A step-by-step guide to studying overseas

October 21, 2021

DegreeChoices Staff

Each year, thousands of American students spend a summer, semester, or longer immersing themselves in a new country, culture and learning environment. The benefits of studying abroad are considerable. You can study at a renowned university, experience another culture, learn a new language, explore a different country, add international experience to your resume, and ultimately expand your mind. While the process of getting ready to go can be daunting, with some preparation and attention to detail, an amazing study abroad experience can await you.

Types of programs

The first thing to consider for your study abroad experience is the type of program that best matches your plans. The most well-known way to study overseas is via your university, but there are also alternatives.  

University programs

Many universities have agreements witacademic institutions abroad where students travel both to and from the U.S. Others may even have a branch in another country. If your university offers study abroad programs, 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 pre-structured accommodation and plenty of support. 

Third party programs

Third party organizations are a great option for students whose schools do not offer study abroad opportunities. Some of the most common organizations domestically include IES Abroad, CIEE, and CIS Abroad. You can also find opportunities via the European organization Erasmus Student Network. Organizations like these provide complete packages for students that cover 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. Prospective students may be drawn to a university based on its academic staff or research programs.  The attraction may relate to family or friends living close to the university, or the desire to practice language skills with native speakers in their country of origin. Direct enrollment is usually the route taken by students who plan to commit to longer periods, most likely a complete degree program. 

In general, prospective students should contact overseas colleges directly to ask about entry requirements for U.S. citizens. Depending on the country and school, this application process can be very different.  For example, in the Netherlands all students, local and foreign, apply for entry to the majority of higher education programs through the official government portal, Studielink. In other countries, you need to apply directly to the individual college, sometimes after passing all immigration requirements for international students.  

Non-credit opportunities

Students are increasingly interested in experiences abroad that break from the traditional classroom model. These students choose not to earn college credit while studying internationallyIn the 2018-2019 school year38,100 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 to travel

Typically students decide between the following time periods: over a summer, a semester, or a year. Each has its own 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 often still expensive. Being peak travel time for destinations that also draw tourists, basic costs like plane tickets can make the price of your trip jump considerably.  

Studying in the summer does come 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 an 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.  

Taking a semester abroad allows you to have the on campus, dormitory experience in a foreign country without disrupting your domestic academic plan.

 

Taking a semester abroad allows you to have the on campus, dormitory experience in a foreign country without disrupting your domestic academic plan. Finding enough credit hours for a semester 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.  

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 to go

One of the most exciting steps when planning your adventure abroad is choosing where you will go. There are several factors to consider when making this decision and it is wise to consider each carefully.  

Language

Language is perhaps the first important aspect to address when deciding where to go. While some programs offer study abroad opportunities with coursework taught in English, this is not true of all. 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. Other majors requiring laboratory work or other hands-on environments can also pose limitations on where you can choose to 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 art in Paris over Utah. 

Lifestyle

Lifestyle is another important factor in choosing a location. Consider the differences between developed and developing countries or rural and urban locations is important—these broader characteristics can color your day-to-day experience in your host country. In terms of accommodation, students who are 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, that potentially comes with the benefit of a built-in social life. For bolder students, knowing how to access student accommodation services or looking at university social media accounts dedicated to finding accommodation on the private markets – is a skill that can see you living like a local while you study.

Costs

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 few factors influencing this amount, including the country or city you choose, tuition and other school fees, cost of living including accommodation, food, and travel.  You also need to decide how you will spend your free time – e.g., reading is a lot cheaper than skiing. 

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.

 

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. 

Several European countries offer free tuition even for international students, such as 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 great opportunity to get a fully-immersive international experience at a relatively low cost. 

Another way to pay for your study abroad is through paid internships. Students who intern during their program overseas not only help cover their costs, but also build international work experience to add to their resume. If you choose this route, be sure to check local labor laws to assure your arrangement is legal. It is also important to balance your work and study so as not to negatively affect your academic standing. 

A profile of the most common overseas study experiences

Students who study abroad travel to a range of locations worldwide, but there are clear trends as to which areas are most popular. Over half of students choose Europe, followed by 14% in Latin America and 12% in Asia. The U.K. was the most popular country, followed by Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. 

Concerning duration, 65% of students choose shorter trips averaging 8 weeks or less in length, indicating that summer study abroad is popular. The next most popular option were semester-long programs, with 33% of students choosing this route. Only 2% choose long-term, academic year programs. 

Math and computer science, business and management, and the social sciences are the next most popular majors of those studying abroad.

 

The average study abroad student is an undergraduate, with 419,312 bachelor’s students choosing to study in the 2019-2020 school year. Graduate students also study overseas in significant numbers, with 374,435 traveling abroad for their master’s or Ph.D. studies the same year.  

When we look at the most common disciplines of these students, engineering majors represent the biggest group taking their studies overseas, comprising 20% of all students. Math and computer science, business and management, and the social sciences are the next most popular majors of those studying abroad. 

In short, we can imagine our prototypical study abroad student as an undergraduate studying for an engineering degree spending a summer in the U.K.  

Practicalities

After you have decided on a length of study, location, and type of program, it’s time to focus on the details. Traveling abroad for a vacation is not the same as studying in a foreign country, so ensure you have the correct paperwork before you leave the U.S.  

The first step is to secure your passport. If you already have one, make sure it will remain valid for the length of your stay. 

 

The first step is to secure your passport. If you already have one, make sure it will remain valid for the length of your stay. Those who don’t have a passport need to submit an application, proof of citizenship, identification, a photo, and fees at their local post office or secretary of state office.   

Another critical step in preparing for your trip is securing your visa, if needed by the country you are going to study in.  The best way to assure you have what you need is to check with your program advisor. Some programs may arrange a visa for you after receiving proper documentation. 

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 let them know you will be using your card outside of the United States. 

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 university transcript with international experience.   

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