Preparing to study abroad can be hectic and overwhelming, especially if this is the first time you're going to live in another country. With so many applications, deadlines, and arrangements to make, it's easy for things to slip between the cracks. Sometimes, you may not realize you've forgotten a step until it's too late.
When it comes to planning a study abroad trip, timing is everything. You need to pay close attention to dates and deadlines, especially when concerning:
- Applying to programs
- Seeking financial aid
- Finding housing
- Making travel arrangements
- Getting passports and/or visas
A chronological checklist is a great tool to visually organize the steps you need to take to prepare for your trip, from one year before departure to your arrival date.
Use the following study abroad checklist to avoid unnecessary stress and stay on track for a hiccup-free departure!
1 Year Before Departure
Research Study Abroad Programs
Do you know you want to study abroad, but haven't decided on a program or destination? Now is the time to research and compare.
Some universities organize their own study abroad programs with partnering organizations or sister universities in foreign countries. But those aren't the only options for students to consider.
Here are a few of the best third-party organizations that also offer study abroad programs:
- American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) — for U.S. students
- Global Student Experience (GSE) — for U.S. students
- International Education of Students (IES) — for U.S. students
- Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education (CERGI EI) — for students from Central and Eastern Europe
- International Student Exchange Program (ISEP) — for students from all countries
Reach out to people you know who have studied abroad in the past and ask for opinions of their experiences or contact your academic advisor to discuss the best options for you. When comparing the different programs, keep in mind cost, class credits, courses, location, travel possibilities, and program length.
You should start researching well in advance because you never know how early you might be required to apply. You don't want to miss out on the perfect study abroad experience just because you missed the application deadline!
- The 15 Best Study Abroad Organizations
- Top 7 Study Abroad Destinations for 2020
- Top 10 Destinations for Study Abroad in the USA
Register for a Language Test (if Necessary)
Non-native English-speaking students planning to attend a study abroad program taught in English are almost always required to prove their level of English. Most often, this proof is in the form of a standardized language test score.
A few commonly accepted test scores for English are:
- TOEFL — Test of English as a Foreign Language (most common)
- IELTS — International English Language Testing System
- PTE — Pearson Test of English
Because you will need to include a test score in your application, you should register for a test as early as possible. Each of these tests can be taken regularly at centers around the world.
Likewise, English-speaking students applying to study abroad programs taught in a foreign language may also be required to prove language proficiency.
Apply for a Passport
A year before departure may seem early, but the passport application process can take several months. You'll need your passport when it comes time to make travel arrangements and apply for your visa. So, if you don't already have a valid passport, you should apply for one now.
Even if you do have a valid passport, you may need to renew it. To attain a visa, many countries require your passport to be valid for six months after the date you plan to return to your home country. So, if your passport expires shortly after your planned return date, you should apply for a renewal.Find out if your destination follows the "six-month rule."
Processing times for passport applications vary by country and can be quite long. For U.S. citizens, for example, processing takes an average of 8 weeks. To avoid setbacks and expensive expedition fees as you prepare to study abroad, apply for a passport about a year in advance (or as early as possible).
8 to 10 Months Before Departure
Apply for Programs
Once you've carefully considered all the options, choose the program that best fits your interests and — most importantly — your academic goals.
Pay close attention to application deadlines, as they may be earlier than you expect. That's because you'll need plenty of time to apply for a visa, make travel arrangements, and sign up for classes before your program begins.
Another reason to consider applying early is that some programs accept students on a first-come, first-served basis.
Apply for Scholarships/Financial Aid
It's no secret that studying abroad can be expensive. In addition to tuition at a foreign university, you will have to pay for housing, dining, the cost of travel, and more. Many students will require financial aid to cover these costs.
Deadlines to apply for scholarships and funding vary. Some may require you to apply early, while others have deadlines closer to the date of departure. As a general rule, it is always better to apply earlier.
6 Months Before Departure
Start the Visa Application Process
The most important step when preparing to study abroad is attaining a student visa. Almost all countries require foreign students to hold a visa, though a few do not. For example, students attending a program in New Zealand that lasts less than three months don't need to apply for a visa at all.
The process of applying for a student visa is different for each country as well. It may be a long and tedious process involving copious paperwork and interviews, or it may be a straightforward online enrollment process.
If you're a U.S. student, consult the website of your destination country's nearest embassy or consulate to determine what that country requires for a student visa.
International students planning to study in the U.S. will require a student visa (F-1, M-1, or J-1). The process of attaining a student visa involves submitting an online application, scheduling and attending a visa interview at your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate, paying the appropriate fees, and providing necessary additional documentation to a consular officer.
Get Student Health Insurance
Your visa may require you to prove that you are covered for unexpected medical bills you might incur while studying abroad. One example is the J-1 visa for students and scholars coming to the U.S.
Your primary insurance or school-sponsored insurance might not offer coverage abroad, or it may not be suited to your needs and budget. You never know what might happen during your semester or year abroad, so it's important to be prepared.
Even if your destination country does not specifically require you to prove you have medical insurance, an international student health plan can cover eligible costs related to injury and illness, mental health disorders, outpatient prescription drugs, and more. Be sure to review any student health plan policy document for complete information on benefits and exclusions.
StudentSecure insurance from Tokio Marine HCC — MIS Group offers four plan levels that meet J-1 visa requirements. As a StudentSecure policyholder, you'll also receive a visa letter you can show visa officials to help prove your ability to pay for unexpected expenses during your trip.
5 Months Before Departure
Start Looking for Housing
Study abroad students can typically choose between living on-campus, off-campus, or with a host family.
Living on-campus offers several advantages, like zero commuting hassles and easier access to campus resources (library, labs, health facilities, support services, etc.).
However, living with a family while studying abroad can significantly enhance a student's experience. You can learn cultural nuances more quickly, and in greater depth, by living among locals.
Living off-campus has its merits as well, such as adding an extra sense of independence to your trip. However, it can be tricky if you don't speak the language fluently. And unfortunately, students looking for housing are often targeted as victims of housing scams.
Whichever accommodations you choose, you should start looking about 5 months before arrival. On-campus housing tends to fill up quickly, finding a host family might take time, and finding off-campus housing may require months of applying to lots of apartments and dodging scammers.
3 Months Before Departure
Book Your Flights
With all the long and tedious tasks squared away, it's time to tackle the practical matters. Start by booking your flight. International flights tend to be most affordable about 3-4 months in advance, though it's a good idea to start tracking prices early. The longer you wait to buy, the more expensive you can expect your flight to be.
Apply for a Travel Credit Card
If you don't already have a credit card, you might want to consider applying for one at your local bank. Imagine you miss your train during a weekend trip to a neighboring country and you have to book a hotel room that you did not budget for. A credit card is a good way to make sure you don't have to spend the night in a cold, uncomfortable train station.
Look for travel-friendly credit cards that don't charge foreign transaction fees. Many U.S. banks offer credit cards specifically designed for study abroad students, such as the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students or the Capital One Journey Student Rewards Credit Card.
Start Budgeting for Your Trip
Studying abroad is expensive, so budgeting is necessary.
First, consider the cost of accommodation and dining. Then use the excess to budget for activities and side-trips to nearby cities or countries. How much you're able to spend will likely depend on how much money you receive in scholarships and financial aid, how much money you've saved for this occasion, and exchange rates.
Use cash as much as possible and limit trips to the ATM to avoid withdrawal fees and foreign transaction fees on your credit and debit transactions. Give yourself a weekly budget and withdraw that amount of cash once per week. Not only will this help you avoid excessive fees, but it will also help you stick to your budget!
Register Your Trip with the Local U.S. Embassy (U.S. Students)
U.S. students studying abroad should take advantage of the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows U.S. travelers to register their trip with the local U.S. embassy or consulate.
STEP is designed to maximize travelers' safety and security no matter where they are in the world. Registered travelers will receive alerts about safety conditions in their destination country, including emergencies, weather, civil unrest, and more.
Schedule a Physical Exam with Your Doctor
A physical exam may already be required for your visa, but even if it isn't, you should still consider scheduling an appointment with your doctor before you leave. Good health, after all, is central to smooth and stress-free travel.
This doctor's appointment is also a good opportunity to get any necessary vaccines and obtain prescriptions for enough medication and contact lenses to last your entire trip.
1 Month Before Departure
Notify Your Bank of Travel
Many banks will block your credit or debit card if they notice suspicious activity — and unexpected foreign transactions can look suspicious! Call your bank before you leave to tell them the dates you plan to be out of the country and which countries you plan on visiting. That way you can use your cards freely without having to call and unblock your card in the middle of your trip.
Figure Out How You Will Communicate Abroad
Will you be able to use your smartphone, or will you need to purchase a temporary phone while you're away?
Contact your wireless carrier to find out:
- If your smartphone is locked or unlocked, and
- If your wireless plan includes use abroad.
Many U.S. carriers charge excessive roaming fees, and some require you to purchase an expensive international wireless plan to use your phone abroad.
The smartest choice for long-term trips like studying abroad is to either purchase a temporary phone when you arrive in your destination country, or (if your phone is unlocked) to purchase a SIM card.
Research where you can buy a temporary cell phone or SIM card for when you arrive and try to make sure it includes access to data. That way you'll be able to use GPS and other helpful apps while traveling.
Learn About Your Destination's Language and Culture
With just weeks before your departure date and the most tedious tasks out of the way, it's time for the fun stuff: learning about your destination's language and culture!
If you're planning on studying in a country where they speak a language other than your own, getting a basic grasp of the language will prove very helpful when you arrive.
If you've already studied the language, review your old notes and brush up a bit. Even those who feel confident in class can feel intimidated when they first hear a foreign language spoken in its native country.
Otherwise, pick up a phrasebook with the most useful phrases you'll need to know to get around and communicate with locals. A pocket-sized book is ideal so you can have it on-hand whenever you need it!
See more tips for getting by in a foreign country when you don't speak the language.
But language isn't all you should learn about before you leave. Take some time to get to know the culture as well — rules and traditions, food, decorum, etc. Being aware of the culture before you go will ease culture shock and help you appreciate your new country.
Planning to study abroad in the USA? Download our free guide to U.S. cultures and customs.
1 Week Before Departure
Pack Your Bags
Make a study abroad packing list to help you organize your bags, and make sure you have the proper power adapters and converters.
Pack the following in your carry-on in case your checked baggage is lost or takes extra time to arrive:
- All your travel documents
- Travel-sized toiletries
- A change of clothes
- Some cash in your destination's currency
If you're staying with a host family, you might want to think about packing a gift for them as well. They will appreciate the thoughtful gesture and a gift is a great way to share a piece of your home culture with them.
Order Currency from Your Local Bank
Order about $100-worth of your destination's currency to make sure you don't run into any money troubles upon arriving at your destination. You can do this at most banks, and it shouldn't take more than a week.
Make Copies of Your Travel Documents
Make three copies of your passport, visa, medical insurance ID card, and any other important travel documents. Keep one set of copies in your checked luggage, another set in your carry-on, and a third set of copies with your family. This way, you'll still have ID in case your documents are lost or stolen.
Plan How You Will Travel from the Airport to Your School Upon Arrival
You don't want to be lost as soon as you arrive. Make an action plan for getting from the airport to your school or host family.
Download Useful Apps
Technology has completely transformed travel. Smartphones and apps can help you translate, get around, connect with locals and other travelers, and find nearby events.
Here are a few apps that will make your study abroad trip run smoothly:
- WhatsApp — for communication with fellow travelers and your loved ones at home
- Duolingo — for keeping your foreign language skills sharp
- Google Maps — for navigating your destination's public transit system
- Skyscanner — for tracking flight prices for weekend getaways
- TripAdvisor — for landmark, restaurant, and other activity ideas and reviews
Let Your Family Know You've Arrived
You've made it to your destination! Don't keep your loved ones worrying about you. Call or send a message to let them know you've arrived.
Connect with Other Students
Attend student activities and meetups and reach out to your classmates. Make the most of your trip by making friends to share the experience with!
Get to Know Local Public Transportation
Getting familiar with local transit will make your daily commute so much easier. Plus, it's the first step to feeling like a local!
Planning to study abroad in the USA? Learn how to navigate U.S. transportation.
Last, but not least, enjoy yourself! Appreciate this wonderful experience you've just spent months preparing for.
Additional Tips for Preparing Your Study Abroad Trip
- Get an International Student Exchange Card (ISEC) — ISECards are valid for a full year, are a recognized form of identification around the world, and provide students with discounts at various locations.
- Buy a Pocket-Sized Notebook to Keep Important Information In — Keep a booklet with information such as the local police number, your new address, and other important notes that you would need in case of an emergency. Keep important emergency information in the booklet along with your family's phone numbers and other contact info.
- Learn the law — Learning the law is an essential aspect of experiencing a foreign culture. For example, countries such as Thailand, China, and Dubai have very different laws and customs than the U.S. Breaking the law can result in significant penalties.
- Learn Unwritten Cultural Rules — Understanding a region's unwritten rules and codes of conduct can help students experience the culture without inviting unnecessary danger or suspicion. Cultural rules may involve the way you dress, the way you interact with or greet someone, or just the way you comport yourself throughout the day.
- Anticipate Culture Shock — Studying abroad offers numerous personal, educational, and career-related advantages, but many students are unprepared for what awaits them. Culture shock affects most foreign students and consists of ten stages, ranging from initial anxiety and elation to re-entry shock and reintegration. A better understanding of culture shock can help travelers reach stage 6 (acceptance of host culture) more quickly.