Five exchange student “must haves”

I first went on exchange in 1996. For some reason, the planes of 1996 couldn’t carry very much luggage per passenger. (It was probably because it wasn’t all that long since the Wright brothers had invented flying). This meant that each of us was only allowed to take 20kg (44 pounds) of checked-in luggage.

I was going overseas for a whole year. As I was only able to take 20kg of clothes and other luggage with me, I needed to be smart about what I packed. Unfortunately, I was an 18-year old guy who’d never lived alone and had barely travelled overseas before. I was the opposite of smart. I filled my suitcase and carry on with all sorts of stuff, 90% of which I then never actually used while I was on exchange.

After I arrived overseas, I compounded my error by purchasing many books, CDs and other heavy items. I then had to schlepp all of this stuff with me as I moved between my four host families. Finally, I had to find a way to get it all back home at the end of my exchange.

In retrospect, I don’t actually think that you need much stuff to live overseas for a year. The secret is to take (and purchase) a few key items which you use over and over again. Even if planes have evolved since I was 18, meaning that you can now take unlimited luggage with you, you should still try to minimise the amount of stuff you take with you, and pick up along the way.

Here are five things that you must take with you or purchase when you go on exchange.

1. Black Polartec or polar fleece top

If you’re going on exchange to a place where it regularly snows or gets below 10 degrees Celsius, you need to take an overcoat or jacket of some kind. I took a long black trenchcoat, and a long-sleeved, quarter zip black Polartec jumper.

In no time, I ditched the trench coat and spent the rest of the year wearing the Polartec top. The main advantages of the Polartec were that it was light and was easy to wear when riding a bike, but very warm. The black colour was neutral and inconspicuous, so no-one noticed that I wore it every day. It went well with casual (school) wear, and didn’t look too bad over the top of more formal attire, like button-up shirts.

The trench coat, on the other hand, weighed a ton. It was terrible to ride in because of its length (and in fact it caught in the chain of my bike and ripped, twice). It was also a bit of a formal piece, which didn’t pair well with my usual school attire of jeans and sweaters.

Don’t repeat my mistake when selecting your outerwear to take overseas. Get something light, packable and neutral. My black Polartec was the perfect solution for me, and could be yours, too.

2. Grammar book and sensible dictionary

Books are heavy. Foolishly, I took a lot of them with me on exchange. As it turned out, I really only needed two – a grammar book and a dictionary.

As noted in my article on language learning, a grammar book is probably your single greatest asset when you’re learning a foreign language. You can use it when you start learning a language and need to learn the rules of grammar and then practise them. And you can use it as a reference book for the balance of your exchange. You’ll get a lot of use out of it.

You also need a dictionary. Get something sensible, like an A5-sized paperback dictionary published by Langenscheidt, Collins or Roget. You don’t need a hardcover, thousand-page boat anchor like the one I took with me. Keep it simple. Keep it light.

3. Radio of some kind

Your host family or families should provide you with access to a small stereo of some kind. If they don’t, it’s worth spending a couple of hundred dollars to purchase your own once you reach your host country.

Why do you need a sound system?

There are lots of reasons. For one, if you’re in a country where you’ll be learning a foreign language, listening to the radio is a great way to learn that language. Radio news broadcasts, foreign language music, and the banter of local DJs will all help you to learn the language faster.

Once you’ve obtained a stereo, it’ll also provide you with free entertainment. As an exchange student, you’ll probably have a fair bit more free time than you currently do at home. It’s also likely that you won’t be able to work and earn money while you’re overseas. This combination of lots of free time and not much money will require you to get creative about what you do in your spare time. On a per-hour basis, purchasing a small stereo and listening to music is one of the cheapest ways to entertain yourself.

4. A bike

OK, so this is something that you’ll definitely need to acquire once you get overseas, rather than taking it with you. But it’s such an essential and useful item that it should be right at the top of your exchange student bucket list.

Your host family should have an old bike that they can lend you. Otherwise, a decent second-hand bike will cost you a couple of hundred dollars up front.

Why are bikes so great? There are at least four reasons:

  • They give you mobility and freedom – It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to drive when you’re on exchange. However, a bike will be nearly as convenient as a car and will enable you to get to school, go shopping and visit friends when you want to (subject to your host family’s timetable, of course).
  • They are virtually free to operate – Once you have a bike, they cost virtually nothing to run. Unlike bus or train tickets, or travelling with a car, you can ride as far as you want, as often as you want, and it won’t cost you anything.
  • You can explore your host country – Unless your host family lives in the middle of the Australian desert, or somewhere in Siberia, there should be a few nearby towns that you can ride to and explore. If you find yourself in Europe, Japan, or another densely populated area, there will probably be dozens of new places that you can ride to easily.
  • Cycling – especially off-road – is a blast – Cycling is one of the world’s most popular pastimes for one main reason: it is a hell of a lot of fun. Riding on paved roads and bike paths is fun because of the speed involved. Even riding a bike at 20 km/h feels much faster than driving a car at the same speed. Mountain biking – riding at speed through forests and on trails – is even more fun. During the course of your time as an exchange student, riding a bike can go from being a means of transportation to being a genuine hobby.

5. A smartphone with a high-resolution camera

As part of your preparations for going on exchange, you may be tempted to spend a few hundred dollars on a new camera so that you can take photos of all of the new and interesting places you’ll visit.

On the one hand, you might consider spending up big on a new digital SLR camera, which will allow you to take super high-quality photos of your travels. On the other, you may consider that a compact, digital camera is the better way to go.

Actually, neither of these options is particularly good. The SLR will be too heavy and bulky to carry around with you on your travels. I’d also advise against spending big money on a camera which could easily get lost, stolen or damaged. A small digital camera will have its own limitations. Image quality is unlikely to be great, and you still run the risk that the camera will be lost or stolen. If it’s a while since you’ve downloaded your photos – for example, because you’re in the middle of a long holiday – your photos will be lost.

There is a better way. Instead of purchasing a new camera, I recommend spending $2-300 upgrading your mobile phone. The phone should have a camera with at least 12 megapixel quality, if not somewhere in the mid to high “teens”.

The picture quality most likely won’t be any worse than a comparably-priced compact camera, and the phone will most likely be smaller and lighter. The real advantage of using your phone’s camera is that you can set the phone to upload your photos to Google Drive, OneDrive, Instagram and so on, as soon as you take them. This means that if your phone gets lost or damaged – which unfortunately happens quite frequently while you’re travelling – all of the photos of your once-in-a-lifetime travels will be safely tucked away in the cloud.

Can you think of any other essential items for exchange students to take or acquire when they go on exchange? Please leave a comment below.


Good luck, Matt

What to expect as a foreign exchange student

Many websites which purport to give advice to exchange students will tell you that everyone should become an exchange student.

That’s nuts.

Definitely not for everyone

This is the correct formulation:

Everyone should probably think about becoming an exchange student.

But they should only become an exchange student once they’ve informed themselves about what exchange students do, and the pluses and minuses of becoming an exchange student, and made an informed decision based upon that information.

One of the aims of this website is to give you such information, to help you figure out whether or not a student exchange is something you’d like to do.

In order to figure that out, you need to consider two questions:

  • What it is that exchange students actually do?
  • Do you want to spend six months or a year or another period of time doing those things?

The aim of this page is to answer the first of those questions.


Flickr/Lead Beyond
Flickr/Lead Beyond

If you do decide to become an exchange student, you’ll spend the majority of your time attending school.

Of course, the school will be in another country, which will add novelty value and make it interesting, at first. After a while, though, your day-to-day routine will probably be very similar to the one you have (or had) as a school student in your home country.

The school that hosts you is unlikely to have high academic expectations of you. For example, unless you have arranged for the grades you earn whilst on exchange to count towards your grades at home, you probably won’t be required to sit exams or submit assignments along with the rest of the class.

However, the school (and your host family and exchange organisation) will expect you to show up to school, pay attention and take notes in class, and not disrupt your classmates. If you cut class regularly, your school and possibly your exchange organisation will ask you to improve your attendance, or leave.

If you don’t want to prolong your time in school, or can’t imagine yourself spending a whole year attending school rather than travelling or earning money or socialising, a student exchange is not for you.

Language learning

Flickr/Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
Flickr/Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

In addition to attending school, most exchange students have to spend a large amount of time learning a foreign language.

Learning a foreign language is far harder than most people imagine. True, you will learn much vocabulary and many idioms by osmosis because you are in a country where you are surrounded by people who speak the language. However, you will still need to spend many hours on your own rote learning vocabulary and grammar, and doing grammar exercises.

Your host family, school classmates and exchange organisation will take an interest in how your language skills are developing. To a degree, they will judge the success or otherwise of your youth exchange on how well you learn the language of your host country.

In other words, if you don’t learn their language well, they may think that your exchange has not been a good one. That may be an unfair assessment, but c’est la vie.

Don’t become an exchange student in a country where you’ll need to learn a foreign language if you aren’t prepared to work hard at learning that language.


One of the big aims of the student exchange movement is for exchange students to assimilate into the cultures of their respective host countries.

If you decide to go on exchange, your exchange organisation and host family will expect you to fit in with the routine and lifestyle of your host family. That means eating what they eat, keeping the same hours as them, respecting their belongings, adapting to their household rules and routines, respecting your host parents in the same way you respect your biological parents – if not more so – and making an effort to get along with your host siblings.

Outside the home, you will have to respect the laws of your host country, respect the rules of your school, and generally be a good citizen who keeps a low profile.

The flip side of all of this is that you will be expected to leave behind, or stop doing, some things that you do in your home country. Your parents at home might have no problem with you staying out until all hours, or staying up late on social media, or talking for hours on the phone, but your host family’s rules might not permit any of those activities. Likewise, you may participate in certain pastimes or hobbies at home that may be impractical for you to continue while you’re an exchange student. Fans of horse riding and playing the bagpipes, take note. You will have to find new pastimes in your host country to fill the void.

If you can’t imagine changing your lifestyle or habits, then a student exchange is definitely not for you.

Free time

New cyclists

Exchange students spend the majority of their evenings, weekends, and other free time with their host families.

Most host families will encourage exchange students in their care to socialise with people from their schools, other exchange students, and family friends. However, host families and exchange organisations also have a clear expectation that exchange students will spend a good deal of their free time at home with their host families rather than outside the home. They will certainly discourage students from treating the house of their host families as a hotel – as places for sleeping and getting free food in between socialising and partying.

If you want to spend a year or six months going out and meeting people and not spending any time at home in a family environment, a student exchange is not for you.


Being a foreign exchange student is not the same as being a tourist.

In fact, some exchange organisations or host families may prevent you from undertaking any independent travel. They may only permit you to travel in the company of your host family, or to visit people known by your host family, or as part of trips organised by your exchange organisation.

Note that, if you do become an exchange student, you will almost certainly have opportunities to travel. During my exchange year, I went on the following trips:

  • A five-day skiing holiday with my first host family in the Swiss Alps.
  • A weekend in Basel (city in Northern Switzerland), staying with another exchange student and her family.
  • A five-day trip to Paris to visit my sister, who was also on exchange at the time.
  • Another skiing holiday with my first host family.
  • A two week long European tour organised by Rotary Switzerland.
  • A weekend in French-speaking Switzerland with a family from my Rotary host club.
  • A two-week visit to a small town in Bavaria, Germany, staying with Rotarians from the partner club of my Swiss host club.
  • A weekend in Zermatt hiking in the hills surrounding the Matterhorn, with a couple from my Rotary host club.
  • A week in Berlin with my third host family.
  • A skiing holiday in the central Swiss alps with my final host family.
  • Throughout the year, weekend trips to Geneva, Liechtenstein, Bern and other cities in Switzerland, organised by former Rotary exchange students, culminating in a final trip to Zermatt, where we snowboarded at the foot of the Matterhorn.

You get the idea. I did plenty of travelling. You will likely have similar opportunities, should you choose to go on exchange.

Note, however, that the travel will not be wholly on your terms and will rarely be unaccompanied. There almost certainly won’t be any month-long, solo backpacking trips around Europe. If you are interested in more independent travel, a student exchange is not for you. You would be far better off just taking a long holiday, or undertaking a university exchange later on.


I’m not aware of any foreign exchange student who sought and obtained paid employment whilst on exchange.

For starters, the types of visas given to high school exchange students usually don’t allow the visa holder to seek paid employment. Even if you were able to get a working visa – which is surprisingly difficult in many countries – your exchange organisation may not allow you to work whilst you are on exchange.

If you want to work overseas, a student exchange is not the right way to do it. You need to consider undertaking a gap year or working holiday.

Drinking, driving, dating, drugs

If you decide to go on exchange, your student exchange organisation might prohibit you from drinking, dating, and certain other activities. The prohibited activities may include activities which you partake in at home, or which you feel you are entitled to partake in because of your age or because other people around you are doing them.

Rotary is mildly famous for prohibiting Rotary exchange students from drinking, driving, dating or taking drugs – the so-called “four ‘D’s”. No doubt other student exchange organisations have similar rules which they expect participating exchange students to abide by.

With the exception of the “no drugs” rule, most of these rules are a bit flexible. For example, nearly all exchange students get briefly romantically attached to someone while they’re on exchange. Such relationships are usually OK provided they don’t get too intense or too physical.

Exchange organisations and host families usually also tolerate a low level of drinking alcohol, particularly in countries like Belgium, Germany and France, where minimum ages for alcohol consumption are either low or routinely ignored.

Most exchange students will also operate a vehicle at least once or twice while they are on exchange, usually in the course of helping out their host families.

In a nutshell:

  • Going to the movies or hanging out at school with a girlfriend while you’re on exchange is usually OK. Doing things that could result in her getting pregnant is definitely not OK.
  • Having a beer at home with your host brother whilst watching a soccer game on TV is OK. Getting drunk and passing out in the city and missing the last train home is not OK.
  • Reversing your host parents’ car out of the driveway so that your host father can get the other car out of the garage and park it on the street is usually OK. Cruising around town in your host parents’ car without them being in it is definitely not OK.

Of course, where the rules are not flexible is where the conduct in question is illegal in your host country. For example, the drinking age in most of the United States is 21 years old – beyond the age at which you can be a high-school exchange student. Exchange organisations usually also have a zero-tolerance policy for unlicensed and uninsured driving, sex with minors or non-consensual sex, drug trafficking, and drug consumption where it is illegal. Any such conduct will lead to the student being sent home at best, or reported to the police at worst.

If you want to spend your time drinking and getting high, getting intimate with other people and driving around, a student exchange is not for you. A university exchange in a few years’ time will give you more freedom to do such things.

Not just negatives

You may conclude from the paragraphs above that there are only negative things about being a foreign exchange student.

I hasten to add that there are many benefits to going on exchange, as well. From my perspective, the benefits far outweigh the limitations on freedom and other negative aspects outlined above. I am merely trying to give you an accurate picture of what being an exchange student is like, so that your decision about whether to undertake an exchange is an informed one. The issues outlined above seem to be the ones which cause exchange students (and their host families) the greatest trouble.

Typical foreign exchange student routine

Exchange Student Tips

So, what does a typical day in the life of an exchange student look like? Mine used to look something like this:

School day routine

6.00AM: Wake up, shower and dress for school, eat breakfast.

6.45AM: Leave home on bike for 10-minute ride to train station.

7.00AM: Board train for 45-minute train journey into town. Most other school students on the train spent the time studying. I spent the time cramming German grammar or trying to read German books (impossible and very slow at first, easier and easier as the year went on).

7.45AM: Arrive at train station closest to school. Walk to bus stop and board bus for 10-minute ride to school.

8.35AM: First lesson of the day started.

11.35AM: 90-minute lunch break started (note that many schools in Europe have a long lunch break to allow students to travel home and eat lunch with their parents).

1.05PM: Afternoon lessons began.

4.35PM: End of school day. Board bus for trip to train station.

5.00PM: Train home. Again, most students would spend the train trip studying, in order to get a head start on their homework.

6.00PM: Arrive home. Do homework, study German or read newspaper until dinner time.

6.30PM: Usual dinner time.

7.30PM: Social time with host family, usually spent watching TV, lingering over dinner and chatting, or (in summer time) doing something outside like playing table tennis.

9.00PM: Say good night to host family, brush teeth, prepare for bed.

9.30PM: Lights out.

Weekend routine

Friday night: After dinner, visit pub or café with host sibling or other exchange students.

Saturday morning: Sleep in (a necessity after five 6 AM wakeups in a row).

Saturday afternoon: Family lunch, followed by some activity with members of host family (typically, sport, shopping, or helping with chores) or free time.

Saturday night: After dinner with host family, pub or café visit with similar-aged host sibling or other exchange students.

Sunday morning: Sleep in, followed by an hour of chatting to parents at home (after getting host family’s permission)

Sunday afternoon: Free time, usually a bike ride or run for me if weather permitted.

Further research

The information above is taken from my own experience and the experience of people I’ve spoken to, including former exchange students and former host families.

I urge you to seek additional information from people at your school or living in your area who have previously been foreign exchange students. Ask them how they spent most of their time, and how they found that life as an exchange student differed from life in your home country.

Decision time

Once you have as complete a picture in your mind as possible of what a foreign exchange student does, ask yourself this question:

Given my personality, my goals in life, my work ethic and my personal strengths and weaknesses, and given what I now know about the life of an exchange student, am I prepared to live that life for six or twelve months?

It’s a very tough question. Make sure you answer it as slowly as you need to, and as honestly as you can.

Good luck,


Do you have the right personality to be a foreign exchange student?

This post is directed at anyone who is interested in being a foreign exchange student, but is hesitating because he or she isn’t sure whether she has the right personality type.

He or she may be worried that she isn’t outgoing enough, or smart enough, or good enough at languages, or popular to be an exchange student.

Anyone having such thoughts is making the error of assuming that there is some essential personality trait which exchange students need in order to be successful.

No one skill

For the record, there is no single, all-important personality trait which exchange students have to have.

In fact, being an exchange student is a multi-disciplinary occupation. You need a combination of skills to do well.

An outgoing personality helps, but it is not enough

Exchange Student Personality
Matt Billings/Flickr

Many people would assume that being outgoing is the most important characteristic for an exchange student. After all, exchange students are constantly meeting new people.

I certainly worried about not being outgoing enough before I went on exchange. I was, and always have been, introverted, and worried that not being outgoing would be a big disadvantage.

That turned out not to be the case.

In fact, I met a lot of outgoing people who weren’t very successful as exchange students. One talked far too much, particularly about herself, which got tiring very quickly. Another was immature and was always doing things like cutting class to go and smoke pot.

Although these students had the advantage of being outgoing and extroverted, that advantage was cancelled out by their less positive personality traits.

I wasn’t outgoing, but I still did well. That was because I had enough positive personality traits to cancel out my inherent shyness. That was the case for a number of other exchange students I met, who were less outgoing, but made up for it by being mature, studious, having good judgement, and so on.

Essential foreign exchange student characteristics

Exchange student personality
Andy Atzert/Flickr

You don’t need to be outgoing to succeed as an exchange student. But there are a number of other personality traits that are essential for anyone going on exchange. In no particular order, these are as follows:


One of the big goals of going on exchange – if not the whole point of going on exchange – is to try new things.

You must be open to changing your lifestyle, habits, diet and pastimes to fit in with your host family and host country.

You must also be prepared to establish new and meaningful relationships – particularly with your host family – which will require you to be honest and open about your feelings.

Hard work

You must be prepared to put in the work to succeed as an exchange student.

Any former exchange student will tell you that it takes effort to make an exchange work.

The main task that most exchange students need to work at is learning a new language. As discussed elsewhere, that is a monumental task and one which takes much time and energy.

Even if you won’t be learning a new language, you’ll need to work hard at building and maintaining new relationships, attending school, being friendly and outgoing even if you don’t always feel like it, overcoming culture shock, and so on.


US actor and film director Woody Allen said that 80% of success is simply turning up.

At the start of your exchange, you’ll be a rookie at virtually everything, and will do many things badly. Your language skills may be poor. You’ll have no idea how to get around. Even the local currency may be a struggle. You’ll embarrass yourself in front of your host family, school mates, and random strangers.

All of these things will get better over time. The key is to keep going. You need to have the kind of personality which lets you persist and keep “turning up” in spite of these minor, day-to-day setbacks.

Sense of humour

Exchange students need to have a sense of humour. They need to be able to laugh at themselves and see the funny side of their sometimes-embarrassing attempts to fit in and adapt to their new host countries.

A good sense of humour also helps students to integrate with their host families and school colleagues.

Maturity and acceptance of authority

Foreign exchange students also need to be mature enough to accept the authority of others.

Simply put, there are times when you need to be able to shut your mouth, listen up, and do whatever your host parents, exchange program coordinator, or school teachers are telling you to do.

Anyone who goes on exchange with a “you’re not the boss of me” attitude is wasting his or her time and the time of many others.


Doing difficult things is a key part of the exchange student lifestyle.

Nearly every student reaches a point during his or her second or third month of being on exchange where everything seems too difficult. The novelty of being on exchange has worn off. He or she may be experiencing homesickness. The language barrier is still there and is proving frustratingly slow to go away.

One morning, the student wakes up and can’t face the thought of getting on the train to go to school again, and making conversation with his or her classmates again, and spending yet another day trying to understand, and converse in, a foreign language.

He or she simply has to get going and start doing those difficult things for another day, and the day after that, and each day after that for several months. Things do get easier, but there will be times when nothing seems easy and when things in fact seem to be getting harder. You need a resilient, tough personality to endure those times.


Although foreign exchange students have a support network in the form of their host families, exchange programs, schools and fellow exchange students, they also need to be independent.

Particularly at the start of an exchange year, students will have fewer friends and friendly school mates, and will need to be self-reliant until they find their feet.

Tact (not being offensive)

You need to be tactful when you’re spending an extended amount of time in a foreign country.

There are bound to be things about your host country and its population that you find strange, or annoying, or far inferior to the same thing in your home country.

Your host families may also have habits or ways of doing things that you find silly or odd. You need to be tactful enough to accept these things and not make a big deal out of them.

Anyone who goes to, say, New Zealand and spends a lot of time commenting negatively on the New Zealand school system or the New Zealand climate or moaning about New Zealanders themselves is not going to make friends with many people.

You need to accept your host country as it is – an imperfect place with good and bad points, and imperfect people who also have good and bad points – and get on with things, without dwelling on the negatives.


Don’t go on exchange if you are a heavy drinker or into any kind of drugs.

The fact is that narcotics change your personality – usually for the worse. They also can make you careless and prone to acting immaturely.

Both your reputation and your time on exchange will fare better if you are able to limit your consumption of narcotics to a drink or two with your host siblings or close school friends, where you are legally able to.

Even better, you can follow the examples of rock musicians James Hetfield (Metallica) and Ted Nugent – who follow the straight edge  philosophy – for the duration of your exchange, and abstain from cigarettes, drugs and alcohol altogether. In any case, make sure you stay sober and in control at all times.


Exchange Student Personality

There are other characteristics and skills which either are not essential for foreign exchange students, or which you can compensate for if you don’t have them:

  • Language aptitude – When it comes to foreign languages, not everyone is blessed with talent for  retaining vocabulary, or pronouncing words. Generally speaking, you can compensate for this weakness by working harder – for example, by rote learning more vocabulary, or by getting a really good handle on grammar (which hardly anyone does well).
  • Academic talent – Foreign exchange students usually have a fair bit of latitude in the subjects they’re allowed to take at their host schools. If you aren’t the world’s best student, you can usually arrange your school timetable to incorporate more of the subjects you’re good at or interested in.
  • Homesickness – Not everyone has a personality which lets them live away from their home and families without getting homesick. It is very difficult to eliminate homesickness altogether. However, there is a trick for living with it: minimise contact with your family and friends at home. Keep your contact with them brief and contained – for example, a one-hour chat with your parents each weekend – and ask them not to message or call you at other times. The more you practise going without your family and friends from home, the better you’ll get at it.
  • Being outgoing – Even if you’re not a naturally outgoing person, you can still make plenty of friends and meet new people by doing two “mechanical” things consistently. The first is spending as much time as possible with other people – at school, with your host family, and by accepting invitations. Try consciously to surround yourself with other people as often as possible. Then, make conversation with those people using the “stack” of getting to know you questions I discussed in my post on giving a good first impression. You’ll come across as an outgoing, natural conversationalist, when in fact all you’ll be doing is going through a practised routine.

If you can think of any other characteristics that foreign exchange students do or don’t need to succeed, please leave a comment below.

Good luck,


Tips for foreign exchange students in Australia

Foreign Exchange Student - Australia
Canberra (Photo: Flickr/Denisbin)

“Australia. It has everything, and they speak English” – Murray Walker, former Formula 1 broadcast commentator

Australia has a lot to offer foreign exchange students.

It is a safe and peaceful place to live, with a high standard of living and well-resourced schools and health care facilities.

It has a beautiful natural environment – encompassing unspoilt beaches, rain forests, vast deserts, and a snowy alpine region – as well as famous man-made structures such as the Sydney Opera House.

Exchange students in Australia learn English – the world language. Being almost all descended from migrants themselves, Australians welcome foreigners and are tolerant and understanding of those who are learning English.

This post will tell you everything you need to know about being a foreign exchange student in Australia.

High school in Australia

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
School in Canberra (Photo:

As an exchange student in Australia, you will attend a high school and will most likely be enrolled in “Year 11” – the second-last year of school – or “Year 12” – the final year. The Australian school year runs from late January until mid-December.

Subject choice

In Australia, there is no “streaming” of students into different schools depending upon whether they intend to study at university or not, as in some European countries. Everyone attends the same school regardless of their intended career path.

This means that most schools offer a wide range of elective subjects. It is usually compulsory for all students to study English and mathematics. Otherwise, students are generally free to select subjects which interest them and/or which are necessary for their intended career.

Shortly after your arrival, your host family or exchange program representative will take you to your school for the purposes of meeting the school principal and enrolling you in your classes. You will most likely have to study English and mathematics along with everyone else. Otherwise, you should have a lot of freedom in choosing the subjects you study – history, foreign languages, art, music, and so on.

Another thing that may be different to school in your host country is that Australian students generally only study a few subjects in the final couple of years of school. In the Australian Capital Territory, where I live, students in their final two years of school usually only study five different subjects. The flip side is that they tend to study those subjects in great depth.

Government and non-government schools

A slightly unusual feature of the Australian school system is that a large number of students – about 40% – attend non-government (private) high schools.

Your exchange organisation or host family may arrange for you to go to a government or non-government school. Both types of school are generally of a high standard in Australia.

School uniforms

Most Australian high school students wear school uniforms. It’s likely that you will have to wear a uniform to school, as well. If this is the case, your host family or exchange organisation will help you with some or all of the costs of purchasing the uniform.

Your school uniform might take a bit of getting used to, but it will also have real benefits. For starters, you won’t ever have to spend time thinking about what to wear to school. You will save money by wearing the same thing week in, week out and not having to purchase new clothes all the time. Wearing a uniform will also mean that you will blend in with your classmates from day one.

Extra-curricular activities

Most Australian high schools offer extra-curricular activities that their students can get involved in.  At government schools, this usually includes dance groups, band or orchestra, and musical theatre groups. At non-government schools, it normally also includes sporting teams.

Getting involved in these activities is a great way for you to meet and socialise with others from your school – particularly as there is no language barrier involved.

Australian English

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Manly Beach, Sydney (Photo: Flickr/Jason James)

Australia was a British colony until 1901, and the main language spoken in Australia is English.

Australian English evolved from British English. With a few exceptions, the spelling of Australian English usually follows the British format – for example, Australians write “colour” rather than “color” and “mum” rather than “mom”.

The standard dictionary for Australian English is the Macquarie Dictionary, which you can purchase from virtually any book store in Australia.

At the beginning of your exchange, you may find Australians difficult to understand when they talk. They tend to speak more quickly and unclearly than British or American people. However, you’ll soon adapt.

Social etiquette

While Australians have a reputation for being laid back and informal, they are actually relatively socially conservative. If you want to fit in as a part of your host family and school community, you will need to be sensitive to, and pick up on, Australian social etiquette.

Bear the following in mind.

  • Swearing – nearly all Australians consider swearing impolite. Never swear in front of, or even within earshot of, your host parents, school teachers, or other authority figures.
  • Nudity – Australians tend to stay covered up more than Europeans. Females usually keep their tops on at the pool or beach.
  • Australians usually consider it impolite to discuss political or religious views, except in family situations or with very close and trusted friends.
  • Australians generally are tolerant of homosexuality, but consider sexuality to be a private matter. If you happen to be gay, avoid any “in your face” displays of gay pride.
  • If you go out to eat with friends or other “equals” (such as your host siblings), the usual practice is to “split the bill” – ie, for everyone to pay for the items he or she has ordered and eaten – rather than one person paying for the whole bill. Tipping is generally optional in Australia.
  • Australians tend to value egalitarianism and dislike flashy displays of wealth and status. If you’re lucky enough to have a fancy new iPhone, or a $2000 watch, or your parents have a holiday home on the French Riviera, don’t make a big deal of it.

Money management

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Melbourne (Photo: Flickr/Ari Bakker)

Your host parents will help you to set up a bank account during your first couple of days in Australia.

All Australian bank account holders receive a debit card to use at automatic teller machines (ATMs). It can take 7-10 days for the bank to generate the card and send it to you. I recommend bringing a small amount of Australian cash with you – perhaps $200 – to use until you receive your debit card.

The banking system in Australia is robust and modern. There are automatic teller machines (ATMs) for withdrawing money in virtually every town and suburb, so you should have no problem with accessing your money.

The Australian banks also have a proprietary payment system known as EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer at point of sale). The EFTPOS system allows you to use your ATM card like a credit card. When you go to make a purchase, you swipe your debit card at the EFTPOS terminal located next to the cash register and enter your PIN. The money to pay for your purchase transfers from your bank account directly into the store’s bank account.

Your parents at home should be able to transfer money from overseas directly into your Australian bank account using the international SWIFT system. You can obtain your Australian bank’s SWIFT number and other relevant details when you first set up your account.

Cost of living in Australia

When it comes to the cost of living in Australia, there is good and bad news.

The bad news is that Australia is one of the most expensive countries on earth to live in. The cost of living in Australia is generally comparable to that in Scandinavia, Japan or Switzerland. It is far higher than the cost of living in most parts of the United States, Canada and Europe.

The good news is that your host family will meet many of your biggest costs – including most of your food, accommodation and transport expenses. You can minimise many of your remaining expenses by bringing things with you, or purchasing online from stores like

What to bring

Some of the most expensive items in Australia, relative to the rest of the world, are listed below. I recommend that you bring these items with you, if possible, rather than planning to purchase them in Australia.

  • Branded clothing and footwear – If you are happy to wear inexpensive, no-name, department-store branded stuff, you’ll be well catered for in Australia at a low price. If you prefer name brand items, such as Wrangler jeans, Ralph Lauren polos, and Nike or Adidas sports wear, you’ll notice that those are extremely expensive in Australia. Shoes of all kinds – sports, casual and formal – are also relatively expensive. You should either stock up on such items before leaving for Australia, or set up an Amazon account and know your sizing well.
  • Electronica – Things like smart phones, digital cameras and laptops are relatively more expensive in Australia than elsewhere. Bring your own rather than purchasing them in Australia.
  • Books – Books are more expensive in Australia than in many other countries. If you are a big consumer of literature, get a Kindle, or open an Amazon account for purchasing hard copies.
  • Cosmetics and toiletries – Obviously, it’s impractical to schlepp a year’s worth of cosmetic supplies across the world. But if you have room, bring a good supply of small, high-value items such as razor blades, cologne/perfume, toothbrush heads if you use an electric toothbrush, and make up. Such items are relatively expensive in Australia.

Typical “shopping basket” of expenses

Here are the costs of an imaginary “shopping basket” of items purchased in Australia, to give you an idea of your potential costs of living. (All costs are in Australian dollars):

  • Mobile phone plan – Unlimited national calls and text, 2GB  data = $30 per 28 days (Vodafone Combo $30 recharge)
  • iTunes music = $1.69 per track
  • Magazines = $7-$12 depending upon size and subject matter
  • 600 ml Coke Zero = $3.60
  • Medium Big Mac Meal = $8-$10 (variable depending upon location)
  • Body spray / deodorant = $6.00 (Rexona 200gm varieties)
  • T-shirt = $50-60 (Superdry, Abercrombie and Fitch, or similar)
  • Jeans = $100-120 (Levis 500 series)

Getting around

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Jamison Valley, New South Wales (Photo: Flickr/Andrew Fysh)

In Australia, road transport rules. The vast majority of Australians get around in their own cars, and buses are their usual choice of public transport. The long distances between state capitals mean that Australians usually fly interstate.

There are well-developed train networks in the state capitals – especially Sydney – but outside the major population centres, trains are few and far between. Again, people tend to travel long distances by car or bus.

Cycling is popular in big cities, but the spread-out nature of Australian cities means that bicycle transport is only practical for people whose homes are relatively close to where they work or study, or for short-distance local trips.

What does this mean for you as an exchange student?

  • You’ll most likely travel to school by bus (train if you are in Sydney) or your host family’s car, or that you’ll ride if the school is close enough.
  • It’s likely that you’ll travel long distances by bus or car, or plane for distances greater than about 300km.
  • You’ll probably undertake local trips using your bike or that your host family will drive you.

Australian food

Australians cook and eat a wide variety of foods, reflecting the multicultural nature of Australian society. Asian and southern European influences are particularly strong.

Vegetarianism is not as prevalent in Australian society as in, say, Europe. However, there is a wide variety of vegetarian foods available in Australia, as well as vegetarian-specific restaurants in the larger cities.

Foods for people with specific allergies or intolerances (for example, gluten or lactose intolerance) are widely available in Australia. Your host family should be able to accommodate any specific dietary needs you have.

Australian culture

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Photo: Flickr/Les Haines


It should be possible for you to continue almost any sport you currently participate in – or try any new sport you’re interested in – during your student exchange in Australia.

Australians play a wide range of sports, including sports with British (rugby league, rugby union, cricket), American (baseball, basketball) and European (soccer, cycling, mountain biking) heritage. These are mostly organised in clubs outside school. Your host parents will be able to help you get involved in any sport you are interested in.

Given the generally sunny Australian climate, swimming, surfing and tennis are popular in Australia. There is also a small alpine district in south-eastern New South Wales where skiing and snowboarding are possible during the winter months.


You’ll easily get your fill of music in Australia.

There are at least two or three FM radio stations available in every location in Australia, including a commercial station playing popular (top 100-style) music.

Australia also has a small but enthusiastic home-grown music scene. Government-run youth radio station Triple J is available in most locations around Australia and has a heavy emphasis on Australian music.

In the paid music space, iTunes, Pandora and Spotify are all available from Australia. The biggest retailer of physical CDs in Australia is called JB Hi-Fi, and has locations all over the country.



Nearly all Australians have access to high-speed broadband internet at home, and it’s almost certain that your host family will have a good, high-speed connection that you can use.

Furthermore, there are an increasing number of public places such as shopping centres which have “free” Wi-Fi. Your high school will most likely have its own Wi-Fi network for students to use.

In short, you should have no problems with connecting to the internet whilst on exchange in Australia.

Mobile telephones

There are three main mobile phone network operators in Australia, called Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. You can use this guide to Australian phone networks and frequencies to help you work out whether your existing mobile phone will be compatible with an Australian mobile phone network. Your host family will help you to get connected to a mobile network during your first couple of days.


Australia generally has a warm climate, but many locations have a high diurnal range. For example, Canberra usually has a long stretch of days in summer where the temperature exceeds 35 degrees celsius. It also usually has a long stretch of nights in winter where the temperature is below freezing.

Many visitors are surprised at how cold parts of Australia can be in the winter months. Even beachside locations or elevated parts of warm states such as Queensland can get extremely cold, with temperatures close to zero in winter.

Make sure you do your research before departure. Find the Wikipedia page for the city or region you’ll be staying in, and pay particular attention to the table of average temperatures. Pack accordingly.

Risks and hazards

Foreign Exchange Student Australia
Great Barrier Reef (Photo: Flickr/Lock the Gate)

Australia is generally a safe place to live. There are a few things to be aware of, as follows:

Health risks

The biggest health risk you’ll probably face whilst in Australia is the sun. The sun is particularly strong in Australia and you can burn in a matter of minutes at the height of summer. I recommend that you apply 50-factor sunscreen every day in summer. You should definitely do so if you’ll be playing sport, going to the beach or spending long periods outside.

A related issue is heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It is best to avoid exercising in the middle of the day in the summer months, and important to stay hydrated at all times.

Australia is mildly famous for having many venomous or other dangerous animals. The risk of you being affected by any poisonous snakes or spiders, or sharks, during your exchange in Australia is low. However, there are some localised animals – such as crocodiles and Irukandji jellyfish – which cause serious or fatal injuries to people every year. Your host family or other people you are travelling with should be able to tell you when you’re entering a high-risk area for such animals.

Personal safety

Australia is generally a safe country from a personal safety viewpoint. Having said that, there are a few basic rules you need to follow:

  • At night time, neither males or females should be out alone, particularly in inner-city locations. Always go out with a friend or a member of your host family.
  • As in most countries, hitch-hiking is not safe in Australia. If you need to get home and have no money, call your host parents or a taxi.
  • Some schools or other groups in Australia have a heavy binge drinking culture. Limit your consumption of alcohol or other drugs, and take care around others who are intoxicated. Being intoxicated yourself makes you more vulnerable to physical and/or sexual assault. Intoxicated people are more likely to try to assault you, even if you are sober.
  • Numerous people drown at Australian beaches every year. If you are swimming at the beach, make sure you do so with a friend or group of friends.

If you have any questions about living in Australia as an exchange student, please leave them in the comments below.

Good luck,




Student Exchange Programs – How to select the right one for you

There are dozens of exchange programs. In fact, there are probably hundreds if you count small exchange arrangements between schools, partner cities arrangements, and so forth. I have listed a number of the major exchange programs on the ‘Resources’ page.

Choosing the right exchange program can make a huge difference to the success or otherwise of your student exchange. Yet, the process which most students and their families employ to select a program seems incredibly casual. I surmise that most people just find a program that looks OK and allows them to exchange to the country they are interested in, and apply to that program. They seem to do very little research or critical thinking prior to applying. In fact, they probably put more critical thought into their choice of sneakers or cell phone.

Don’t be like them. Increase your chances of having a great exchange by putting some rigour into the process of selecting an exchange program.

Do-it-yourself assessment tool

The aim of this article is to help you select the best available exchange program.  I only have direct experience with one exchange student program – Rotary Youth Exchange. I thought that it was a well-run and organized program. However, there may well be other programs which are better organized, or which better suit your purposes.

An in-depth examination of all available exchange programs is beyond the scope of this website. I also do not intend to make a recommendation in this article about which program is the “best”. Instead, I will help you make your own assessment of which program is right for your circumstances. I will give you five rules to apply when assessing exchange programs. You should only select a program which meets all five of those rules.

Rule 1: The exchange program must have one or more mentors or counsellors to help exchange students having difficulties

Exchange student Singapore
Flickr / Les Haines

Things can and do go wrong during student exchanges. You need to choose an exchange organisation which gives you a safety net. In fact, ideally you’ll have several safety nets. The more the better.

Usually, when an exchange student encounters a problem, he gets help from his host family in the first instance. That works OK, until the exchange student’s host family is the problem. Thankfully, I never had issues with any of my host families. But a number of my exchange colleagues had problems with theirs. Some of these problems were mildly humorous, like only being permitted to shower at home twice per week. Some were potentially dangerous, like physical abuse of a host sibling.

Rotary had a mechanism in place for dealing with such issues. It appointed two “counsellors” for each student – one in the host Rotary club, and one in the sponsoring Rotary club back home. This meant that if a student was having problems with his host family, he could approach either Rotary counsellor for help. If the counsellor in the host Rotary club wasn’t helpful, or felt conflicted because he was friends with the host family in question, the student could contact the counsellor in his sponsoring Rotary club. The sponsor club counsellor would then sort things out. I thought it was a smart system.

I’m aware of other exchange organizations which have a co-ordinator or mentor for all students in a particular city or district. Students who have problems that their host families can’t solve can turn to the co-ordinator or mentor person for assistance. That also seems sensible, although I wonder what happens if the co-ordinator hears about the problem and sides with the host family, whom the co-ordinator most likely will have recruited. A two safety-net system like Rotary’s is preferable.

Rule 2: The exchange program must be large and well-established

New York
Flickr / Andrea

Size matters when it comes to exchange programs. The larger exchange organisations such as Rotary, AFS and YFU have been operating for decades and have probably each sent hundreds of thousands of students on exchange. All of that experience is reflected in their policies and administration, which are well-settled and robust. They are large enough to be able to employ full-time staff who can devote their time to looking after students and running their programs properly. If a student has a problem with his or her host family and needs to change – which happens relatively often – a large program will have the resources and capabilities to find a new host family quickly.

Smaller exchange programs – such as an arrangement between two schools in different countries – are unlikely to have the same amount of rigour. They largely rely upon volunteer labour and may struggle to find you a new family if things with your original host family go wrong.

Unless you find a small exchange program or arrangement which seems exceptionally well run, stick with one of the larger, established programs.

Rule 3: The exchange program must rigorously screen all host families and program administrators

Flickr / Arnaud DG
Flickr / Arnaud DG

Before you apply to any youth exchange organisation, be sure to check out its policies in relation to screening host families and program administrators.

At a minimum, the exchange organisation you choose should undertake police background checks on your host family or host families. It should also undertake such checks on any of its employees or officers who will have supervisory responsibilities towards you. Youth exchange students in a foreign country are young, vulnerable and very attractive targets for fraudsters, paedophiles, and others wanting to exploit them.

The exchange organisation should also interview and screen host families to ensure that they will offer you a good, stable home life. A girl from my high school went on exchange when she was 16 years old and was placed in a family where the father was a movie director. Anecdotally, there were always assorted movie and television stars, musicians and other celebrities hanging around the host family’s house. While she was on exchange, the girl ended up getting engaged to a hip-hop star who paid for her to have breast augmentation surgery. That was an unfortunate example of a young person being placed with a host family which couldn’t offer her a suitable home environment.

Rule 4: The exchange program must have a local office or representative

Make sure that the exchange program you choose has a local office or contact person in your home country.

It sounds like a small thing. However, virtually everything about your exchange program will be easier if you and your parents can deal with a person locally, instead of having to deal with people overseas. Applying for the program will be easier. Sorting out problems with your host families will be easier. Things like insurance claims will be far easier. There will be no language barrier and no time zone differences to worry about. If anything comes up during your exchange, your parents can just call the local person and let him sort things out with his overseas counterpart.

Rule 5: The exchange organisation must give you opportunities to socialise with other exchange students

Flickr / Marjaana Pato

On a lighter note, I recommend seeking out an exchange program which will give you opportunities to meet, and socialise with, other inbound exchange students.

Most exchange organisations really push the need for exchange students to spend the majority of their time associating with their host families, school mates and other natives of their host countries. I agree with that policy.

However, good exchange organisations also recognise that relationships between exchange students can be hugely beneficial, and encourage those relationships. During my exchange year in Switzerland, Rotary Switzerland did this by organising a two-week long European tour for all inbound exchange students, as well as weekend get-togethers every two months. Meeting other exchange students through these events helped me in the following ways:

  • Coming from the Southern Hemisphere, my exchange year started in January. There were a number of Northern Hemisphere students who had started their exchange years in the previous August. Those more experienced exchange students gave me a lot of good advice about what they had learned and really helped me find my feet in the early days of my exchange.
  • The other exchange students could relate to issues and frustrations I was experiencing with school, Swiss culture, language, homesickness, and were happy to discuss those.
  • I was able to meet and befriend the host families of several other exchange students, broadening my experience of Swiss life.
  • I had a circle of friends to spend time with on weekends when my host families were busy.
  • I enjoyed being able to travel with others who were experiencing things for the first time at the same time I was.
  • I was able to learn something about the cultures of the countries from which those other exchange students came.

I am still close friends with roughly half a dozen people I first met when we were exchange students in Switzerland. Although we have moved on and developed other common interests since then, the help, friendship and support we gave each other all those years ago is still the glue which binds our friendships together now.

Don’t miss out on the many benefits of spending time with other exchange students. Be sure to apply to an exchange program which will enable you to meet, and travel with, other exchange students.

Good luck,