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Practical Matters

Airports and Travel Documents

What should I expect at the airport when boarding an international flight?

Airlines request that you arrive at the airport three hours before international flights to allow time for checking in, passing through customs, and finding your gate. If you miss the check in time designated by your airline, you may lose your flight and it will not be reimbursable.

Look for the departure boards that will give information about flights (e.g., departure time, departure gate, and sometimes the number of the check-in station). You will check in at the appropriate check-in station for your airline and destination.  You will need your passport to check in. It is good practice to bring a printed copy of your airline ticket or e-ticket with you.

At the check-in station, you will receive a boarding pass, which is a document provided by the airline that gives you permission to board the airplane for your flight. At a minimum, it identifies the passenger, the flight number, and the date and scheduled time for departure.  Keep your boarding pass with you, or else you will not be allowed to board your airplane.

After checking in, you will proceed to customs. Your passport and boarding pass will be checked and your carry-on items will be screened.  In your carry-on, you are allowed to bring 1 x quart-size sealable plastic bag with liquids, gels, creams, and pastes; no individual item can be more than 3.4 ounces (with the exception of prescription medication). You will need to remove the plastic bag and run it through the security screening. If carrying a laptop or other device, you will need to take it out of your bag and put it through screening.

Where should I keep my passport and valuables while traveling

When traveling, secure your passport in a safe place such as a money belt worn under your outer clothing or a zippered compartment of a pouch that you wear close to your body. 

Before you depart, make photocopies of your passport and keep it with you in a separate place from your passport. This will make it easier to have your passport replaced quickly if it is lost or stolen.  It’s also useful to have multiple copies of your passport (e.g., four) – for permits, tickets, SIM cards, etc. 

When traveling, make sure that your passport, money, and other valuables are secured at all times.  In the airplane, do not leave them in a bag on the floor under your seat or under the seat in front of you. They should be close by your side or under your clothing where no one else has access to them.

What other travel documents should I carry?

In order to avoid delays/concerns at immigration when entering another country, you should keep your passport and visa (if relevant) accessible.  It is also a good idea to carry other documents verifying your purpose of travel, such as invitation/acceptance letters, verification of your housing arrangements and/or address, documents from your host, or other support of your stated plans for being in the country.

What can I expect when I arrive at my destination airport?

Upon arrival, you will go through immigration. This usually occurs before you have claimed your luggage. Be sure to carry your passport, and any other required documents for immigration, in your carry-on luggage. Be prepared to provide information about how you are financing your stay, the address where you will be living, and phone numbers of local contacts. Immigration officers might ask to see that you have a return flight booked.  Admission is entirely at the discretion of the immigration officer. The immigration officer determines the length of stay to be authorized and stamped in your passport.  Note that you are usually not allowed to use any devices, including phones, in the immigration area.  

If you receive a visa or other entry document, it may be a small piece of paper. Be sure to secure this in a safe place and determine whether you must present this document when you leave the country. Be careful not to lose these documents and to have them available when you depart.

Following immigration, you will collect your luggage and go through customs. The customs officer has the right to search your luggage. If this occurs, you will be responsible for unpacking and repacking your belongings. Do not attempt to bring in any forbidden or illegal items. Note that your computer or other electronic devices can be searched. Research and be aware of items that are not allowed into certain countries (which can include electronic files).

How can I get safely from the airport to my final destination?

Have with you the names and phone numbers of your contacts in your host country, along with the address where you will be going (in both English and the country’s official language).  Do not put important contact information in your checked bags; have it with your passport and other important documents.

If you are supposed to meet someone at the airport, think of what you will do if your flight is delayed or if there is an emergency and no one is there to meet you. If you are traveling on your own, make sure you know in advance the recommended way to get from the airport to your destination.   

When taking a taxi, research what types of taxis or taxi companies are considered safe. This type of arrival information is often in the U.S. State Department consular information sheets, and you can search online for arrival information provided by airports and train stations. Do not take a taxi from an unofficial taxi line or let someone walk up to you to offer you a ride in their taxi/car.

Managing Money Abroad

How much cash should I carry with me?

You should plan to bring about $100-200 USD for initial expenses, saving some for emergencies as well as expenses on your return home. Never travel without at least some cash at hand.  Upon arrival at your host country’s airport, you should get some local currency from an ATM or at a currency exchange counter if possible.    Due to commissions, the exchange rate at an ATM will generally be better than exchanging cash at a "bureau de change."

How will I pay for things while abroad?

You should research if credit/debit cards are used vs. cash in your host country.  In some countries, credit cards can be a convenient option in stores and restaurants, while in other countries cash is the most common form of payment.  Always have more than one way to access funds, should one method not work.   In an emergency, sometimes U.S. dollars can even be used abroad instead of local currency.

What should I know about using an ATM/debit card abroad?

Before departure, make sure that the primary account on your ATM/debit card is a checking account (not savings).   If you are planning to use your ATM/debit card abroad, make sure to set a travel notice with your bank ahead of time, to ensure they don't freeze your card due to suspected fraudulent activity.   Use online banking to monitor your account activity (make sure you can access your bank account online prior to going abroad).

Before you go, call your bank or credit union and find out about any fees, and options for reducing them. When making a withdrawal, you will be asked if you want to convert a payment or to withdrawal to the local currency; it is usually best to choose the local currency.  When using a debit card to make a purchase abroad, select “credit” as the payment type.

Some banks have partnerships with banks abroad, allowing you to withdraw money without incurring fees.  If your U.S. bank has a branch in the location you are traveling to, you are often able to withdraw money from that bank’s ATMs without incurring additional fees.

Ask in-country contacts to recommend locations where ATMs are safest to use.  Make sure you have your bank's 24/7 international number in case your cards get lost or stolen.

When should I know about using a credit card abroad?

MasterCard and Visa are the most commonly used cards abroad.  American Express is less universally accepted, with Discover cards often not taken.   Check in advance if your card is compatible with 'chip and pin' and 'tap and go' technology.  Know what your limits are on your cards.  If you are planning to use a credit abroad, make sure to set a travel notice with your card company ahead of time, to ensure they don't freeze your cards due to suspected fraudulent activity. 

Out of concern for fraudulent charges, many travelers prefer to use credit cards rather than debit cards while in unfamiliar places.  If your credit card is compromised, and you file a report, the company can typically reverse charges quickly and with no penalty. If the same thing happens with a debit card, it can take longer to recover the funds.   Make sure you have your bank's 24/7 international number in case your cards get lost or stolen.

Credit cards often offer the best exchange rates while overseas, but may charge foreign transaction fees.  (A foreign transaction fee is likely to be a percentage of each transaction rather than a straight fee.)  Some major card issuers do not charge any fees at all.  For some students, it may make sense to open a credit card that provides such favorable terms before leaving the U.S.  Do not plan on using your credit card for cash advances from an ATM, since the fees for this are usually very high.

Should I use my U.S. bank account or set up a local bank account?

In many countries, it is not possible for visiting study abroad students to set up a local bank account.   Even where it is, many students find it less overwhelming to keep their funds in their U.S. checking account, and to simply minimize their withdrawals to reduce the impact of transaction fees.

In places where it does make sense to set up an account with a local bank, this will generally not happen until after your arrival.  You can then arrange to have money wired from a U.S. bank account to the new foreign account.

You should not plan to deposit any check drawn on an American bank to establish the new account. You will not be able to pay for things abroad with domestic U.S. checks in U.S. currency.

How can I keep my valuables safe while abroad? 

Once you have reached your destination, make sure to store your passport in a secure place such as a program office or hotel/hostel safe.   Request advice from your program about the best place to secure your valuables, including your credit and ATM cards, passport, and cash. 

Once settled, do not carry items with you on a daily basis that you do not need, and that you can leave in a secure place. You should not take expensive jewelry and other items with you that are likely to make you more of a target of theft.

Keep copies of your bank/credit card information (including the numbers to call if these items are lost or stolen) in a location that is separate from the original items. It is also a good idea to leave copies of this information at home with a family member or other trusted individual who can help you if you lose your credit cards.

Is it okay to "spend through" the initial funds that I bring in cash?

Save some funds in U.S. dollars for your return, as well as for any unforeseen expenses or travel emergencies along the way.  This needs to be part of your personal crisis planning.   There are many reasons that your travel could be disrupted, including unforeseen health, safety, or security situations that result in either your need to shelter in place for a time or your need to leave your environs quickly.

Packing Advice

How do I pack for a long-term trip abroad?

Start packing at least a week before your flight. That way, you will have plenty of time to rethink your packing if you have started with too many belongings to fit!  This also lets you check if you are going to be able to carry all your luggage on your own, especially if this is going to be necessary throughout your trip. If at all possible, everything except your carry-on luggage should either be on wheels or be carried on your back. 

We recommend against shipping items overseas. Doing so is expensive, and you are likely to find that you do not need as much as you thought you did. It is far better to travel light from the beginning.

A rule of thumb for clothing is to pack for three weeks, rather than three months; then rotate your wardrobe. That makes it much easier to consider what you will need. Keep in mind the possibility of attending an event that will require formal dress, such as a wedding, social event, school event, etc. Clothing you need will depend on climate(s) and activities. Be sure to check on what is considered to be appropriate attire, particularly in locations where it is important to dress modestly, and adhere to local values and norms.

For toiletries, students generally only need to bring small amounts as these can be purchased in the host country.  However, depending on the country, some items (e.g., contact solution, tampons) might be unavailable or at least not easy to find.  Other items (e.g., sunscreen, face wash) might be particularly expensive.  You should look up how easily you can obtain different items in your host country and bring enough unavailable or expensive items to last.  You can get advice about specific items from your program or people who have lived in your host country.

What do I need to pack in my carry-on (versus checked luggage)?

Be sure to pack important items such as your travel documents, program addresses and phone numbers, medications, cameras, phones, computers, jewelry, etc. in your carry-on items. This is important in case your checked bags are lost or if items are removed from your luggage when it is in transit.  Carry extra clothing in your overnight bag in case your luggage does not arrive on your flight.  Keep in mind that if the quantity of liquid exceeds TSA limits, you will have to pack liquid items in checked luggage.

What do I need to charge my electronic devices abroad?

Be aware of differences in standard electrical current and wall plug sizes. You will need adapter(s) to plug devices designed for U.S. electric outlets into the outlets in the countries you visit. 

Certain devices such as laptops and phones tend to have multi-voltage power converters built into the charger cord.  You will need to check the information from the manufacturer to make sure this is the case.

Other electronics (e.g., hair dryers, razors, flattening irons, etc.) may require the use of a converter.  In most cases, it can be less expensive in the long run to buy small appliances once you are abroad, so that you know they will work. Otherwise, even with a converter, small appliances may short out. 

Communications

How can I avoid expensive phone/data bills while abroad?

By far the cheapest way to make calls is over the Internet.  In many locations dorms/apartments, you will have high-speed wifi.  You can use online services for wifi calling such as WhatsApp, Zoom, FaceTime, GoogleMeet, etc. To ensure calls do not accidentally use data/minutes (when you don't intend them to) you can set your phone to “airplane mode” while manually enabling Wi-Fi.

Can I use my iPhone (or Android) while abroad?

It may be possible for you to use the cell phone that you already have. Check with the provider to see if this is possible and what the charges would be (this is often a very expensive option).  In some cases, you may need to activate a global plan prior to departure.

Depending on your provider/phone, you may be able to put a local prepaid SIM card directly into it, which gives you a local number at local rate. (You will need to check whether this is possible for your phone). You can “top-up” the call credit, and often you do not pay for incoming calls.

If considering a SIM card, it is imperative to make sure that your phone can be unlocked. Some phone companies might not unlock your phone automatically, or they may wait several months after you buy your phone to do so. Please check with your phone company prior to your departure date to confirm when and how your phone can be unlocked.

Remember, if you are calling someone with a U.S. international calling plan, it may be considered an expensive international phone call for you. If using your own phone and a phone service, be sure to determine if local calls are billed at a local rate or as if they are international calls.

Should I get a local cell phone?

For making local calls, the most economical and convenient option may be to purchase a cell phone and then buy minutes to use on the phone. It is best to inquire of your study abroad program or other host about the best way to go about this.

In some cases, students may be provided with a cell phone by their program. If setting up a new phone abroad, students should look into what documents (e.g., copy of passport, visa) are needed. You need to always carry a phone with enough battery to make a local phone call in case of an emergency.

In some countries (e.g., France) people will tend to not answer an incoming call that is not from a local phone number. Therefore, even if you have a calling plan on your U.S. phone, it may not be useful for communicating with local people. Keep in mind that a call from a U.S. number may cause an expense to the recipient.

Technology Best Practices

How can I keep my laptop/devices safe while traveling?

Do not transport laptops (or anything valuable) in your checked baggage. Use up-to-date protections for antivirus, spyware, security patches, and firewalls if you bring your device(s) with you (including Macs and Android devices). When downloading software patches, be sure to only download from the software vendor’s actual site (e.g., Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) Don’t use thumb drives given to you or that you find – they may have malicious software on them.  Backup all information on devices you take and leave your file back-up at home. 

How can I keep my data protected?

In most countries, you have no expectation of privacy in Internet cafes, hotels, airplanes, offices, or public spaces. All information you send electronically (computer, telephone, mobile devices) can be intercepted, especially wireless communications.  Do not access secure/protected information on public and free Wi-Fi networks. In some countries, they are controlled by security services or criminals; in all cases they should be considered insecure. In public settings, shield passwords from view.

Never put your personal information (social security number, credit card information, etc.) in an electronic document that can be accessed should your computer be hacked. This also means you should not scan or email personal information.  You may want to sanitize your laptop and mobile devices prior to travel to ensure no sensitive contact, reasearch, or personal data is on them. To keep your online data private, try to access websites via https (encrypted) wherever possible and not prohibited by law in the host country. Do not use your password with websites that have certificate errors.  We recommend using Swarthmore’s VPN to access personal or sensitive information on college websites (including email).

What do I do if my laptop is stolen (in addition to informing GEO and my program)

If your device is stolen, report it immediately to the local U.S. Embassy/Consulate (or that of your host country). Change all your passwords, including your voicemail, and check devices for malware when you return. Do not store passwords in text files or documents on your computer. Cyber criminals from numerous countries buy and sell stolen financial information including credit card data and login credentials (usernames and passwords).

Is it true that you can be denied to entry/re-entry to a country based on data?

Yes. Consider traveling with the least amount of data you need. This is especially true if your device contains sensitive data (e.g., human subjects’ data).  Customs officers have broad legal authority to search at borders, and there are an increasing number of reports of travelers being asked to unlock or provide the password to their phones.  If you are pulled aside during immigration and asked to provide the password to your phone or other devices, you could be held for hours until you agree to do so. Forensic software can access all of the information on your phone.  Carefully consider the information on your devices during travel.

Other Preparation Before you Go 

What is power of attorney?

Power of attorney is a document that gives legal authority to someone else to handle many kinds of important affairs for you including financial affairs (e.g., writing checks on your behalf), filing tax returns for you, and signing legally binding documents on your behalf. This should only be invested in someone in whom you have complete trust (e.g., a parent). A signature on a power of attorney must be notarized.  Power of attorney may be necessary/helpful if you require certain actions to be taken on your behalf while you are out of the country.

Before leaving, how can I learn some basics of the local language?

If you are going to a country where you are unfamiliar with the language, you should do some language study prior to leaving.  This will ensure that you can communicate with local people about basic questions and needs. Try to spend at least 10-15 hours using appropriate resources for language learners prior to departure. This will allow you to get an ear for the spoken language, and you can equip yourself with a few phrases for everyday use.

McCabe Library offers a campus-wide subscription to Mango Languages, the online language learning program that teaches basic conversational skills for 34 foreign languages. On the library’s homepage (https://www.swarthmore.edu/libraries), enter “Mango Languages” into the Tripod search box and follow the link. When away from campus, you can access Mango by logging in with VPN.

What happens to my mail if I am out of the country for a semester or summer?

The Swarthmore College Post Office will forward your USPS First-Class, Priority, or Express mail and packages to any U.S. address that you provide on MySwarthmore. All other classes of USPS mail, including all mail received from other shipping companies, will be returned to the sender.  Be sure to change the mailing address for all magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and any other first-class mail that you regularly receive.  If you have a different forwarding address from the one in MySwarthmore that you wish to use while abroad, please email swatpostoffice@swarthmore.edu and provide your name, temporary mailing address, and the start and end dates of your time at that address.

I'm going to be out of the country during the upcoming election, how do I vote? 

Go to the website below for information on registering to vote and requesting an absentee ballot: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/while-abroad/voting.html

Almost all U.S. citizens ages 18 years or older who reside outside the United States are eligible to vote absentee for candidates for federal offices in U.S. primary and general elections. In addition, some states allow overseas citizens to vote for candidates for state and local offices, as well as for state and local referendums. For information regarding your specific state, visit the Federal Voting Assistance Program’s Voting Assistance Guide.  Or, check out the website for the Overseas Vote Foundation, a non-partisan voter advocacy organization.

Adjusting Expectations While Traveling

Can my dietary needs be met while abroad?

It is important for you to research how your established dietary preferences and practices may be affected in your abroad environment. Do not assume that the foods you are used to will be available. Consider the extent to which you can be flexible in your food choices and how your experience abroad may be affected if there are practices and preferences that you feel you cannot change.