Study Abroad in South Africa

By Madison White on June 22, 2019

Studying abroad in South Africa will probably lead you to some of the best times in your life, but what should you know before embarking on such a journey? From phone plans to applications to excursions, check out all the things you’ll need to know about studying abroad.

1. Why South Africa? 

If you’ve decided that you want to study abroad in South Africa, congratulations! It is a wonderfully unique country with diverse cultures. Did you know that there are 11 official languages of South Africa? Luckily, English is one of them. South Africa is home to some amazing cities like Cape Town, as well as natural wonders. You can find incredible wildlife there from African elephants to cheetahs to leatherback turtles. There is so much to do and explore! 

Infographic by Madison White

2. How to Study There 

Once you’ve decided to study abroad in South Africa, the next step is to do as much research as possible about how to make your trip happen.  First, you should contact your school’s study abroad department. They will be able to guide you specifically on if they already have a program at a South African university, or if you will have to study abroad through another organization. ISEP is a very common organization that sets up study abroad programs all over the world. 

Once you’ve decided which study abroad route you’re going to take, whether it be through a partner school or through a study abroad organization, then you need to decide on a specific university. Keep in mind what your major is and what the school may offer. You wouldn’t want to spend a semester somewhere that doesn’t have any classes relevant to your studies. If you’re still struggling to decide, look into the different cities and locations. You may find that one of them stands out to you because of the city that it is in, or its proximity to natural features. 

After you’ve settled on a university, it’s time to start the application process. Again, your study abroad office will have the most helpful advice on what you need to be sending out and which deadlines to abide by. Keep in mind that you may also want to apply for scholarships to help fund your trip. Most students begin planning at least 4 months in advance of their trip. 

2. What’s the weather like? 

Now that you’ve got your application on track, you can start thinking more realistically about what you’ll need to do before leaving. Something that is very important to do beforehand is research the weather of the place you’ll be living. South Africa’s weather patterns will be very different from the United States. Because they are in the Southern hemisphere, keep in mind that it is their winter when it is our summer. 

Temperatures in South Africa are generally warm but can vary based on where you are. Keep in mind that the country is also influenced by El Nino because of its location meaning that certain periods of time may bring heavy rainfall. 

Researching the weather is very important in regards to figuring out what to pack. You only have limited suitcase space available, so you don’t want to end up packing a bunch of things that you’re never going to wear. Also, if you are planning on taking certain excursions or doing certain activities, you need to plan to either bring those things with you or have a plan to get them when you arrive. Because South Africa is close to beaches, it might be wise to bring beach or hot weather clothing. If you’re planning hiking, bring some hiking boots! 

3. How will I live there? 

While it will be tempting to think you can just throw some clothes on a suitcase and hop on a plane, the reality isn’t that simple. Living in another country takes a lot of effort. Think of all the things you do on a daily or weekly basis that will be drastically changed by living in another country. Here is a short list of logistical things you will need to sort out before leaving: how to bank abroad, international phone plans, electronic outlet converters, and prescriptions. South Africa’s currency is the Rand, so you should make sure that you bring some with you before flying out. 

4. Don’t forget your passport! 

Something else you will absolutely need before leaving is a passport. Passports can take up to a couple of months to get so be sure you give yourself enough time before leaving. If your passport is close to expiring, make sure that you renew it before leaving. 

Another very important aspect is the study visa. South Africa requires people staying for longer than 90 days to have a visa. You will not be able to apply for the study visa until you receive acceptance from your university. Visa applications can take anywhere between 2 and 14 weeks to process, so make sure that you allow plenty of time before your start date.  

4. Prepare for homesickness 

Studying abroad is a great adventure, but that doesn’t mean that it will always be sunshine and rainbows. After the initial high of arriving wears off, you may begin to feel lonely, out of place, and very homesick. This is totally normal and almost everyone goes through this. However, if you know ahead of time that homesickness may strike, you’ll be better equipped to handle it with grace and continue having an awesome time. 

One awesome way to combat homesickness is to bring some snacks from home with you in your suitcase. When you start to feel sad, having that little snack can help you feel more at ease. You might also want to bring some pictures or a comforting pillow that will give you something to hold or look at. 

While homesick, make sure that you aren’t allowing yourself to hide away from everyone else. It is okay to take time for yourself, but the best way to truly combat homesickness is to get out there and make new friends and try new things. 

5. So many opportunities! 

While abroad, you definitely need to make sure that you are making the most of every opportunity. Because South Africa is very different from the United States, you may feel overwhelmed and out of place. It is completely normal to feel this way. You will inevitably make mistakes in terms of social norms and trying to communicate with others. 

Opportunities can take many different forms while you’re abroad. Often, the international departments will have activities and events set up for international students. Going to these is a great first step to making friends and trying new things. There will definitely be lots of events and activities around your university all the time. 

There is so much to do and see in South Africa like incredible beaches, breathtaking safaris, and amazing scenery. Whatever you like to do, South Africa probably has it. Just get out there and do it! 

6. Make new friends 

Before going abroad, you will probably be worried about making friends and being lonely. Even if there are other people from your university also at your school, you may still feel a little uneasy. These people—the ones from your home university—can be really great people to have around when you’re feeling overwhelmed by new things. You should at least try to be friends with them somewhat and have each other’s contact information. 

As stated before, another great place to meet friends is through events organized by the international department at your school. Most of the great friends people make are actually other international students. There are many reasons for this, but one is that other international students will understand your struggles with adjusting to the new culture. You can share your annoyances with each other and can bet that they’ll agree! 

However, there is one thing to be careful of when making friends abroad. It is very common when people study in another country to group with people from their home country. For example, if you’re American and you only hang out with Americans while studying abroad. This definitely isn’t a terrible thing. After all, those friends are going to be super understanding and helpful to you. However, this kind of action usually prevents you from having a really authentic experience with your new country. While you may want a few friends from your home country, you should definitely seek out friends from your new country. They’re going to be the best people to help you understand and learn about the culture, the food, the best places to visit, and much, much more. 

7. Don’t forget about school 

When people think about studying abroad, they often think about going out with new people and exploring new places. While this can be true, there is a huge part that people forget about: the actual studying part of studying abroad. 

You are still in school while you are over there and it is important that you don’t forget this completely. You should be familiar with which classes you’ll be taking and how you will be graded. Because most countries use grading scales which are different from the United States’ method, many studying abroad credits are based on pass/fail. This is a good thing because you don’t have to be perfect in every class to maintain a good GPA. 

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you don’t have to try at all. It is still very easy to fail classes abroad if you neglect them by not showing up, not doing the reading and homework, and failing to turn in assignments. While you’re creating your schedule, you should be sure that you have allocated time for you to attend your classes and time for you to complete things like reading, homework, and assignments. It is advised that you are familiar with the library and with the academic buildings before classes begin so that you aren’t lost on the first day. 

Another tip is to make friends with people in your class. If you are really struggling to understand concepts or do the assignments, having someone you know help you out can make a big difference. 

8. Exercise safety while still having fun 

Like any country, you need to exercise safety when you are out exploring South Africa. If you can, try and research the city that you’ll be living in and which areas should be avoided. This information may not always be available online so you may have to wait until you arrive to learn this information. During your orientation, you will hopefully learn some area specific safety tips. Make sure that you pay attention to these. You can always ask the international department about safety or ask local students who know their way around. 

If it is likely that you’ll be drinking while studying abroad, you should take extra precautions. Be sure that you have a clear way to get home at night whether it be by a hired car or by walking. You should never go anywhere alone after dark, even if you think the area is safe. Always try and keep a buddy with you and remember to look out for each other, 

If you choose to travel solo, try and use these tips to stay safe 

It is also wise to learn about how healthcare functions in South Africa and in your particular city. You may want to take out travelers insurance or use a scheme that your home university offers. Make sure that you are prepared with this information, or have it readily available in your wallet or phone. It is always a good idea to be prepared for a medical emergency, even if you don’t think one will happen. 

9. Keep things to remember your time abroad 

You may be having so much time studying abroad that it feels like your time there is never going to end. On the contrary, your time abroad will probably fly by. Make sure that you are keeping some things that will help you remember all the great times you had there. Try and keep them small and light since you will have to transport them back home. 

You could keep tiny souvenirs from your trip, or keep a folder of ticket stubs and brochures from places you visited. One of the best ways to remember your trip is by taking pictures. They don’t take up physical space and they are a great reminder of your time there. While you should enjoy your moments of fun, try and snap just a couple pictures that will help you remember the day. They don’t have to be perfect for you to look back on them fondly.

In conclusion, remember that having a good attitude goes a long way. Keep a smile on your face, no matter the situation, and you’re going to have an amazing time.

Madison graduated with her Master's degree in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester (UK), and holds Bachelor's degrees in English and Creative Writing from Wichita State University. She currently teaches English at Wichita State University and works as a freelance writer and blogger on her website Madison White Writes and elsewhere.

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