Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Chapel Hill chapter.

If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would be boarding a plane headed to Incheon International Airport on June 14th, I would have said you were hallucinating. And yet, that was exactly what happened this past summer. As part of the outgoing Summer 2022 cohort for the Phillips Ambassadors Program through the Carolina Asia Center, I was able to venture to Seoul, South Korea, to study at Yonsei University’s International Summer School. I am extremely grateful to have had the support of the Phillips Ambassadors Program as I frantically prepared for my trip this Spring with no clue what to do before embarking to Seoul. I am also grateful to the Study Abroad Office (particularly Derek Shepard as the Study Abroad Advisor for Asia) for their guidance in navigating the academic side of things by helping me understand what it meant to take credits abroad as well as the transfer process for when I returned to UNC in the Fall to ensure that my credits would be counted towards graduation.

Yet, there was only so much that my resources could help me with as I scrambled to acquire all necessary documents to ensure that my travel went as smoothly as possible. Here are five things I learned while studying abroad that can help anyone about to leave the country (especially first-timers).

Research Your Destination

Perhaps one of the important things I did before getting on my plane to Seoul was research more about Korean culture and the potential situations that I might encounter while in South Korea. Granted, there might be variations in what people online say is okay or not okay to do, but it is better to approach your country of destination with an idea of what the culture might be like to better prepare for surprising observations and hopefully avoid any embarrassment that might come from being unaware of certain customs or behaviors. One resource that I found helpful for South Korea was the VisitKorea website, which has tabs that focus on a wide range of categories such as travel, transportation, accommodations, food, shopping, and more information about Korea itself. Other countries have similar websites that outline what a visitor should expect upon arrival. Additionally, many cities or countries have their own tourism pages on social media that include recommendations for visitors.

Call Your Bank

Seriously. Many cards might charge foreign transaction fees or ATM transaction fees, and it is better to know what these charges will look like beforehand in order to make educated decisions regarding your finances while studying abroad. If your bank charges steep foreign transaction fees, it might be helpful to look into a card that does not charge such fees. I personally did not get one because I decided that my time abroad was not long enough for me to brave the process of getting a card with no foreign transaction fees. However, if you are studying abroad for longer than two months, such as in the Fall or Spring terms, it might be helpful to have a card that reduces the amount of extra fees for an extended period of time.

Figure Out Your Cell Phone Situation

A quick call to your phone company to ask about international phone plans is a necessary step in figuring out how you will communicate while you are abroad. However, not all phone plans may have international plans available outside of the United States, so it is imperative that you figure out the next course of action to make sure your device works while abroad. Two options to pursue would be to buy a SIM card once you arrive at your destination or to buy a burner phone. Personally, I found it much more convenient to switch out my domestic SIM card for a new SIM card that provided an international phone number that I could use while I was in South Korea.

There are many options for SIM cards before or after arrival at a certain destination, but, for South Korea specifically, I found that Chingu Mobile was the most budget friendly option for the time I was going to stay aboard. While I still needed to purchase a SIM card a couple of days prior to going to Chingu’s physical location in the district near where I was going to stay, I still saved quite a bit of money by avoiding buying my entire plan through Trazy, which is a convenient SIM due to its location in the Incheon International Airport but is more expensive. The biggest advice I have for this step is that, if you elect to use a physical SIM, make sure that your phone is unlocked; in other words, make sure your phone is not being paid off because it would make it so that a new SIM card cannot be inserted if the phone is locked. I would also recommend checking websites with information on E-SIMs, especially since phone manufactures like Apple are beginning to withdraw from having their newer phones support physical SIM cards.

Download Relevant Apps

Find and download the most used app within the country that you are going to be traveling to, primarily communication apps that might be necessary to use when communicating with classmates in your study abroad program. Specifically, many foreign countries use WhatsApp for communication, but South Korea uses KakaoTalk as its primary communication app. It was helpful to have this app when attempting to get in contact with different businesses that use it to communicate with their customers, getting in touch with local students when planning hangouts, or creating a group chat with classmates for group projects.

Additionally, navigation tools that are curated for the country you are studying in might be more helpful than regular Google Maps because it may include some places that might not be recognized on other navigation apps. For South Korea, Naver Map and Kakao Map were two options that were quite helpful. Furthermore, it can be helpful to download a translation app that supports photo translation; for South Korea, Naver’s Papago app was quite useful. Also, navigation apps can show when a bus or subway will be scheduled, which was extremely helpful as I traveled throughout the different districts of Seoul. For food, I found that Shuttle was an amazing food delivery service because I was able to use my PayPal account without worrying about having a Korean credit card in order to use a delivery service. Lastly, downloading an app for taxis can be helpful when the bus or subway are not as convenient to take you to a particular location or when you are in a rush to get somewhere (Kakao T was helpful in South Korea). Doing research into helpful apps for your time abroad prior to travel is a crucial step to facilitate your experience.

Make a List of Key Places to Visit

This is perhaps the one that I wish I had done more extensively prior to arrival. It was quite easy to get overwhelmed with a long list of to-dos as other students pitched many activities on our shared discord page or through KakaoTalk, everyone eager to explore every inch of the city even though we had a limited amount of time in this huge city. However, I do wish I had prioritized certain places over others; for instance, I did not get a chance to go to Gyeongbokgung Palace, which is the largest of the five grand palaces in Seoul. I did other activities that I found quite fun and fascinating, but, in my attempt to avoid popular tourist spots, I missed some really amazing places. I would urge you to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with visiting common tourist spots. While I am thankful that I allowed myself to explore other areas of Seoul that might not have been as frequented, I do wish I had struck a balance between visiting common landmarks and hole-in-the-wall businesses. Therefore, making a list of places to visit beforehand can be stabilizing as you recall your intentions once arriving at your destination.

Overall, my trip to South Korea was incredible. I was able to witness the continuous drive of the city of Seoul by embracing its traditional culture with a mix of a more contemporary lifestyle of the Korean people. I hope to visit again someday in the near future, and, in the meantime, I hope the information described here is helpful to anyone who is about to embark on a study abroad program. Good luck, travelers!

Teresa Ruiz Vazquez

Chapel Hill '23

Teresa Ruiz Vazquez is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying English and Political Science.