Last Updated: Apr 30, 2020
Studying abroad comes with many different surprises, obstacles, and life-changing experiences. It’s an opportunity to expand your knowledge of culture and human nature while still working on your degree. Spending time in Europe gives you a chance to experience unique events and visit some of the most significant places in history, which sounds like a dream for many students. But what about everyday life, not to mention all the planning it takes before you even get there? There are a few things Google can’t tell you, but those living and studying in Europe can. Here’s what you should know as you’re planning your study abroad experience.
1. No one will put together your documents for you
While it’s usually easy to find a program for studying abroad, you shouldn’t expect your school or program to do any of the actual travel planning for you. Even if you receive a hefty packet with travel documentation information, double-check it. You don’t want to risk having outdated information and end up not having the appropriate passport or documentation requirements to enter a country. Your personal documents and all your travel plans are your responsibility. If an outside program has any involvement, then check and check again to ensure that everything is in place for you.
Always research and meet or exceed the requirements for:
- Entry documents: This includes your passport, student visa, and additional forms of identification.
- Travel documents for your days off: When you’re not studying, you may want to travel to other countries in your free time, which is relatively easy to do in Europe!
- Records for the school or program: You may need letters of recommendation or transcripts.
- Passes for trains, subways, and public transit systems: You may want to purchase these ahead of time.
Another important thing to remember: you can be denied entry to a foreign country because of your passport’s expiration date, even if it will be valid for the duration of your stay. Certain countries have varying passport validity rules—yours could be valid for three more months, but another country could require it to be six. Always check each country’s validity rules. Also, ensure that you have enough blank pages in your passport for all the traveling you want to do while you're abroad.
Related: The Ultimate Study Abroad Timeline
2. Living in a dorm could be your best option
Although some students hate dorm life at their main campus, it's still usually the best option for living abroad. There’s a lot of hype about getting a host family, but the truth is you’ll get about the same amount of immersion in a dorm—without distractions of standard family life around you.
In a dorm, you can focus on your studies, enjoy the European student lifestyle, interact with other international students, and manage your experiences. College years are often said to be the best years of a young person’s life, and experiencing them abroad among other students from all over the world is one of the best ways to spend them.
3. American fast food is available if you get homesick
Don’t pass up the chance to eat authentic local food, but realistically, you’ll probably get a little homesick while you’re abroad. Sometimes nothing says comfort like a Big Mac, a Starbucks Frappuccino, or a bucket from KFC. You'll find many American fast food chains all across Europe. It’s the perfect way to find something familiar when you’re in a new country.
If you’re inclined to head to your favorite fast food place, add one of the local specialties to your order! McDonald's and many other establishments have their iconic menu items as well as country-specific items that represent the local cuisine with an American twist.
4. You’ll be in charge of your cultural immersion
Eat, Pray, Love can undoubtedly inspire a flutter of wanderlust, but the guidance you'll receive. You shouldn't expect a coordinator to put together an itinerary or for someone to map out the "must-see" spots for you. You’re responsible for getting out there and becoming a part of the locale.
The best way to manage your study abroad experience and cultural emersion is to leave some gaps in your planner. Yes, you may need to see the Louvre, but you won't stumble upon many local secrets if you schedule every minute of your time abroad with tourist attractions, cultural or otherwise. Give yourself time to wander (safely!) or to fit in a fun event with little notice.
5. Prioritize your travel plans
With low-cost airlines, train passes, and a vast system for easy travel, it’s possible to jump from one European country to the next with few restrictions. If you have a list of places you want to visit, you should handle all the travel requirements ahead of time, then only plan in the moment on which days you’ll go where.
Focus on the experiences that you can have rather than hitting as many cities as possible. Your days off from your studies may be precious, but with some time management skills, you can get the best of Europe. Lay out goals for traveling and then prioritize or reprioritize as you see fit. For example, you may have planned to go to Germany during your first few days off only to realize those days are when Spain hosts Carnival. You might choose to renegotiate your time to have that experience and then jump on a train to Germany at a later date—perhaps during Oktoberfest!
Related: 5 Unique Locations to Study Abroad
6. You’ll be expected to dress differently
American college students regularly wear athleisure or very casual clothing, but these aren’t customary or socially acceptable in most European countries. Expect to get some strange looks if you leave your dorm to wander through town in sweatpants or graphic T-shirts.
Now, it's not just about what's standard attire; there's also the concern of respect. When visiting countries with churches and monuments that are hundreds of years old, the expectation is very conservative clothing choices. Dressing conservatively usually means covering your shoulders—for both men and women—in addition to wearing pants or skirts rather than jeans or shorts, as well as covering tattoos. Places of worship in some countries require even more strict dress codes, so make sure you check those requirements when visiting such locations.
7. Explore the differences in student life and benefits
There's something empowering about student life in Europe. You won't usually see students trying to juggle two or more part-time jobs or talking about their tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. These students aren't planning on working more than one job or side-hustling to make their payments after school either.
The differences in daily student life is a stark contrast between America and Europe. Learn to embrace the emphasis on your studies and cultural experiences rather than trying to scrimp, save, and survive on ramen noodles.
There are many things that people won't tell you about studying in Europe, and perhaps the most startling is that in Europe, you can just be a college student enjoying this period of your life. So have a great time when you finally get there!
For more study abroad planning and cultural advice, check out our Student Life section.