If you’re interested in being an exchange student, you probably already have an idea about where you’d like to go on exchange.
For example, you may be interested in going to Italy because you have Italian ancestry.
Or, you may be interested in exchanging to South America because you love soccer.
I was into heavy metal music as a teenager. I considered undertaking an exchange year in the USA, which is the home of that kind of music.
Choose a host country with your heart AND your head
By all means, follow your interests when choosing a host country.
But don’t forget to ask the additional, extremely important question of whether the country in question will be a good country for you to live in.
Political correctness warning
Make no mistake, there are good and bad countries to live in.
Is it politically incorrect to name the bad ones?
Am I going to name them here?
You bet. Here’s why:
I am trying to help readers of this website, not impress them with how open-minded and tolerant I am. I would much rather tell the truth and appear intolerant than put the safety and health of my readers at risk.
What makes a good host country?
Imagine a target or bullseye with three concentric circles.
The target represents an ideal exchange destination, with three objective criteria that need to be fulfilled.
You need to find an exchange destination which meets all three of the criteria.
1. The country must be safe
The innermost circle on the target, and the most important consideration, is your personal safety.
If you want to avoid getting killed or seriously injured, take heed of the following tip:
You must only consider undertaking a student exchange in countries where you are likely to be safe, and the possibility of you being hurt or killed is low.
Do not consider applying to countries where there is a high chance of injury or death.
Does that sound melodramatic?
Sure. But here’s the truth:
The majority of countries on earth are not particularly safe places.
For example, people in many countries violently dislike anglo-saxons in general, and Americans in particular.
In other countries, people target Jews and Christians and places where they congregate.
There are also many countries which are not safe because:
- there is either no government, or the government in place is ineffective or corrupt;
- there is a civil war taking place or an insurgency;
- there is social unrest or other factors resulting in large numbers of displaced or disaffected people living in that country; or
- minorities are oppressed and/or discriminated against (women, gays, minority religions, certain ethnic groups).
If you want a good idea of which countries are safe for you to live in as an exchange student, the foreign ministries of Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand each have websites listing risks and dangers for foreigners in virtually every country on earth.
Although those websites are tailored for tourists and other visitors, they will also give you an idea of which countries will be safe enough for you to live in, and which countries you should avoid.
For me, the requirement to choose a safe country as an exchange destination rules out virtually the entire Middle East, virtually the whole of Africa (especially the Maghreb countries of northern Africa), Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines outside Manila, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Mexico and Venezuela.
2. The country must have a first-world health system
After ensuring your personal safety, your second priority is your health.
Accordingly, the second concentric ring outwards from the centre of your hypothetical target is healthcare.
The chances of you falling seriously ill during your exchange may be low.
However, you need to ensure that if you do get sick, you will receive proper, safe, first-world medical care.
You must choose a host country with a Western-standard medical system. This means competent doctors, sanitary and well-equipped hospitals, and access to high-quality drugs.
The experience of one of my outbound exchange cohort illustrates this starkly. My colleague fell gravely ill soon after she arrived in her Scandinavian host country. She was unable to fly home, and had to undergo open-heart surgery in that country. Thankfully, the host country in question was an affluent nation with excellent health care. The surgery was a success and she was able to return to full health and complete her exchange year.
The availability of a first-world health system probably played a big role in saving my friend’s life. We tend to take such medical care for granted. The reality is that people die of relatively mild ailments like asthma even in relatively affluent countries such as those in Eastern Europe.
If you suffer from a pre-existing condition such as epilepsy or severe asthma or haemophilia, it is even more important that you choose a host country with an excellent health system. Failure to do so could literally cost you your life.
Which countries which weren’t eliminated in Step 1 have inadequate health systems? Those in Eastern Europe, many countries in South-East Asia, many parts of South and Central America, Pacific Island nations, India and China.
3. The country should not be experiencing mass social unrest, or have a high degree of inequality
The third circle in your imaginary target is stability. Specifically, you need to avoid choosing a host country in which there is a large gap between rich and poor, or a large group of disempowered or marginalised citizens, or an oppressive political or economic system.
In every such country, there is a large group of disaffected people, which typically resents the elite. As an exchange student, your host family and school friends will almost certainly come from the elite and you will form a part of that elite. As such, you will become a target for the disaffected elements of society.
Consequences of living in such a society include:
- increased likelihood of being robbed or being a victim of other petty crime
- “no go” zones in large cities which are unsafe for foreigners or members of the elite.
- witnessing, or being an unintended victim of, police brutality
Which remaining countries suffer from this problem? Traditionally, countries such as Brazil, most other South American countries, the Philippines and South Africa.
Other pertinent factors
Other things to consider when considering which host country to choose include the following:
- generally, the more affluent your host country is, the more physically comfortable your stay will be
- people will usually be more welcoming towards you in countries which traditionally have welcomed immigrants (such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States) than in non-“immigration” countries
- generally, the higher a country’s rank on the UN’s Human Development Index, the better it will be as a host country
Can’t choose your host city
Also, note that while you can choose which country you’d like to exchange to, you will usually not be able to choose exactly where in that country you will live. When you choose a country to be hosted in, you need to be prepared to be placed anywhere in that country.
In other words, don’t apply to go on exchange to the USA because you are interested in living in New York City. There’s a good chance you’ll actually end up in Sticksville, population 3000 and may never even have the opportunity to visit New York City.
If you are interested in living in a particular city for a while, a university exchange would be a better way to do it.
What about learning a foreign language?
Should the possibility of learning a foreign language sway your decision? In other words, if you have an equal degree of interest in exchanging to a country where people speak your mother tongue and one where they speak a foreign language, do the benefits of learning a foreign language mean that you should choose the country where you’ll learn a foreign language?
In such a situation, unless the foreign language in question is English, the answer almost certainly is no.
Learning a foreign language is extremely difficult, and the benefits to your career are overrated and extremely limited. Specifically:
- there is a very narrow range of jobs in which a foreign language will be useful. The most common such job – translation – is unspeakably tedious, and
- no matter how well you learn a foreign language, the ubiquity of English means that there will always be thousands of native speakers of that foreign language whose skill at speaking English far exceeds your skill at speaking their mother tongue.
I spent many years and countless hours learning German. I don’t regret any of that time. However, I have never used the German I learned professionally. It has helped me to stay in touch with my host families and when travelling, but otherwise has not been particularly beneficial.
The best host countries are…
Taking all of the above into account, which potential host countries appear to be the best ones to live in?
In order of alphabet, not merit, they are as follows:
- New Zealand
- United States
- United Kingdom
That list is quite limited. Notable omissions include the following:
- France and Belgium – at the time of writing (July 2016), these countries have suffered from a string of terrorist attacks. I don’t recommend them because they currently violate my safety rule.
- Germany and Sweden – because of recent demographic changes and associated events to date, I don’t recommend these because they have the potential to become like France and Belgium.
You’ll also note that the countries I’ve recommended above are ones that nearly every exchange program offers exchanges to. That’s not a coincidence. Major exchange organisations such as Rotary and AFS have decades of experience in sending students overseas, and know which countries are the best ones for students to visit. They are also acutely aware of risk and won’t send students to countries in which their health or safety will be jeopardised.
Another useful proxy for how good a country will be as a host country is its placement on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Generally speaking, the higher a country is ranked on that index, the better it will be as a place to go on exchange.
Whatever choice you make regarding your future host country, please ensure that it’s a safe and well-researched one.