The crucial documents you need before departing for study abroad

By Lauren Alexander
Published May 29, 2012

Despite the fact that you’ve already filled out heaps of paperwork in order to get admitted to your study abroad program, you’ve still got to fill out some more in order to get on a flight. There are a few crucial documents you need to secure early on in order to ensure both your departure from the U.S. and your entry into your study abroad destination.


A Passport is your key to traveling outside of your home country. With this document you can explore, experience and discover – everyone needs one! If you don’t already have a passport and you’re planning to study abroad, try to give yourself at least eight weeks to get one since the processing can take some time. While there are regional agencies that can assist you in getting one quickly, it is more cost efficient and an overall smarter choice to plan ahead. If you already have a passport, make sure it hasn’t expired; remember that a U.S. passport is valid for 10 years for citizens who were 16 or older when the passport was issued. 

The passport also serves as your official identification as a citizen of your home country. This means that you can exit and re-enter the U.S. with a passport. Also, it works as a request to foreign governments to permit you to travel in another country’s territories. Say you’re studying abroad in Italy, for example, and want to head to Croatia for the weekend – you’ll need your passport to get across the border.  

Check out the U.S. Department of State’s Passport Page for the instructions on how to apply for a passport. You will find out where to locate the application form (which you must present in person), how to submit evidence of U.S. citizenship and other identification, and the process for paying an application fee and providing a photo.


Visas are official documents issued by a country that allow you to travel abroad for a specific period of time. You won’t be allowed out of the country for more than five months without one of these. Each country’s visa has a different application and you will have to work with the embassy of the country you wish to visit to find out the details. Browse the U.S. Department of State’s website for a full list of countries that require visas and details on how to apply. 

Don’t forget to check out the Embassy’s website of the country where you’re planning to study abroad for the visa application and instructions. Look for a section titled “Visas” or “Students” to explain the aspects of the application. Since each country has different requirements it’s important you plan ahead.

In order to apply for a visa, you must:

  • Have a residence abroad, with no immediate intention of abandoning that residence (dorm, apartment, home stay, etc.)
  • Intend to depart from the foreign country upon completion of your course
  • Proof of sufficient finances to pursue your proposed studies
  • Have a passport
  • Have an acceptance letter to study abroad program

Be prepared to send out your visa application at least two months in advance, and don’t forget to make copies of your visa and visa number just in case! Also, set aside some money for visa fees. Prices vary and can cost anywhere from $130 for a visa to China or $500 for a visa to Australia, just to name a few. Often, visas are not a tangible object. In most cases it can be a long number which you use to check in at the airport.

International Student Card

This universal card is here to help you save money as you travel the world. There are tens of thousands of student discounts offered worldwide on travel fares, restaurants, shops, theaters, hotels and much more. It also carries medical benefits (up to $2,000), emergency evacuation fees (up to $5,000), and bankruptcy protection (up to $2,000).

This card can also serve as a form of identification; it includes your photo, birthday and country of origin. Any full time student may apply for a card by visiting the ISE Card website or going to the closest STA Travel Branch

Proof of Age Card

Many countries won’t allow a U.S. license as a proper form of identification. A proof of age card is another document which can help identify you in a foreign country, eliminating the need to carry your passport everywhere you go. The card application is unique in every country, so check out individual countries websites to find application information. This is a small license-sized card which includes your name, date of birth, signature, and photo and is a great form of identification to bring to bars and clubs. 

International Certificate of Vaccinations

Certain countries, specifically places in Africa and Asia, require students to obtain an international certificate of vaccinations before they depart for their studies abroad. This document can be found at the local Department of Health, a travel agency, doctor's office or passport office. It’s to your benefit to get vaccinated before you head abroad and keep the certificate with you as proof. 

When traveling, make sure you keep all necessary travel documents gathered in one place. It is a good idea to keep them with your airline tickets and ensure that everything is properly dated, signed and notarized. Without the proper travel documents, you can be denied entry to another country or be unable to return to your own. Keep copies of all of these documents and leave them with someone at home – that way if something is lost or stolen, your parents can fax the copies to you. Getting them replaced in a foreign country is time-consuming and can be almost impossible.

Looking for more information? Check out our study abroad student guide to learn more.

Lauren R. Alexander studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia in 2011. She is currently working towards a BA in Communication and Theater at American University in Washington, DC.