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HC’s Guide to Traveling Abroad for the First Time

There’s no better time to see the world than while you’re in college. More and more students are taking advantage of all the opportunities available to college students studying at schools across the country to get out there and go! Not sure if studying abroad is for you, or how to go about getting ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Her Campus has you covered with our complete guide to all things international! 

How in the world do I pick a destination?!

Picking your destination might just be the hardest decision you’ll have to make to date. With close to 200 countries in the world, your options may seem almost endless. A good place to start could be your school’s international programs or student exchange office. They might have good ideas of trips sponsored by your school, be it for a semester, during winter break, or over the summer.

Check within your academic department as well. Many colleges offer different programs designed to correlate with students’ fields of interest or majors as well. Interested in art? Spend your spring semester checking out some of Europe’s most famous art museums and cultural hotspots. Want to pursue your passion for anthropology or archeology? Look for fieldwork opportunities offered in places throughout Central and South America for the summer. Use your passion to dictate where your travels will take you. And if you’ve been studying a language, now’s a great opportunity test out your skills in a country where it’s spoken!

The web can be a great source to plan your trip abroad as well. Sites like Contiki offer trips that last anywhere from three to 47 days, and provide detailed itineraries and plan a lot of the trip for you, making things way easier. Even if you are planning to go for the whole semester, you’ll get some great ideas for things to see and other trips to take while you’re there. “We take care of the planning and details so you can enjoy the sights, activities, local foods and amazing cultures,” says Michelle Murray, Contiki’s director of marketing and sales. You can look at some of these trip itineraries to get an idea of sights and destinations you might like to hit up during your study aboard experience.

Another good resource to consult is the U.S. Department of State’s website which regularly publishes travel warnings, advising potential jetsetters of tumultuous regions of the world, and provides advice on how to handle different travel situations that might arise in different areas.

What about a visa?

Marissa Mastel, a recent graduate of Lawrence University who participated in two different study abroad programs as an undergraduate, advises, “Research any travel restrictions while you are researching programs. Depending upon where you want to study, you could need several months before you leave to sort out visas.” Most nations require you to obtain a visa if you plan on staying for more than 90 days or if you’re studying, working, or interning in that country.

Each country has a slightly different process for obtaining a visa, a procedure that usually involves paying a visit to the country’s embassy in the United States before departing to fill out the correct paperwork. A complete list of detailed country entry requirements can be found here.

Don’t procrastinate on obtaining your visa either. Hannah Forster, a junior at Gustavus Adolphus College who studied abroad last fall in Italy, shared her story.

“I had to get my Italian visa, and that was kind of scary because it required a lot of paper and I had to meet with the consulate to have it validated and notarized,” she explained. “I lucked out because it just so happened that the consulate who lives and works in St. Paul was leaving the country for the rest of the summer only two weeks after I decided to schedule my appointment with him. I almost missed that, and would have had to go to Chicago [an eight hour drive from school] to have my visa application validated if I hadn’t been able to meet with him in St. Paul. That was stressful! But once that was done everything went really smoothly!” Take it from Hannah – stay on top of all travel documents you’ll need and get started on them as early as possible!

Still a little lost? “Make sure you do your research. Forums on travel websites can be a good place to see where people have encountered hurdles previously,” suggests Marissa. 

Do I need other paperwork or documents?

It’s pretty much a guarantee that regardless of where you’ll be going, you’ll need a passport to get there. If you’ve never applied for one before, you’ll need to submit the correct paperwork in person. A complete step-by-step guide, along with PDFs of the forms you can fill out ahead of time can be found on the State Department’s website. If you’ve had a passport before and just need to renew it, you can fill out the correct form (also found on the State Department’s website) and mail it in. Make sure to plan ahead of time, however. It usually takes at least 4-6 weeks to receive a current passport after you’ve submitted the correct paperwork (if you did forget, you can rush a passport in 3 weeks, and if you REALLY forgot, look up your region’s passport agency so you can go and get one made on the spot for $200). Also, be sure to double-check on when your passport is set to expire. Some countries require you to have anywhere from three to six months or more left before the document is set to expire in case of an emergency.

One safety tip regarding passports: “Make copies of your passport and give one to a friend at home and take one with you. Keep your copy in a different location than your actual passport in case you lose it,” advises Murray. This will hopefully prevent any scary scenarios that could arise if you lost such an important, essential travel document.

If you’re going with an organized program, double-check to make sure you have all documentation required by them as well. Many countries or student exchanges require all travelers to get specific vaccinations before going abroad, for example. Make sure you have the correct documentation to prove you’ve met these requirements. Also check and make sure you have any and all paperwork necessary to enroll in your new university.

What do I need to pack?

“The biggest thing I’ve learned since I packed for that first study abroad experience is that you don’t need as much stuff as you might think. You will be fine for a few weeks or months without your entire wardrobe,” says Marissa. “Do a little research into the typical weather patterns when and where you are going, read what other travelers have to say on internet forums and, if possible, get tips from other people who have been to the program you will be enrolled in.”

As far as your wardrobe goes, Marissa suggests travelers “bring clothes that are versatile and durable,” and “layers are always good.”

Hannah also shared some thoughts on truly dressing from head to toe while studying abroad. “Shoes were something I was definitely NOT prepared for when I went to Italy,” she says. “Bring comfortable but cute shoes because you do SO MUCH walking when traveling abroad and you can’t pack a lot if you go away for a weekend, so you can’t pack walking shoes AND shoes for going out to the bars or to a nice dinner or a show. It’s better to have one pair that is versatile and good for your feet.”

Marissa and Hannah also have some advice for filling what room is left in your suitcase after you’ve packed stuff to wear throughout your trip. “Other than clothing, I always check to be certain I’ve got my electronics chargers and a couple of books before I head to the airport,” she says. Marissa also cautions against packing too many distractions though. “Rather than bringing a lot of things to occupy your time, get out and explore!” Hannah also has a suggestion for documenting those memories. “It’s really important to pack a journal to document your time abroad!” she says. “It’s easy to get so busy that you forget what you did the week before!”

Murray also has some basic packing suggestions and trip preparation must-dos for any collegiette planning an excursion abroad. She says she always reminds travelers to purchase any electrical outlet adaptors they might need to make sure any electronics work overseas, include any vitamins or other medications you might need, and exchange money ahead of time, if necessary. Along the lines of money, Murray also recommends letting your credit card company know about your pending travels so the company isn’t alarmed by sudden charges overseas and freezes your account, leaving you in a bit of a rough spot.
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Am I going to be totally on my own?

If you’re not traveling with a friend or two, have no fear. Even if you’re going as part of a school-sponsored trip, it might be more beneficial to travel without your close friends at your side. “I recommend not signing up for study abroad programs with your friends,” says Marissa. “If you go on your own you are much more likely to get to know new people. The friendships I made while abroad are now some of the most important to me.”

Traveling on your own also means you have more room to do as you please and not depend on working with multiple schedules. “People who do study abroad with friends wind up feeling like they have to do everything with them,” Marissa explains. “If I wanted to go do something, I was free to do it. Sometime I got a few people in the program to go and sometimes I went alone, but I didn’t feel like I had to limit my options or compromise because somebody else disagreed.”

The nice thing about studying abroad is that you’ll more likely than not be surrounded by students from all over the world in the same situation as you – alone in a foreign country without their usual circle of friends. New BFFs are anywhere and everywhere! “I met people through classes, on trips, at the bars, on trains… it was so much fun and such a challenge!” says Hannah.

If you’re still nervous about traveling on your own, there are several precautions you can take. Make sure your friends and family know where you’re going to be, and have contact info for the correct U.S. Embassy in the countries you’ll be visiting. (Make sure you have this info too, in case you ever need help!) The U.S. State Department also offers a program known as Smart Traveler Enrollment Program or STEP a totally free program that lets you “register” your trip with the department to provide quicker, more helpful service in an emergency and keeps you updated about any travel emergencies the department issues.

The friendships you form abroad will last way after your flight home, too. “I made all new friends instantly and they’re still some of my best friends, even now that we’re back in America living in different states!” Hannah says.

Eek – “no hablo español” or “Je ne parle pas le français!” HELP!
The best way to get around not knowing the language in your new country is through preparation ahead of time. “Learn basic words and phrases in the native language,” suggests Murray. “Purchasing an app that translates before you go is helpful, one that doesn’t require Wi-Fi is even better!”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, too. “For travelers with little or no local language skills, you can usually find somebody with at least a little English to help you,” says Marissa. Don’t overuse this resource though! “Try not to rely on that too much if you don’t have to. Make the effort to learn basic phrases and use them, even if it is clear the person you are interacting with speaks English too,” she says.

Hannah also struggled a bit with communicating on her trip, as she’d never taken a single class in the native language before embarking on her trip. “Meeting Italians was especially hard because of the language barrier, but they tried really hard and were understanding if we didn’t understand,” she said. “The best learning took place when I was forced to speak in Italian. The process of trying to get someone who doesn’t understand English to understand you when you barely know their language is a huge learning experience!”

Keep in mind that language is a source of pride for many natives as well. Respect cultural differences, and don’t let your frustration translate into anger when communicating. “Something as small as saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the local language can make a positive impression. If you are respectful of the people and culture around you, you will get a more friendly response and better help when you need it,” Marissa illustrates.

Any final words of advice?

“My study abroad trips were some of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I always encourage people to travel, and studying abroad is a great way to do it. Get out and see the world!” Marissa reflected. “Just dive in! You WILL have a better time if you make new friends, eat new foods and really do your best to immerse yourself in your experience. I know plenty of people who subsisted on Coke and the jars of peanut butter that they brought from home who were extremely unhappy because they never really let go of the things they expect at home.”

Hannah also had some advice for future study abroad participants. “Say yes to everything you can say yes to, but also take care of yourself! Rest and good food are necessary to keep your spirits up and enjoy your time abroad!” she advises. Hannah also emphasized focusing on the positives as well. “Live in the moment and take everything opportunity to try something new, she said. “Stay in hostels! Ride on trains! They’re some of the best experiences you could ever have!”

Even if you’re going through an organized program or trip offered through your school or an organization like Contiki, don’t be afraid to pursue your own adventures either. “I went outside the program and volunteered in the community which was one of the best choices I made. I was able to really interact with the local culture and meet people outside of the academic world. If this is feasible where you study, I would definitely encourage it!” said Marissa.

Make it your goal to try something new every day, or challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and do things you’d never be caught dead doing back on campus. One of the coolest things about such a crazy diverse world is exploring these awesome differences and connecting with people that, on the surface, may seem worlds apart, but actually have more in common with you than you may think.

Sydney is a junior double majoring in Media and Cultural Studies and Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a short trip away from Minneapolis, her hometown. When Sydney is not producing content for a variety of platforms, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching movies, reading, and indulging in a smoothie or tea from Caribou Coffee, the MN-based version of Starbucks.
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