Below are some general tips for a successful study abroad experience. State Department sponsored programs hold pre-departure orientations for students that families are sometimes invited to attend. Please also consult with the organization that administers your exchange program for specific details.
How will my child access money in the host country?
First, be sure to contact your local bank to inform them that your child plans to travel abroad. In some cases, banks have put accounts on hold if they believe there is suspicious activity on that account. Plan for your child to bring local currency as he or she may not have the opportunity to cash traveler's checks right away.
It is risky to carry large amounts of cash. Advise your child to only carry enough cash for short-term needs. Your child can manage finances for the exchange program with ATM cards, traveler's checks, and credit cards.
Banks will normally provide a much better rate of exchange than a Bureau de Change or currency exchange booth. Your child may pay an exchange fee or commission each time he or she exchanges currencies. Advise your child to estimate weekly expenses and pay the commission on one transaction rather than paying on a number of smaller exchanges.
ATM & Credit Cards
In many countries, the simplest way to access cash is through an Automated Teller Machine (ATM). An ATM card, either for your child’s account in the United States or a joint account with you, provides access to funds from any bank that is linked to an international ATM system such as PLUS or CIRRUS. Be sure your child knows the PIN number for ATM cards.
Be aware that not all ATMs abroad are linked to international systems, so your child will have to check the machine before using it. Some smaller towns may not have service available at all. Your child’s local bank will be able to provide information on cash-point locations and procedures for using an ATM card overseas.
If your ATM card is also linked to a credit line, such as VISA, MasterCard, or American Express, your child may be able to access cash through an ATM. A credit card such as VISA, MasterCard, or American Express can be very convenient for large purchases, cash advances, or emergencies. Credit cards usually give you the best rate of exchange.
In general, VISA and MasterCard are more useful for shopping and entertainment. With an international PIN, you can access cash advances at automated teller machines, but cash advances against credit cards incur interest charges. American Express is not as widely accepted in local shops and restaurants, but does provide access to American Express offices located in just about every major city. Your child must be an American Express member or indicated as a user on your card to use American Express services. With an AmEx card, one can purchase and cash traveler's checks with no commission charge, cash personal checks, and use the AmEx wire service to receive funds. Services that are available for each type of card vary from country to country. You should ask the bank that issues your child’s card for details and procedures overseas.
Traveler's checks are still one the safest ways to handle money overseas because, with a few simple precautions, they can be replaced in case of loss or theft. Your child should bring traveler's checks in U.S. dollars, in denominations ranging from $20 to $100 (to take advantage of fluctuating exchange rates.) Buy a well-know brand of traveler's check, such as American Express or Thomas Cook. These are easily cashed worldwide.
If your child does not have a credit card or access to an international ATM network, there are other options:
- Cashier's Checks:
You may purchase a cashier's check in the currency of your child’s host country and send it by Express Mail or Federal Express. The check should be made payable to your son or daughter.
- Western Union:
Western Union will transfer cash abroad and charge it to your credit card, however, this can be very expensive. Typical fees for transferring $500 vary between $40 and $75, plus a $10 credit card fee.
- Wiring Money:
If your child sets up a local bank account, you can wire money to the account. There can be substantial fees for both the sender and receiver of funds, and the transfer can take anywhere from two days to several weeks. Your child will have to inquire at the bank about the arrival of funds.
- Cashier's Checks:
What happens if my child becomes sick or has to visit the hospital?
If your child has a physical or psychological condition that requires ongoing treatment, consult a physician or counselor about a plan to go abroad. Seek their advice about options and discuss overseas medical care. Your child should inform program staff and any relevant school officials or members of a host family about any medical condition for which your child may need special assistance or in case there is a medical emergency.
Make sure your child brings medications in their original labeled bottles, and takes copies of all written prescriptions with generic names. When feasible, your child should bring medication that lasts for the entire stay abroad period. Do not ship medication overseas, as customs officials may retain it.
How can I communicate with my child while he or she is abroad?
Many options exist to stay connected with your child while he or she is abroad.
International cell phone
Depending on the length of time your child will be abroad, you might want him or her to purchase or rent a phone from the destination country. He or she will certainly want to communicate with friends met while abroad, and a mobile phone for cost-effective local communication in addition to calls home might be a worthwhile option.
International Phone Card
Getting your student an international phone card is beneficial because you do not have to be concerned with the bad reception or lack of signal inherent in many cell phones. The cards can be recharged and can be purchased in the United States or abroad.
Many payphones these days do not accept cash. Instead, the phone cards can be swiped at the pay phone to make a call. And the cards can be used at regular landlines as well.
Additionally, your current long distance provider may be able to give you discounted rates for international calls. A monthly fee will apply, and your phone company can send your student an international calling card with a special access number. However, you will be billed the usual United States long distance rates.
The ISIConnect card is a prepaid, rechargeable phone card offered by the International Student Travel Confederation (ISTC). ISTC also provides the International Student Identity Card (ISIC). Students studying abroad can get a card and save up to 70 percent on calls in more than 150 countries. It can be recharged over the Internet or by phone, and the voicemail it provides allows family and friends to leave messages for the student for free.
The most cost-effective way to communicate with your student overseas is to use the Internet. Instant messengers, email, blogs and all your other usual online communication tools are great options for overseas communications.
Skype, a program that allows users to make phone calls using their computers, is another cost-saving option.
While finding an Internet café or other form of access may be more difficult on short-term trips and probably won't meet your local calling needs, students staying abroad long-term typically find it vital to their continued close contact with those back home.
Additional communication tips:
- Discuss what time of day your child can be reached.
- Establish a communication plan in advance.
- Contact your phone service provider to discuss best plan for international calling.
- To save on telephone communication, it may be better to set up a regular schedule for e-mailing, instant messaging or talking via Skype.
What is culture shock and how can I help my child overcome it?
Once abroad, your child may face an adjustment period referred to as "culture shock." The degree of "shock" depends on such factors as: length of study abroad; your child’s flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity; degree of difference between home and host culture; prior experience abroad; and his or her expectations. Culture shock is a normal part of study abroad, and it shows that your daughter or son is experiencing the differences between American culture and that of the host country.
Symptoms of culture shock can include: homesickness; depression; feeling lost and out of place; frustration; irritability; and fatigue. If your child talks to you about experiencing culture shock, remind your child that he or she is not alone and will get through it.
Here are some suggestions you can offer your child to help deal with culture shock:
- "Plunge" into your host culture and wrestle with the differences.
- Keep an open mind. We all have preconceived ideas and beliefs that come into question while abroad.
- Get to know others at your host school. Do not isolate yourself.
- Find a "cultural informant," such as a local person with whom you can discuss your frustrations and encounters with difference.
- Learn as much as you can about your host culture.
- Maintain a support structure with others, particularly those going through the same experience. However, do not retreat into an American "clique" to avoid the discomfort of culture shock.
- Keep a journal. Record your impressions of new experiences and the transformations that are occurring within you.
- As you overcome culture shock, you will be able to approach life in your host country with understanding and enthusiasm!