First 2 Weeks On A Foreign Exchange: Survival Guide

It was a long day
It was a long day

The first two weeks in a new place are the most difficult, especially when you’ve moved halfway across the world to a country where they speak a language that is not your first and have widely different customs and cultures that aren’t similar to your own. I’ve written a few blog post about how to deal with the stress: [] and what it’s really like living in a foreign country: [] but this particular post is going to be directed towards those daunting first two weeks – what you need to do and how you survive them.

There are numerous things that you need to get done as soon as you move.  Where do you start? It all feels so overwhelming and terrifying. The easiest way to handle it all is to stop looking at all the things you need to do as a whole and picture them as individual tasks.

** Make sure you’ve done these two things before leaving your home country:

[1] Cancel or suspend your old phone plan

[2] Tell bank you’re moving for extended period of time

Here are some of the many things you will need to do once you arrive:

[1] Unpack

[2] Contact family

[3] Contact school back in home country to let them know you’ve arrived

[4] Grocery shop

[5] Contact international co-ordinator at your host school

[6] Get your student card

[7] Open a French bank account

[8] Get a French mobile phone plan

[9] Transportation – metro card

[10] Figure out your classes (descriptions, timetables, etc)** MUCH harder that one would seem in France

[11] Get your liability and house insurances- In France you need a liability insurance as well as house insurance (but check to see if your landlord has it first)

[12] Get your health insurance – Mine was mandatory with my university

[13] Explore the city, your new school or workplace and your neighbourhood

[14] Make friends!

[15] Relax 🙂

[1] Unpack:

I personally think this is the most important of them all. You need to get settled and make this new country your home. Having your things organized will also give you some peace of mind and will be nice to go back to after having a stressful day. Also, once you have your things organized you’ll know if there’s something you forgot and need to get!

[2] Contact Family

Let them know you’re alive and well!!! I’m sure they are worried about you and would love to hear from you. Plus, it will be nice to talk to your loved ones during this busy and stressful period.

[3] Contact home university

It’s also important to let your co-ordinator back at your home university know that you have arrived and that you will be organizing you classes within the next few weeks and will update them as soon as possible.

[4] Grocery shop

Google the nearest grocery store and get the essentials so you won’t starve or spend all your money at restaurants. A cheap and convenient grocery store in France is Carrefour; two other slightly more expensive ones are Monoprix and Casino. However, there are many smaller grocery stores scattered throughout the city. One near my apartment is called UExpress – it’s cheap and has almost everything I need.
** If you’re living in Lyon and like Asian food than you need to check out Supermarche Asie near Guillotiere. in arrondissement 3.  It’s super cheap and has lots of yummy options!

[5] Contact the co-ordinator from your new host university

It’s likely that the co-ordinator from your host university will have already e-mailed you, or will have given you details of an orientation (which will give you loads of important information). But, if they have not then it’s a good idea to get in contact with them.  They will be able to guide your and let your know where you need to go to get things done like get your student card or figure out your classes.

[6] Get your student card

You’ll need your student card for a number of things.  To use as identification, to get student discounts, to get your metro card etc, etc, etc.  Your international co-ordinator will be able to let you know where you go to get it done, and you will most likely have to wait in a long line – so leave time for yourself!

[7] Open a French bank Account

This is one of the more straight forward things that you will need to do.  Pick one of the many french banks, find one near you, and tell them that you wish to open an account.  They will make an appointment with you, go through the logistics, and then mail you the bank card. Voila! You’ll need a French bank account for a surprising number or things (including getting a phone plan) so it’s important to get.

[8] Get a French phone plan

If you’ve already cancelled or suspended your old phone plan (like you should have), then I’m sure you’re already missing having 3G everywhere you go.  There are a lot of different phone companies you can chose from but I would go with Free mobile. It’s the cheapest and you get the most from it.  For 20 euros a month, I get unlimited texting, 20 GB of data (Yes, TWENTY), and unlimited calling to numerous countries (including North America). The only thing is that you will need to have your French bank card already to register for Free. To get Free mobile, you do it online: and they mail it to you (quickly, I might add).

[9] Get a metro pass

The sooner you do this, the more you’ll save. Stop spending money on individual metro tickets and just get a monthly pass! You’ll most likely have to wait in a long line to get one, so make sure you have time to spend waiting when you go. Try to go in the early morning too because it’s usually less busy.  In Lyon, you can go to Perrache or Bellecour (metro stations) to buy your pass. You can also pay for a few months at a time, so it might be in your best interest to take advantage of that so then you don’t need to wait in line every single month. You’ll need your passport, student card (to get the student discount), bank card and a small passport sized photo of yourself. If you don’t have a passport sized photo it shouldn’t be a big deal, they will most likely just take your photo there.

[10] Figure out your class (course descriptions, timetables, etc)

In France, this will without a doubt take the longest and will be the most frustrating part of your first few weeks. It will be different for each university, and depending on your program as well.  I go to Lumiere Lyon 2 and study Political Science. None of the information about my courses were online. Consequently, I had to visit the Poli Sci office to get the timetable of when each course was.  As an exchange student at Lyon 2, you have the opportunity to chose whatever classes you want, in which ever levels.  This is nice because that way you get to take classes that interest and convenience you.  However, it means that you need to go to many different offices and spend loads of time trying to make your own timetable. Also, course descriptions are very hard to come by.  You don’t get a syllabus at the beginning of your courses like in Canada, at least I didn’t. Either, you’ll be able to get them in the Secretariat (the office of your program), or in my case you will have to e-mail each professor individually to ask for them. It will also be tons of fun trying to find each of your professors’ emails. *Lots and lots of sarcasm* I will soon be writing a post about all the joys and realities about studying in France.

[11] Get your insurances

When you got your visa (Canadian-French visa), you will have noticed that it mentioned something about getting liability insurance here.  It is mandatory (although they don’t really check), but pretty much it covers your butt if you lets say break a computer that doesn’t belong to you. Another insurance to get is house insurance in case god forbid your things are stolen, or theres a fire, etc. You can get these insurances at the bank.

[12] Health Plan

Most likely, you already have already bought some health insurance before coming (great idea – also mandatory for the visa). For my university, it was mandatory to additionally purchase theirs. So 230 euros later, I am covered beyond belief by health insurance!


The best best best part about your first few weeks in a new place is that everything is new and exciting and wonderful. Enjoy it, embrace it, and take it all in!!

[14] Make friends!

It’s much easier to make friends than you might think.  All the international students are in the same boat as you, don’t forget that! They are going through the same things as you so you already have so much in common.  Making French friends is a lot more difficult (but not impossible).  You really need to put yourself out there more, and understand that it is difficult to break into French groups. From my experience, they are a lot more reserved and they tend to keep to themselves than I was used to coming from Canada. You can and should do your best to make some French friends though.

[15] Relax 🙂

Breathe. Enjoy. Relax.

Be happy and grateful for where you are and what you are doing.

Before moving to France I was equally as terrified as I was excited. I assumed the first month was going to be overwhelming, stressful and exhausting. So, before I boarded my flight from Canada, I told myself that no matter how stressful or overwhelmed I got that I wouldn’t forget where I was. I would be in France. (Duh?) This may sound obvious, but what I mean by it is that when everything got a bit too much for me, I’d take a step back and look at where I was, and for at least thirty minutes every day, forget about all the terrifying things way outside of my comfort zone that I needed to do and I would spend those thirty minutes enjoying the beautiful place that I was in.  It was my own form of meditation and it really helped.  I would just walk to a new district, go to a cafe, sit by a fountain and read, go out for lunch, or do something that I could only do in France to remind myself where I was and why I was going through all the stressful, comfort-breaking happenings.


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