Study Abroad: ‘It’ll be an adventure so don’t waste a second!’

In a few weeks, many of our Year 3 students will be setting off on their integral semester of Study Abroad. We wish them all well for the semester and hope they have a fantastic time, and are very grateful to Lily, who was at the same stage a year ago, and who has just sent us this extremely well-timed post. Lily spent her semester in France as an Erasmus exchange student but much of the advice she gives will be helpful for students heading for some of our other Erasmus partner countries or beyond the Erasmus network to Quebec, Morocco, Switzerland or (for those also studying Spanish) to Latin America:

2019 Dec Lily Ice Cream‘This time last year, I was preparing to move to France for my ERASMUS semester abroad, and I was panicking. Endless paperwork, the terrors of flat-hunting and of moving to another city… think first year of uni all over again, mais en français.

I’ve now moved to France on two separate occasions – first as a teaching assistant just outside Paris, and secondly on an ERASMUS exchange to Angers. Both were amazing experiences, though terrifying at the outset as I figured out how to navigate a new country and settle into a whole other way of living.

So, for this year’s French students preparing to go on their university exchanges: it may feel totally overwhelming right now, but believe it or not, you can do this. If there’s one thing I learned from my time in France, it pays to be prepared. With that in mind, I’ve put some information together that I wish someone had given me before moving to France.

Paperwork

Take everything. In triplicate. Every piece of paper you’ve ever touched. You may have heard of the stereotype that the French like bureaucracy. This is a lie. They LOVE it.

For enrolment, accommodation, banks, housing benefit: here’s some of the stuff you might need. Originals and copies!

Passport photos, Passport photo page, Proof of home address (bills or bank statements from the last three months or so with your name on them), Birth certificate, Stirling University enrolment letter, Host university enrolment letter/paperwork confirming exchange, Proof of activity for the last five years or so (if not covered by your university enrolment letter), European health card…

Any student cards, youth cards or Young Scot cards are also good to have on you for getting into museums and attractions for free. Many attractions are free for EU residents under 25, so have proof of age with you wherever you go (post-Brexit, you may also need proof of residency in France such as your French student card). Failing that, many museums and galleries are free on the first Sunday of the month – but arrive early, as these tend to be their busiest days!

2019 Dec Lily Les machines de l’île Nantes

Money

Money: believe it or not, you’re probably going to need some.

My friends and I chose a lot of different ways to handle our finances abroad. Here’s a few options to consider. Also: take some hard cash with you when you first head out – enough to survive on for a week or so while you get yourself set up or in case of complication or catastrophe.

Opening a French bank account.

Pros: If you want to try and claim French housing benefit, you need to have one of these. Some services – like renting a bike in certain cities – require one. The simplest way to avoid messing around too much with currency conversion and international payment charges.

Cons: I won’t lie, it’s difficult to set up an account. Most banks ask for proof of a French address (bill/bank statement with your name on it, letter from landlord, etc.) as well as proof of identity amongst other things. Some banks may be hesitant to set up an account for so short a period of time.

My opinion: Probably the most faff, but worth it for the security and flexibility it gave me while abroad. My university in France made an agreement with a local branch to help their foreign students set up short term accounts, so check with your exchange coordinator or ask other exchange students which branch they have gone with.

Using your British Bank

Pros: Easy. You already have it!

Cons: You’re subject to changing exchange rates and foreign transaction fees depending on your bank, meaning this is one of the more costly options. Additionally, it’s hard to say how Brexit will affect access to your British account –  there’s been a few newspaper articles about UK citizens losing access to their accounts while abroad in the case of a no-deal.

My advice: This seemed the more popular choice amongst my British friends but come prepared to look into other options just in case. Check your British bank’s rules and charges and notify them before leaving the UK so they know your details haven’t been stolen by a French tourist, lest you be blocked from your own account for buying your pre-class croissant.

Travel Credit Card

Pros: A card that will let you withdraw money in any currency in any country without charging foreign transaction fees. Simple and flexible.

Cons: Again, interest fees. Some cards use their own exchange rates.

My advice: This is good for frequent travellers as it will work for you almost anywhere in the world. However, be careful what kind of card you get, and make sure to keep track of your spending lest you end up with the mother of all debts at the end of your holiday semester.

2019 Dec Lily Rennes StreetTravel

Lucky you! France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Top tips for getting around:

Trains

The SNCF carte jeune is a 50 euro youth railcard valid for one year for 18-25 year olds, which gets you a decent discount on most train journeys. It may feel expensive for just a few months, but train fares in France are rarely cheap and if you plan on doing lots of exploring, you’re sure to get your money back. You can also get offers on last-minute tickets that haven’t sold. Ouigo is also worth checking, as it offers budget rail travel often far cheaper than its competitors.

Attention! Check strike dates before you book your ticket. There’s usually a lot of them. It’s France – what were you expecting?

Planes

Companies like Ryanair offer fare discounts and free luggage for students with an ESN (Erasmus student network) card. Check esncard.org for more info.

Cars and Coaches

Probably the cheapest options out there. Coaches operate just about everywhere for the road-tripper on a tight budget. Alternatively, Blablacar is very popular in France as a kind of long-distance rideshare scheme. [Note from the blog: Do remember to take the same precautions with such sites and schemes as you would do anywhere else!]

Accommodation

This is the one that seems to stress everyone out the most. Step one: don’t panic!

Where to look?

Your university may have an accommodation services office – this is a great place to go to for help, and they’re usually prepped to help the wave of incoming exchange students.

University accommodation: some universities will offer one-semester digs in their student accommodation. This is a great way to meet students both local and on exchange.

Famille d’Accueil: Some universities have programs that will lodge you with a French family during your stay. A wonderful way to make friends with locals, practice French and perhaps try some homemade French meals!

Airbnb: Surprisingly, several of my friends found studio flats on Airbnb. Search for properties with discounted monthly rates.

Roomlala.com: This is the site I used when I moved to France as a teaching assistant. Good for finding spare rooms in flats or houses shared with other people. Range of different options/types of accommodation available. Other students have recommended appartager.com

My main recommendation is to live with French speakers if you can. It may seem daunting at first, but it really is the best way to immerse yourself in the language and culture. You’ll really see the difference down the line!

Addition: For moving in, some students have recommended companies like Send My Bag as a cheaper and easier alternative to lugging your suitcases from one country to another. They’ll send your luggage right to your door so you don’t have to struggle with heavy bags while you’re travelling.  

Housing Benefits

Rent prices can be higher in France as landlords know that many of their tenants receive help paying for accommodation. Luckily, you might qualify too!

If you can make a successful application to CAF (Caisses d’Allocations Familiales) then you can do anything. CAF is notorious for being an awkward, laborious mess of bureaucracy, even for native French speakers, but a successful application can pay a couple hundred euros a month towards your rent. No pain, no gain!

Top tips:

Start early, work fast. CAF is usually very slow to reply, so send in any paperwork they ask for as soon as you can. Additionally, who knows how the rules will change after Brexit – try to make as much progress as you can ahead of the deadline.

Make your account the month before you arrive: CAF won’t pay benefits for the first month your account is opened, so don’t wait until your arrival to begin setting up your account.

Practice makes perfect: CAF will let you “faire un simulation” i.e. make a pretend application to estimate if you are likely to qualify, and for how much. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get what the simulation estimates, but it might help you decide whether the process is likely to be worth your time.

Check with your uni: my accommodation services office offered to help exchange students with their applications.

Remember, to receive CAF you will need a French bank account. Which means… more paperwork. Quelle surprise!

Phones

Most UK networks will now let you use your phone as usual, up to a point. The fair usage policy means that if you use your phone more in another country than you do in the UK, they’ll add roaming charges. If you’ve been on your contract for a long time, this will be fine as long as you don’t use more data in France than you’ve already used in the UK the whole time you’ve been on your contract. If you’re on a newer contract, you’re more likely to pass the amount you’ve already used at home, at which point you will start getting roaming charges. Insert usual warning about Brexit changing all the rules here.

If you’re going to be charged for using your UK number, Free Mobile is popular as a pay-by-month sim card for short-term French residents.

Pros: No contract, decent value for money

Cons: Notorious for difficulties in ending subscriptions.

Make sure your phone is “unlocked” if you think you’re likely to get a French sim card. This will allow you to switch out your sim card, but can take some time, and may be easier to do before leaving the UK.

Other

2019 Dec Lily UCO Scottish Desk

Your university will likely organise a lot of events and exchanges for foreign students. Take food, flags, decorations, postcards etc from Stirling/Scotland/the UK for displays or for sharing. That is,if there’s any room left in your suitcase!

2019 Dec Lily English FoodIf you find yourself dying for a taste of home, check out the foreign food section of your local supermarket, if only to laugh at what the French supermarkets think qualifies as “English” food…

Most important (if cliché) advice of all: have fun, try new things, and roll with the punches. It will be an adventure, so don’t waste one second!’

Many, many thanks to Lily for having taken the time to send through all this advice which will be incredibly helpful for future students. And for those reading this and getting ready to head off, profitez bien de ce semestre et on se reverra en septembre!

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