Studying on exchange presents many new challenges. 

This section provides useful advice on how to settle into a new culture and what to do if problems arise.

What is culture shock?

When travelling overseas, you can expect to experience differences in all aspects of culture, from food, to manners, beliefs, customs, laws, and language. Although coming into contact with new cultures can be very exciting, it can also be overwhelming and can affect you physically and emotionally. Some of the symptoms of culture shock may include the following:

  • feeling isolated, alone, unable to make friends
  • unable to sleep or sleeping too much
  • feeling irritable and angry, especially with the local culture and people
  • aches and pains such as a sore neck and shoulders or stomach ache
  • unable to concentrate on your studies

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please remember that these reactions are normal and you are probably not ill (although it is a good idea to see a doctor, just in case). It is likely that you are experiencing culture shock and homesickness, which is generally a temporary situation for people adjusting to life in a new environment.

Tips for dealing with culture shock

1. Find an ‘informant’ (someone from the foreign-to-you culture)
This can be the most important thing for surviving another culture, especially if this person becomes a close and trusted friend. The informant is the go-to when something happens that you can’t make sense of, or if you have questions about what’s appropriate or not. It’s like having a “local culture dictionary” and can be vital for settling in.

2. Find a same culture friend (someone from your own culture)
It helps in having someone who either is going through or has recently gone through a lot of the shocks you are currently experiencing. You can compate notes with someone who knows where you are coming from.

3. Attend the orientation program offered by the host university
This is a great way to familiarise yourself with the university, city and country of your exchange. There are often social events organised for new international students and these events are a great way to meet other exchange students.

4. Find something you like about the new culture every day
Celebrating the good things about the new culture can help take some of the edge off some of the more challenging elements. Think of it as the things you’ll miss when you go back home even though it might be hard to believe if you are in the midst of culture shock.

5. Enjoy being a tourist
Plan time to do all the wonderful cheesy touristy things. It helps to be an outsider sometimes, because you can find wonder in things the locals don’t even notice anymore. 

6. Do something familiar
Figure out how to make your favourite food and do so often. Watch your favourite movies. Listen to music in your own language that makes you feel good. Have people over to celebrate your home culture’s holidays your way.

7. Go for walks
Spend time exploring on foot. Take time in this new culture to figure out how the minutia of life gets done and being on foot helps you to notice the little details, plus it gets you out of the house for a little exercise.

8. Keep a journal or blog
There’s no better place to get it all out than on the pages of a book that no one else will see. It will also help for you to look back on it and see how far you’ve come, the humour in situations that weren’t humorous at the time, and how you can help other newbies as they have the same problems. Consider taking this journal and sharing it in a blog form to help others as they transition, but be careful to gain some perspective before doing so.

9. Ask for packages from home
Ask someone/anyone from home to send you the bits and pieces that you can’t find in your new home. It’s amazing how great it is just to get a little care package with a few of your favourite things – vegemite, freddo frogs, tim-tams, whatever you are missing most.

10. Do your research
Know what you’re getting into before you go, or if you didn’t before, then do it now. Research the web, buy some books, watch local movies, and learn the language. It will help you have some idea what you’re getting yourself into. Note on learning the language: it will be hard at times and you’ll feel like a two-year-old babbling incoherently, but not only will you gain a lot of insight into the culture by learning the language; you will also be able to function better. So, be prepared to look foolish and give it a try.


All universities are different and you might notice that your host university operates differently to what you are used to at UQ.  At some universities, courses fill up and extra lectures are not created, or programs change and the courses you selected in your study plan may no longer be offered.

If you are experiencing problems as a result of not getting into the courses that you had organised in your study plan, you may find the following tips helpful.

  • If you cannot get in to a certain course, find out why.
  • If you cannot register for a course due to your academic background or the number of students already registered for the class, try to negotiate a way in by talking to the lecturer and explaining you have come a long way to take their course.
  • Provide a recent transcript to demonstrate that you have taken the equivalent pre-requisites to help sway your argument.
  • Keep hard copies of all correspondence with UQ regarding course approvals.
  • Keep a copy of your syllabi, assignments and exams to help with credit transfer.
  • If you cannot get into the courses that you had planned on taking while on exchange, you will need to find substitute courses and request approval from your faculty. To do this, please write an email to your faculty explaining your situation and outlining the new subjects with detailed course information you wish to be approved and cc:

Familiarise yourself with rental procedures and tenancy rights (the host university should be able to provide this information to you) and take a local buddy along when you view accommodation or interview housemates.

If you feel isolated or if you having a tough time, you may like to talk to a counsellor. If you do not feel comfortable discussing your problems with the counselling service at your host university, we encourage you to speak to your friends or family, or register for UQ’s online counselling service and someone will be in touch with you within 48 hours.

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