I studied abroad in Madrid in the Fall of 2019 and that was one of the best decisions I have ever made. No classroom in the world could ever give me what my experiences out there gave me. I learned a ton, I grew in discomfort, I learned how to be self-sufficient, learned how to cultivate strong connections with people, I learned about new cultures, ate my weight in carbs, laughed a lot more, understood more about the world, my mind was opened up in ways I never thought possible. I know the decision to study in an entirely new country can be a little daunting, but it’s probably one of the best things you can do for yourself. I understand that it’s also pricey, requires a ton of research and all that was a little challenging for me especially since I couldn’t find much help on the internet. So I decided to compile a few resources and things that helped me along the way. Here we go!
- Start planning early
We all procrastinate, push things off till the last minute but here me out you CANNOT do that with this process. Unfortunately, despite starting early I was still pushed so far back because of my Kenyan passport renewal process but that’s a whole different story. I was lucky to have the support of an engaged study abroad team through my college, who reminded me of deadlines, next steps, and provided me with checklists during the process. Beyond the application process, there were other things I had to think about like visa application, plane tickets, housing abroad e.t.c. I had to set a million reminders, write out my personal checklist of what needed to be done and when it needed to be done.
If you need a visa for your program, learn about the process an start on it early. For Madrid, I had to book an appointment online with the Spanish consulate in Chicago; please book this appointment at least two months before your travel because dates fill up very fast during their busy seasons. I then traveled to Chicago and got that done! I got my visa back in about two weeks, which allowed me to book my plane ticket and find housing.
- Finding housing
Searching for housing wasn’t the easiest thing since I started the process about three weeks before I left; places were going FAST! I also wasn’t sure about which neighborhoods to look into, which places would be closest to my school, ones that would have access to the best transport lines, safety, etc. My best bet with such limited information was Sol- the center of Madrid because any apartment in Sol is close to everything.
Other good neighborhoods to stay in are: Lavapies, Latina, Malasana, Atocha, and Salamanca.
A tip that helped me when finding housing was using google maps to make sure I had a good route to school; this also helped me eliminate a few places that were a little too far. I went to Universidad Carlos III and was a little worried about how far I was from my campus but soon found out the distance was quite manageable. The train from Madrid Sol station to Getafe Central (where my school was located was about 25 minutes) and it’s about the same for Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and even less for Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM).
I found housing through Spotahome which was super easy to use; it’s a little like the Airbnb site and allows you to pan over the map of a city and search using a couple of filters. There is a fee for booking through Spotahome but it was the easiest way for me to book housing out there. You can also book through Help Madrid directly; that’s the agency that owned the flat I stayed in, I just happened to use a third party agent (Spotahome) to book one of their flats. There are also other agencies like Uniplaces that you could use!
- Moving around locally
On my first day in Madrid, I used Uber to get to my apartment- you could use a taxi too. Madrid has one of the best transportation systems in Europe, it’s impressive and easy to use. When I settled in, I walked to the Publico Tarjeta office and got a transport card for about 10 Euros then had to top it up at the station for 20 Euros each month. You can use the card on the metro and all the local buses!
- Phone stuff
First, be careful and cautious at all times- Madrid streets are crowded and pickpockets are all around. I brought my cross-body bags with me which helped keep my phone and wallet safe. When it came to a phone network, I opted to use Vodafone- I went into a store in Sol, took a Spanish speaking friend with me (I don’t speak any Spanish and sometimes there were no English-speaking reps in-store) and got a phone card. I just had to activate it and top it up every month using this link
- Get a bank card that won’t rack up fees
I had so much to think about before I left and this was one of the things that escaped me. I bank with TCF and I was charged for each transaction- I tried having cash on hand as much as I could to avoid the fees. I also had a credit card but it was AMEX and wasn’t accepted in a lot of places. My best option was opening a Spanish bank account but I didn’t do this, I opted to use my credit card whenever I could and withdrew cash which I found to be a cheaper option- Ibercaja was the cheapest ATM to use!
- Local trips and experiencing the city
Traveling while studying can get pretty exhausting and while you might want to spend your evenings or weekends in, I encourage you to get out there and spend your days experiencing something new. Get outside and walking in whichever direction; Get lost, discover new coffee shops, secret treasures of the city, go see the sites again and again and again, you can never run out of things to do in Madrid. Exploring the city a ton helped me feel like a local cause I knew the city center so well through walking around and I discovered so many cool things. I made a whole blog post on the best ways to explore Spain and Europe in general check it out here!
- Just go
As I mentioned in the other blog post, I went to Madrid alone with all the other people in my program opting to go in the Spring. I’m a senior so I had to go in the fall but it was daunting to me and I wasn’t sure how to navigate a new place all on my own. I soon realized that there are so many ways to meet people in Madrid and made a blog post about it. I felt weird about going to a lot of things alone but soon enough, it was comfortable to go into restaurants and have dinner alone or book solo trips to other countries. Before each of my solo trips, I had the urge to just stay back, afraid of being on my own but I had some of the best experiences traveling solo. So if you happen to have no one to go explore with you Just go!
- Welcome every experience
You can’t prepare enough to live in a new country, you won’t know everything and that’s okay. Walk into your experience with an open mind, get ready to get lost, get scrappy, meet people, and have some of the best experiences and days ever! Wishing you all the luck, feel free to reach out with any questions you may have:)