What is an Exchange Student?

Everything You Need to Know About Exchange Students and Programs

Exchange student
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An exchange student is a high school- or college-aged student who travels abroad to live in a new country as part of an exchange program. While they're in this program, they'll be staying with a host family and attending classes at the local school, all while immersing themselves in a brand new culture, potentially learning a new language, and exploring the world from a different viewpoint. It's a fantastic opportunity and one I recommend all students grab with both hands. 

Let's take a deeper look at what being an exchange student entails. 

How Old Are Exchange Students?

Exchange students are most likely to be high school students. In this case, exchange students live abroad for up to one year, and may live with more than one host family in a homestay during his/her stay.

But exchange programs aren't just for the young. Many colleges have agreements with certain countries for you to spend a year living overseas and studying at a different college, most commonly in Western Europe. 

How Long Do Exchanges Last For? 

Exchanges can last anywhere from two weeks up to a full year. 

Who Are the Host Families? 

Host families will provide for the exchange student throughout their stay, giving them food and shelter, and a place to sleep. Host families are just regular, everyday families in a different city, who aren't so dissimilar to families back home.

In my opinion, this is the best part of taking part in an exchange: unlike travel, you're fully immersing yourself in local life by living with a local family. You'll gain a deeper understanding into the local culture and traditions in a way that most travelers can only dream of. 

What Are the Advantages of Doing an Exchange?

Being an exchange student gives you experiences that hundreds of thousands of people around the world could only dream of having! You'll get to travel, experience a new place, and learn about it on a local level. 

You'll pick up language skills if you're placed in a country where you don't speak much of the language. Immersion is the best way to learn a new language, so living with a host family, attending classes, and having to communicate most of the time in a different language will tremendously improve your vocabulary. 

You'll also get to live like a local. Sure, you can get to know a place pretty well during a two-week holiday, but what about spending an entire year there? What about spending a year living with a local family and doing the type of things they do? You'll gain a fascinating insight into an unfamiliar culture and you'll be doing so on a local level -- definitely take advantage of this opportunity and ask many questions if you have them. 

Being an exchange student builds your confidence like nothing else! You'll learn to communicate with people in a different language, overcome loneliness and homesickness, make new friends, learn about the world, and discover that you don't need to rely on anyone else but yourself! 

Are There Any Disadvantages?

Depending on the type of person you are, there can be a few disadvantages. 

The main aspect exchange students struggle with on their program is homesickness. You'll be moving abroad, away from your friends and family, for potentially an entire year. It's only natural that you're going to feel homesick from time to time. 

If, like me, you struggle with anxiety, moving to another country will most likely be an incredibly stressful and scary experience. You'll most likely spend the months leading up to your departure date thinking about cancelling the entire experience, unable to think about anything else. As I've experienced, though, this anxiety will most likely fade away once you step on the plane, but the lead up to that moment is going to be tough. 

Culture shock is something else exchange students have to deal with while they're on their program, and depending on the country they're transferred to, it can be a mild or extreme case. Moving to a country that's similar culturally, and where you speak the language, will be far easier than moving to Japan on your own, for example, and staying with a host family who don't speak a word of English. 

What Are Exchange Students Expected to Do? 

Exchange students are expected to maintain decent grades, abide by the rules of host families and the laws of host countries. Other than that, you'll be free to safely explore your new home, make friends, and maybe even travel to new places with or without your host family. 

Exchanges are facilitated by for-profit companies, charitable organizations like Rotary International, and between schools or "sister cities." A fee is almost always associated, ranging up to as much as $5000 for a year overseas.

Host families are not generally compensated, although a small stipend may be paid to help them cover the costs of hosting an extra child. 

What Do Exchange Students Need for Emergencies?

Exchange students, either through personal resources or through the entity facilitating the exchange, are expected to obtain travel insurance, spending money, and emergency funds, though the facilitating entity may have emergency contingency plans. Be sure to find out before you leave. 


This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff