to be able to communicate, connect, and really experience your new host town! Speaking even a little bit of the local language is a ticket to that connection.

NOTE: For those of you studying in an English-speaking location, you are not off the hook on this one. There is almost certainly a range of local slang you should know before you go. This does not mean you should hit London spouting words like “jumper,” “aubergine,” and “chuffed,” but these are words you’ll hear, and it’s particularly embarrassing when you don’t understand someone who is speaking “your own language.” Look it up, and then find some audio of the local accents. Depending on where you go, accents can be a real obstacle as well (although a fun one!)

4. Know Major Landmarks (Cultural and Historical) 

No one will expect you to know everything important that happened in the country over the course of hundreds of years. However, you should be reasonably well acquainted (more than just one Wikipedia page) with the major historical and cultural events—particularly in recent history. It is also reasonable that you are aware of major achievements in sports, literature, music, and other potential sources of national pride.

Knowing this will allow you to engage with information more deeply, as well as avoiding putting your foot in your mouth by unknowingly bringing up a historical sore point.

You can reasonably be expected to know:

  • The name of the country’s president
  • The country’s most noted authors/musicians/other cultural icons
  • A vague notion of their sports prowess
  • Recent political events (even if you don’t understand them, have a reasonable background on the players)
  • Recent natural disasters (last 20 years or so)

5. Know Major Landmarks (Geographical) 

You do not need to memorize every major city, river, or museum. However, it is both logistically wise and relationship savvy to have at least a passing idea of where things are and what they are called. Know a bit about the city you’ll be living in, and look over regional information and the names of some of the biggest cities.

If nothing else, you want to be able to recognize the existence of the hometowns of your new classmates. If you say “Chicago,” they’ll know what you’re talking about. It’s only fair to give an approximate of the same courtesy in return.

Plus you’re less likely to get lost.

6. Prepare for Your Classes 

For almost everyone who studies abroad, the time spent in the classroom is not the primary motive or key experience for this time. However, you do need to put at least a little thought into your classes. If study abroad counts toward your overall GPA and graduation, this is especially important.

Regardless, you want to organize your classroom life so you DO get as much out of it as you can, and so it doesn’t get in the way of all the out-of-class learning and living opportunities ahead.

7. Make Your Ultimate To-Do List 

As you’re researching your new university, town, and country… start making a list. Write down places you’d like to go, foods you’d like to try, festivals worth attending, clubs and organizations you might be interested in, etc. Consider taking a class of some kind—cooking, dancing, music, sports, crafts…

You will probably only study abroad once. No matter how many other times you travel (or even live) abroad, studying abroad is special. Plan to make some memories.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed, either by all the new experiences and opportunities, or by the loneliness that’s very possible when moving somewhere new. Having a list like this will give you a place to start if the transition isn’t a smooth one.

The longer you stay in a place, the less likely you’ll be to visit the big tourist destinations, so having a list for those first couple of weeks (before you have friends, homework, group travel plans, etc), is a great way to start building context as well as scratching off “bucket list” items for this experience abroad.


Once you’ve done all of this, all that’s left is for you is to pack and then go! Best of luck with your experiences, and I hope you have an incredible adventure.


Image courtesy of UC Davis