Study Abroad: What Parents Need to Know

Study abroad is a bit of a misnomer, though make no mistake, it can be one of the most educational experiences your child will have.  It’s just that 99% of that learning will happen outside of a classroom setting. When I traveled to Copenhagen in the fall of 1983, it was the best part of my college experience, hands down.  Armed with little more than traveller’s checks and the name and address of my host family, I was off on the adventure of a lifetime.

Now I am a mom with two daughters who have both studied abroad, including one who also chose Copenhagen for the spring of her junior year. The single most important bit of advice I can offer is to thoroughly give in to the local culture. Eat the food, partake in the customs, (attempt to) speak the language, meet the people.  You will do yourself a disservice if you merely cavort with your buddies from your home university during your study abroad. But please, do your mom a favor; try not to fall in love with an Aussie boyfriend or girlfriend.  Trust me, it happens.

7 essential things to review for your college student's study abroad program.

7 Essential Things to Review For Your College Student’s Study Abroad Program

1. Academic

It is critical for your student to confirm (let’s say triple confirm) with his/her advisor and registrar that he can a) afford to be away from his home university for the specified period of time and b) what the implications are vis-à-vis credit requirements.  Make sure to understand how many credits the student will receive from the study abroad, if courses need to be pre-approved, if any credit can be earned toward major or distribution requirements, or if the credits will simply count toward hours.  Further, make sure he knows whether the actual grade will be factored into his GPA, or whether the study abroad classes will be Pass/Fail.

If your student will be away from his home university at the time that he would normally register for classes for the following semester, make sure he knows how to access his registration material from abroad.

2. Technology and Communication

Find out if your home university has a VPN (virtual private network) before you go.  It can help you access library databases for research, and even more importantly, it can allow you to access Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services that you will be dying to use.  This basically tricks the website into thinking that the computer in use is domiciled in the U.S., as many streaming services are not accessible from outside the U.S.  You’re welcome.

While tech support may be readily available abroad, your student should travel with an external hard drive to back up his computer.  You might also inquire as to theft/damage insurance while traveling.

Telephones!  There are a few options here, but this is what worked best for both of my daughters and their friends:  bring your own smart phone, and add an international data plan on your home network to be used sparingly, in an emergency, and when there are no wi-fi options.  Note that wi-fi is far more accessible in most of the rest of the world. In addition, we had old iPhones at home that we were no longer using here in the U.S. Once they arrived at their destinations, the girls put a local sim card into those phones and bought a basic month-to-month plan from a local provider.  They used that phone to communicate with their friends who were also on study abroad programs. Viber, WhatsApp, and FaceTime are all free and useful ways to communicate with home.

3. Money

Take a credit or debit card with a chip, preferably requiring a pin number.  The rest of the world is far ahead of the U.S. in terms of credit card security, and they roll their eyes when we Americans swipe our credit cards and are required to sign an actual receipt!  While you may not be able to get one with a pin, at the very least you should have the new cards with the chip.  In addition, investigate those that have no foreign transaction fees.

Try to construct a realistic budget with your student; keeping in mind that everything will be more expensive than you plan.

Confirm that the student’s credit card bill will be mailed to an address where someone will actually receive it and pay it.  It’s also great to have a debit card linked to some parental account so that you have the ability to transfer money to that card as needed.  And it will be needed.

4. Safety/Security

It’s not a bad idea for your student to have the address and contact information for the American Embassy for the city in which he will be studying.  Not sure my kids did, but it seems like a good idea now.

A photocopy of passport and any requisite visas should be kept in a Ziploc baggie, just in case.

Pick-pocketing is a varsity sport throughout Europe and other locales.  Be aware, and keep your wallet, phone, etc. secure.  It’s really not cute for your iPhone to be hanging out of your back pocket; it won’t be there for long.

Parents should have the contact name, number, and email of the study abroad administrator at the student’s home university, as well as that of the director of the study abroad program in which the student is enrolled.

[More about how good parenting (sometimes) call for cheap scare tactics here.]

5. Apparel

Know the climate to which you will be travelling, and pack accordingly.  I recall the scene at the airport when we dropped our older daughter for her flight to Copenhagen.  We knew we were in the right place when we saw dozens of 20 year olds dressed as if being sent to the tundra, which they were!  Bear in mind, however, that the study abroad semester may also include travel to other climates.

Linens, Towels, etc: check with the program to see what is provided. Hopefully everything, because who wants to fill a suitcase with such items? My daughters packed their own pillowcase, and ended up buying a cheap extra blanket because their rooms were cold.


  •  A slim cross-body bag with a secure zipper will be your best nighttime accessory.
  •  Flats or wedges, as opposed to heels.  Cobblestones are a killer.
  •  Nail salons are not plentiful or cheap.  Learn how to give yourself a manicure.
  • Don’t bother bringing a flat-iron or blow dryer.  Best off buying an inexpensive blow dryer at your destination, which can plug directly into outlet without a converter or adapter.  Which will prevent the inevitable sparks and smoke.


6. Travel

Peruse “36 Hours in …..” The New York Times section for the cities to which you will travel.  You will be able to build preliminary itineraries from these articles.

Plan ahead for the two most popular weekends (if you will be in Europe): Oktoberfest in the fall, and St. Patrick’s Day in the spring.  Accommodations can be difficult to obtain.  Whenever possible, my daughter stayed with friends who were studying in another city.  Hostels, AirBnB, and many budget hotels are great options.

7. Medical

Bring extra of any prescription and OTC medicine from home.  You will likely have to contact your insurance company to get an override to fill the required number of months of medications.

Ditto contact lenses and/or eyeglasses.

Students should carry a copy of their insurance cards, as well as a list of allergies, medical history, and other pertinent information.  There are plenty of apps available to manage this information.

It’s not a bad idea for your student to keep a list of the chemical or Latin name of medicines he takes.  For example, there’s a chance that the pharmacy in Prague will not have a bottle of Robitussin, but the pharmacist will know what you need if you tell him Dextromethorphan and Guaifenesin.

Without a doubt, the best guidance will come from friends a year or two older than your students who have paved the way.  Both of my daughters received volumes of email guidebooks written by older students, added onto as each new study abroad class passed through a city.  My daughters, in turn, contributed their own recommendations and the guide continues to get passed down. The kids scout out the best coffee shops and off the radar museums and shops, as well as learn to navigate the intricacies of taxis and public transportation.  They learn where to go to hear local bands, and the cheapest place to stock up on basic room and school supplies. It’s a valuable resource that we have used even as adults travelling to some of these same cities.  Maybe they should write a book some day!


Freshman year is not the real goodbye.

About Lisa Lichtenberg

Lisa Lichtenberg started her career as a bond trader in New York City and, later, became a SAHM to her two daughters, the youngest of whom graduates from college this spring. She helped both kids work out the logistics of their study abroad programs in Denmark and Australia and is grateful for their contributions to this post. She is also proud that they have grown and flown!

Read more posts by Lisa

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.