Studying Abroad the Right Way

What a School Brochure Won’t Tell You About England

Big Ben from the South Bank, London

As a college student, it's likely that you'll encounter many professors, advisors, etc. who will tell you to study abroad. Maybe you've seen flyers around your campus, or your friends' Instagram posts in front of the Eiffel Tower or a different location every weekend and thought it looked like a lot of fun. It is, and you should absolutely do it. In the fall of 2016, I left for England. I had lived in Connecticut my entire life. And not the part of Connecticut that's so close to New York you can spend the afternoon in the city and be home for dinner, but the middle, so unidentifiable that there isn't even a stereotype to use to make fun of it. So when I got to England it was immediately different, but it didn't take long to settle in. In England you get your own room in a flat, which means you don't have a roommate but you share a kitchen and bathroom with three to five other people, no matter the gender. So already, you've got people to pass the time with, and if you want your alone time, you've got it. I went over with two of my friends, so I was lucky enough to have them too. I was only supposed to stay for one semester, which had me flying back home two days before classes in Connecticut started, but a month in, I was already messaging my home university about extending it further. And after the spring term was almost finished, I was messaging about staying for one last semester in the fall. During my nearly year and a half abroad, I met lots of Americans who chose to use their time abroad in different ways. Some of them found other like-minded Americans and traveled every weekend, and some of them fell in with the Brits and got to know the ins and outs of their temporary home a little bit better. Some people even chose to do a little of both. No matter how you choose to spend your time abroad, there are some things I'd like to share that you will not find on a school brochure.

Visas and where you fly into are important. So very important.

All the paperwork was signed, I had found equivalent courses at home for the ones I was taking abroad so I could earn credit, and everything was set. Then England left the EU. It was uncharted territory for the my study abroad liaisons on both sides of the Atlantic (who, even if they can be frustrating sometimes, will be two of the most important people in your life for your time away). They knew the protocol for visas and paperwork and documents to the point that they could do it in their sleep, and then everything changed. If you are staying in the UK as a student for less than six months, you don't need a visa. This did not change with Brexit, but we only found this out after the fact. As a precautionary measure, myself and my two friends decided to apply for non-work short term student visas anyway. Due to clerical errors on both of their parts (do not do this in a rush if you plan on applying. Take your time to check and re-check everything before submitting it, because you don't get your money back), I was the only one approved. I got fingerprinted, photographed, and my passport sent to the home office with a small novel's worth of questions about money, where I'm staying, what university I'll be studying with, and where I've traveled to in the past. Though it was just a precaution, it was nice to know I had been given pre-clearance to enter the country. You don't really need to get the visa ahead of time, but if you are a nervous traveler, it definitely helps. My friend, being proactive and organized, decided we should book our flights early. The earlier we book, the cheaper it will be. New York to Dublin to Manchester. Easy, right? It was about two weeks after we booked that we got an email to all the students going to the UK. The gist of it was that you should not fly through Dublin. If you can't fly direct, enter through an EU country. Panicked, we messaged each other. What does this mean for us? After all, one of us had a proper visa and the other was going to apply at the border. A lot of emails were exchanged. In a fit of panic, my friend decided to get a different connecting flight from Dublin, just to be safe. For her it was now New York to Dublin to Paris to Manchester. It was costly and unnecessary, but when you spend six hours on a flight across an ocean, you want to know you'll be able to get into wherever you're going. Armed with my short-term student visa approved by the UK Home Office, Dublin was where my friend and I parted. The reason they don't want you flying into Dublin is because of how easy it is to get from Ireland into the UK, and the UK has stricter borders. Ireland is not part of the Schengen Area, which is comprised of most EU countries. It means they all subscribe to the same border laws, and flying from country to country within this zone is as easy as flying from state to state in the US. My two friends and myself all took different routes with different documentation, and we all got in. If you don't want to spend money on a short-term student visa, just make sure you don't fly into the UK through Ireland. And if you do, bring every single document you have to show why you're there.

No one back home will actually know where you are.

The truth is, the moment you leave the United States, your friends and family won't know where you actually are. I mean, they'll know you're on another continent, but the actual geography of it all gets mixed up pretty quick. If you're in Toulouse in the south of France, they'll ask you how Paris is. If you're in Milan, they'll ask if you've ever seen the Pope. If anything remotely unsafe happens anywhere that isn't the United States, you'll have to update Facebook, even if you're so far out of range that a safety check-in doesn't even pop up. On some level it's okay. They care, and they're trying. And inevitably, if you're anywhere in the UK, even touching the border of Scotland, they'll ask you how London is. At first, maybe you politely correct them by giving them detailed directions of your location compared to where they think you are, but after a while, you just throw out the nearest big city name and hope they understand. You get used to it.

Everyone in England smokes, but don't avoid them.

In the states, most people avoid cigarettes like the plague. Campuses will have one, maybe two, designated smoking areas. If you want a cigarette at the airport, have fun going through security again. And if you've ever seen someone rolling a cigarette, it's usually going into a mouth with a handlebar mustache above it. Not only do kids at universities in England smoke, but the ones who don't, really don't mind the ones who do. Most kids roll their cigarettes, as it's far cheaper to buy a pouch, usually sold in 30 or 50 gram increments, than 'straights' as they call pre-rolled cigarettes like we have in the states. If you are a smoker, your smoking will inevitably continue, and for the sake of your wallet I recommend learning how to roll and doing it quick. And if you're a non-smoker, the one piece of advice I would give to you is to follow your friends outside when they leave to go smoke. Entire friendship groups can be made from just a casual conversation in a smoking area. 'Have you got a light?' can turn into, 'we're going out tonight if you and your friends want to come.' If you see someone three or four times a day and you live right near each other, you're bound to say hi at some point, and just talking to people is how all the best things can happen.

Nights out are a big thing.

Where I lived in the states, the nearest nightclub was a twenty minute taxi ride away and an uber home was $40. You planned it in advance. You dressed up, and your choice of club music ranged from pop to club-pop. In England, especially in cities with universities, clubs are different. There are indie/alternative clubs, dance clubs, heavy metal clubs, and even clubs that play different music on each floor. And you walk there. You walk everywhere. You can dress however you want to dress, whether it be a party dress or jeans and a leather jacket. Most of them open between ten and midnight, and then close sometime between 2:30 and 5, which leaves time to pre-drink beforehand with all of your friends you'll be going out with. 'Pres' as they're called, are huge. It can set a night up to be a wonderful memory or a straight up bust. Because the drinking age in England is 18, college campuses have bars and allow alcohol in the flats. As long as no one is being too loud, vandalizing school property, or fighting, it's fine. When it comes to pres, you and your friends can either go to a pub or bar, or you can drink in someone's kitchen, playing card games and listening to music and allowing everyone to get ready in their own time. The most important thing about nights out is safety, especially if you haven't been there very long. I've seen American students who were 19 or 20 and had never been drunk before having to be brought home by people they barely knew because they didn't know how to handle themselves, and that's not nearly the worst of what can happen. Ladies and gentleman, pace yourselves please. 

What to Bring and What to Buy

When you walk into your flat, it will be empty save for the furniture and the mattress. A decision I made that I stand by to this day is buying sheets and towels in the US and bringing them over with me. At the end of my time in my flat, I put them in the clothing donation bin and it freed up a lot of space in my suitcases for all of the stuff I bought while away. It meant that I could set up my bed the moment I got there, and all I had to worry about were pillows and a duvet, which were cheap. Stores like Wilko will be able to provide everything you need, from bedding and a drying rack, to frying pans, coffee mugs, and cutlery. Your kitchen will be empty too, except for the stove, oven, toaster, and kettle, and it's not like living in a house where one pan gets shared among the family. You'll want your own things. Some people like to wash dishes right after they've finished their meal, and some like to 'let it soak' for a few days and wash it right before they need it again. If someone who brought more than you to Uni has something that you need, like a blender or a panini press, always ask before using it and always wash it up immediately after. Common courtesy with your flatmates goes a long way.

Food

There are no meal plans at English universities. There are, however, grocery stores. Trying the local restaurants is great for a while, until you realize you've been eating burgers and steak pies and potatoes every night. If you can, learn to cook a little bit before you leave. Food shops in the UK, especially at stores like Aldi, Asda, or Lidl can be really inexpensive, and you can often get your food shopping done for under £30 a week.

Call your bank before you go and have them get rid of the international ATM fee.

You'll have to go into your bank anyway when you tell them the dates you'll be away so they don't cancel your card, but what some banks will do is actually remove the international fee for ATM transactions. Most businesses will accept all types of American credit cards, but some won't, and it's within their right. The phrase, 'it's international so I'll have to sign for it,' got used so much by me that I had a pre-typed note on my phone that I would show to bartenders if it was too loud for them to hear me. If a British person uses a credit card at a British business and it turns out to be fraudulent, it's the card company's fault and the business gets reimbursed. However, if an international card is used, goes through, and is later found out to be fraudulent, the business has to take a loss, which is why some larger chains even make you show ID so they know the person using the card is its rightful owner. Cash is always best though, and you don't want to have to take out large sums every time to avoid the transaction fees. That being said, don't bring large sums of cash over with you in the hopes of converting it when you get there. Most times you will incur a fee, and you don't want to have to pay to use money that's already yours.

Wi-Fi is your best friend, but don't forget a backup plan.

There are many options when it comes to having a usable phone abroad. The simplest is to get yourself a UK sim card when you get over there. With a UK sim, you get a new number from a UK provider that you can text and call from even when you're not connected to Wi-Fi at no extra charge than the monthly payment (usually somewhere between £12 and £20). Your phone will work normally, keeping you signed in to all your apps and even allowing you to receive texts sent to your old number when you're connected to Wi-Fi. When you get home, take the sim out and it'll be just as you left it. If your phone is not unlocked, like mine wasn't, there are other options. The first, and cheapest, is to keep your phone on airplane mode + Wi-Fi at all times. It means you won't get charged for any roaming fees, but your phone will only receive texts and calls when you're connected to Wi-Fi. Some students I know who did this got really good at searching for Wi-Fi to the point that it was almost a talent. They could connect through a brick wall to a McDonald's two buildings away. If they were going somewhere they weren't familiar with, they'd often take pictures of the maps and important information beforehand. There's also the added benefit of not being on your phone 24/7. You can't check Snapchat if your phone becomes a useless brick when it's not connected. It costs nothing, but if you're ever lost or in an emergency, your options are limited. I chose somewhere in between. In my first two semesters, I chose a plan that, through my provider, was $40 a month. It gave me minimal data, but just enough that I could call my friend on Whatsapp if I ever got split up, or find my way back to our Airbnb if we ventured out. The only caveat is that $40 a month is expensive, and the charges for overages were extortionate. After my summer back home, I tried a new plan when I got back. Instead of paying $40 a month, I opted for the International Day Pass plan. Most carriers have this in some shape or form. You keep your phone on airplane mode and Wi-Fi, and if you absolutely need data, you turn it on. It'll give you 24 hours of unlimited data for a fixed rate (mine was $10), and will automatically shut off when the 24 hours are up. Each month I turned it on maybe once or twice, and it turned out to be much cheaper.

Download Whatsapp before you go.

Whatsapp is a messaging app that really isn't too popular in the US. In the UK and Europe, however, it's more popular than iMessage. Whatsapp allows anyone with internet access to text, call, and video chat for free, regardless of what country their phone is from. Most US cell phone providers, even with international plans, charge somewhere around $1 per minute for a call to a non-US number, so spending hours on the phone with that girl with the lovely accent you just met can be costly. Someone with an Android phone can video chat someone with an iPhone, vice versa, and the interface is great. It shows when a message has been delivered, read, and when the other person is typing, online, and has last been online. If you've been out the night before and haven't heard from one of your friends, you can breathe a sigh of relief when you see that they were just on five minutes ago. 

Make use of the NHS and get yourself tested.

Do this. Even if you've been in a happily committed relationship for years or plan on playing the field during your time abroad, this is a free STI test, which doesn't come around often, and many Americans have never even had one in the first place. The NHS is England's free healthcare system, and as part of studying at an English university, you get to utilize it once you register. Your university's med center will provide discreet STI testing as well as condoms at no cost to you.

Make use of discounted travel.

The first thing you should do is get yourself a 16-25 railcard, or a mature student railcard if you're over the age limit. They're available at most major train stations and incredibly easy to obtain. All you need is your passport and a printed ID photo which you can take for £5 at many department stores. They cost £30 and get you one-third off train ticket prices, which means that they usually pay for themselves within three or four journeys. There are several popular discount airline companies that allow you to fly to Europe for just as much as a beer in a London. Skyscanner is a great website if you're not sure where exactly you want to go but you want to go somewhere on the cheap. They'll list flights for airlines such as Ryanair, Flybe, and Easyjet, or you can go to their sites directly if you have a particular place in mind. Airbnb is of course the best way to find places to stay if hostels aren't really your thing, but hostels will be the cheapest option.

Don't forget to get to know the locals.

It seems silly, to think that you could stay in a place for months and never even get to know your locals, but you'd be surprised. Having spent three semesters abroad, I got to see three new waves of international students come to England, and I got to observe how they chose to interact with their surroundings. If you're using England as an English-speaking home base to travel to the rest of Europe every weekend, you might be better off just going to a school in Europe to begin with. It will be a lot cheaper and easier to get around. If you've never been to another country before, the thought of the native language being different from your own can be quite daunting, but you'd be surprised at how many people in France, Italy, Spain, etc. not only speak English but are more than happy to speak with you. And if you get lucky, you'll meet people who will help you learn their language if you help them learn yours. At the end of my spring semester, after I had been there for close to ten months, it was time for most of the American students to leave, so we had a little get together. I asked them, "So do you have anyone you can stay with if you want to come back and visit?" and the collective answer was no. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. If you'd like to study abroad, go away for a few months, and come back and resume your life in America it's fine. It can be quite restorative, actually. Up until the early 20th century, travel was a recommended way of improving mental health. You get a new routine, eat new foods, meet new people, and get a chance to see what life is like outside your own. If you really want to get to know the culture, the true culture, of the people around you in your temporary home, the best way is to let yourself fall in with them. When you study abroad, it's very likely you'll be put in student accommodation. After the first year or two, most students move into houses of their own, so many of the students you see will also be looking to make friends. Even though for them it's only a move from one town to another to go to university and not (usually) country to country, they might still feel the same way you do. Don't be afraid to ask people you've known for only a few days to try out a coffeeshop you saw in town, or to grab a drink, or just ask if they want to play a game of cards with you in your flat. Pretty soon, you'll be going on nights out and having movie nights and maybe even trips to explore other cities. You can ignore the people around you and find comfort in people from your own country, or you can completely immerse yourself in the lives of the locals for the time you're there. They'll be just as happy to have a new American friend, to pick your brain about our politics and if Walmart is really as bad as the internet makes it out to be, and they'll happily tell you everything you'd ever want to know about England. Just be sure to make the most of your time there, which brings me to my next point. . .

Don't ruin your time away with drama from back home.

God forbid anything major happen when you're away, but really, don't sweat the small stuff. If the drive to travel was strong enough to make you go through all the paperwork, all the airport security check-ins, the goodbye party, and, realistically, the costs, don't let a relationship from home ruin it. I had a friend who was there for three months, and had been dating her boyfriend for just a few months at the time. In the first month, she didn't go out. She stayed in her room so that she could video chat him when he got off from work every night. When she finally started going out, halfway into her time away, she would leave bars because they were having a fight and needed to chat on the phone. You never want to be that person on the phone outside a bar, fighting with their significant other, while the rest of your friends are having fun inside. And you never want to be the person who says, "No I can't go on that trip if there are guys going, because my boyfriend doesn't want me sleeping in a hostel with other guys around." With only a month to go, she started enjoying herself. She made new friends and visited new places and made tons of memories, and with only weeks to go, they broke up. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is important enough to you to keep you from experiencing anything while you're away, save yourself the money.

Get out of your comfort zone.

For all of the changes in scenery, living situations, and level of independence you'll have, you'd be surprised how easy it is to actually fall into the same patterns you might have at home. You've got a bed, and Netflix UK has some shows you've never seen before, but don't spend every night in. If you were never the one to initiate plans before, don't be afraid to ask someone to go to a bar for a drink, or if you're going into town that day to run some errands or have a little look around, ask someone to come with you. Four months seems like a long time, but that's only 16 weekends, so use them wisely, and have fun.