Preparing for your year abroad: a checklist

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So you've received the confirmation of your place on an exchange programme? Great! This article aims to cover the essential planning you need to do before you jet off, as well as giving a few tips for how to survive once you get there!

Probably the most important question of all is where will I live? Support and advice for finding a room in your new town or city varies hugely from country to country, and even between different universities within the same country. You will probably find that there is more support with this if you are studying rather than working, but even the best support in many countries will be inferior to that offered in the UK. Don't panic, though! Your home University should be able to offer you help and advice if you get really stuck, and thousands of students go through this process every year.

University accommodation
Some universities will offer their own accommodation, or have an independent agency which does so. Most of the time you will be entitled to use this service as an exchange student, so check the international office's website to find out what you need to do to secure a room. This is probably the easiest way to find a place to live, and often the cheapest too. However, the quality of “halls” or their equivalent varies greatly between countries, so make sure you know what you are getting for your money, especially if your rent is more than 20% lower than a private rent in the area.

Private accommodation
Private accommodation is often more expensive than university accommodation, and more difficult to arrange. However, looking for a room privately you will have more control over where you end up, and who you live with. Many countries will have house-share websites where you can post and respond to ads. In some countries, interviewing potential housemates is a common procedure! If your contract is with a current tenant not the landlord, make sure than you know your rights as a sub-tenant. If you haven't secured accommodation by about a month before your placement starts, it is advisable to go out and try to fix something in person.

Make sure you are aware well in advance of any deposits or fees you have to pay. In Germany it is normal to pay up to three months' rent as a deposit, and a large fee to any agency involved. Deposits in particular may be payable long in advance of your departure, and even in advance of the earlier payment date for Student Finance funding. In France, the CAF provides a grant towards accommodation costs, which is worth applying for. Other countries may offer similar schemes, so make sure you do a bit of research to see if you are entitled to anything.

Funding and Forms
Erasmus forms
There are many forms to complete and return for your Erasmus placement, many of these essential for you to receive funding. The most important upon your arrival are the Arrival Form and Learning Agreement. Most UK universities will require these to be completed and returned to them before they can release your Erasmus grant, which can in some cases mean a delay of several weeks between arriving and receiving your money.

Most forms which you complete for your home University need to be signed in ink, which means you will need access to a printer and scanner. One option is to print all necessary forms in the UK, and take them with you – if you do this, you can always post the forms back to the UK if you really can't get access to a scanner and working email account.

Student finance
The amount you receive from Student Finance may be higher during your Year Abroad than other years, and the initial payment is usually made earlier for year abroad students, at some point in August. In most cases this is early enough to cover your initial costs, but you may have to pay an accommodation deposit before this date. If you think you may have financial issues, speak to your University at the earliest opportunity to avoid being in a foreign country with no money. Whilst the additional cost of a Year Abroad is usually offset by additional funding from Student Finance or Erasmus, you will need to be able to bear the initial costs yourself.

It's a good idea to have a substantial amount of local currency with you when you leave, as setting up a bank account and transferring funds electronically from the UK can take a few days. Search around for the best exchange rate in the UK – M&S travel money is usually pretty good – and take a bit more than you think you will need for everything you will have to buy in the first two weeks. It is always better to take too much than not enough, but if you are carrying large amounts of cash, split it up and carry it in different places. If you fly, it's really not advisable to leave cash in your suitcase.

Essential documents
You will need to take numerous documents with you, and it is advisable to prepare these in advance so that you don't forget anything.

The most obvious document is your passport, which you made need to keep with you whilst on your placement as a form of ID. Check online whether you need ID at all times, or just need to be able to present it within a certain amount of time of being asked – and bear in mind that a driving license is not a valid form of ID in some countries, so you will need to use your passport for things like buying alcohol!

Health insurance is necessary even if your host University doesn't explicitly require it. Within Europe, your EHIC should suffice for any University requirements, but it may be advisable to take out private health insurance as well. You will probably need to show proof of insurance (such as your EHIC or a copy of insurance schedule/certificate) to be able to enrol at your University. Another form of insurance which may be required is personal liability, which should be included in any Year Abroad policy, of University travel policy, but always check your schedule to see what you are covered for! As an international student, you may be required to purchase this insurance, or at least sign a waiver to say you are aware that it is recommended.

If you're studying in a country that requires one, make sure you arrange your Visa as soon as possible, and keep this somewhere safe. You will probably need it to set up a bank account and enrol at your University.

Year abroad insurance
Year abroad insurance is optional, but many students swear that it is essential. It is common for Universities to have a blanket policy for all year abroad students, so check what this covers before buying your own insurance. It is probably advisable to purchase your own policy, but make sure that you know exactly what you are paying for. Travelling within the country, any sports activities you may undertake (think skiing, diving, hiking etc.) will all need to be covered as well, and there's no point in forking out for a policy which doesn't do what you need it to.

Upon arrival
Bank account
You will probably need to open up a bank account to pay rent, get a local debit card, and receive any salary you might be earning. Some universities will help you with this during an orientation programme, but others will leave it entirely up to you. Check in advance if you will need any additional documents to set up a bank account, and make sure that you have the funds needed, if studying outside the EU, to set up an account and stay in the country. Sometimes you will need to put a large amount of money into the account as insurance, which may be released gradually whilst you are there, or may need to remain in the account the entire time.

In some countries you will need to register your arrival with a local authority, usually within a week or two of arriving. Check what documents, if any, you need to take with you, and if you are not comfortable with the local language, arrange for somebody to go with you to help you complete any forms. Some universities with a large international base will allow you to do it on site on certain days, but others will require you to go to an administrative building in the city – make sure you know where this is and how to get there in plenty of time.

You will also need to enrol at the University you're studying at. Check what documents you need to take for this, and make sure you know where you're going and at what time. Some foreign universities operate very strict office hours and will expect you to be responsible for finding out where you are meant to be.

Moving in
If you already have a place to live arranged before you go abroad, check what you need to do to collect your keys. Usually you will have to arrange an appointment – it's worth checking if there is an out-of-hours service if your flight is delayed/traffic is bad so that you don't arrive at 10pm unable to move into your room! Make sure you have enough money for a hotel though, because there is no guarantee that your landlord/agency will keep to an appointment, although this shouldn't be an issue.

If there are any forms to sign upon moving in, make sure you know what they are for and what they mean for you – if your University offers a buddy service, get your buddy to tell you what exactly you are agreeing to. Check the room before approving an inventory, and report any damage or faults as soon as you discover them to avoid losing what might be a substantial deposit you've already paid.

Getting to your placement
Depending on how long you are staying abroad, and how far away your placement is, it may be better to drive rather than fly. Crossing via the Channel Tunnel can be expensive, but you can use Tesco Clubcard Vouchers to book a crossing. Fuel prices can be much lower on the continent too, and if you have not managed to arrange accommodation before you leave, having a car to get around may come be very useful. Staying in a hostel rather than a hotel if you need to break the journey can bring the cost down, and you could even use a carpooling website to find an extra passenger to contribute towards fuel costs.

If you decide to fly, make sure that you know where the airport is in relation to the city or town you're staying in – many airports are miles away from the city they're named for, and transport to and from these airports can therefore be surprisingly expensive! Make sure you don't exceed your luggage allowance – if you must, then pre-book extra bags as it will be much cheaper than paying at the airport. If possible, ask a parent to fly out with you so you have their luggage allowance too – and, of course, a friendly face to help you settle in!

Shipping items out is an alternative to driving which allows you to take more than one or two suitcases of belongings. Usually you will need to meet the courier when your boxes arrive, so you will need to take enough in your suitcase to survive the first few days without the shipment. Some universities, however, offer buddy schemes where a local student collects your room key, and a buddy like this may be willing to receive your shipped belongings too.

Travelling once there
To make the most of your year abroad, it's good to have an idea of some places you want to visit before you leave. Don't make the list too long or you'll be disappointed if you can't visit every single one, but knowing where you want to go, and where these places are in relation to you, can help you to plan your travels effectively.

If you intend to do a lot of travelling, it may be worth getting a railcard or coachcard, if these are available in your country. Make sure you understand how any scheme like this works, so you don't buy something you won't use, or that limits you to local (slow) trains.
Your host university may hold excursions to local places of interest – as these are usually done by coach they can save you a lot of money for train fares, and get you access to places that might be difficult to go to alone. I visited a local Parliament in Germany, as well as the European Parliament, Court of Human Rights and European Council in Strasbourg with a group, which I would never have even thought to do alone! Of course, some of these may turn out to be glorified shopping trips, which is fine if that's what you want, but if not, it's worth booking one and testing the system before you spend hundreds of pounds on trips which turn out to be a badly-organised waste of money.

Travel reimbursement
Student Finance England provides a travel grant to students studying abroad as part of their course – something which many students remain unaware of throughout their year abroad. You can claim back the costs of up to three journeys between your UK home and your foreign institution, minus the initial £303. This is available if you receive any means-tested funding (loan or grant) so many students will be eligible. Make sure you keep all your receipts and travel details as evidence.

Many universities will arrange social events for the first few weeks of your year abroad, which are a great opportunity to meet other exchange students. If there isn't anything organised when you arrive, post something on Facebook and other international students will flood to you! However, especially if you are abroad to learn a language, try to accept social invitations from local students as well, as these will be far more beneficial for your language skills and integrating into the country.

Some people will tell you not to turn down a social event on your Year Abroad. It's up to you whether you take this advice literally! Especially on the Erasmus scheme, there will be many people for whom their year abroad is just an opportunity to party. Of course, this means that there will be plenty of parties and social events happening throughout the year, so you will certainly not struggle to find things to do with your evenings. If you're a quiet person, don't feel pressured into doing things just because people tell you you're wasting your year abroad otherwise. It is good to try new things, but if you decide you don't like an experience, you don't have to repeat it, and you'll have far more fun pushing and respecting your limits than ignoring them and feeling uncomfortable.

If your year abroad counts towards your degree classification, then chances are you'll be nervous about the studying aspect. The academic culture in other countries can be very different to the UK, and as you will spend a lot of time in class, it can be this difference which causes the most worry when you are there. Even if you “only” have to pass any exams in your year abroad, or take X number of credits, the academic differences can be quite challenging.

The best advice to alleviate your study concerns is to speak to a student who has been to the country you're visiting. If you know what to expect in terms of class size, workload, amount of independent learning, you will be much better prepared for it when you get there. Don't let worries about the academic side of things get you down, but at the same time, try not to forget the reason why you are going abroad in the first place!

Don't be surprised if course choices aren't available until the very last minute, and if you have a Learning Agreement to complete, keep in contact with your home University about, but don't think that deadlines are set in stone (unless of course you're told that they are). A lot of European universities operate on a semester system rather than an annual one, which means summer semester classes won't be announced until the very end of the winter semester! As long as you keep your home University informed as to why there are delays, or only half the credits listed on your initial learning agreement, there shouldn't be any problems.

Even if you are working on your year abroad, it is not unusual to have some assignments to complete for your home university, such as reports on what you have done. It is important not to forget these, as it can make a bad impression if the only thing you have to show for your year abroad upon your return is a very rushed few paragraphs you wrote the night before.

If, when you arrive, you find that your work placement is awful, don't give up straight away. It can take a while to adjust to a different culture and way of doing things, but if after a few weeks you still feel uncomfortable, talk to your contact in your host country. They will usually be willing to address whatever concerns you have and will do their best to make you feel more comfortable. If that doesn't work, you can always try to find a different placement, which will be much easier once you are in the country anyway rather than arranging it from home!

How much free time you have during a work placement depends on a few things – the living costs in the country you are in, the type of work you are doing, and whether you take on additional work. In many ways, work abroad students can have more time to explore than study abroad students, because you can book holiday whenever you want, whilst study students can't just skip classes! If you're in a country where schools finish at around lunchtime, then a school language assistant placement will give you afternoons free every day, and negotiating time off or rearranging shifts to free up long weekends may be much easier than if you are a museum guide.

Whilst taking on extra work to secure more money for exploring might seem like a good idea, too many work hours will limit the time you have to spend that money! However, if you get homesick easily, working more hours might keep you busy and keep your mind off the fact that you are abroad, away from your family.

There may be some things that you feel you just can't live without – tea, Cadbury chocolate, baked beans! Depending where you are going, it might not be necessary to take any home comforts with you, but if you know that you won't be able to get hold of a certain item in your host country, it's worth taking a bit of it with you (and of course, arranging for your parents to send you food parcels).

If you have special dietary requirements, check how easily you can cater to them in your host country. In Western Europe there are few requirements you will struggle to look after, but if you are going further afield, even something as ordinary as vegetarianism may be very difficult to deal with when eating out! Make sure that you can explain your requirements (and any allergies) in the local language, and consider carrying an identifier card for serious allergies. Remember that Epi-pens only last for a year, so it might be worth getting a new prescription just before you leave!

If you're nervous about the local food, have a look online for recipes from that country, or see if there is a restaurant which specialises in their cuisine that you could go to. Even if you hate the idea of certain stereotypical foods, there is bound to be something that you will like. If you're self-catered, you won't even have to deal with local cuisine if you don't want to, although you may need to cook “properly” more often than you're used to at home!

Eating out is a great way to see the country you're in, but it can also be a little overwhelming the first few times. For instance, trying to work out whether to tip, and how much, or whether there is table service or you're supposed to order at the bar, can be difficult. Either try to go out with locals and see what they do, or invest a bit of time in searching the net for advice. In some countries, you'll be excused for ignorance of customs, but in others, it will be taken as rudeness. As long as you make an effort to speak the local language and do as the locals do, you should get along fine!
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