Study Abroad: Day One

So you’ve arrived in your host country, fresh off the plane, train, or automobile you took to get there.

Now what?

If, like me, getting there was a bit of an endeavor (you may recall I missed my train and endured the angry looks of a German train conductor), day 1 might not be all that eventful. In fact, as soon as I arrived to my dorm – thanks to my wonderful German host students – I fell asleep. Hey, it had been a long day! I ventured out with my roommates to find food after a few hours of sleep, but didn’t see much of the city in the darkness, nor did I have the energy to fight the jet lag.

So, let’s assume you’ll be a little more well-rested and arrive a little earlier in the day than I did.


Hopefully you have your passport in hand before you get there…

1. Check your program provider or university’s orientation program. What bureaucratic necessities do you need to check off first? Residency permit? Proof of health insurance? Student fees? Your program provider or host university will prove essential in completing all these tasks because navigating a foreign country’s bureaucracy can be tricky and overwhelming, especially if you don’t speak the language. It’s best to get these things taken care of as soon as possible, especially because things like applying for a residency permit can take a while.

2. Find housing. If you didn’t pre-arrange housing (which I strongly suggest you do!), your first day might start at a hostel or hotel and your top priority will be finding housing. Again, I suggest doing as much in advance as possible and check with your university or program provider. I chose to stay in a dorm, but you might be doing a homestay (in which case you’ll have the details sorted out in advance); if you’re looking for a place to stay once you arrive, make sure to check the school’s bulletin boards (a good bet is that there’s a couple in the main building, international office and cafeterias). You can also check online to see who’s offering a room for rent, just be sure to check out the accommodations and get a key before you hand over any money.


Falling asleep on the tram may not be the best way to get the lay of the land…

3. Get the lay of the land. Where’s the closest grocery store or cafeteria? Where will your classes be? How will you get there – by foot, bus or other form of public transportation? Or course you’ll learn more about your host city the longer you’re there, but it’s important to get the basics down. And hey, if you take the tram in the wrong direction, it’ll eventually turn around and get you into town. And then you’ll know which direction to take the tram, like I did. Of course, the conductor will probably have a little laugh at your mistake, but it’s all in good fun.

4. Buy a cell phone in your host country, even if you’re only there for the summer. Trust me, you do not want to pay those roaming fees. And none of your new friends will want to call your American number either. Pay as you go minutes are going to be your best bet because more than likely you won’t want to sign a contract. Ask the locals what the best deal is — do most students use a certain provider that offers free mobile-to-mobile calls on that network?

5. In case of emergency. Program the emergency numbers for your country into your new phone. No one likes to think about “in case of emergency” situations, but it’s better to be safe than sorry (do I sound like your parents yet?). It’s also a good idea to program the number for a taxi into your phone. In fact, mine came preloaded with these numbers, so you might be able to skip this step entirely.

6. Set up a local bank account. I’d suggest this if you’re going to be abroad for more than a few weeks. It’s a lot better to withdraw money when the exchange rate is good and put it in your bank account because the next day, the exchange rate might not be so good. I always kept a bit of money in my American bank account in case of emergencies (like the time the ATM ate my bank card and I had to wait until the weekend was over to go to the bank and get it back). And, as bonus for those studying in Germany, Bank of America offers free ATM withdrawals at Deutsche Bank ATMs (or Geldautomaten as they’re known in German), as well as at Barclays in England, and a few other banks around the world.

Reusable bag

Don’t forget a stylish reusable bag to carry all your purchases!

7. Buy the basics. You know all those travel sized products you brought with you? They won’t last forever, so head to the store and find the necessities so your unkempt appearance doesn’t scare off your new study abroad friends. Depending on where you’re living, you might need to invest in some cheap silverware and dishes, sheets, towels, etc. One word: IKEA. Alternatively, you can check with your program provider or host university to see if they offer gently used household items leftover from past international students.

8. Introduce yourself! This seems like a given and surely you’ve been doing it all along. But at least now you have a cell phone number to exchange with your fellow study abroad students. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find a BFF right away; you’re all in this new situation together, which makes it a lot easier to bond with people in a short amount of time. If you’re having a hard time understanding and/or making yourself understood in a foreign language  don’t worry because others will be too! Study abroad students have an odd language all their own, comprised of gestures, sounds, and occasional words in their native language. But over time, as your language skills progress and as you get to know people better, you’ll find it much easier to communicate!

My wall of pictures and mementos (as seen here in a very artistic shot of a coffee mug).

9. Call home! I’m sure your parents/grandparents/dog want to hear from you and hopefully you let them know that you arrived safely before you made it to #9 on the list! I talked to my parents once a week on Skype; we decided on a day (Sunday) that was best for all of us and usually talked for about an hour. Sundays are pretty slow in Germany because the shops are closed, so it was easy to take a mid-afternoon break and talk to my parents. I also bought some Skype credit that allowed me to call and text cell phones in the U.S. so that, if I needed or wanted to talk to my mom, I could call her cell phone at work and just chat.

10. Make yourself at home. Whatever that means to you, do it. Obviously it won’t happen overnight, but oftentimes it’s the little things that make a difference. I chose to hang a banner on my wall that my friends had made for my going away party. I posted pictures of my friends from back home on the banner when I first arrived. Over the days, weeks, and months, I added pictures, postcards, and other random scraps of paper to that banner, making a sort of memory collage. You’ll be happy to be reminded of home, but also of the new memories you’re making in your new home.

If this list of 10 things seems a little overwhelming, don’t worry! You don’t have to do them all on day 1…there’s always day 2! Good luck and enjoy your study abroad experience!

Emily Caskey is an intern here at Study Abroad Spotlight and a notorious over-packer  She studied abroad in Rostock, Germany for 10 months and interned in Berlin for two summers. To learn more about her experiences abroad, check out her spotlight and follow her on Twitter @emilcask.
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