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10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before Studying Abroad

by Tanya Brothen Sep 12, 2008


Planning to study abroad? These 10 things will make life easier.

I’M A PLANNER. I like to know what I’m going to be doing today, tomorrow, and four months from now. I like to stay organized in my day planner. I don’t like to leave things to chance.

So when I found out that I would be spending my final semester of graduate school in Paris, I promptly set about dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s. When the plane landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, I thought I had everything under control.

Boy was I wrong. As it turns out, moving abroad is filled with variables you don’t even consider before leaving. If you’ve ever lived overseas, you know what I’m talking about. And if you’re thinking about living overseas, here’s are 10 things you should know before you leave.

1. Buying upon arrival is easier than packing.

Unless you’re truly moving to the middle of nowhere, you’ll be able to find the items you need for daily life in your new city. When I moved to Paris, I brought one enormous suitcase, one duffel bag and two carry-ons filled with things I could have bought at any number of stores in my new neighborhood.

Buying when you arrive might require some extra funds, but it will save you the headache of trying to pack everything you own and then dragging it halfway across the world.

2. You will always need more money than you think.

Some travelers will argue that it’s possible to live on a bare-bones budget overseas, and they’re probably right. But if you’re anything like me, you like to maintain a minimum level of comfort and financial flexibility no matter where you are.

Trying to establish a life in a foreign country is even more costly than just passing through. Expenses that you didn’t imagine will pop-up, and even if you have a job waiting for you, that first paycheck won’t appear overnight.

Saving a few extra bucks in advance will go a long way towards preserving your financial health during the expensive first few months.

3. You might still have to pay taxes back home.

Americans working overseas are sometimes surprised to learn that Uncle Sam doesn’t take it easy on expats. Some of us who work abroad will still owe money to the I.R.S.

Before you go, check with a tax expert and get the facts straight. Paying taxes in two countries is never easy, but it will hurt less if you know about it in advance.

4. Your mail can follow you.

Mail can be hard to keep track of when you move overseas. You forward it to some permanent address and hope none of the important letters slip through the cracks.

International movers should look into setting up a service with a company such as Earth Class Mail. For a few dollars a month the company will receive all your mail, scan it, and send you the important stuff you request.

5. Opening a local bank account can save you money.

I should have done this within the first week of my arrival. But with everything else there was to take care of, I put off opening a French bank account. This was a very costly mistake.

After six months of paying foreign transaction fees on my credit card and bank fees for withdrawing money from foreign ATMs I had racked up a little more than $200 in unnecessary expenses. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but that money could have gone towards a weekend trip or a Parisian shopping spree, both of which are a lot more fun than giving money to the bank.

6. Language can be learned on-site

You’ve taken the classes, done your grammar exercises, and even found a partner to help you practice speaking, but you still worry that you won’t be able to communicate with the locals?

Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. But after a few short weeks of moving to a foreign country, you’ll have learned more than you did in all those months or years of sitting in the classroom.

Excessive worrying about your lack of fluency is not something you have time for before leaving. It will come on its own, and if it doesn’t you can always take more formal classes when you arrive.

7. There will be good days and bad days.

Moving overseas often gets glamorized. Everyone, including yourself, thinks you will only have an amazing time filled with amazing experiences, amazing new friends, and an amazing lifestyle.

Yes, it will be amazing on more levels than you can imagine, but there will also be some very unglamorous days tucked between the good ones. You’ll be able to manage the tough times more effectively if you don’t expect everything to be fun and easy all the time.

Living abroad involves a lot of work, sacrifice, administrative headaches and the occasional bout of homesickness. Don’t lose hope; the next amazing day is just around the corner.

8. You can still vote back home.

Americans looking to participate in the upcoming presidential election, or any future elections, should know that being abroad doesn’t disqualify them from their right to vote.

The same voting rights apply to all American citizens, whether they live within the 50 states or not. Some foreign cities even have active American political groups, such as Democrats Abroad or Republicans Abroad.

No matter where in the world you find yourself, these groups can help you navigate the voting process.

9. Staying in touch will be easy.

If you’re moving to a place that has good Internet connection and/or phone service, home will never be more than a few clicks away. Sign yourself and your contacts back home up for Skype and you can even talk to each other for free online.

Even old-school telephone to telephone communication has become easier and cheaper than ever before. Moving to some remote un-connected location? See it as an excuse to dust off your letter writing skills.

10. Coming home is more difficult than leaving.

As much as I loved living overseas, I wasn’t entirely disappointed at the prospect of moving back home. Home represented family, friends, and all of the things I love and missed while away.

In reality, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Moving abroad is difficult because of the things you have to prepare, the good-byes you have to say, and the uncertainty of what you’ll find “over there”. The sheer excitement of starting a new adventure can make all the worries seem minor. What’s more, there’s a certain reassurance that comes with knowing that home will always be there waiting for you.

But when your overseas stint comes to an end, you’ll have to deal with the knowledge that what you’ve just lived can probably never be recreated. No one but yourself (and those who lived it with you) can possibly understand what it means to you.

Hang in there; you’ll eventually get through the difficulties of returning home. After all, you just lived, loved, triumphed and flourished in a foreign country. You’ve literally taken on the world. Reverse culture shock? Relationship changes? Restarting a career? Bring it on!

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