Going abroad is a huge decision, one that hundreds of American college students make every year. A lot of time is spent in preparation in the months leading up to studying abroad because there is so much to plan. One of the biggest, and hardest, parts to plan for is the financial aspect. When I first started on the path to going abroad, I had no idea just how much money it was going to cost me. So if you are deciding on whether or not you can afford to go abroad, let's take a look at all the expenses you should expect.
First off, you need to look at the different programs available to you. Your study abroad office should be able to give you a list of tons of different programs, including ones that have bilateral exchange agreements. These exchanges guarantee that your tuition and fees for the university abroad will be the same as your home university and often times you do not need to worry about making the payment yourself if you receive financial aid. Understanding your program's tuition is very important, especially if you intend to use financial aid to pay for all or part of your time abroad.
After your first meeting with a study abroad coordinator, you should stop by your financial aid office. Whether your financial aid package includes loans, grants or scholarships, it is important to know right off the bat which aid can be applied to a study abroad program. In my experience, I was able to use all of my aid to help pay for my expenses. My tuition would be automatically paid for, just as it is when I am at my home university, and the left over aid is refunded to me to pay for the other expenses. That being said, it is important to realize there will be payments to make before you receive your refund.
Once financial aid and tuition are checked off your list, you need documents that will let you into the country you'll be living in. If you do not have a passport, make that your priority. Some programs require you have a valid passport as soon as you are accepted! A passport is no cheap expense either, I paid $12 at Walgreens to have my passport photo taken (although you can take it yourself) and the passport fee was around $130. Next, you should find out if you need a visa. Most students only go abroad for a semester, which most countries do not require a visa for stays under six months. In my case, I am abroad for the entire academic year, so I had to apply for a visa. I ended up paying around 700 U.S. dollars for a U.K. visa due to exchange rates (then Brexit happened a few days later and my bank account cried). Luckily, I had done my research well in advance so I had plenty of time for the visa to arrive, but if you leave it until the last minute, you will be costing your self anywhere from an extra $300 to expedite your application. So, get that application going as soon as possible!
Now you have your admissions in one hand and passport in the other, so the next logical step is to book your plane ticket! I actually recommend you start looking at ticket prices way beforehand, then buy your ticket once your departure date is a couple months away. There are tons of student travel sites out there that cut ticket prices nearly in half. I found my ticket from LAX to London for $419 in comparison to the airlines retail price of $700. In addition, I made a quick google search for coupon codes and got an extra $20 off! I recommend STA Travel and Student Universe.
If your program does not set up housing (referred to as accommodation in other parts of the world) for you, your next research task is looking at on and off campus housing. I am not quite adventurous enough to have wanted to look for a flat off campus, so I researched what the university had to offer. Depending on where you are studying abroad really determines the cost of living. When I was looking into a school in London, accommodation alone would have been around $10,000. In Wales, I am paying a little over $4,000 for the entire year. While the cost is a great deal, I also had to factor in that my living situation, while handled by the university, is not actually on campus, so I have to commute everyday by bus, another expense. Naturally, food is an important factor to consider. If you live on campus you may or may not have a meal plan, but you will most likely have a kitchen available. As I mentioned earlier, where you are will greatly affect how much you are paying for food. It may take a while to adjust and learn where to shop to get the best food at the best prices, but just ask other students! One little piece of advice I have is that there are far less preservatives in food than in the U.S., so beware of buying too much food and not getting around to eating it before it grows mold!
So, the biggest expenses are now covered: tuition, accommodation and the means to get to your destination. Now it's time to get down to all the little hidden fees. You may be moving to a country that has a different climate than your own, which means you will need some new clothes. While I had a rain jacket, it proved not to be as waterproof as I thought it was, so I had to invest in a new one once I arrived. If you are like me and love clothes, you will definitely find yourself picking up a few new items as well. If you are in the U.K., I highly recommend Primark, it is like Forever 21, but at an even better price! Everyday essentials is going to make a dent in your bank account too. You'll probably need everything from bedding to kitchenware. You will also probably want to use your phone and not at the prices U.S. phone companies will charge you. A Verizon employee flat out told me not to even try using Verizon for going abroad for so long. The beautiful thing is that sim cards and pay as you go deals are everywhere you turn. I was able to buy a sim card for my iPhone and pay £15 a month for minutes, messaging and 2GB of data. You'll also need school supplies, that is the reason you are there after all! I personally didn't want to waste luggage space with notebooks, so I bought all of my school supplies here, in addition to my textbooks. Needless to say, there are a lot of little things you might not have thought about needing to buy!
Spending money is something you will definitely need. You are going to find yourself wanting to go out with your new friends and traveling to other countries. Since this is such a special opportunity, I highly recommend budgeting yourself a good chunk of change to have a good time!
Finally, exchange rates and bank fees are a big consideration when going abroad. Unfortunately, the U.S. dollar isn't worth as much as we would all like it be. For every $1, I get £.79 or €.94 which makes the cost everything slightly more than it seems. Your bank may also charge you international fees, so taking out large sums of cash may be worthwhile, or looking into switching to a bank that does not have fees. Just make sure you understand how much your money is really worth.
Studying abroad is a huge commitment and takes some serious planning to ensure everything goes smoothly. For many of us, the availability of money controls a lot of what we do, so making a study abroad dream a reality takes careful consideration. While it seems overwhelming, it is all very worth it. You might be eating lots of pasta, but at least you will be having lots of fun while doing it!