I never studied abroad in college, but I did move overseas a year after graduation to teach English in Prague. Much like a study abroad program, I had to budget for the cost of a TESOL certification course, airfare, and daily living expenses in a foreign city I’d never visited and in which I had no contacts. From that experience I learned that advanced planning (I’m talking at least a half year in advance, if not more) and saving more than you think you’ll need are the two most important things you can do to give yourself a successful study abroad experience.
For a more recent perspective on the costs of studying abroad, I interviewed two Temple University (where I am an Adjunct Writing professor) students about their experiences with financing semesters overseas and budgeting in foreign cities. Keep reading to learn how to anticipate and save for study abroad expenses from airfare to grocery shopping.
Choosing a region of the world and school
If you’re currently enrolled in a college or university, your school likely has its own study abroad programs. That’s a good first place to start to see if their offerings match your program of study and desired location. You may also be eligible for financial aid from your school. This was the case for Ruchi Vyas, who studied in Tokyo during Summer 2017:
“As part of my acceptance as a freshman at Temple, I received a merit stipend for $4,000… [which] could have been used on internships, research, or study abroad. I also applied for Temple’s Summer Abroad Scholarship and received some funding that way. The rest of the money came from what I had saved up from work and my parents also helped me out.”
However, you’re not limited to your college’s study abroad programs. You can apply to programs offered by other schools and transfer the credits to your university. It’s a good idea, though, to consult your academic advisor beforehand to make sure the credits will count. Caitlin McGrory, who studied at The University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland used both Temple and external scholarships to fund her studies abroad:
“I wanted to study in the British Isles, so Temple’s exchange program in Norwich, England was an option I actively pursued given the program’s relationship to my Temple scholarship. While preparing and saving for this spring semester abroad my sophomore year, I came across the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia’s scholarship for a full year in Scotland through Temple’s fellowship and scholarship website. Furthermore, I opened a travel-specific credit card that waives currency exchange fees and offers credit for travel expenses, which significantly cut costs.”
Depending on your major and budget, it may be best to choose a region of the world first and then look for a university that offers study abroad there, much like McGrory did. For example, a Spanish major might want to study in a Spanish-speaking country. That narrows your options, but there are still plenty of countries to choose from. Within each individual country you have the option to study in an urban center or a more remote area. If cost is an important consideration to our hypothetical Spanish major, she would be wise to choose a country in Latin America as opposed to Spain, where living costs will generally be higher due to the Euro currency. With current exchange rates, one dollar is only worth 0.84 Euro.
As for the school you choose, a public college or university will almost always have lower tuition than a private school. Upon your acceptance to a study abroad program, you’ll have to put down a deposit for tuition and housing (if you decide to use university housing). The full tuition will be billed on the school’s normal schedule and can be paid with cash, financial aid, and/or loans.
Tuition costs are also based on the number of credits you enroll in for the semester. For example, a summer semester may involve fewer credits, but is often still more expense per credit than a fall or spring semester. This is because you usually pay the same full-time tuition to take as many credits as you wish in fall or spring, whereas summer is usually billed on a per credit basis.
As with any trip, you’ll need to save for travel expenses including round-trip airfare, transportation to and from the airport (or parking), and getting yourself from your destination airport to your dorm or apartment. When it comes to buying plane tickets, it’s best to book as early as you can. You might also ask family members if anyone has enough points from a travel rewards credit card to “buy” your plane ticket for you. For example, when I got married my dad gifted me his Amex business card points to redeem for two round-trip plane tickets.
If you’re reading this article early enough, it might even be worth applying for a travel rewards card yourself. To learn more about travel credit cards, including other perks that could come in handy while you’re overseas, check out our list of favorites here.
Daily living expenses
If you secured housing through your study abroad program, you will have already paid for it when you arrive. If you’re renting or subletting your own place, you’ll need to account for the weekly or monthly rent. You’ll also have the same set of living expenses such as food, transportation, cell phone/Internet, and fun. Some of these, such as the cost of a transit pass, can be researched ahead of time. You can also read expat sites for your destination to learn about the cost of grocery stores and other amenities. But even the most well-researched trip brings surprises, which is why a financial cushion is important.
I asked Vyas what surprised her the most about the cost of living in Tokyo. She said it was mostly small things that she hadn’t anticipated, such as the price of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery store. Therefore, she actually found it cheaper to buy prepared food from a restaurant or convenience store.
As a budget hack, she discovered a store that sold in bulk to restaurant owners. The cost of doing laundry in her dorm “was also two-three times more expensive than what it is in the U.S.” And Vyas recommends bringing your own personal hygiene products from home, as Japanese shampoo and body wash bottles were smaller than their American counterparts, making them more expensive.
McGrory noted that:
“The U.K. and the U.S. have similar costs of living and many items—groceries, transportation, toiletries—are pretty similarly priced, if not cheaper in some instances. For me, studying outside of London also was a conscious decision in order to make studying more affordable. Nonetheless, while I understood the British Pound to US Dollar conversion would be unfavorable, it definitely proved to be a significant factor concerning my expenses studying and living in the U.K. Currency conversion is an aspect of study abroad that varies dramatically from country to country—and can actually be very favorable for many locations—so it is an important aspect for students to keep in mind when considering where they’d like to study.”
Overall, the total cost of your living expenses will be higher or lower depending on the length of your stay. If you can “live like a local” and limit discretionary spending, you can keep your cost-of-living budget fairly frugal.
Transportation was another surprisingly expensive cost for Vyas, who said she “tried to visit new places as often as I could and my transportation [costs] quickly added up.”
During my time in Prague, I also wanted to visit other towns within the Czech Republic as well as neighboring European countries. Your budget for leisure travel will depend on your desire for it, as well as what you can afford, but it doesn’t hurt to consider beforehand how many side trips you might want to take.
Research nearby destinations and their transportation options, such as a bus, train, or budget airline. There are also special deals for students–for example, Eurail offers discounted passes for travelers younger than twenty-seven. McGrory says “Affordable travel is absolutely possible through European budget airlines and hostels. However, I would say that the expenses surrounding travel (i.e. bottles of water, airport meals, coffee) can really add up in the long run.” So, “if there was a month where I traveled extensively, for instance, I tried to cut back on other expenses where I could,” she explained.
If you’re planning to study abroad, it’s never too early to start researching your trip and what it will cost.
From big expenses like tuition to smaller everyday costs, talk to the study abroad office at your school or the school you wish to study with about your funding options. It’s also a good idea to find a fellow student, like Vyas or McGrory, who has already completed your program of choice.
They can tell you about those surprising details like the size of shampoo bottles that you probably won’t find in a travel guide. McGrory also told me she was able to maintain an income stream during some of her time abroad through freelancing and remote work. This may be a possibility for you as well if you have the right skills. With enough planning and discipline, study abroad can be an accessible educational experience, not a budget-busting luxury.
Have you studied abroad? What surprised you the most about the expenses associated with your trip?