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3 Ways to Keep Yourself Out of Jail While You Study Abroad

Posted by Alex Pearlman  October 9, 2011 06:37 PM

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studyabroadtips.jpgBy Tamar Zmora

You hop off a plane somewhere abroad with a dream and a cardigan (and all the stuff you’ll need to spend a semester in a foreign country), and your first instinct is to find out all the things you can do in this new place that you can’t in the United States. True, foreign laws can be more lenient, but slow down and consider the consequences of this “rebel lifestyle.”

Aside from the usual study abroad tips -- make a copy of your passport; bring outlet adaptors; always be aware of your surroundings -- here are a few things to keep in mind about the three Ds: drinking, driving, and drugs. I'm just trying to keep you out of Italian courtrooms and Thai prisons.

Drinking. You can tell all your relatives you’re psyched to study abroad because you’ll get to experience a different culture and see the world -- and while that may be true, we know the legal drinking thing is an exciting prospect, too. So first, get rid of those tell-tale brown bags because open container laws generally do not exist. Welcome to a place where residents may have grown up drinking wine rather than CapriSun and alcohol is sometimes cheaper than a can of soda or a bottle of water.

But what does all this mean for you, a student who is used to sneaking liquor from her parents’ cabinet or stashing away the beer he bought with a fake ID every time his R.A. knocks? Have fun exploring the local pub and nightlife scene -- but be responsible. Don’t go crazy and end up a crying, stumbling buffoon. Don’t go drink-for-drink with a local who's been having a beer with dinner every night since he was seven. And unless you have some extra cash to drop, don’t urinate in public (though that’s illegal in the U.S., too). In Lithuania, for example, that’ll get you a 100 litas (about $39) fine.

Driving. You’ve heard of the German autobahn, or perhaps the Italian autostrada, yes? Never mind that whole “drive on the left side of the road” thing -- foreign drivers mean business, and speed limits are…well, they often aren’t. Bikes, mopeds, scooters, and rickshaws are also far more prevalent, adding to the chaos. Even if your name isn’t Snooki or you’re used to maneuvering your way through big-city traffic, it’s probably best to stick to public transportation.

If, for whatever reason, you do decide to drive while you’re abroad, the U.S. Department of State website offers a few tips. First, obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you go. Check for special road permits, seatbelt requirements, and other driving rules, which differ from country to country. And if you rent a car, be sure to have liability insurance, in case an accident does occur.

Drugs. The University of Chicago advises students to “renounce this habit [of using controlled substances] while you are abroad (and perhaps forevermore)” under their study abroad site’s “Becoming a Criminal” (yes, that’s the real name) section.  While that’s certainly all-encompassing and good advice, it might be a tad unrealistic for those studying abroad in, say, Amsterdam -- at least until a new law banning tourists from pot shops goes into effect (bye-bye, tourism!).

Drug laws vary widely -- if you’re in Portugal, pretty much anything goes; if you’re in Southeast Asia, you’re better off abiding by the U of C’s advice -- so when in doubt, just behave. And for the love of whatever god(s) you believe in, don’t (unwittingly or otherwise) smuggle anything back!

A semester abroad is your chance to have new experiences, observe local customs, and try new things, and this advice isn’t meant to prohibit you from taking risks or stepping outside your comfort zone, meeting new people, or traveling to interesting places. But that stuff you contract from that guy or girl you take home from a bar at 2 a.m. itches as much in Dublin as it does in Boston -- you get what I'm saying.

We all know that studying abroad isn’t actually about the studying; it’s about independence, joie de vivre, and seeing things you could previously only read about. So look, listen, and take in your surroundings -- and don't forget to taste the stroopwafel.

Photo by kla4067 (Flickr)

About Tamar -- I'm a recent Wellesley College grad with a degree in English and studio art. I grew up in the Midwest and briefly lived in Europe and the Middle East. My name is often mistaken for Tamara from "Sister, Sister." I love exploring coffee shops and am almost always highly caffeinated. I am very interested in films, the arts, theatre, painting, photography -- you name it -- '90s TV shows, and music.

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