How To Study Abroad Without Being An Ugly American

Here we are, a new semester, and you could easily stay back in the States on your boring campus, drinking light domestic beer like everyone else. But that would be boring and predictable, and you are cool and different, so you’ve decided to spend a few months abroad. And of all the continents on earth, you picked Europe. Great choice. Very original. (Much like when we Europeans go for a vacation in “America,” but spend all three weeks in New York City.) But are you really prepared for what you’ll find, or have you just been watching Amelie on repeat for the last ten years? That won’t be enough by itself — you need to be well-prepared, beyond just learning where to buy Absinthe. Here, a guide to making the most of your time abroad without being the proverbial Ugly American.

Be prepared to do your PhD in paperwork.

Yay! You have your student visa, your plane tickets and your official city guide. You can finally have all the goodbye parties you want and start wondering who will take you to the airport (maybe you should have waited to break up with that guy). Don’t think settling in your new city will be easy. It will actually start with a great deal of red tape. First of all, most of the Unis have received foreign students for years, but they’ve never actually figured out how to do it. Indeed, you will always be missing at least one paper (yes, even if you’re hot, as there is no way to explain that to a computer). Teachers won’t know if you can attend their class or not (unless you’re hot, which allows you to attend any class), no one will know if you have access to a student card.

Then, you’ll probably want to live somewhere (I’m assuming, I don’t know you). To achieve it, ask a bank to be guarantor for you, because virtually no owner will rent you their flat with a guarantor abroad, let alone without guarantor. Plus, it will save you the trouble of bringing 2 years of pay stubs to prove that you LEGALLY earn three times the rent. Yes, prostitution is illegal. Yes, so is drug dealing. Once you have found your flat, the next step will be asking for housing allowance which will make any red tape adventure look ridiculously easy. I would love to tell you all about it, but the pain is still too fresh for me to go into details. And I’ve been renting flats in Europe for the last 5 years. Just remember that if you show up with just a naive look on your face and two words in the native language, you’ll probably spend half the semester helpless and laughed at by locals.

Nothing good happens before 9 AM.

Unlike the big cities in America (notably New York), Europe is not the Continent That Never Sleeps. Things close down at night, and open again in the mornings. Unless what you’re looking for is a bakery or a post office, I’m sorry to say most of the shops, museums and pubs are closed until 9 am. It will be a bit hard to accept the first time you’re drunk in the first metro at 6 am and having pizza, visiting the Louvre or even hanging out in the school library seems like the greatest thing that could ever happen to you. You’re probably on the verge of death from fatigue but too drunk and possibly disappointed (yeah, I’m sorry, but let’s face it: not all European guys are great lovers) to notice it. Don’t wear yourself out too early on this voyage — get some sleep, try to avoid the hangover you’ll end up having anyway, and wake up with enough time left to catch some daylight (if you can, I don’t want to judge).

English will get you through, but won’t make you look good.

There are thousands of places in Europe where people still believe their language is the world’s most beautiful one and everybody should learn it. It isn’t completely true, but it isn’t completely wrong either. Actually, if you come here and do not know a single word of the language spoken around you (and please remember Europe is made of several countries where different languages are used), three terrible things will happen:

1. You will be lost in any place where things aren’t translated into English, including restaurants and pubs and bars. Really annoying if the waiters don’t speak English, or just know how to introduce themselves. Which happens. A lot. (Here’s a secret: They will automatically dislike you for making them work so much harder, as they’re not getting tips regardless.)

2. You will only see tourist stuff, which isn’t bad, but if you ask your way and people hear your effort of learning a bit of their language, they may reward it by showing you confidential places nearby you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. What do you want? Come back with the Eiffel Tower picture your whole family already has, or be considered like a fine connoisseur of the secret places you’ve visited?

3. You won’t be able to impress anyone with your extended two-word knowledge of their language and won’t ever hear the sentence “Oh my god!!! Your accent is so. cute.” You don’t want to miss all those precious chances of getting laid!

Don’t ever relax.

A year in Europe probably looked like the perfect holiday idea before you got here. And yes, you will have wine and pasta and drunk makeouts with literally thousands of beautiful European people. But don’t start to think studying abroad is a perfect time to relax because no teacher ever demands anything from exchange students. Even as a foreigner sitting among European students, you will probably have some homework. The great thing is, though, professors will usually leave you at least two weeks to work on it. Do the right thing, and get to work as soon as you can. Don’t believe that you actually have two weeks to work on it. Let’s face it, there is always something going on. If you are really here to enjoy your city, you will always find a good reason to go out. Concerts, museum exhibitions, oh-look-the-sun-is-shining-again parties. Friends tweeting you for an impromptu shopping session; that cute guy from that one bar texting you for an impromptu date; people you barely know calling you for an impromptu apéritif by the Seine. If you get in the habit of postponing your minimal schoolwork, you’ll always find something more important to do, until you find yourself with exactly one semester’s worth of work and exactly one night to do it in. Don’t be that person. Time management is essential — something you should master while you’re here.

Erasmus parties won’t bring you local sex.

If you are an American exchange student, you may have come to Europe thanks to an agreement signed directly between your French and American universities or thanks to the MICEFA, so you may be at first wondering who the hell an Erasmus student is. Erasmus is a wonderful program allowing European students to travel to a foreign European uni for a semester or a year. In other words, Erasmus is perfect if you’re trying to improve your language skills, willing to finally move out from your parents’ place or engaging a who-will-nail-the-most-nationalities contest with your classy friends. Whether or not you’re on for that last point, you will sooner or later be tempted by Erasmus parties where you can get in clubs for free by showing your foreign passport. Sounds amazing, no? Drinks and endless dance music, what happens there stays there so everyone’s “single,” condom distributors everywhere (Go Europe!). What else? Oh, right… local people, maybe? The people you came here to “learn from” and “appreciate the culture of”? There will be a few, sure, but really not enough to actually meet them in the club, let alone have any kind of intercourse. These parties can be addictive, but are about as culturally enriching as going to a Chinese New Year festival in the middle of Iowa. So please, if you don’t want to miss your chance for local sex (and maybe some local conversation, but let’s not get crazy), just pay and go a to a party where it can actually happen.

Don’t tip. No, really, don’t tip.

I know people in America tip a lot, even students who have to actually work for their spending money. Clubs, bars, restaurants, everywhere, even for a simple coffee. In Canada, they even know how to calculate how much they should tip. It was always incredibly hard for me, every time I had a meal in a Canadian restaurant, to think about giving that extra 15 %, and even harder to actually give them, especially if the service or the food was quite bad (why do you do this to yourselves?!). Thank God I came back to France, where tips are made for men 35 and up, or twenty-somethings willing to impress a date, to show they had some money to throw around or thank the waiter for exceptionally good service. Actually, there even are places where the words “service included” are written on the bill. What they mean is: “We don’t pay our waiters more than any other place, but at least here you don’t have to feel guilty for not tipping.” Heros, really. Of course, there still are waiters who’ll make a point in showing you how incredibly stingy you are, but don’t worry — you can always tell them you’re a student and they’ll probably start to pity you. TC mark

image – Moyan Brenn


More From Thought Catalog

  • anon


  • bee

    blatant lie, i struggle with this every day!
    “In Canada, they even know how to calculate how much they should tip.”

  • pozsy

    Right on time, I’m a European, who will be Erasmus next semester :)

  • Nishant

    Having spent almost 2 years in Europe, I agree with a lot of what you say. 

    But I can’t believe how badly you’ve said it… Did you just puke all over your word processor? 

  • Confused Londoner

    Thank you for navigating the entirety of Europe so that all of us close-minded Americans may know what to do in such foreign lands.  I’m sure that any American student who is studying abroad, with a majority of tuition paid for by their home institution, has basically had the opportunity fall into their lap (without academic effort) and thought they’d cross the ocean to see what’s on the other side.

    I’m American, and I’ve lived in Europe for three years.  One of my favorite aspects of this continent is the sincerity found in most of its inhabitants, something that seems to be lacking in your heinous warnings.  Please find a guide on how to prevent “Ugliness,” in general, before deciding to make an offensive for a continent that does not necessitate one.

  • waltzingout

    I studied in Prague last semester and didn’t struggle with the housing process like you did, thankfully. Finding a decent flat was tough but the actual leasing went smoothly (the rent was paid in cash every month, which was funny). 

    But very true on the visa difficulty — people at the embassy aren’t really helpful either. My friend who went to Paris said the representative at the embassy had her in tears after berating her over some little mistake. Terrifying!

    Watch out for the pay-as-you-go phones too. No way around spending a ridiculous amount on whatever cheap excuse for a phone you end up with; get used to using Facebook or Skype to arrange meeting up with people to save on credits!

  • João Nuno Álvares

    I am European, but I guess, being a foreigner studying here in Europe should be awesome.

  • Nils_tyssens

    Oh no another Yankee cunt in Paris

    • alia

      you love us <3 

    • Michaelwg

      Example: Parisian hospitality

  • eduardo

    this is horribly written and over-generalized. 

    • Ann34

      Funny that this is called how to study abroad without being an ugly American, considering it unquestionably jumps to that Europe must be the destination of travel. Not unique and very typical for an “ugly American”

  • Melissa Messer

    A very valid depiction of Iowa, thank you.

  • Guestropod

    forget local sex – bars in hostels are great for sexxxing up travelling Australians 

    • Ava

      From Aus: are you talking about Australian guys or girls? The few foreigners I know seem to think Aussie guys are really bad in bed!

  • Maria

    As someone who has studied abroad, a lot of this is right. But some of it… oh, boy.1. “Nothing good ever happens before 9AM?” Clearly you have not been to Spain. I know what they say about New York, but Madrid takes it to another level. The clubbing/party scene throughout Spain is incredible and there are often clubs that don’t close until 8am. Not to mention an actual process for a night on the town, which usually goes with: dinner until approx. midnight, chupeteria (little bar specializing in shots), discoteca. 
    As for restaurants, it’s ONLY the tourists who eat dinner before 9pm in Spain. If you want to appear more local, or at least like you’re trying to fit in, a common dinner usually happens around 10:30-11pm, and it’s not uncommon to spend awhile at the table talking afterward. Many restaurants won’t close until 2pm. And ice cream parlours – well, I’ve bought ice cream at 3:30, so that hasn’t been a problem. Shops (clothing, etc) have hours that are more sporadic – usually close at 9 (like many other american cities!) but it’s very normal for shops in countries like Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Italy to close for a bit around lunch time. 

    2. “Really annoying if the waiters don’t speak English, or just know how to introduce themselves.” That’s what people would call “being an Ugly American,” as it’s quite typical for people working in restaurants to speak the language of their country/the country you are in. English isn’t a mandatory language for most, but many of the waiters actually do know English, especially if you’re in a major city. In my experience, waiters don’t mind if you try to speak their language and still end up butchering it. The exception to that seems to be the tourist-y area of Paris, where locals are more testy. But even pointing at the menu works. You can’t go to non-American/Canadian/AUS/NZ/UK countries and expect everyone to speak the same language as you. You can’t hold it against them when they don’t. 

    – Don’t ever count on getting around by car (especially in Italy, where driving is absolutely hectic – and I say that as an Italian). Know options by train, don’t be afraid of the local metro, and even rent a bike sometimes! If you’re doing day trips, look into buses. They’re usually a lot cheaper than trains! RyanAir will also save you a ton of money if you’re not afraid of a substandard flight.
    – Look at travel books before you go. I remember London has a great travel store called Stanford’s, but even if you’re American/Canadian I’m sure a local book shop has a few. They’ll always have good stores to shop at, great things to see, and probably most importantly – will tell you what festivals/holidays are going on where at what time. It’s really great experiencing a cultural holiday in a specific place (i.e. St. Patty’s in Ireland; Guy Fawkes Day in England, etc). 
    – The thing where no one will like your accent: bull. If you want to get laid abroad, they’ll love that you’re from somewhere else. Worked for me. Also, you can look in other places that ARE NOT clubs. Clubs are good for a one-time thing, but you’ll find some pretty great guys in a restaurant, watching a sports game, or in the park. The barista serving you coffee? He’s probably a pretty great guy to hang around with, or go home with, depending on what you’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to flirt; they likely won’t hesitate.
    – Say you’re Canadian. As a woman with both an Italian and Canadian passport, I had no problems in Europe. However, after my studies I was traveling with an American friend and she was wary about being casted into the “American Abroad Stereotype” (i have no idea why this stereotype exists, tbh). Her solution? Pretend she was Canadian. This worked out especially well for us in countries like France and Belgium, where we actually received preferential treatment from waiters and salespeople for being Canadian (places you don’t have to show passports to – even if you do have one). Every one seems to like Canadians. 

    • Nishant

      Okay, you’re an Italian woman. You’re not going to have a problem ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. It just does not happen.

    • RG

      I’m Canadian and it really pisses me off when Americans pretend you are one of us. If you want to demolish the ugly american stereotype, pretending you are American won’t do it. 

      • Kirstie

        Likewise (and this isn’t a criticism of Americans or Canadians but simply this specific group of people), while traveling recently, I was in a bar with pretty much the most obnoxious group of guys ever. They were from Canada, but I felt sure the locals assumed they were American, which would do a number on these people’s opinion of Americans. Moral of the story, don’t be an obnoxious traveler, no matter where you’re from?

    • João Nuno Álvares

      My country is mentioned there. Grazie.

  • Haifisch

    As an American working in a restaurant that gets a lot of tourists, I can say without hesitation, that most Canadians do not tip.  Sorry.  You don’t.

    Also, I traveled abroad for 5 years and never once said I was anything but American.  In Australia, I received better treatment than the Candian in my group.  Largely this was because he was an arrogant prick and I was not.

    • Anlon

      Thank you for basing your impressions of Canada on a handful of tourists and one guy in your tour group.

  • Abbey

    Maybe the title of your piece should have been “How to Study Abroad on a Non-University Affiliated Program.” Most of my friends and I studied abroad and did not experience the housing struggles you mentioned. Our programs gave the options of homestays, university apartments, or just random apartments scattered throughout our respective cities to live in (no rent, already included in our tuition for the semester). Your version of studying abroad sounds like way more work than it should be.

    • madride

      i bet your classes were in english too.

      • Abbey

        Ha. My classes were in English but I did take a Czech class in an effort to learn some of the language.

    • Kirstie

       Yes, her version of studying abroad is way more work than yours, but “way more work than it SHOULD be”? I feel incredibly grateful that I did an immersion program that forced me to find my own housing, figure out classes like a real student, etc. Any form of studying abroad is an amazing experience, so I don’t criticize your version of it, but it’s silly to criticize her version of it.

  • Leila

    I have been studying abroad in Paris for eight months now. I disagree with about half of this.

  • Caroline

    I found this article to be incredibly false* and a bit annoying.  ( but hey, maybe that’s just because I’m a resident rather than a student spending a semester abroad) 

    *Except for trying the language. That really is important. I’ve heard so many people complain about foreigners not speaking English well in the states, but so few Americans actually try to speak the native language when they travel. It’s common curtsey, really. 

  • PBilling

    It is GLARINGLY obvious this person went to Paris and nowhere else. 
    Paris isn’t Europe. London, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, and that’s just the urban centres. No other place is like Paris, which I personally take as a good thing. Most are actually completely different, including the rest of France. Having lived in other European cities neither housing, or opening hours, or anything else, are anything like it. They are other countries, ffs!
    Americans: please stop equating French with European. They do NOT mean the same thing, thank you very much; doing so will point you out as an Ugly (and ignorant) American indeed.

  • Anonymous

    Again another example of Americans taking Europe as just 1 single country…

    • Donnerunbaiser

      This article was written BY a EUROPEAN (of unspecified nationality)…

  • Maguirmj

    It really pisses me off when Americans tell people they’re Canadian, if you aren’t proud to be an American then move the fuck out to Yemen, I’m sure you’ll be much happier there. I’m a proud American who has lived overseas for the past 2 years and it’s really not hard to not be hated…Don’t go around comparing the local culture to wherever you’re from, no one cares. No one, i.e. “OMG that would never happen in Greenwich, Westfield, or whatever suburban town you’re from”.  Make a genuine effort to learn the language, it really will be appreciated. I live in an Arabic speaking country (tons of english though) and yes, its tough but I have generally picked up Arabic with some effort and the effort is what is appreciated. The truth is, if I was in my hometown bar and some foreigner (aside Canada) came in talking about how much this place sucked compared to their country I’d be pissed too, so don’t do it. I know this piece is written a bit harsh but the truth is being an American abroad is a great time if you are respectful, polite, and avoid negative attention upon yourself. Just be aware you are guest in someone else’s home and be respectful. And believe me, thanks to the media EVERYONE knows about American culture so don’t even bother with it, take the time to learn and appreciate the new culture and enjoy the experience. Truth be told living in an international city like Dubai has shown me there  are nasty and wonderful people from all over the globe.  Bottom line though is don’t judge someone by their the end of the day people are people and can be wonderful (or suck) regardless of where they are from.

  • Jason784

    For those who have traveled abroad to Europe, how are African-American males treated? I plan to study abroad in London or France next fall and want to brace myself..

  • eff sox

    so abroad = europe? i think you’re forgetting about the west of the world…

    • eff sox


  • Wooo China

    Lol studying in Europe. I’ve traveled around a good chunk of Europe already so I decided to go to China. The bureaucracy here is crazy but you literally find more nice and welcoming people here than anywhere else (there’s shitty people too but that’s expected) and it’s super cheap once you get here. But can I just say that I, and many other foreigners in my city, find English and UK area in general males to be the worst students abroad? The Americans I know are usually pretty chill. But I think you’d have to be not a typical American to actually come to a country like this.

    Also, communism.

  • Nienke Dekker

    i’m european and i love american accents and people who tip (this really differs per country. the netherlands: you better tip or expect major side-eye). you’re probably right about erasmus though. 

  • samantha

    What the shit is this??? Your logic never follows…you compare Europeans vacationing in NYC but telling people that they’re going to America with college students choosing to study abroad in Europe?…you haven’t clearly set up the comparison. You’d have to mention something about students going on about “Europe” when really they mean Paris, or London, or Prague.
    This sort of blunder reoccurs throughout this entire fucking article. It reads like an essay written by a distracted college student at the last minute.

  • Legend_seeker

    I find it hysterical that the article is labeled “How To Study Abroad Without Being an Ugly American” yet all of the behaviours and attitudes recommended in the article sound like things that would make you seem like even more of an ugly American. LOL.

blog comments powered by Disqus