It’s a privilege to study abroad. Meeting new people, experiencing a new culture and learning a new language all at once is one of the most eye-opening experiences we can have as humans.
However, Americans don’t have the best reputation for being prepared – or even willing – to fit in during our travels. We can be loud. We often bend the rules. We’re obsessed with our phones and selfies. In short, we can come off as privileged or entitled. And people notice.
But you’re not like that, right? As you prepare to study abroad, here are five areas you need to address so you don’t come off as an ugly tourist.
Have the basics down (even if you’re not a planner)
Regardless if this is your first or 10th time visiting a particular country, you should have a basic understanding of your temporary neighborhood. That includes:
- The safest way to get from the airport or train station with all your bags (after all, you’ll have quite a haul if you’re staying for a month or more)
- Adding the local emergency numbers to your phone before you leave
- Having the appropriate travel documents (your passport, plus your student visa, at a minimum)
You’ll have plenty of time to get to know your temporary student home once you’re there, but you’ll want to avoid surprises in getting there in the first place. A little bit of preparation prior to your arrival will go a long way to eliminating these disruptions.
Know the local customs, especially when dining out
Dress code. Public displays of affection. Simple gestures. Even tipping. You’d never second-guess these actions during a night out in your hometown. But consistently getting these wrong in other cultures will make you stand out. At best, people will give you weird looks. At worst, it’ll set you up to receive poor service or even be a target of scammers or thieves.
While you won’t be able to completely assimilate, doing your research ahead of time and making an effort to blend in will be noticed in a positive way. Also, don’t hesitate to ask your program coordinator on site if you have any questions or concerns (they may even have a list of “don’ts” waiting for you upon arrival).
Two more things to keep in mind when trying to blending in while studying abroad:
- When it comes to dressing for dinner out, leave the hats, flip flops and gym clothes at home. Restaurant trips are usually viewed as more of a special occasion abroad than they are in the U.S.
- Your shoulders and knees should be covered at most formal occasions or when visiting religious sites. Most nations are more conservative than the U.S. When in doubt, take the more cautious approach.
Learn the language, even in the moment
Even if you’re enrolled in an English-speaking study abroad program, you should still learn the basic phrases of the local language. This is as easy as doing some pre-research in Google Translate (or, if you’re heading to Europe, check out our article on must-know phrases in the five most common languages).
Putting in a little effort will go a long way in forming connection with both neighbors and local business owners – all of whom you’ll need to interact with regularly during your stay.
The bonus: Surrounding yourself with native speakers and embracing moment-to-moment interactions during your travels can be both a huge confidence boost and beneficial to your long-term career and life prospects. Before you know it, you’ll be making inside jokes with the locals about others who fit the ugly tourist stereotype.
Engage, show kindness and give respect
Think of it this way: You’re essentially a guest at a really big gathering. If you greet new people with a smile and a polite introduction, you’re likely to get an equally warm and welcoming reply.
Meeting new people will be one of the best parts of your trip. Showing interest in others, being flexible regardless of the situation and attending local events and festivals will allow you to get the most out of your study abroad experience.
If in doubt, remember the one thing most cultures have in common is that the first impression is important. Staying positive and taking the initiative to participate as fully as possible in the local culture will ensure you get the most out of your trip (and stay far away from those ugly tourist descriptions).
Be responsible for your actions and understand local laws
Familiarize yourself with the local laws and regulations of where you’ll be studying abroad. Don’t assume that what you’re able to do in the U.S. will be allowed in a foreign country.
A good example is possessing and traveling with CBD. While states across the U.S. are slowly legalizing cannabis products, it’s still illegal to purchase or possess both marijuana and CBD in many foreign countries (with many Asian countries being particularly stringent).
Also, pace yourself. While having the time of your life is the priority, don’t put yourself in a situation where you can get into legal trouble. If you’re arrested, you’ll almost certainly be subject to local due process. And when the situation is resolved – assuming it’s minor – you’ll likely still be booted from your program and sent home.
Three things to keep in mind:
- Watch your alcohol intake. It may be legal to drink at age 18 where you’re staying, but many European countries take a dim view of public intoxication
- Steer clear from joining local protests or mass gatherings that seem suspect
- Reach out to your student program coordinator immediately if you’re in a bind