How to Study Abroad in Spain

A view of the city of Jaen from above, with a stone wall topped with three flags blowing in the wind at the top. Writer Kimberly Anne chose to study abroad in Spain in the city of Jaen.

Making the choice to spend my junior year of college studying abroad in Spain changed my life for the better. From meeting friends that continue to be a part of my life to getting a firsthand experience of a culture I’ve grown to respect and love, I highly recommend taking a chance and living in Spain. It was through this decision that I began a journey of six years abroad that led to experiences that have changed the trajectory of my life. 

As a California native who attended a California State University (CSU), I went through a program specifically for CSU students. If you’re considering studying abroad in Spain read on as I share all of the things I wish I’d known prior to my year abroad.

Writer Kimberly poses with a young girl in a bright pink shirt, the daughter of her host family while studying abroad in Spain

Choosing Your Study Abroad Program in Spain 

Finding the right program is one of the most important steps in your study abroad experience. I went through the California State University Study Abroad Program (CSU IP). This program offers California State University students the ability to study abroad for a semester or one year—I chose a year—and has programs at three major universities in Spain: Universidad de Jaén, Universidad de Granada, and Universidad Complutense de Madrid. 

The main difference between these programs is the amount of Spanish courses you’ll need to take before you apply. The Universidad de Jaén program is considered to be for beginners and there are no language prerequisites. The Universidad de Granada and Universidad Complutense de Madrid programs require the completion of four or more semesters or six or more quarters of Spanish courses with a B average in every class. I recommend thinking about your study abroad experience early on in your college career so you can make sure you’ve completed all prerequisites by the time you’re ready to apply.

There are a lot of other factors to consider when choosing the right study abroad program in Spain. Each of these cities—Jaén, Granada, and Madrid—are vastly different and therefore will provide you with a unique experience while living abroad in Spain. Compared to other European countries, the level of English use is lower in Spain. In smaller cities, such as Jaén—often referred to as a “pueblo” or town—most of the locals will have a beginner level understanding of English. In bigger cities, such as Granada and Madrid, English is more widely spoken. When learning a new language, the more immersion the better. If the locals don’t speak your native language, you’re far more likely to learn theirs. This is why I chose Jaén as my program.

A panoramic view of Jaen Spain from above, with a rocky cliff with a white cross on top and the city spread out below, as seen while the writer was studying abroad in Spain

Preparing to Study Abroad in Spain

After being accepted to the study abroad program in Jaén, Spain, one of the first things I needed to do was apply for my student visa. This can be a lengthy process and the Spanish consulate is very strict in their requirements. It’s crucial that you review the visa application thoroughly to ensure no mistakes are made. You can find the visa requirements on the Spanish consulate’s website. Once you’ve obtained your visa, the only other preparation that needs to be done before you jet off on your Spanish journey is packing. 

Study abroad in Spain, Kimberley's study abroad group smile and pose in a restaurant beneath a row of decorative plates

What to Pack for Spain

If you’re doing a year-long program like I did, you’re most likely going to arrive in the summer. Spanish summers, especially in the south, are no joke—they are hot, hot, hot. Temperatures can reach well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and air conditioning is not a common household feature. Likewise, the winters can reach the low 50s. Make sure you pack clothes respective to each season as the weather can be extreme on both ends. 

Studying abroad may be the first time you’re thousands of miles away from home. You may have moments of missing home but don’t worry, this is totally normal. Pack some things that remind you of home. I personally brought my teddy bear and photos of my friends and family to give me a little piece of home during my adventure. While these were things that my study abroad adviser informed me of, there were plenty of other packing list items I wish I had known about prior to my departure. 

Photo: Sarah Brown via Unsplash, A woman in a black and white striped shirt folds clothing into stacks, just as Kimberly did before she began her study abroad in Spain program

What I Wish I Packed for My Study Abroad Year

One of those things was a cell phone that works abroad. There are a few different ways you can go about this. You can pick up a pay-as-you-go phone once you arrive at any of the phone shops, or there are many American cell phone providers that have inexpensive rates for international use. 

Another item I wished I’d brought was a weekender backpack. Look for a backpack that has hard sides to keep your clothes folded and that fits a majority of airline bag size requirements. Traveling between European countries is affordable and is how a lot of study abroad students spend their weekends. My friends and I were constantly planning weekend trips to different countries and the airlines that travel between them usually only allow one carry-on item—unless you want to pay a similar price for baggage as you did for your ticket. 

Lastly, while there are many things you’ll want to have along, try to pack smart and as light as you can—you will accumulate more than you think.

Photo: Denisse Leon via Unsplash, A canvas backpack with leather straps rests on a rocky trail in front of a sunset. Kimberly Anne suggests choosing a good backpack before you study abroad in Spain

Beginning Your Study Abroad Year in Jaén, Spain

You’ve arrived! Let the adventure begin. Because all of the students through the CSU IP program are from California, the program organizers have students on the same flight out of either LAX or SFO. So look out, because there’s a good chance you’ll see your future classmates or even roommates on your flight. Once you arrive, a bus will be waiting and you’ll be taken to Jaén where you’ll stay your first few nights in a hotel with your study abroad group. What makes the study abroad program in Jaén unique compared to other CSU IP programs is that you’ll spend your first month or so with a host family. After this month, you’ll have the option to either continue your year with the family or find an apartment with friends. 

While I opted to live with a friend after my first month, the homestay experience was one of my favorite parts of the program. It allowed me to gain a true understanding of Spanish culture before jetting off on my own. I still keep in touch with my host family to this day and have even visited them since my study abroad year. 

While living with my host family, I learned about Spanish siestas—an old tradition where the entire city shuts down mid-day to relax. And when I say the whole city shuts down, I mean it—especially in the south. When I first arrived in Jaén, all of the businesses were closed and there was not a single person walking the streets. I also learned about the differences in meal times between Spain and America. In Spain, breakfast is usually between 10AM-12PM, lunch is 2PM-4PM, and dinner is anywhere between 8PM-11PM. This may take some adjusting to—I know it did for me. 

Kimberly with host family in Jaen during her study abroad in Spain. Kimberley sits in the middle with a young girl on either side on a light colored couch

How to Make the Most of Study Abroad Programs in Spain

Studying abroad in Spain was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. If I could go back and do it again, I would. It’s no secret that food is a big part of culture and in Spain this definitely rings true. 

One of the greatest things about living in the South of Spain is the tapas culture. When going to a bar or restaurant in Jaén, it’s common to receive free food when purchasing a drink—both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. While restaurants contain menus with “platos” or plates available for purchase, locals tend to only order these when eating in big groups. As college students on a budget, my roommate and I spent most nights eating tapas out because we found this to be more affordable than eating at home. So take advantage of your free tapas because they are tasty, give you a look into traditional Spanish cuisine, and won’t break the bank. 

Photo: Dennis Schmidt via Unsplash, Enjoying tapas with drinks at restaurants is a fun part of the study abroad in Spain experience

Immerse Yourself in the Spanish Language 

When living in a foreign country, learning the local language can greatly improve your experience. While learning a language can be easier for some than others, there are a variety of ways you can practice outside of your language courses at the university. One of my favorite ways to practice Spanish while living in Jaén was intercambios—also known as language exchanges. Like I mentioned earlier, the overall level of English in Jaén is low. The schools don’t always teach it and students have to usually resort to private institutions which can be quite pricey. 

An intercambio is where you meet up with someone and trade off speaking in each other’s languages as a way of learning by doing. You can find people looking to learn English and willing to teach you Spanish via an exchange on websites such as Tandem, through local Facebook groups, or through the Universidad de Jaén. Although I loved my Californian roommate during my study abroad year, I wished I had lived with a Spanish friend in order to further immerse myself in the language and speed up my learning pace. Engaging in intercambios is a great way to make these friends. 

My study abroad year was only the beginning of my life in Spain. I fell in love in Spain—with Spain—and I have no doubt you will too. I met lifelong friends and after completing my undergraduate degree I went back for more. This experience changed my life and I would not be the same person I am today if I had not taken this opportunity. I highly recommend the CSU IP program in Spain for all those looking to learn about a culture that thrives on food, community, and a no pasa nada lifestyle. 

Writer Kimberly poses with her roommate, Kelsey in Jaen in front of a fountain. When you study abroad in Spain, you can choose between staying with a host family or living with a roommate.

Interested in learning more about why you should study abroad during college? Check out the career benefits you can enjoy by doing so.

24 thoughts on “How to Study Abroad in Spain

  1. I didn’t know that English wasn’t as prominent in Spain as the rest of Europe. It sounds like you’d do well to take some Spanish before studying abroad.

  2. What a wonderful experience this must have been for you! There is invaluable information in this article for anyone who wishes to study abroad in Spain.

  3. What a great idea to study abroad in Spain. My cousin also studied abroad in college and it was an amazing experience for her as well.

  4. This would be such an amazing adventure! It is so cool you were able to experience this. Thanks for sharing this information too, it is helpful.

  5. Studying abroad is such a wonderful experience for anyone! I have a niece who wants to spend a school year in Spain so I will be sure to share your experience with her.

  6. It is a very informative article. And I like your packing tips because I always tend to overpack too. My brother wants to study Spanish, and I`ll forward this post to him.

  7. It must have been a wonderful expérience. A granddaughter did this last year and ànother one us doing it next year! Spain is a beautiful country with a great culture. Spanish is à good language to learn and it will even be useful back in the US.

  8. Studying abroad was always on my mind when I was younger, but I never had the chance. If there were information like this back, I probably would have Maybe my daughter will pick up an interest when she gets older.

  9. My friends have studied abroad and found it to be a really great experience. If I was to do it myself I think Spain would be my first choice. It’s such a lovely country with a more relaxed way of life than here.

  10. Studying abroad in Spain really does sound like a great experience. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge!

  11. Oooh!Thanks for sharing all this informative information with us. My sister has a plan to study abroad, I will share this wth her.

  12. It’s always a good idea to have some knowledge about the local language of the country in which a person plans to study. Loved your tips to study abroad in Spain. Looks like it’s an awesome country to pursue a degree or 2.

  13. While I never studied in Spain, I have lived there for a few months in my inlaws home. But this was post-Brexit, and things were a bit harder for us being from the UK. We were definitely not prepared for just how hot it got!

  14. I wish I studied in Spain, it is such a beautiful country…That said, I would love to live in it now, especially in Madrid, such a beautiful city.

  15. It’s such an exciting adventure but so nerve wracking too! You’re so brave taking the leap and what a beautiful experience you had in return. Spain is stunning!

  16. Your posts such a beautiful insight into the life and studies abroad. I adore all the facts about life in a different country.

  17. I really wish I chose to study in another country – it’s such a good idea, especially while you are young.

  18. A backpack is definitely a great idea for exploring. What a fabulous experience you had, and I wish I had been able to study abroad when I was younger.

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