Guide to studying abroad

Brandes Gress
Brandes Gress

Brandes Gress assists the content team with the management of daily operational activities, ensures content is published on a timely and accurate basis, and works on content-related projects.

Guide to studying abroad

    Each year, thousands of American students spend a summer, semester, or longer immersing themselves in a new country, culture, and learning environment. While the process of figuring out how to study abroad can be daunting, with some preparation and key information, an amazing experience can await you.

    What is studying abroad?

    Study abroad programs provide students the opportunity to have an educational experience in a foreign country. They are often organized by a school, a student agency, or through a collaboration between an educational institution and an external organization.

    Why study abroad?

    There are many reasons to study abroad. Among the most common are the opportunities to:

    • attend a renowned university
    • experience another culture
    • learn a new language
    • explore a different country
    • add international experience to your resume
    • expand your mind

    Types of programs

    The first thing to consider is the type of program that best matches your plans. The most common way to study abroad is via your college or university, but there are also alternatives.

    University programs

    Many universities have agreements with academic institutions abroad where students travel both to and from the U.S. Others may even have a branch in another country. Choosing this route can streamline your costs, as your existing financial aid package can often be applied to your studies abroad.

    These programs vary in how much structure they offer participants. Some have pre-determined course schedules while others allow students to develop their own in conjunction with their domestic academic advisor. These programs usually include predetermined accommodation and plenty of support.

    Third-party programs

    Third-party agencies are a great option for students whose schools do not offer study abroad opportunities. Some of the best-known organizations domestically include:

    You can also find opportunities via the European organization Erasmus Student Network.

    Organizations like these provide complete packages for students, covering everything from your plane ticket to your housing and class schedule. Students looking for a cohort experience studying and traveling with other international students find these programs well-suited to their needs.

    Direct enrollment

    Direct enrollment can appeal to students who are set on a specific university or program based on its reputation in a particular field of study. Direct enrollment is usually the route taken by students who plan to commit to longer periods abroad, in some cases an entire degree program. Prospective students contact overseas colleges directly to apply.

    The application process for direct enrollment varies by country and school. For example, in the Netherlands, all students – local and foreign – apply to most higher education programs through the same official government portal. In other countries, you apply directly to the individual college, often after having to first prepare all immigration requirements.

    Non-credit opportunities

    Students are increasingly interested in experiences abroad that break from the traditional classroom model. Some choose not to earn college credit while studying internationally. In the 2018-2019 school year, 38,100 students undertook jobs, internships, volunteer postings, and research while overseas. If you are more interested in building your resume than your college transcript, these kinds of opportunities may be a good fit.

    How long are study abroad programs?

    Typically, students decide between the following time periods:

    • over the summer
    • 1 semester
    • 1 year

    Summer programs are the most popular, with 65% of students choosing these in 2021. The next most popular option were semester-long programs, at 33%. Only 2% opted for full-year programs.

    Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on your academic and financial situation. Cost is a major consideration when deciding the length of your trip. Unsurprisingly, longer stays are usually more expensive, as more time means more weeks and months of meals, rent, and other living expenses.

    Some are surprised to find that summers, despite being the shortest option, are disproportionately expensive, being peak travel time for destinations that draw tourists.

    Benefits of summer study abroad

    Studying in the summer comes with advantages for students whose academic programs lack flexibility. In this short period of time, you don’t have to interrupt your studies to get international experience. For programs that don’t have flexible academic schedules, such as nursing or medical school, this can be the only chance students have to go abroad.

    Benefits of a semester abroad

    Taking a semester abroad allows you to have an on-campus, dormitory experience in a foreign country without disrupting your domestic academic plan. Finding enough credit hours that transfer to your home country’s program can be easier than satisfying a year’s worth of coursework. A semester abroad allows students the chance to build more experiences in a foreign country without negatively affecting their academic progress, making this choice popular for many students.

    Benefits of a year abroad

    Students who choose to study for a whole academic year abroad are committed to getting a comprehensive, immersive experience. If you have the flexibility and funding for this option, it provides an opportunity to build serious language skills and international competency. This length of time also opens up opportunities for longer-term experiences while overseas like volunteering, internships, or even working a part-time job.

    Where should I study abroad?

    There are several factors to consider when deciding where to study abroad. We suggest considering each of the following carefully.


    Language is the first important consideration when deciding where to go. While some programs offer study abroad opportunities with coursework taught in English, others do not. If you want to fully engage with the local student body and don’t speak a foreign language, you may want to consider an English-speaking location or university.

    Your major

    Your major may also influence your options for where to study abroad. Some schools and locations specialize in particular areas of study and may only offer programs based on those disciplines. Majors requiring laboratory work or other hands-on environments can also pose limitations on where you can study.

    On the flipside, there are also select universities that offer unique programs or study environments. For example, compare the benefits of studying French impressionist painting in Paris over Salt Lake City.


    Lifestyle is another important factor in choosing a location. Considering the differences between developed and developing countries or rural and urban locations is important. These broader characteristics can color the day-to-day
    experience in your host country.


    Students travelling outside the U.S. for the first time may choose a homestay program. Alternatively, they may apply to a third-party program with dedicated international dorms, which potentially comes with the benefit of a built-in social life.

    For bolder students, knowing how to access student housing services to find accommodation on the private markets can see you living like a local while you study.

    How much does it cost to study abroad?

    The average cost of a study abroad experience varies significantly depending on the kind of program you choose and how long you stay. A semester abroad can range from $8,000 to $21,000 per academic year.

    There are a few factors influencing this amount, including the country or city you choose, tuition and other school fees, and cost of living, including accommodation, food, and travel. How you spend your free time also matters – reading is a lot cheaper than skiing, for example.

    Financial aid

    There are several options to help pay for this experience, often resembling the financial aid process you followed for your domestic university. Scholarships can be a great way to help fund your studies abroad and may be available from your university, private organizations, and non-profits. Some students crowdfund their study abroad program and others save up via part-time jobs.

    Free tuition

    Several European countries offer free tuition, even for international students, including Germany, France, and Sweden. Some programs require students to take coursework in the country’s language, and others offer courses taught in English for free as well. This can be a terrific opportunity to get a fully immersive international experience at a low cost.


    Another way to pay for your study abroad program is through paid internships. Students who intern as part of their overseas programs also build international work experience to add to their resume. If you choose this route, be sure to check local labor laws to ensure your arrangement is legal. Be careful to balance your work and study so as not to negatively affect your academic standing.

    Study abroad checklist

    After you have decided on a length of study, location, and type of program, it is time to focus on the details. Traveling abroad for a vacation is not the same as studying in a foreign country.

    Make sure you have the following documents and paperwork in order before you leave the U.S.

    1. Passport – If you already have a passport, make sure it will remain valid for the length of your stay. If you do not have a passport, submit an application, proof of citizenship, identification, a photo, and fees at your local post office or secretary of state office.
    2. Visa – If you need a visa to stay in your destination country, make sure it is taken care of on time. The best way to ensure you have what you need is to check with your program advisor. Some programs arrange a visa for you after receiving proper documentation.
    3. Banking information – When you are far from home, it is important to have access to your bank account and the funds inside. Many banks automatically block transactions made by cards used outside of the U.S. if the cardholder has not given notification of travel. Contact your bank before leaving to ensure that doesn’t happen.

    Get packing

    It is rare to hear a student say they regretted studying abroad. Whether you are earning your bachelor’s in sociology or working on your Ph.D. in engineering, opportunities abound to fill both your resume and transcript with international experience. A summer, semester, or year abroad can be one of the best ways to make the most of your college years.

    FAQs about studying abroad 

    Students who study abroad travel to a range of locations worldwide, but there are clear trends. In 2021, over half of all U.S. students travelled to Europe, followed by 14% choosing Latin America, and 12% studying in Asia. The U.K. was the most popular destination country, followed by Italy, Spain, France, and Germany.

    Yes. While the average study abroad student is completing their bachelor’s, in 2021, 374,435 master’s and Ph.D. students attended a program abroad.

    Engineering majors represent the biggest group enrolling in study abroad programs, comprising 20% of all students. Math, computer science, business, and social sciences were the next most popular.

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