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Which Housing Arrangement is Best

Housing arrangements may be the single most important factor in students’ enjoyment of their study abroad experience. Many programs allow students to choose whether they would like to live with a host family, in a university dormitory, or in a rented apartment. Each type of accommodation offers advantages and disadvantages, and determining which living situation will work best for you requires careful consideration of your personality, your reasons for studying abroad, and your financial resources.

Living With a Host Family 

A homestay experience is the living arrangement that allows students to most fully experience the native culture. If the host family does not speak English, the living situation demands total immersion in the language, which greatly improves the speed of language acquisition. Likewise, the experience facilitates total immersion in the culture. Daily interactions with the host family (and their friends and relatives) let students learn countless cultural nuances that could otherwise be learned only through a textbook or, perhaps, would be overlooked altogether.

Many host families virtually adopt their foreign students, making them a part of the family. When students are sick (or perhaps simply homesick), a loving host family is often there, ready to prescribe local remedies, provide advice, and offer moral support for the student who would otherwise be alone in a foreign country. Many students develop close relationships and correspond with their host families for years or even decades after their study abroad experiences.

Despite these benefits, a homestay experience can be extremely frustrating for individuals who have already lived on their own for several years and strongly value their independence. When living in someone else’s home, students are expected to follow the family’s rules (which may include a curfew) and may be asked to help with household chores. Also, many students who select a homestay complain about the lack of privacy.

Unfortunately, homestay experiences are occasionally dangerous as students are sometimes victims of robbery or physical or sexual assaults. Before opting for a homestay arrangement, be sure to ask the coordinator whether and how the host families are screened and selected for participation in the program.

Staying in a University Dormitory

One of the best reasons to stay in a university dormitory during a study abroad program is that this living arrangement provides plenty of opportunities to interact with peers of your own age. In most dormitory environments it is easy to make friends and, consequently, get help with coursework and learn the language more quickly. Living in a dorm is the best way to see what life is really like for college students in the country you have chosen to visit.

However, dormitories abroad have all the same disadvantages as dormitories at home: cramped living conditions, shared bathrooms, a lack of privacy, messy or noisy roommates, and tasteless cafeteria food. In addition, you may find yourself alone during the holidays when other students return home to their families.

Many universities have a special dormitory that is set aside for foreign students. Although these facilities are generally newer and more comfortable than the regular dormitories, they encourage interaction with other U.S. students and foreigners, thereby minimizing opportunities to intermingle with the local university students. If having a host-country roommate is important to you, be sure to speak with the program coordinator before signing up for dormitory accommodations.

Renting a Private Apartment 

Renting a private apartment is a good option for those students who value their independence and want to have maximum freedom. However, living alone in a private apartment can be isolating, especially for introverted students who might have a difficult time meeting and interacting with local people outside of a homestay or dormitory environment. Living in a private apartment also inhibits language acquisition, as the students have no one to practice their language skills with on a regular basis, and they tend to watch TV and listen to the radio in their own language.

Living in an apartment lets students re-create their favorite comforts of home by listening to their own music, enjoying their own foods, and keeping their own schedules. In moderation, this freedom helps students relax in an otherwise unfamiliar environment and feel more comfortable during their study abroad experience. Unfortunately, students who choose to live alone often take this independence too far, creating a mini-America in the apartment and missing most of the joys and frustrations that characterize study abroad experiences.

Renting an apartment is usually significantly more expensive than living with a host family or staying in a dormitory. In addition to monthly rent there are utility and phone bills and the costs of furnishing the apartment. Choosing to share the apartment with a roommate can reduce some of these expenses, but of course this raises concerns about privacy and safety.

How to Make the Best Choice 

Carefully consider your options and then base your decision on three factors: your reasons for studying abroad, your personality, and your financial resources.

If you are studying abroad to improve your language skills and learn as much as you can about the culture, then living with a non-English-speaking host family is probably your best option. If you are mostly interested in making friends, then staying in a dormitory may be more appropriate. If instead you are studying abroad to better understand what it would be like to live in that country (e.g., if you are considering an overseas job after graduation), then renting a private apartment will be the best way to preview daily life as an expatriate in that country.

Some personality-related factors to consider include your needs for privacy and independence, whether you have previously lived alone or with others, whether you are extroverted or introverted, your willingness to try new foods, and your commitment to learning the language. Outgoing, sociable individuals may have no problem meeting people while renting a private apartment, whereas more introverted individuals may find the experience to be too isolating. Also, younger students who have always lived with family or roommates are likely to enjoy the companionship that a homestay or dormitory offers, but older students who have lived on their own for years are likely to find the constant presence of others and the lack of privacy and independence to be irritating.

Finally, your financial resources should be a factor (although not the most important one) in your decision. Living with a host family is usually the cheapest living arrangement, as the host families receive a modest stipend to cover the increased expenses of utilities and food (it is always a nice gesture to bring your family small gifts or food, so set aside some additional funds for this purpose). Renting a private apartment is generally the most expensive option, and the process of finding and leasing an apartment can be extremely frustrating and time-consuming. The cost of staying in a university dormitory usually falls somewhere between the cost of a homestay and a private apartment, but it varies widely depending on the country and the university.


By Jessica Brown