Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018
Planning your study abroad experience can be a daunting process. When should you go? When are applications due? And scholarships? When should you start making travel plans? Numbers and dates might start spinning in your head just thinking about these things. That's why I've decided to share the timeline I used when prepping my own study abroad experience, explaining the good and bad I found along the way and hopefully making study abroad planning a little more manageable.
The big question: When?
Before you can start planning your study abroad trip, you have to decide when you’re going to do it. If you want to take gen ed classes while you're away, you’ll probably want to study abroad early in your college career (within the first couple years). If you want to do an internship, volunteer, or student teach, you'll probably want to go toward the end of your four (or five) years. When study abroad will fit best largely depends on when the classes you need for your degree are offered and what your schedule looks like from semester to semester. I personally studied abroad during the fall of my junior year, but I know people who have done it earlier and later. Your academic advisor is a good resource here, so be sure to discuss your plans with them.
10 months out: Brainstorming and study abroad fairs
Start thinking about study abroad early, whether that's doing research online, talking to friends and classmates who have their own experiences, or going to study abroad fairs and events. Your school may offer programs on satelite campuses or have agreements with international universities, which could make the transfer of credits more seamless—again, be sure to ask your advisor!
I knew I wanted to study abroad long before I started college, but going to a study abroad fair finally started the process. To be honest, I didn't walk into this thinking I would find a program or that I would even study abroad any time soon. If you want to go to study abroad fairs to simply look for ideas, that's fine! You don't have to walk away with any semblance of a plan. That’s what I did: I went in telling myself, "This is still a long way off." But when I left a half hour later with an armful of brochures and information booklets, I started in on the serious research.
10 months out: Start planning
In the weeks after attending that study abroad fair, I did a lot of research to narrow down programs, figure out where exactly I wanted to go, plan my travel, and make sure my experience fit into my degree program.
Ten months out may seem excessive, and I know plenty of people who have done it in less time, or more. Also, I didn't get everything planned right away. I ended up taking several weekend trips to nearby cities while I was abroad, and a lot of that planning didn't happen until the last few months before I left, some even after I arrived.
There's no problem with making tentative plans this far out. It'll give you a good foundation to work from when you have to start filling in the details closer to your departure. But just know that things could change. Many of the plans I started making this far ahead were unrecognizable by the time I boarded my flight. And if you aren't going abroad for long, or if your program fills in a lot of the logistics for you, you most certainly don’t have to start figuring things out this early.
8 months out: Turn in applications
Filling out applications is the first concrete step to study abroad. I applied really early, so don't panic if you don't want to think about what you're doing this weekend, much less what you're doing almost a year from now. Most programs' deadlines are in the neighborhood of four months before your departure, but many offer rolling admission. You can apply early if you want to get things set in stone. Most schools are going to have deadlines similar to universities at home, since you still have to register for classes. Any internship or volunteer opportunities will have to connect you with an employer once you apply to the program, so turning in applications the semester before you want to go is a good benchmark.
8 months out: Apply for a passport (if you don’t have one)
Applying for a passport is one of those critical steps that you might not think about and then start to panic when you do. By no means do you have to apply for your passport as early as I did, but if you need a visa, it may be a different story.
For a passport, the US State Department says processing takes four to six weeks on average, but this can change around peak times. If you already have a passport, the rule of thumb is to make sure it's still valid through six months after you plan on returning home.
Visas, however, are a whole different ball game. Requirements and processing times vary depending on what you're doing, where you're going, and how long you'll be there, so talk with your program directors to figure out what the process will be like for you.
4 months out: Start applying for scholarships
Now that you've sent in your applications, applied for a passport, and filed all the important paperwork, it's time to start financing your experience. In truth, you can apply for scholarships throughout the whole research, planning, and application process. Deadlines for the plethora of scholarships out there will vary so much that it's difficult to put a hard-and-fast rule on this one. But many study abroad scholarships are similar to those applicable to your home university, which means deadlines are often around a semester ahead of time. So if that's where this step lands for you: great. If not, you can usually get applications in early if you want to get this process out of the way, but it may be worth keeping an eye out for new scholarships that pop up later in the process.
3 months out: Book plane tickets
Next to housing and tuition costs, your flights will probably be your biggest expenses. And they can get even more expensive if you wait too long to buy them. Be sure to start doing research early with sites like Google Flights, Skyscanner, and Kayak to compare prices and times. I bought my flights almost three months before I left and was only able to get the seat I wanted on my first flight by going to the help desk in the airport the day I flew out. So if you want something specific on your flight, the earlier the better. (To some extent, I wouldn't recommend booking your tickets six months out.)
A week before: Start packing
Your plans are set, logistics arranged, flights booked—the hardest part is behind you, and one of the greatest experiences you'll ever have lies ahead. All that's left to do is pack.
This step is pretty self-explanatory but comes with a few addendums. In your last weeks of planning, you might look into buying all the little things you'll want specifically for traveling. Because you're likely only taking a suitcase or two, don't load yourself down with stuff. You'll probably need an electronic converter of some kind, maybe a good eye mask, and plenty of pictures from home. (Be sure to leave room for souvenirs!)
Packing is possibly my least favorite part of traveling (yes, even if you count airport security—I really hate packing), so I put it off to avoid having my bedroom turned upside down by piles of things overflowing from my suitcase. I was lucky enough to have help from my mom and sister, so I might recommend not following my example here. Pack whenever feels best for you.
Planning anything as momentous as study abroad can be daunting, but I promise all the hassle is worth it. The key is to take it one step at a time, don't try to conquer the whole process at once, and try to have fun between all the numbers, dates, and organization. After all, you're planning an experience that well may change your life!
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