How to Stay Safe When Studying Abroad

12 Things to Do to Ensure Your Safety

Student studying abroad
••• Tatiana Kolesnikova/Moment/Getty Images

If your family is anything like mine, it's likely that as soon as you started talking about studying abroad, they freaked out. They're concerned about your safety, they're worried about you spending so long away from home, and they believe the place you've chosen to study in is dangerous.

Or, maybe you'd like to study abroad, but you're unsure of how safe it really is. Maybe everyone's tell you to go for it, but you're worried you'll hate it or something terrible will happen.

 

Is there reason to worry? 

No. Not at all. 

Study abroad is one of the safest ways to see the world and experience live as a local in a new country. As long as you take certain precautions and utilise common sense, there's no reason at all why you can't have a wonderful experience. 

Here's how you can stay safe during study abroad. 

Research, Research, Research 

As soon as you've decided where you'd like to study abroad and received your approval, it's time to start the planning process! I recommend buying a Lonely Planet guidebook for the country you'll be living in and studying the overview section at the front. It's important to educate yourself on local customs, how to behave and dress to show respect, and start brushing up on the local language. 

If guidebooks aren't your thing, I recommend taking a look at travel blogs instead. It should be quite easy to find a destination-based blog through Google, and it'll likely have even more up-to-date information than a guidebook.

if you feel a particular connection with a blogger, feel free to drop them an email to ask for any advice, or to ask about anything that's worrying you -- you'll find that most people are very responsive and love helping out their readers. 

It's important to note that these research stages don't just have to be about the history and culture of a place.

You can also use this time to plan potential trips to take during your time abroad. If you'll be studying in Europe, for example, you'll be excited to hear that with budget airlines, you'll be able to easily fly to most countries for as little as $100 return. 

Enroll in STEP

STEP is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, run by the U.S. government, and I highly recommend that you sign up for it. If you're a U.S. citizen who is going to be spending time overseas, you use this program to let the government know where you'll be and for how long. If there's an emergency situation or crisis in the country, the government will be better able to assist you. 

Make Many Copies of Your Important Documents

Documents that are saved in only one place are documents you don't mind losing. Right? Before studying abroad, it's worth taking the time to make copies of your most important documents. That means your passport, your driving license, your debit and credit cards, and anything else that would cause a lot of aggravation if you lost it or had it stolen. 

The easiest way to do this is to scan your documents, then email yourself a copy, keep a version in a password-protected folder on your laptop, and keep a paper copy in your daypack, too.

That way, if anything goes missing, you'll have all the the details you need to get everything replaced. 

Get Wise About Your Medication

If you're taking prescription medication, definitely make an appointment with your doctor before leaving to see if he'll give you a prescription that lasts the duration of your trip -- I've never had a problem when doing this. Also, make sure to research which drugs are illegal in the country you'll be visiting. In some places, codeine and pseudoephedrine are illegal, so you'll want to make sure you're not bringing any in with you.

For more on this, see: How to Travel With Medications.

Memorize Any Useful Numbers

The vast majority of students who study abroad do so safely and without problem. In case anything does go wrong, make sure you have the most important local numbers memorized.

At the very minimum, you should know the number for the emergency services and the local U.S. embassy. 

Get Your Phone Unlocked

We've always recommended traveling with an unlocked phone and using local SIM cards as a way for travelers to save money, but it also helps ensure your safety, too. If you ever find yourself in trouble, you'll be able to make local phone calls without worrying that you're going to run out of credit; if you find yourself lost, you'll be able to use your data allowance to find your way back to your dorm; and if you every find yourself in a dodgy area of town, you can call a taxi or Uber to get you back safe and sound. 

Research the Dangerous Parts of Town

Your guidebook should help with this by including neighbourhoods that you should try and avoid, but it's worth asking the locals where they usually avoid. Reading forum posts for the destination you'll be studying in will give up-to-date information about any potential dangers.

Be Careful With the Alcohol

Unlike the United States, many countries around the world have their legal drinking age set at 18. While it can be tempting to take full advantage of your newfound freedom, do exercise some self-control for the first little while. If you don't have much experience with alcohol, you won't yet be aware of your limits, and locals have been known to take advantage of this. Make sure to order your own drinks, to alternate your alcohol with glasses of water, to keep the top of your drink covered, and to stop before things get too messy. 

Don't Go Out Alone at Night Until You Know the City Well

For the most part, I feel pretty safe in a lot of cities around the world when I head out alone at night, but I rarely do so if it's my first few nights there. You don't yet know where is safe to visit, if you're going to experience any harassment, and aren't even fully sure about where you live in order to find your way back. 

I recommend utilizing a buddy system for your first few weeks in a city. Make sure to head out with a friend and promise to keep an eye on each other while you're both out. This is especially important if you're a woman, as unfortunately, we can't travel as worry-free as guys. 

One thing I recommend doing is exchanging numbers with any friends you make while studying. That way, if you do head out on your own, you'll be able to get in contact with a number of people if anything was to happen. 

Learn Some of the Language Before You Leave

Of course, you should be planning on doing this as a sign of respect, but learning some key words in the local language can help you in certain situations. Learning how to say, "no", "help", "doctor", "leave me alone", and "I'm not interested", for example, can help a great deal. Learning various health ailment terms could help, too, if you're prone to getting sick. 

If you suffer from any food allergies, make sure to research how to ask if it is used as an ingredient in any dish. In this case, I recommend writing down what you can't eat on a card and showing it to the staff at the restaurant. Make sure to clarify if you're allergic and what will happen if you eat it, just in case the staff think you're a picky eater. This happens often to celiacs, where the same oil that was used to fry gluten-containing products is used for their food and they still end up suffering. 

Leave Your Expensive Stuff at Home

It can be tempting to pack your expensive clothes, shoes, and jewellery with you so that you look at glamorous as possible, but what this actually does is single you out as a target. If you look like you have a lot of money, you're a lot more of an attractive target for thieves. You don't have to bring your ugliest, baggiest clothes with you, but I'd recommend not taking anything that you'd be devastated to lose or have stolen. Find out what we recommend packing for study abroad. 

Read more: Getting Help if You Go Broke Abroad

Make Sure That You Have Travel Insurance

Travel insurance is the one essential that you have to make sure you have. If you don't have it, you shouldn't study abroad. The last thing you want is to break your leg while hiking outside of the city, have to be airlifted to a hospital, and suddenly find yourself with a six figure bill. It can happen and it does happen more often than you think. 

Get travel insurance. It's the most important thing you should do. 

For more on this, see About.com's travel insurance site