Ask the Expat
Living Abroad as a Student
By Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
Moving abroad for a language course or university study is usually for a shorter duration than living overseas for employment, business, or retirement, but students still face many of the same issues and challenges. The main difference is that as a student, the process of settling in and adapting to a host country takes up a significantly larger portion of your time overseas than as a long-term expatriate. I have met many language and university students who had to return home just as they were getting comfortable living overseas. To ensure that you get all the support you need as a student to help you quickly adapt to your host country, it is important to prepare well and research all the program details before signing up.
Define your Needs
Before you go on a student exchange or book a language course, you should determine what kind of support, if any, you need to help you get settled abroad. Services and support vary considerably between exchange programs and language schools, and you should thoroughly read the program descriptions and find out all the details.
When I moved to Brazil for a yearlong student exchange, I arrived at Brazil’s largest airport in Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo. I had rudimentary Portuguese skills, but I still had trouble communicating. São Paulo is a fast-paced city and the Portuguese spoken there is quite a bit faster than in other parts of Brazil. I managed to make my way to a hotel near the city center, but the first few days in São Paulo were a continuous challenge. Not only did I not understand a single item on restaurant menus, but I was also unable to communicate effectively with my host family in Rio de Janeiro to announce my arrival. Fortunately, I met a stockbroker during happy hour at a bar who spoke a little English. He volunteered to call my host family and give them my arrival information. So if you do not speak the local language well, airport pick-up might be a good idea. You will also avoid the likelihood of being overcharged for a taxi ride, which is far too common among newcomers and tourists.
Similarly, on-site orientation and continuous local support provided by your school or educational institution can really help you to better adapt to your new surroundings. From the school you should learn about your classes and get general information and tips about the city or town you will be living in. You should ideally also be able to share your grievances and ask for help. I had to find out about life in Rio de Janeiro all by myself. The only help I got from my host family was a city map, which they let me borrow. My adviser at the university was too busy dealing with exchange students from another program to be able to help me with anything.
Some language schools and academic exchange programs also offer recreational and cultural activities or group travel to explore the country, either on weekends or at the end of your studies. These organized trips can be useful if you would like to get to know and socialize with other students, or if you would rather travel around the country in a group instead of exploring a foreign land by yourself.
Find out What to Expect
To be well prepared for living and studying in your host country, it is important to learn as much about the country, its people, culture, and way of life before your arrival. Try to meet students who have been there and who can share their experiences with you. Universities usually require returning students to fill out a questionnaire, and your study abroad advisor might be able to provide you with information about other students’ experiences in the country where you will be studying. Many language schools have a section on their website where past students have left their commentaries. It can be helpful to read about other students’ experiences and how they have adapted to living abroad.
In general, prearranged room and board with a host family is your best option since it takes off the pressure of finding a place quickly after you arrive. If the arrangement does not work out, you can always find a different host family later. Another obvious advantage is that when living with a host family you have exposure to the local culture and language from the day you arrive, which is an important factor in learning a foreign language quickly. When comparing prices for room and board, find out how many meals are provided each day and how many days per week. Room and board arrangements vary from program to program. My foreign co-students at the university in Rio de Janeiro had a different exchange program than I did. I had a host family arranged for me, but they had to find lodging on their own. A few members of their group rented rooms with local families, but most of them rented furnished apartments and lived with other U.S. students during their year in Brazil.
If you arrive at your destination by yourself and do not have any local support, your best choice is to stay at a cheap hotel and start your search for lodging right away. When I lived in Portugal I met a university exchange student in Lisbon, who had arrived on her own. She first stayed at a cheap hotel, and after a few weeks she was able to find a shared apartment with the help of co-students at her university. If your school or university does not offer room and board, they may be able to provide information about housing and a list of available furnished apartments or vacancies at host families. Tourist offices in many cities also have listings of agencies that rent furnished apartments for short-term residents. This may be a good place to start.
To successfully settle in at your new destination, it is important to familiarize yourself with your new surroundings. If your school or exchange program does not offer an orientation or introductory tour, go out on your own to explore the city or town you are living in. In this case, your best companion is a good guidebook, which will help you get your bearings and explore the various attractions and neighborhoods of your destination. When I lived in Rio de Janeiro, I spent most of my spare time exploring the city and its surroundings. Almost every afternoon I walked through different neighborhoods, absorbing street life and taking note of shops, coffee houses, bars, restaurants, and nearby parks. I also visited libraries, museums, galleries, and historic sites, and I gradually got used to the hustle and bustle of the city. I learned about the bus routes, night-bus schedules, taxi fares, and the opening hours of cultural centers. As I became more familiar with my new environment, I began to enjoy the rhythm of the city and the way of life of its people.
Most university exchange programs require mandatory student health insurance. In most cases health insurance is included in your program cost and is usually very affordable. If you are going overseas to study at a language school, you are most likely not required to have health insurance. In this case, you are own when selecting a travel health insurance plan, although several placement agencies offer health insurance plans for their language students. The cost of international health coverage varies substantially and depends upon your medical needs. If you are in good health, you might want to consider only emergency medical coverage in case of hospitalization, which is usually the most affordable coverage. Keep in mind that many countries have government-funded health care systems where you will be able to get medical care for minor health problems at a very low cost.
After getting established at your school and university and finding suitable housing, financial matters are another important issue you should resolve soon after your arrival. To make the most of your money while studying abroad it is important to figure out the cheapest way to change dollars into the local currency. Your best option is to use a check or debit card with a Visa or Mastercard logo allowing you to withdraw money at local ATMs. You tend to get a better exchange rate than at an exchange house or bank (though you should check the terms of service for exchange rate fees so often written in fine print), and it is much more convenient and cheaper than exchanging travelers’ checks or receiving international money orders at a bank. Exchange commissions and fees can add up quickly, if you study overseas for several months or even a year, and by withdrawing your funds at a local ATM you can save a lot of money.
Another important factor that can significantly impact your stay abroad is the cost of living and the inflation rate at your destination. If room and board is included in your program fee, you only need spending money for your day-to-day activities, but if you have to pay for living expenses out-of-pocket, you should research the cost of living in your host country so you can budget your expenses ahead of time.
No matter where you study, as a newcomer you need to pay special attention to your safety. If your language or exchange program does not include an orientation or local support, you are left on your own to find out how safe the city is where you are studying. To get an idea about common safety threats, and what parts of the city are best avoided, you should talk to other students who have been there longer. Your host family and your school may also be able to give you useful tips that can make your stay safer and more enjoyable. Most travel guides also alert travelers to common safety threats and what areas to avoid.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has traveled in over thirty countries worldwide and has lived in ten of them for study, research and work.