Most students can greatly benefit from studying abroad, no matter what their major field of study may be. Nearly all higher learning institutions offer study abroad opportunities or have student exchange programs. For those students who are interested in studying overseas, there are many exciting days ahead. However, there is also a great deal of preparation that is needed prior to travel. Becoming a temporary citizen of any country requires the proper documentation, education, and knowledge of local customs.
Packing wisely is important. Many students who choose to study abroad are faced with living quarters that are smaller than what they are used to in the U.S. Travel may also take students to locations with different climates and cultures, which should determine the type of clothing that is brought. It is wise to not pack too many items, though it is also a smart decision to not rely upon being able to purchase all of the items that are needed once the destination has been reached.
The most important items, however, are those that cannot be purchased at a boutique or local market, and cannot be acquired at the last minute. The required travel documents can take a significant amount of time for application, approval, and delivery. A valid passport is necessary for exit and re-entry into the U.S., and also serves as proof of American citizenship while overseas. Further, different countries have different passport requirements. Check with the U.S. State Department to learn what the passport requirements are for any specific country. Another piece of documentation that is needed for students is a working visa. Most countries require that individuals who stay within their borders for more than 90 days obtain a visa, though some require visas for entry regardless of the duration of stay. The State Department offers country specific information for all countries regarding visa requirements. Some countries also require proof of vaccination for diseases like yellow fever.
Prior to visiting a foreign country, it is wise to learn a few basic courtesy phrases. Do not assume that studying abroad means that all or even most individuals encountered can understand English. Even among those who know English, trying to communicate with them in their own language is a sign of respect and one that will likely lead to a much friendlier and helpful atmosphere. Some key phrases to learn are the basics: hello, good bye, good morning, please, excuse me, and thank you. It may also be helpful to learn direction words. Relying on learning how to ask where the closest restroom is useless without being able to understand the response. Further, practice the proper pronunciation of words and names of buildings. While studying and taking courses it is likely that most of these phrases won’t be used regularly, but they will be necessary when exploring the area and during tourist and shopping excursions.
Shopping will likely become a favorite pastime while visiting the host country. Not only will it be necessary to stock up on certain essential items, but it will likely be much less expensive to purchase groceries from local markets for home preparation than to eat at restaurants and cafes regularly. It is also undeniable that souvenirs will be expected from loved ones at home. In most international shopping locations, larger establishments accept credit and debit cards, though cash is necessary tender for many local shops. Stay abreast of exchange rates before making purchases. Shopping in unfamiliar territory can be both exciting and frustrating for those uninitiated in the process of bargaining. Unlike the US, vendors in many countries, especially those that sell their wares in open air markets, expect to negotiate prices. Always bargain fairly. Don’t expect to spend too little on items, but also be willing to walk away.
Always stay educated on any political and economic issues a country or particular region may be facing. The CIA World Factbook contains up to date information about every country, including transnational issues, risks of infectious diseases, and the current economic environment. Stay attuned to goings on prior to and throughout the duration of the visit to the host country, particularly in those areas that are prone to civil unrest. It is also a good practice to be aware of any crime statistics, to avoid dangerous areas, and to know the contact number of the closest US embassy or consulate in case of an emergency.
Learning the customs, traditions, and taboos of a host country may be the most interesting but also the most difficult aspect of travel abroad. Each country has its own set of accepted behaviors, and even regions within certain countries can vary. Paying attention to host country traditions and etiquette can help to avoid embarrassment, arguments, physical confrontation, and even, in extreme circumstances, time in jail. Only seeking education on standard customs, such as dining and greeting, is a mistake. Thoroughly research local customs, as there may be issues that one would not consider without outside help. For example, student visitors to Thailand may be surprised to learn that licking a stamp is a taboo practice as it is seen as an affront to the royal family. In Australia, those hailing taxis should sit in the front with the driver. Hand gestures vary widely from area to area, thus it is best to leave hands at the side until accepted gestures have been learned. It is also necessary to learn about local customs regarding dress, as some locations are very formal while others are much more relaxed.