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Category Archives: International Student

Living abroad and getting your wallet stolen- a veterans tale

If you travel a lot, live abroad, or study abroad, chances are that someday you’re going to lose something important or something important will get stolen. I’ve had both: I was confronted by a group of young men in a bus in Germany during which my wallet curiously went missing. On a recent trip to Toronto  which was a feat in and of itself, see previous post), my flight was delayed by almost three hours, we changed planes twice, I waited in line for almost two hours atScreen Shot 2014-04-15 at 6.38.58 PM immigration, my luggage was lost, and somehow during the chaos my wallet went missing. Although in both instances I had taken a number of precautions to avoid these situations, you can be the most organized and cautious person in the world and something like this can still happen to you. I’ll admit it, I got a little lazy with my wallet and other belongings. I’m used to backpacking in the Middle East or Central America where I thoroughly prepare my belongings and go through a checklist to make sure everything is in its proper place. Going to Canada for a conference, I think I took security less seriously than I typically do. Serves me right. Between having my wallet stolen while living abroad (including my passport), and having my wallet lost while on a short international trip, I’ve learned a few lessons.

Before you travel

Most of this stuff is common sense, but it helps to remind ourselves:

  1. Make a travel checklist with all the following on the list and keep it somewhere accessible.  Although I have a travel checklist that I continually update and edit in Evernote, I didn’t use it for my trip to Canada because I got lackadaisical.  Had I done so, I might have remembered to empty out my wallet of unnecessary cards and saved myself some headache.
  2. Put a travel alert on your credit and debit cards if you plan to use them abroad.
  3. Only bring the cards you know you will use. Rather than simply throwing your wallet into your carry-on as is, take the time to empty it of any unnecessary cards you won’t use (like a local library card) or can’t be replaced (like that spa punch card that is only one massage away from a free treatment–yeah, I lost that too). Empty your wallet of excessive amounts of cash (you will want some but not a lot until you get to an ATM in your destination country).
  4. Put a stash of emergency cash or credit cards or both somewhere other than your wallet. This could be in a special travel wallet (see number 10).  I normally take the time to do this before I travel but I didn’t do it before going to Canada. When I discovered my wallet was missing, I had nothing. Literally nothing. No cash, no ATM card, no credit card. No way to even pay for the subway to get out of the airport.
  5. Keep your credit and debit card information, as well as your ID cards somewhere other than your wallet. I didn’t have this the first time my wallet was stolen, and I had a hard time remembering everything that was inside.  Now I keep a copy of my cards in an encrypted file on a USB stick I carry with me.  I like this solution because I don’t have to carry physical pieces of paper with me which I think are more easily lost–and someone can  Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.35.23 PMuse to steal your identity.  I have seen several travel bloggers suggest uploading documents to a cloud services like Dropbox or Evernote so your documents are available even without a computer and on all your devices.  This can be convenient but personally I don’t trust my sensitive documents on a corporate server–although I use a variety of cloud solutions, I’m not always clear what rights these companies retain over my data stored on their servers. Furthermore, many document syncing services have been hacked and compromised.  I prefer to keep my most important documents local.  If you do this, it is important to secure a digital copy of your wallet, in case you lose the USB stick, or the computer, or wherever you’re storing the file.  I use TruCrypt, free software that creates encrypted containers to keep sensitive information.  You can even use this software to create hidden containers that only you can see (they call this plausible deniability).  When I lost my wallet in Canada, I pulled up this file and I had a complete picture of what I had in my wallet when it was lost, as well as account numbers, card numbers, phone numbers, etc. This made it a little easier to immediately call and cancel the cards, and was also very helpful in filing a police report.
  6. Get a credit or debit card with a bank that has a really good program for lost or stolen wallet situations, especially designed for travelers or expats and always travel with that card. I learned this the hard way when I lost my wallet the first time. I was living abroad in Germany but most of my cards were from the States. My banks wanted to charge me $20+ per card to Fedex my new cards to me from the US. The phone number they provided ended up being just an automatic touchtone phone system where you couldn’t actually talk to a person. They didn’t make it clear at all that not only did I need to call to cancel my current card, I also had to make an additional call to a separate number to request a new one.  Because I didn’t need my American cards urgently since I had a bank account in Germany, I opted to have them send my replacement cards to my parents’ house in the US rather than paying to have them FedEx’ed.  I went to my German bank in person to get a new ATM card, and I survived on cash until I visited my parents for the holidays and picked up my new cards. By contrast, when I lost my wallet in Canada, I had absolutely no money to pay for anything.  But because I had a credit card that was supposed to provide extra help and protections for these situations, things worked out rather smoothly.  I called the lost wallet hotline, I talked to a very friendly person who immediately cancelled the card, had a new card overnight’ed to me in Canada, and arranged for a money wire via Western Union, all at no charge to me.  The charge to wire money internationally is normally quite hefty.  They also provided free credit monitoring for six months following the incident and a free copy of my credit report. They will also refund the fee I will have to pay to get the security freeze lifted from my credit report. Finally, they offer lost luggage insurance which I used to buy some essentials for the 36 hours or so I had to go without any clothes until the airline found my luggage and delivered it to my hotel.  All my other cards didn’t offer nearly the same level of service. Within minutes of my call, I already had cash in my hand, and only a day later, I had another credit card, both of which got me through my short trip to Canada. Meanwhile, with one of my other banks, I had to wait for more than three weeks to get a new debit card.  There are tons of identity fraud monitoring services out there by now, and I imagine these companies provide even better services in the case of a lost wallet.  But you have to pay extra for these services; with my credit card the only fee I’m paying them is a rather reasonable annual fee.
  7. Keep your passport and your drivers license in separate places. Again, this is another lesson from my fist incident. I had all of my ID cards in my wallet, which I normally wouldn’t do but due to a recent altercation with a transport ticket checker who threatened to fine me for showing him my American drivers license as proof of ID rather than my passport, I was carrying my passport that day. If you’re traveling or living in a country in which you are supposed to carry your passport with you at all times, I recommend keeping a local form of ID (drivers license, student ID) along with a pixelated copy of your passport photo page. Blur the passport number, and date of birth. A copy of your passport will satisfy local authorities that you are who you say you are, or at least buy you some time to go get your real passport at home and show them.  If your wallet gets lost with a copy of your passport, thieves can ‘t easily steal your identity if they can’t see the passport number and your date of birth.  Keep an unpixelated copy of it in an encrypted file on your computer that you can easily print if you need to go to the embassy and get a new passport.  Of course, don’t leave your passport in a hotel or hostel room that isn’t secure. Put your passport in hotel safe or in a small secret locked compartment in your bag. If you don’t feel comfortable, it is probably safer on your person rather than at home. When living abroad you don’t need to be quite as vigilant with your passport assuming you live in a relatively safe building, but still keep it in a safe and secret place.
  8. Keep phone numbers and addresses of emergency contacts both in your destination country as well as back home somewhere safe as well, preferably in a different place than your walletScreen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.40.24 PM.  You may need someone back home to wire you money, or send copies of your birth certificate if you need to apply for a new passport.
  9. I know it goes without saying, but keep your wallet in a safe place in a backpack or bag while traveling. Many good backpacks have special wallet pockets that are hidden but are still easy to get to. Additionally, don’t keep any passwords or PIN numbers in your wallet.  Rather, store your passwords and PIN numbers in an encrypted file on a USB stick or your computer, or use a password management system like LastPass.  That way, you only need to remember one master password to de-encrypt that file.
  10. Even if you’re only traveling for a short period of time, invest in a special travel wallet, such as the kind that hangs around your neck and sits close to your chest underneath your clothing rather than one that goes into a bag or in a jeans pocket.  These are much more difficult to steal or lose.  Keep your most important documents and cards there, and keep only one credit card and a small amount of cash in your normal wallet for small everyday purchases.  Switch things out between the two wallets everyday before you leave your hotel room.  If you’re living abroad, this is less a concern but I would still encourage you to only go out with what you absolutely need in your wallet.
  11. Keep an emergency calling card somewhere other than your wallet.  If you’re traveling you may not have a convenient or cheap way to call the US to cancel your cards. If you have a Skypeout or other VOIP subscription, you can call 1-800 numbers for free. If you need to use a landline in a hotel for example, you can call collect using the number on the back of the credit card.  But, if you find yourself needing to use a payphone for lack of any other option, a calling card can save money on all the calls you’ll be making back to the US.  Although it normally wouldn’t be a problem for an American to use her cell phone in Toronto without incurring too many extra charges, my particular (very VERY cheap) American SIM card did not work in Canada.  I couldn’t call to cancel my cards until I got to the hotel and used WiFi to call through Skype.
  12. NEVER EVER keep your Social Security card in your wallet, even if you never travel.  This is the one mistake I’ve never made.  If someone has your SSN, in addition to your credit cards or your passport, they can easily do you harm before you’ve even noticed your wallet is gone.  Just memorize your Social Security Number and leave the card in a safe place at home, or better in a safe deposit box.
  13. Don’t carry your checkbook with you either, especially if you’re leaving the country.  I honestly don’t know why we Americans continue to use this antiquated and highly unsafe payment method, but your checks have your account number and routing number written directly on them!  You can’t write checks abroad anyway, so just leave these at home.  If you’re moving abroad for an extended period of time, either leave your checkbook in the hands of a trusted individual or just shred the checks.  You can order a new checkbook if/when you move back.Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.46.06 PM
  14. Keep an updated list of payments that are automatically charged to your credit cardsThis way, if your wallet is stolen, you can immediately inform all of the companies that auto-charge your card, and replace that information with the new card number.  I forgot about this the first time my wallet was stolen, and an important subscription service (Skype!) was interrupted.
  15. Get a credit card that uses encrypted chip technology.  This isn’t directly related to a stolen wallet, but it does help protect your financial information from being stolen.  While it isn’t common yet in the US, many countries abroad (even Canada, as I discovered), use chip credit cards rather than “swipe” credit cards.  Swipe cards are vulnerable because thieves can put skimming devices on the swipes and get your account information.  Ask your credit card company if they offer chip cards and get one before your next international trip.
  16. Keep some fake family pictures in your wallet.  I’ve never done this but maybe I’ll start.  Keeping fake family photos in your wallet might convince anyone that finds your wallet to return it to you.  I suggest fake photos because, call me paranoid, I don’t want pictures of my actual family in the hands of a thief, especially if they have my address from my drivers license.


After your wallet is lost or stolen

  1. Try to figure you where you lost your wallet or where it might have been stolen.  If you lost it in a cab, you can call the company and see if they found it.  According to a new law, you are only liable for $50 worth of unauthorized charges that take place before you cancel the card.  Theoretically, this means you can wait and see if your wallet turns up before you begin cancelling everything, and the most you can lose on your credit cards are $50 per card (this doesn’t apply to debit cards).  If you cancel your cards and your wallet is miraculously returned, you can still use your drivers license and cash if they are still there, but none of your credit/debit cards will be useful.  In fact, if you try to use a cancelled credit card, you might be flagged for fraud.
  2. If you’re sure your wallet is lost or stolen and you haven’t simply misplaced it, call your credit, debit, and ATM card companies and cancel the cards.  This is both a blessing and a curse because while no one can use the cards, neither can you until you get the replacements.  This means that unless you have a backup card, you’ll have to rely exclusively on cash in the meantime.  Make sure that in addition to cancelling the cards, you also request to have new ones sent.  Make sure that the new ones will be repinned for you.  If you only took one or two of the most important cards with you while traveling, cancelling the cards won’t take very long to complete.  If you have a backup card that wasn’t stolen, you can use that card for cash or credit purchases until you get home.  If you don’t have a backup card, ask if they can send you a new card abroad and how much that will cost.  Ask about emergency cash services and how much that costs as well.
  3. File a police report and retain a copy of the report.  Even if you lost your wallet, get a police report.  This can be especially helpful when trying to replace cards or make claims with an insurance agency, and a police report is required when applying for a replacement passport.
  4. If you have no photo identification, this can be a serious situation if you’re abroad and you will be traveling back to the US in a few days, which is why having copies of your ID cards is helpful at the very least.  If you need a replacement passport, you’ll need to contact the nearest Embassy or Consulate immediatelyScreen Shot 2014-04-16 at 12.56.57 PM.  Bring whatever you have that can help prove your identity such as photocopies of IDs and credit cards, student IDs, copy of a birth certificate, and the phone numbers of people who can vouch for your identity.  I provide more detailed information on how to get a new passport in my book.
    • If you’re traveling soon, the Embassy may grant you a temporary passport to travel back to the US.
    • You can pay an extra fee to have your new passport expedited.
    • If you’re living abroad and can get a hold of some sort of ID such as a student ID, getting a replacement passport is not as urgent unless you need to leave the country.
  5. Call the major credit reporting bureaus and put a freeze on your account, which prevents anyone from opening up a new line of credit in your name, and alerts you to any attempt to do so.  This also makes it difficult and lengthy for YOU to get a new line of credit, but you can temporarily lift the freeze, for a fee (unless your credit card will reimburse you, like mine).
  6. If you have travel insurance, call your insurance company and ask about the proper procedures for filing a claim.
  7. Change your passwords and PIN numbers as soon as possible after using your wallet.  New cards should hopefully come re-pinned.  I use LastPass to manage my passwords and for the most part, it works very well. However, in this case it worked too well because my security settings prevented me from logging into my account from any other country except the US, Germany and Spain. At least I knew that if my own password management system was preventing me from getting access to my accounts, it was doing the same to someone else in Canada.  I was able to change my passwords as soon I got back to the US.
  8. Get a new driver’s license.  This can only be done once you’re back in the US.  When my wallet was stolen in Germany, I didn’t have a drivers license for several months until I came home to visit my parents.  You have to physically go to the DMV, get a new picture taken, and pay for a new one.  You also submit the police report so the police can flag your old license if anyone tries to use it.  I was told that I could drive temporarily with my passport on me in case I got pulled over, but this policy probably varies by state.  I got a temporary drivers license, and my permanent one arrived about 10 days later.
  9. Start cancelling and replacing any other cards you lost such as library cards, membership cards, rewards cards, health insurance cards, etc.  If you had a digital copy of all your wallet’s contents, you at least know what you have to replace.  If you emptied your wallet before traveling, this is a lot easier.
  10. Think about changing the locks If you lost your wallet close to the address on your license, this may increase the chances that it will be returned but it might also encourage a particularly bold thief to steal from your home.  Think about changing the locks.

Technology to Consider

I don’t have any experience with these things, but maybe someday I’ll give them a try, considering how often I seem to misplace my wallet.  There are several companies the make small Bluetooth-enabled chips you can put in your wallet (or keychain, or computer, or whatever).  You pair the chip with an app on your smartphone, and it alerts you if the chip gets out of range from your phone.  Some have more advanced technology that give you Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 1.06.58 PMGPS coordinates of where the chip is located.  It seems like a good idea in theory, but I don’t think there is anything that is stopping a thief from removing a chip and discarding it.  I don’t know if I really want my phone ringing every time my wallet is faraway from my iPhone, because there are lots of occasions where I don’t take both with me.

I’m intrigued by mobile wallet applications that would allow you to keep everything in your wallet on a smartphone, with the ability to self-destruct the information if the smartphone is lost or stolen.  Of course, you’d still need a backup option if your phone goes missing, and it would have to be secure from hackers.  Ideally it would also be able to carry digital versions of your driver’s license, health insurance and other important cards.  A recent article in MacWorld Magazine is specifically encouraging Apple to move forward with more innovative mobile wallet technology…one that would actually be safer than credit cards and would eventually replace physical cards all together.  I love this idea, but unfortunately we’re not there yet.

The best thing to avoid these sorts of messes that is available today are biometric wallets that require a fingerprint to open.  I’m told there are some that display a central contact number in case it is lost (since the person who found it can’t get inside to find your address or name).  But these are extremely expensive.

For now, I’ll stick to my strategy of making a digital copy of my wallet and encrypting the file.  But going through this experience twice has made me consider what I would do if I lost something with a ton of valuable, personal information; namely, my phone, computer or tablet.  Although thankfully this has never happened to me, I have been taking extra precautions lately to keep those items safe.


The trip wasn't a total bust...I managed to find my way to Niagara Falls.

The trip wasn’t a total bust…I managed to find my way to Niagara Falls.


Have you tried one of the lost wallet applications, biometric wallet, or bluetooth trackers?  How do they work?  Do you have any other advice for someone who has lost their wallet while either traveling or living overseas?  Horror stories?  I would love to hear from you in the comments.




Q&A with another College Abroad student

Michelle in Japan

Michelle in Japan

Lest you think that I’m the only one that has made college abroad work and it isn’t something that you can take advantage of, today I’m posting a short interview with another American I met while in Germany who also got enrolled directly in a university overseas, which saved her thousands of dollars.  Her story is a lot like mine, except now she is teaching English in South Korea.  Going abroad for school has a tendency to instill a desire for some sort of international career, as I myself have discovered.  I want to feature others’ stories here on the blog because there was not enough space in the book to do so.  Thanks to Michelle Cosier for answering my questions and agreeing to let me publish it here.


When and where did you do college abroad?

I studied at Jacobs University in Germany from 2007-2009, where I studied International Communication, and now I’m teaching English in South Korea at a public middle school.  I plan to go back to Germany this summer.
What kind of program did you complete abroad?

The program was designed to attract graduate students from all different walks of the world.  The instruction was in English.  Usually we had daily seminars ranging from 3-5 seminars per week related to our particular program.  It wasn’t altogether that much different from an American graduate program.


Why did you decide to complete your degree abroad?

I decided to complete my degree abroad because the financial opportunity presented itself as a means for me to actually afford a Masters Degree.  Compare to the thousands of dollars I would have paid in the  U.S.A. Jacobs University offered me a full tuition scholarship.*  I also speak German and wanted to use the opportunity to become more fluent, needless to say I left speaking fluent German as well.

*The program didn’t technically charge tuition at all.  All students were given this “scholarship.”


Did you also apply to American degree programs?  What, in the end, made you decide to choose the foreign degree program as supposed to the American degree program?

I did not apply to any American degree programs.   In the end, the financial benefit and having an international degree was the reason I decided to go abroad.


What were your worries/concerns about getting a degree from a foreign university or living abroad before you left, if any?

The only concern I had, was…. Am I going to be able to complete the program?  I was putting myself in an unfamiliar education system, but what I learned was that it was on a similar scale as my U.S. university education so I became more confident.


How supportive were your close friends and family of your decision to do your degree abroad?  Did they have any particularly concerns about your decision?

My close friends and family were very supportive of my decision.  I had a few stragglers that were whining and nervous about me going, etc… but I just ignored them as I knew they had never really travelled before anyway.


Did doing your degree abroad save you money?

Yes, absolutely.  I had a fully covered tuition scholarship.**

**By not paying tuition, Michelle also saved money and avoided taking out more student loans.

What are the advantages of doing your degree abroad?

Broadening my worldview more than what it already was & meeting amazing friends who live all over the world.

What are the disadvantages?

Not seeing friends and family as often.


How did you pay for college abroad?

I had a scholarship*, and a college fund that I used to help me with my living expenses.  Also living in Germany with a residency permit and student visa I was able to work a little too.

*Michelle’s program didn’t charge any tuition.

How did you find your program?

Do you have any special tips for what to do or how to prepare to live and study abroad?

Keep your mind open… “you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Read a book about the culture in the country, go to the place you want to study first on a vacation, learn the language to make the most of your experience, make friends in your host c country.  Don’t stick around your own nationality all the time, and diversify yourself..


 Did you travel often outside of your host country while you were living abroad?



What, if any, lasting impressions or life changes have resulted from getting your degree abroad that you think you would not have otherwise encountered?

I am able to impact and counsel others on making a similar decision.  I could have not made a better life-long impacting decision to go myself so why not share that with others.


Cell Phones and SIM Cards for living abroad- updated

A lot of you out there probably got a nice new electronic device such as a smart phone or tablet for Christmas.  But, if you’re planning to move abroad anytime soon, you’ll probably wonder whether your shiny new toy will work overseas.  Having a cell phone is really a must even when living abroad–after living in four countries I’ve never had a landline phone and all my friends communicated via cell phone.  Having a data plan can also be a lifesaver especially in unfamiliar places…you can look up directions or public transport connections, currency exchanges, and translations.  I touch on this topic briefly in the book, but I’ve since discovered that people crave a simple, step-by-step Q&A on buying cell phones to bring abroad, or knowing whether your current device will work overseas.  I’ll attempt to answer all the most frequent questions I get here.

Before I start, a brief note.  I’m not going to go into details here on data speeds and frequencies, such as 2G, 3G, and 4G.  Whether you get these different speeds depends on a complex combination of your phone’s capabilities, the service provider you use, and where you’ll be accessing data most often.  If getting lighting-fast data speeds is important to you while abroad, you’ll have to do a little more research than the basic step-by-step I’m going to provide here.  You’ll need to research the leading mobile carriers in the country you’ll be living, and what frequencies they use to provide 4G data, and then you’ll need to make sure your phone is compatible with that frequency.

My recommendation: go prepaid.

The prepaid market is only now getting underway for smart phones in the US.  The prepaid market is much more developed abroad, and if you’re on a budget I highly recommend using a prepaid plan while abroad, whether you’ll be there long-term or short-term.  Unless you use a ton of minutes or rely on a lot of data, prepaid will almost always save money compared to a monthly plan.  It’s also good for college abroad students because you won’t be stuck paying for minutes you’re not using while you’re traveling out of country or when you go back to the US to visit.  This is also why I recommend staying contract-free while you’re abroad, unless you’re absolutely sure you’ll stay for the duration of the contract, you can truly afford the monthly payment, and you are very sure you won’t travel too frequently outside of the country.  Since many Americans aren’t familiar with prepaid plans, or associate them with people who have no credit history, it can be a bit of an adjustment to go prepaid, and tempting to simply sign a contract with a carrier overseas.  But trust me, after being on  prepaid plans, monthly plans, and even a long-term contract abroad, prepaid is generally the best way to go.

I’m only going abroad for a short time as an exchange student.  What should I do?

Even if you’re only going for a few weeks/months, do NOT use your contract phone abroad unless you enjoy getting a cell phone bill demanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  Unless you have an out of contract unlocked GSM-compatible phone (see below), I suggest you call your carrier and ask for a temporary hold on your contract.  I know that some carriers will allow customers to put their contract on hold for up to six months, during which time you don’t have to pay the monthly fee, but doing so also extends the life of the contract.  You may need to provide your carrier evidence of going abroad, which could be an acceptance letter to a study abroad program, a scholarship award letter or rental agreement for an apartment abroad.  If you’re lucky, your provider might unlock your phone even while in contract, in which case you CAN use your current phone while abroad temporarily as long as the phone is GSM-compatible.  If this isn’t the case, buy a cheap phone and a SIM card that will work wherever you’re studying (see Step 2 below), and leave your normal in-contract phone at home.  Another option is to allow a friend or family member to use your phone while you’re abroad, while they agree to pay your monthly fee.

Step 1: Can I use my current cell phone abroad?

In order to answer this question, you need to answer several additional questions…

Are you in contract and if so, can you get out of your contract?

The short answer is: probably not unless you’re willing to pay the cancellation fee.  However, if you have an inexpensive phone, or if your contract is nearly up, or if you have a particularly forgiving carrier, you might be able to get out of your contract.  I was able to cancel mine by faxing my carrier a copy of my university acceptance letter before I moved and a copy of my rental agreement in Germany after I moved.  They waived the cancellation fee.  But this was almost seven years ago and the phone was relatively cheap.  Although paying a cancellation fee isn’t ideal, it might make sense simply to get out of the obligation and it could save you money in the long-term.  However, before breaking down and just paying the fee, consider transferring your contract to a new customer.

How do I transfer my contract?

Try these two companies: CellTradeUSA and CellSwapper.  You can also go to your carrier and directly negotiate to switch your contract to a friend or family member.  You have the option to transfer your phone along with the contract, or just the contract.  If you keep the phone and want to use it abroad,  it needs to be GSM-compatible (see below) and you’ll have to get it unlocked (see below).  If you don’t keep the phone, skip to Step 2.

Is your phone GSM compatible?

In order to be able to work abroad, your phone must be able to work on the networks outside the US.  Most of the rest of the world uses a network called GSM.  Up until recently however, almost all of the carriers in the US used CDMA, and most of the phones sold in the US were only able to work on a CDMA network, making it nearly impossible to use your phone abroad.  Fortunately, AT&T and T-mobile now use GSM.  In order to use your phone abroad, it must be capable of working on a GSM frequency.  Many newer smart phones sold in the US today are tri- or quad-band phones, which means they can work on a variety of frequencies, but if your phone was sold by one of the CDMA carriers such as Sprint, it may not be GSM-compatible even if the phone is technically tri- or quad-band.  Therefore, you might contact your carrier and consult the website of your phone’s manufacturer to be sure.  If your phone isn’t GSM-compatible, proceed to step 2.

Is your phone unlocked?

If you’re still on contract, your phone is probably locked.  However, even if you’re out of contract your phone is still probably locked, unless you never had a contract to begin with or you bought your phone unlocked originally.  Most cell phones are programmed with software that “locks” the phone to only one carrier.  In order to use your current cell phone abroad, you need to be able to use it on a different carrier.  You can know for sure if your phone is unlocked by taking out the current SIM card (see more about this below), and insert a SIM card from a friend’s phone.  If the phone works with the other SIM card, it is unlocked.  Rumor has it that Verizon iPhone 5 is shipped unlocked, so while Verizon is one of the CDMA carriers in the US, the iPhone 5 works on both frequencies and therefore a Verizon iPhone 5 should work with GSM carriers both here and abroad.

Can I get my phone unlocked?

If you’ve arrived at this step, you have a GSM phone, which not only means it can work on a network outside the US, but it also means that it uses a chip called a SIM card.  Only phones that use SIM cards can be used abroad, and only phones with SIM cards can be unlocked.

My phone has a removable SIM card and is GSM-compatible.  Now how do I unlock it?

Again, the answer in the form of a question:

Is your phone a dumb phone?

If your phone is dumb…or rather, NOT a smart phone, unlocking is a simple procedure if your carrier allows it.  Just call customer service, or check the carriers website for the unlock code.  Some carriers will charge a fee to unlock the phone, others will do it for free, and many are happy to do so on inexpensive dumb phones especially if it is out of contract or already paid for.

Is your phone a smartphone?

If you have a smartphone, the process of getting your phone unlocked is more complicated because the software on the phone is more complex.  However, your carrier can do it relatively easily if they want to.  First, call your carrier and ask about unlocking.  Explain that you’re going abroad and you’re already out of contract.  It used to be the case that you could get an unlock code from a third party provider if your carrier wouldn’t do it for you, but since March 2013 that has become more difficult due to a small change in the law governing cell phone technology.  You can read about it here.  Such third party providers still exist but since the law change you might find yourself on the wrong side of the law by unlocking your phone without the carrier’s permission (although the White House opposes this law, and the House has introduced a bill to reverse this situation).  I hear these services do indeed work but I’ve never used them myself, and besides being potentially illegal, you might lose your warranty and they charge a fee.

Sooo…to recap: in order to use your phone abroad it must…

1.  Be out of contract.

2.  Be GSM-compatible.

3.  Be unlocked.

I’m in luck!  My phone fits these criteria.  Now what?

Congratulations!  Now all you need is a SIM card that will work wherever you’re going.  You have two options: buy a SIM before you leave or once you get there.  I think it is better to have a SIM before you leave so that you can use your phone as soon as you land (see below).  You can always buy a new SIM with better rates later.

Step 2: My phone can’t be taken abroad.  Now what?

You have two options:  buy a phone while still in the US or buy a phone when you get to your host country.  I’ll take each option in turn.

Bring a cheap temporary phone with you.

I recommend bringing a phone with you along with a SIM card that will work in your host country so you can call as soon as you land (for a taxi, for a hotel, for the person who is supposed to pick you up, etc).  This can be a cheap dumb phone you can get rid of if or when you find a more suitable phone or plan in the host country.

Where do I buy a local SIM card if I’m not “local” yet?

There are a few companies that sell local SIMs and cheap, unlocked cell phones to people in the US who are planning to travel abroad.  I can recommend Telestial, but there are plenty of other options.  These are usually pre-paid SIMs, meaning they come with a certain dollar amount loaded, and you pay per minute, per SMS, and if data is included, per megabyte.  Once the dollar amount has been depleted, you have to recharge the card.  This can usually be done online, or by buying recharge codes at kiosks abroad.  You can get a SIM that is specific to a given country, which is usually the cheapest plan, or a regional SIM that works throughout several countries in the immediate area, or even an international SIM that works all over the world.

Buy a better quality phone in the US to use as your main phone abroad.

If you care about the phone you use and want a better quality phone with you while living abroad, you can buy one in the US and take it with you.  Any phone that is purchased in the US, however, must fulfill all the criteria discussed above: out of contract, GSM-compatible, and unlocked.  Fortunately, you can now find lots of unlocked phones that are sold directly from the manufacturer so the customer can choose whatever carrier s/he wants.  Unfortunately, unlocked smartphones are extremely expensive.  An unlocked iPhone 5 costs $549. Most new unlocked smartphones will cost anywhere between $250-800.  While this is a heavy price, equivalent smartphones abroad will probably be unavailable or much more expensive (this may not be the case in places like China or Korea, where some of these phones are manufactured).  In Germany for example, the iPhone 5 costs 549 EUROS, which is $745.

Can I buy a used phone to bring with me?

It may be better to have an older phone because having a new shiny one could make you the target of theft.  Be on the lookout for friends and family who are looking to upgrade their phones and looking to dump their older phones. Or settle for a lower quality, cheaper model (which are pretty easy to find these days)

1.  If you really want an American cell phone to bring with you abroad, think about buying used on Amazon or ebay or Craigslist.  You can get a used version of the latest model for half the price of buying new.  BUT if you’re thinking of buying used from Amazon, Ebay, or Craigslist, be a little careful.  Take the following into consideration:Ask the seller about all the features mentioned above, such as being GSM and unlocked.  If it is used and out of contract but still locked, it may be relatively easy, depending upon the carrier, to get the phone unlocked.  The seller may not be familiar with these issues and may not know the answer or give you the wrong answer.  Therefore, be as sure as possible that you’re getting what you want.  Amazon and Ebay have good buyer protection procedures, but Craigslist does not.  If you buy from Craigslist, meet the seller in person and bring a SIM card from a GSM network (like AT&T) with you to make sure it is truly unlocked and GSM-compatible.  DO NOT buy a Sprint phone, as Sprint is a CMDA carrier and its phones don’t use SIM cards.

2.  The battery life on smart phones are pretty weak to begin with, but a used phone may not keep a charge for long at all.  Ask the seller.

3. Make sure the IMEI is “clean.”  The IMEI is a unique number assigned to every single GSM device.  If a phone is lost or stolen, the owner can report this to their carrier and the IMEI number is put on a blacklist.  This means that if someone else tries to use the phone, the carrier will see that the phone is blacklisted and won’t work.  You can use a site like Swappa to check the IMEI status.

Anything else I should consider?

Some features to consider if you’re buying a new(er) phone to use abroad: it might be a good idea to get a phone with a decent camera to capture those random moments when you don’t have your actual camera with you.  You might also consider a phone with a dual SIM capability.  This way you can have a local SIM in one slot and a US SIM in the other, for example.

Finally, you’ll still need a SIM card.  You can purchase one from any of the many online retailers I mention above, or you can wait until you get there and buy one.  From experience, it can actually be somewhat difficult to find a retailer locally that sells SIM cards, especially when you’re not familiar with the country yet and how to get around.  I’ve used this site every time I’ve moved to a different country to help me decide which SIM to buy and where to buy it.  Again, I would rather have the ability to call right away in case anything goes wrong when I land in a foreign country for the first time.  Others might be more relaxed about this.

Buy a cell phone locally with a local plan.

If you know for sure you’ll be staying in a certain country for a long time, it *might* be worth it to get a local phone and maybe even a local contract (but see my notes on this option above).  If your Bachelor’s program abroad is three years long, you can easily sign a two-year contract as long as the monthly fee is affordable.  However, it isn’t wise to assume that a cell phone contract carries similar terms as it would in the US.  For example, I learned the hard way that contracts in Germany automatically renew after the initial period, and getting out of a German cell phone contract requires giving them at least three months notice.

On the other hand, there are some advantages to having a contract abroad.  In Europe, for example, the cell phone industry is much more consumer friendly than it is the US.  Contracts are generally easier to get out of, you have the right to take your number to a new carrier, and unlocking is also easier.  Carriers in Europe are more flexible because Europeans move to other countries all the time, so getting out of a contract is pretty easy if you can prove you’re moving away.  Still though, if you plan to travel a lot, or go back to the US and stay for a while, being in a contract can be a waste of money.

Can I get data on a local phone and/or local plan?

Yes!  Just be sure to buy a SIM card with a company that offers data, which most do nowadays.  Some countries may not have extremely fast data networks such as 4G of LTE, but many countries actually have faster data networks than we do.  If you’re using a local SIM with a phone you brought from another country or carrier, you might find that your phone will show that it is connected to the data network (such as showing the 3G icon at the top), but when you try loading a website or using data, things simply won’t load.  This is most likely due to your phone’s APN settings.  Depending upon your phone model and the software version your phone is running, you may be able to change the APN settings manually.  However, there may not be an option in your phone’s settings menu to change it.  But never fear!  While connected via WiFi, go to  From there, choose your country and the carrier, and the service will automatically download a profile on your phone that changes the APN settings.  For some reason, this works wonderfully for everything except MMS (sending pictures via text message).

What about tablets?

Tablets are actually much simpler to use abroad than cell phones, because most of them are shipped unlocked and many are sold without a contract.  Therefore, all you need is a SIM card that includes data and your tablet should work (you might have to change the APN settings, however…see above).

Can I bring my phone I bought abroad with me to the US?  Will it work?

Remember that if you buy a phone abroad, it won’t necessarily work in the US when you go home for visits or when your program ends.  Again, it needs to be unlocked and ideally out of contract.  You’ll need to get a US-based SIM card, which fortunately are easier to come by today than it was even two years ago.  You can get prepaid US-SIMs through online retailers such as H2O wireless.  T-mobile sells flat-rate SIMs without a phone, and a company called Straight Talk also has a Bring-Your-Own-Phone program where you pay a flat fee of $45 month, contract-free.

I hope this covers most of the aspects of buying and using your smartphone abroad.  It is based on my experience both bringing a cell phone from the US abroad but also buying a cell phone abroad and trying to use it in the US and other countries while traveling.  I have no affiliation with any of the companies or brands mentioned this post and I wasn’t paid or given any perks to mention these products.  I hope this is the all-inclusive guide you’ve been looking for.  If you have other questions, or other information to add, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments!

Happy 2014!

This will be a very quick post to simply welcome in the New Year.  I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions or the idea of starting fresh when the second the year changes.  I’d rather try to believe that one can change one’s life at any time…you don’t need to wait for some rather arbitrary date.    However, the new year has already ushered in quite a few changes in my life.  I’ll wait to post further details, but the first thing that I’m really proud of is the fact that during this first week in January, my book, College Abroad, reached the number one on the best seller list in the category of “Student Travel Guides” on Amazon.  To have published a book while also juggling several doctoral fellowships and completing my dissertation manuscript and moving to several different countries is an accomplishment in and of itself, but to see the book doing relatively well and hopefully inspiring others is quite a nice feeling.  So thanks to all the readers and followers of the blog, those that have purchased the book, and also to those have shared my posts, followed me on Twitter and recommended the book to the curious student in your life.

Be sure to check back soon for more details on my next move, as well as a GIVEAWAY! (in case you didn’t get what you wanted for Christmas).  And here’s to a great 2014 of life-changing experiences, cultural exchanges, travel, and a deeper sense of self-awareness than we had in 2013.

Travel as a College Abroad Student: Girona, Spain

Travel is one the best things about being a College Abroad student, in my humble opinion.  From your home base in your host country, you can explore little-known and off-the-beaten-track destinations nearby and, budget permitting, beyond.  Yesterday I took advantage of a particularly warm December day here in Spain to go to Girona.  Many people […]

Holiday Gift Guide for College and Study Abroad Students, Travelers, and Expats

Holiday Gift Guide for College and Study Abroad Students, Travelers, and Expats

Now that Black Friday (which apparently is a “thing” now in Barcelona, sadly) and Cyber Monday are over, we can settle into a more sane shopping routine.  After so many years as a student abroad, I’ve put together a list of things that a college abroad student, study abroad student, expat, or avid international traveler would love to have.  Whether they’ve yet to board a plane or they’ve been abroad for years, something on this list will make them very happy campers.  Before we get to my list, however, a few rules to keep in mind when buying for someone who will be taking off on an international flight after the holidays.

The Rules

1.  If possible, gifts for college abroad students or travelers should be light-weight and durable.  Gifts will need to be able to survive several long flights in the luggage-hold.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.03.39 PM2.  Gift cards bought in the US can’t be used overseas, even at stores that exist abroad.  For example, a Starbucks card bought in the US won’t work at a Starbucks in Spain.  Therefore, gift cards aren’t generally a good idea, but see the exceptions to this below.

3.  While giving fun and frivolous gifts can be entertaining for all involved, people moving abroad will probably try to downsize their possessions, so whatever you buy for them should be something that serves an important and specific purpose.  Otherwise, you might just see it on Craigslist on December 26th.

4.  Anything that needs to be plugged in should have the ability to operate on a different voltage.  Most modern electronics can automatically switch voltages, but check to make sure before buying anything.  Appliances like hairdryers probably can’t handle a different voltage–better to give your college abroad student the money to buy appliances locally.

5.  Consider the climate where your college abroad student is living before you buy that cute sweater marked down by 50%.Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.06.21 PM

6.  Don’t buy anything that comes with regional codes such as certain cell phones (more precisely “locked” phones) and DVDs.  These products are meant to be sold and used in the US and simply won’t work abroad (American DVDs will work in an American laptop, but personally I think it is easier to bring digital movies rather than DVDs).

7.  Try to keep in mind the regulations regarding airport security and customs in the destination country.

8.  Especially for international students, remember that everything that goes with them abroad must at some point come home.  Keep everything small and simple if possible.

8.  Although the surprise is part of the holiday fun, some things that are essential for expats and travelers should be picked out to correspond to the style and fit of the specific traveler.  Take your college abroad student to the store and allow him/her to pick out the item rather than trying to use your own best judgment.  Your student will appreciate it.  You can still wrap up the gifts and put them under the tree.

And that leads us to….

Practical items for those that haven’t moved abroad yet or first-timers

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.02.11 PM1.  Backpacks.  I’m not talking about your average back-to-school backpack (see below).  I’m talking about tough, durable, multi-compartment, 40-80 liter backpacks for traveling like this one.  Even if your college abroad student won’t be doing any sort of heavy traveling, having a durable backpack is a must for moving abroad.  Unless your student is the absolute minimalist, s/he will probably need more than one checked bag to move abroad for a year or longer, and two big suitcases on wheels are impossible to manage. Plus a backpack frees up your hands.  This is one of those gifts that the student will want to pick out themselves, depending on their travel plans, size preferences, and gender.  Check out these guides for backpacks here and here.

2.  Everyday backpack or briefcase.  Many schools abroad don’t have US-style residential campuses where all academic buildings are clustered together within a walkable distance.  Therefore, you may be doing a lot of traveling between home and different buildings scattered throughout town for class.  You’ll want a smaller, everyday bag for class that can fit some books, a laptop and everything else you’ll need for class.  This bag can double as a good carry-on.  Again, this sort of thing should probably be picked out by the student, so go to the store with him/her or get a gift card.  Last year, I bought this one, and I absolutely love it (although it might be a bit big for some).

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.14.10 PM3.  Luggage.  The college abroad student will also want one or two suitcases/dufflebags on wheels, and definitely a large one for the initial move.  The key to a good suitcase for moves abroad is the weight.  You only get 50 pounds of checked luggage…if 10 of that is all suitcase you’re not doing yourself any favors.  If you plan on using older bags, make sure that the wheels are in good condition and aren’t likely to fall off during the trip, that the zippers still work properly, the handle still extends and collapses smoothly, and that there aren’t any rips or tears in the fabric.

4.  Spacebags.  These are large plastic bags that use a vacuum seal to that you can pack 5-6 shirts or sweaters in the space of one.  This helps transport a lot of clothes abroad, but of course, it adds serious weight to your bag.  I still find them useful, though.

5.  Passport pocket and/or money belt.  Certain countries require expats to carry their passports on them at all times.  If this is the case, you’ll want a wallet that is big enough to safely fit a passport.  I also recommend a wallet that has two different pockets for bills and coins so that you can keep different currencies separate.  Other options are passport pockets that you can wear around your neck for easy and safe access.  For those planning to travel a lot, a money belt allows you to keep emergency cash in a safe and inaccessible location.

6. Books.  I actually don’t think college abroad students should bring very many books with them, mostly because they are heavy.  But there are a few books to consider making space for:  a recipe book tailored to students on a budget (see my previous post on cooking abroad), a guidebook for the city or country where the student will be living, a phrasebook or a dictionary to help with learning the language…or…a general guide for moving and living abroad like my book, College Abroad! (You really should have anticipated the shameless plug).  An alternative would be a tablet or an e-reader so that the student can take a ton of books with her.

7.  This brings me to my next suggestion: gift certificates that can be redeemed abroad Digital content such as music, movies, TV shows, e-books, etc. can be redeemed through iTunes, Google Play and Amazon even if you’re living abroad (the student will need an American account with these companies, which usually requires an American credit card and/or bank account).Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.31.34 PM This is the best and most legal way to get American entertainment abroad.  Streaming services like Netflix and HuluPlus won’t really work without a workaround.

8. Gift certificates for flights or frequent flier miles.  This is somewhat difficult unless your student is fairly certain which airline s/he will fly, and before buying you should make sure that the airline you choose actually flies between your student’s origin and destination.  For that reason, it is better to find which travel rewards program your student participates in (and ideally it should be a program that allows booking on any major airline such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi Thankyou Network) and purchase points or miles to help them purchase flights.

9.  Digital Camera.  Again, cameras are a very personal decision for every expat/traveler, so you might want to take the student to the store with you.  Camera accessories like cases, extra batteries, or extra memory cards are also fantastic.

10.  Journal.   If your student is still the type that likes to put pen to paper rather than finger to keyboard, a travel journal is a great way for them to record their thoughts, first impressions, and even collect ticket stubs.  Or get creative and make a unique DIY travel journal.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.34.06 PM11.  Luggage tags, unique luggage identifiers, luggage locks.  Luggage tags should come with several tags so that the student can change the contact information frequently.  Locks should be TSA-compliant or they’ll be broken.  I prefer ones with a number combination rather than keys because I lose the keys too easily.  Luggage identifiers are brightly colored ribbons, straps, or Velcro covers that go over luggage handles to make your luggage stand out in the sea of black suitcases.

12.  Plug adapters.  This takes some research to know the precise shape of the outlets in your student’s destination country. Essentially these are little devices that fit over the plugs of your electronics so that your device (laptop, cell phone, etc) will fit into a foreign outlet.  If the student will be doing a lot of travel, consider a universal adapter.  Stores like RadioShack and BestBuy often carry adapters for a reasonable price.

13.  In-flight or culture-shock mitigation care package.  This may be the cheapest but most appreciated gift for a first time expat/international student/traveler.  Such a package might include small packaged snacks such as granola bars or chips, an empty water bottle (remember no liquids through security!), a magazine, headphones, a neck pillow, eye mask, airline vouchers to get a snack on-board, disposable slippers to wear in-flight, travel toothbrush and toothpaste, hand sanitizer or wipes for the face, mild painkillers or motion sickness pills, chewing gum or these fantastic earplugs that ease ear pain during landing (a life-saver for me), travel-sized bars of soap and other cosmetics like lotion and shower gel, small jar of peanut butter or other hard-to-find American food items, a Skype voucher to call home, a local SIM card so they can use their cell phone overseas (this deserves a blog post of its own, but it requires an unlocked GSM-capable cell phone), gift certificates for local train or flight travel once in-country, a small blanket, something to soothe an upset stomach, band-aids, tampons (until the student can figure out where to buy them locally), a tiny memento from home, lip balm, batteries, pens or a small notebook.  Of course, don’t give them ALL of these items!  It would be too much to carry, but this is a pretty good list.  I remember how nervous and bewildered I was when I first moved abroad, and I wish I had had even a quarter of these items with me.Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 1.35.25 PM

14.  Cash.  I always ask for cash for Christmas.  It doesn’t take up space in my luggage and I can use it whenever and wherever I want.  You can give your traveling student foreign currency if you can get it, but dollars works just as well.  Deposit the money before s/he leaves, or use a service like Amazon payments to send cash between you and your student (this also works if the student can’t come home for the holidays).  They can use a debit card at an ATM abroad to get access to the money.

More suggestions are welcome in the comments!

I have not been paid or given samples of any of the products I recommend.  Some of the products mentioned in this post I own but all were purchased by me or given as gifts by family, NOT the retailer or the manufacturer.

There’s budget travel…and then there’s BUDGET travel.

There’s budget travel…and then there’s BUDGET travel.

I don’t claim to be a budget travel expert, but part of the allure of being an international student is spending a considerable amount of time living and traveling abroad.  Therefore, I keep up with budget travel blogs and other publications so I can give advice to other international students interested in seeing the world while living abroad (and also to satisfy my own travel itch).  But after subscribing to dozens of “budget” travel guides for several years, I’ve come to discover that there is budget travel, and there is budget travel.  The former is more geared toward American couples or families who work full-time and have some, but not a lot, of disposable income for travel.  The latter is more geared towards young single or childless students or simply wandering unemployed types who actually have little to nothing in their bank accounts.  If you’re an international student attending college abroad, and you want to get out and see more of your host country or the neighboring countries, you’re probably in the budget traveler category.  Furthermore, some of the advice I often see on budget traveler websites is tailored to some of the worst and unavoidable travel habits of Americans, like going back to the same place over and over again, and consuming a place rather than experiencing it by running from one sight to another. (I call this the Amazing Race style of traveling, because it is only slightly slower than the popular television show).  Happily, as an international student you’ll be in a position to avoid most of these silly and sometimes costly mistakes.  Still though, traveling as an international student isn’t quite like an extended backpacking trip, because you don’t quite have that much time, and it isn’t quite like travel hacking either, also because you won’t have that much flexible time and also because as a student, you most likely will not qualify for endless credit cards to score troves of frequent flier miles.  (However, there are some many saving tips from backpacking and travel hacking that can be tailored to the international student). So while I’m not an expert, I’ve traveled to over 40 different countries without any sort of steady income whatsoever over the past six years.  What follows is a set of quick and dirty tips on how to budget travel, and avoid some of the advice of budget traveling sites that just don’t get long-term, international and culturally-meaningful travel.

1.  There are literally thousands of “budget travel” blogs and websites out there.  The key is to find sites that are written by people who fit the kind of traveling you plan to do as an international student.  Focus on sites written by expats, international students (like me!), and backpackers.  You’ll want to find websites from people with extensive travel experience in your host country or on the continent where you’ll be living.  Ignore a blog written by a mom who travels internationally from the US only once or twice a year.  While I understand that most Americans simply don’t have the time to travel more than once or twice a year, in my view that isn’t exactly an impressive resume and doesn’t give them the sort of wealth of experience I would like to tap into (especially if it seems that person travels to the same place frequently).  Of course, the site may be full of great advice for budget travelers, but not for budget travelersBudget travelers consider $100/night apartment in Paris a great deal, budget travelers consider that an extravagant splurge (especially when that same site admits that this Paris getaway included a $350 pass to Euro Disney–quite possibly the worst and culturally-embarrassing money pit in Europe).  Budget travelers will opt for hostels, couch surfing, or crashing at a friends place (and avoid Euro Disney like the plague–seriously–why would you fly all the way to Paris to go to an overpriced and watered-down version of the American theme park and then claim you’re budget-conscious?!)  As a college abroad student, you’ll quickly make friends from near and far who would love to take you home during a semester or holiday break.  Such opportunities don’t typically exist for the American family traveling once a year with only a two-week vacation.  You can also take advantage of the free travel advice from your local friends if they aren’t offering a place a stay.  And yes, staying at a hostel can be a crap-shoot, but I’ve stayed at extremely clean, safe, comfortable and even downright luxurious hostels around the world, often with free WiFi and breakfast (things that usually aren’t free at hotels).  Finding a good hostel is all about following the advice of other budget travelers, and ignore the complaints and fears of budget travelers.

2.  Think twice before ever purchasing a CityPass, and reconsider any site that advises you to do so.  Many American and European cities try to entice travelers with City Passes, but these take advantage of Amazing Race-style tourism, and more than likely aren’t actually very budget-friendly.  Sure, if you take advantage of every discount and offer included in the pass, you could save money.  But no one ever does that, and if you do you’ll be running all over town trying to find that one restaurant where you can use your 10% off coupon (a restaurant that might be overpriced to begin with) and that ship-building museum you can get into for free (even though you couldn’t care less about ship-building).

The discounts that are offered with these packages are usually at gaudy tourist traps that herd you away from local eateries and into superficial places serving hamburgers and fries. You might THINK you’re saving money when you present your coupon, but you could probably eat cheaper without the coupon. Budget travelers will eat street food over restaurants, bring snacks while sightseeing, and since most hostels include a shared kitchen, will make simple dinners like spaghetti or sandwiches. Budget travelers opt to take local transport rather than being bussed around to all the hotspots.  Budget travelers don’t mind getting lost, and we’re happy to simply stroll through a city to experience it rather than hopping from one sight to another. Budget travelers will even forgo spending money to see the sights and museums if entry is overpriced or if there are decent and free alternatives.  For example, I loved Venice but couldn’t force myself to cough up the €80 it costs to ride the famous gondolas, but I wasn’t disappointed because Venice can be just as easily explored by wandering through the narrow bridges on foot and occasionally taking the public water taxis.

View from the water taxi in Venice-around 5 EUR compared to the 80 EUR gondolas.

View from the water taxi in Venice-around 5 EUR compared to the 80 EUR gondolas.

3.  Just because someone on a blog found a good deal somewhere, doesn’t mean that that location is budget-friendly.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a website claiming to be your ultimate guide to Stockholm on a budget, citing some cheap restaurants.  While there are plenty of ways to save money no matter where you go, some places are just downright expensive, and Stockholm is one of them.  I avoided the city, knowing that even hostels can cost more than $60/night, until I had a friend move there and then I stayed with him.  What’s the point of saving money on food if you’re busting your budget on accommodation?  Unless a particular place is an absolute dream location, sometimes extremely expensive places should just be avoided for a budget traveler.  As an international student, you have more time and more choice–you don’t need to go somewhere if it feels beyond your means.

4.  Any travel site that doesn’t give credence to off-the-beaten-track locations is probably

This could be any street in Paris, but it's Bucharest, Romania.  A perfectly walkable and affordable city.

This could be any street in Paris, but it’s Bucharest, Romania. A perfectly walkable and affordable city.

more for budget travelers.  Blogs dedicated to helping an American family go to Europe on a budget will direct people to the Big Three–London, Paris, and Rome.  Because budget travelers only have a limited amount of time, many sites won’t even dare mentioning any part of Europe east of Prague (Berlin is already too “unsure of itself” for some), because these places require more time to get used to and are less tailored to foreign visitors.  But budget travelers will happily skip Italy and the UK for less expensive Croatia, or avoid expensive and popular locations all together and check out Serbia, Hungary, Kosovo, Estonia, or Romania.  Budget travel sites will always direct you to less-traveled places because this kind of traveler isn’t necessarily interested in sightseeing consumption and is more interested in simply seeing a new place, and doing it on an extreme budget.

To me, the biggest difference between budget traveling and budget traveling is that the former essentially boils down to sightseeing while the latter is more about city-seeing and people-watching.  And seeing a city and its people will always be free.