Living abroad, whether working or studying, is often defined as one of the most valuable experiences of your life. Not to be confused with and pressured into being ‘the best’, it is one of life’s greatest educational opportunities: professionally, culturally and personally. As a language student, I understand both the excitement and the complications this process comes with. Consequently, I have written this guide which gives a step-by-step account of how I arranged my own year abroad placement to provide information and, if anything, ease any concerns or anxieties.
Most of this guide will only be relevant to Queen’s University Belfast students and those partaking in the British Council scheme in Spain, although others may find some information of use to them. Furthermore, the British Council and the Queen’s University Belfast programme can change from year to year; the following guide is simply an account of my own experience (pre-Brexit) and may not reflect the process in future years.
If you are a Queen’s student, I would like you to know that you are in safe, capable hands. Whilst it may seem at times that you are being left in the dark and that nobody seems to be acknowledging, let alone discussing, this incredibly important upcoming year, please be rest assured that everything is truly okay. Every tiny detail of this process has already been thought of, planned for and happened before; you will be guided and supported with each step you take. Please remember that lecturers and students are there to talk to you about any questions you might have.
Deciding on your placement
Perhaps the most difficult part of travelling abroad is deciding where to go, especially if you intend on spending a long time there. Each country is diverse and by experiencing even a taster of its culture, you can make a better conclusion on whether you could stay there long term.
I study French and Spanish and, as it currently stands, those who study this degree pathway at Queen’s can only choose to live in one country during their year abroad. Whilst these two languages are spoken in a variety of countries, I was quite certain I only wanted to go to France or Spain: I wanted to explore them in more detail, culturally and historically, and I didn’t want to be too far away from home.
The summer before starting my second year of university, I spent five days in June in Paris and a week in August in Torrox – a town close to Málaga – followed by a week in Madrid. Whilst short trips, I developed an admiration for the more carefree lifestyle in Spain. As someone who is always on the go, I thought this would be something I could learn from and thus decided I would spend my year abroad there.
If you are studying more than one language, it’s advisable that you live in a country where your weakest language is spoken. Although my Spanish has always been stronger than my French, I wanted to move somewhere I knew I would be content and at ease. To balance this, I made arrangements to travel to France the summer before and after my year abroad to ensure I would have equal strength in both languages by final year. Follow this link here if you would like to learn more about what I’ve been doing in France.
Queen’s University typically offers the Erasmus programme (studying in a foreign university) and the British Council programme (working as an English Language Assistant abroad) as its two main pathways but you can also arrange your own placement. As I plan on becoming a teacher, the British Council programme was ideal for me. If neither of those options suit you, you can research different ones. Speak to lecturers, your Year Abroad convener and other students for inspiration and guidance on other placements. In terms of ease, Erasmus and British Council are the best options because the university will be able to provide more information on these. Individual placements involve more work and potential disappointment on the student’s part but it’s worth pursuing if it’s more relevant to your intended career path.
Upon starting my second year of university in September 2018, I started researching the different autonomous communities in Spain to work out where I wanted to go. When applying for the British Council, you have to select three regions where you would like to work as an ELA (English Language Assistant). The British Council will endeavour to allocate you in one of these regions but this is not always guaranteed. Regions are categorised into groups A, B and C, A being the least popular regions and C being the most. In your application, you have to pick one from group A, one from group B and one from A, B or C. This link explains the programme in more detail and provides a list of countries in which you can work as an ELA. By clicking on them, you will find information specific to that country as well as the eligible regions you can work in categorised into either A, B or C.
Don’t hesitate to speak to others to help make your decision. Queen’s students! The Spanish and French society typically organise a Year Abroad event in November in which students who have just returned from their year abroad share their experiences, offer advice and try to answer any questions you might have. There will also be sessions during your Filière/Cursillo classes in which further information and advice will be provided, as well as additional meetings run by the British Council and Erasmus which your Year Abroad Convener will inform you of.
British Council Application
The deadline for completing the British Council application is usually around February but as I was applying as a Queen’s student I had to follow their deadline of the end of semester one (14th December 2018) – I imagine this was to ensure every student’s application was completed and all referees had left their reference by the British Council deadline.
Applications open in November and this process is done on the British Council website. I recommend starting as early as possible to ensure you have enough time to fill out the application to a high standard (you can save it and come back to it). I completed it over the course of a few days. The effort you put into demonstrating the research done on your chosen country and regions and the detail you put into explaining your preferences will improve your chances of getting your first choice.
The first part of the application involves providing your personal details, education and work history, including your main duties and achievements (if you have a CV, you can use information from this). You will then be asked to select your country of preference with a supporting statement of up to 5000 characters. Full details of what to include in this will be on the application form and I encourage you try to use up all of the space provided. You can put more than one country of preference (e.g. France first choice, Belgium second) but the chances of not getting your first choice country are rare and British Council will contact you to discuss alternative options if this is the case. If you would like to go to Latin America, the country from there will need to be put as your first choice for a chance of going because places are limited (i.e. Mexico must be your first choice and then Spain as your back-up). In my case, I put Spain as my only preference.
Following this, you must select the three religions you would like to go to, put them in order of preference and write a short supporting statement to explain your choices. The British Council will try to place you in one of these regions but be prepared for the fact that you might not go to any of them – this has happened to students on my course. Each region has something different to offer and preferences will be unique to each individual. In terms of Spain, remember to consider the fact that many autonomous communities have their own language; in some areas of Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country, Spanish is not the dominant language.
Having been to both the South of Spain and Madrid over the summer, I decided I would prefer being further north where temperatures would be cooler and the landscapes greener. I also wanted to stay away from the more touristic regions (in which I would be more likely to speak English) and so decided on the following Autonomous Communities: Asturias, the Basque Country and Galicia.
You will also have to select your age preferences (primary, secondary and/or adult) environment preferences (rural, town and/or city) and write a short supporting statement for these before ranking your choice of preferences in order of importance (region, age, environment).
Finally, you must leave the contact details of the person leaving your reference. For Queen’s students, the university will assign you a lecturer from the languages’ department and they may ask to have a meeting with you. If the lecturer knows you already, this may not be necessary. If not, don’t be afraid to contact the lecturer yourself so that they know who you are. Once you have applied, the British Council will keep sending you reminders until the reference has been completed. Your application will not be approved unless this is done.
I received an email confirming my reference had been completed at the start of semester two (14th January 2019) and then an email confirmation of my completed application on 22nd February (the British Council deadline for that year).
~ Regional Allocation ~
On the 30th April the British Council sent me an email stating that my application for Spain had been approved; on the 14th May they confirmed I would be going to Asturias! Those going to the same country typically receive their country and region confirmations around the same time. Those who have applied for France tend to find out the same information slightly later than the applicants for Spain.
In Spain, assistants are allocated to a posting funded either directly by the Ministerio de Educación y Formación Profesional, or by the education department of the regional government (Comunidades Autónomas). The type of allocation is no reflection of a candidate’s application; it simply distinguishes the organisation that is funding the posting. If it’s the former, it means you are required to go to Madrid for information and training before starting at your school. The latter means you receive all of this in your allocated region. I was allocated a Communidad posting and you can read more about the Welcome and Orientation Day that comes with this here. It’s important that you only follow the instructions given to you either by the Ministerio or regional government. ELA’s going to the same region are often not allocated the same posting.
For those going to France, you will be contacted directly by the Académie of the region you’re going to and, again, you should only follow the instructions they specifically give you.
Regarding the training day (which usually takes place around the 1st October), you may need to confirm your attendance for this. It is therefore of vital importance that you check your emails regularly for any communication made by these governing bodies.
~ School Placement(s) ~
I finally found out my school placements on the 27th June. Do bear in mind, however, that you may not find out until the beginning of September. Please remain patient and only contact the British Council if you have not been informed of your school(s) by the end of August.
As I was given a Communidad posting, I received an email from the Language Assistant Programme coordinator in Asturias who provided me with my Carta de Nombramiento (official letter confirming contract and details of school(s) you’ll be working with). Those with a Ministerio posting will be contacted by Madrid, rather than a local body in the region. For France, you will be contacted by your Académie and given your Arrêté de Nomination (the contract for ELAs in France).
I was also asked to send a copy of my passport (page where the photograph and number is clearly visible); a copy of my criminal record (International Child Protection Certificate – see below); a copy of my EHIC (European Health Insurance Card); and, if I had it, a copy of my NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjero – Identity card for expats in Spain). The NIE is explained during Cursillo classes at Queen’s University but you can also read my Year Abroad Checklist to find out more information as well as my post Moving to Gijón to read about my own experience of obtaining one.
Please note: When finding out your schools, you may not be asked to send these documents immediately and often people are asked for different things at different times, even if they are going to the same region. Each case is unique, and it’s important you follow exactly the information you are given, especially if this involves accepting your post and providing documents. At the time, I didn’t have an EHIC nor a NIE and I explained this to the coordinator.
An EHIC may not be valid after Brexit, but I have provided the link here in order to apply for one just in case. As stated on the NHS website, ‘an EHIC gives you the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in another European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland.’ Even with an EHIC, however, you should still take out insurance (see below) before you travel. I applied for mine online immediately after receiving the email and was informed I would received it in 10 working days. It arrived on the 5th July and I then sent a scanned copy to the coordinator.
The email I received from the coordinator advised that I go to my nearest Spanish Consulate to apply for my NIE before coming to Asturias. I called the one in Northern Ireland but they explained they don’t provide the NIE for working abroad and that I would have to apply for one when I’m in Spain. After speaking with my Year Abroad Convener from university, they also advised that I apply for it when I’m in Spain. I explained all of this to the coordinator who said that was fine. It’s for this reason that you should move abroad about two weeks before starting your placement to ensure you have time to find accommodation and fill out all the admin required.
I found out I would be working in two schools, both in Avilés, one a primary school and the other a secondary and sixth form school, with a ‘salary’ of €700 per month (as you are not officially considered a working tax-payer, the money you receive is more an allowance, rather than a salary). I was provided with an email for both schools which I contacted the same day I received my email. Again, it’s important you make contact as soon as possible so that you can find out information before the schools close for the summer holidays. Otherwise, you may not receive a reply until September when they reopen.
The British Council provide information on what questions to ask your schools as well as other useful information, all of which you can find here. I strongly recommend contacting the schools in your target language. Even if the schools reply in English, do try to keep communicating in your target language; you’re being paid for the 12 hours to speak English and help teach it, the rest of the time is for you to work on your language skills. Start as you mean to go on, even if you’re not confident or you feel your communication skills are weaker than those speaking in English to you. You will often find the language you start speaking in with someone is the language you will always use to speak with that person, so ensure that language is your target one.
I’m very lucky to be in contact with some kind, helpful teachers from the school who answered all of my questions, provided me with the emails of the last language assistants and offered to assist in finding accommodation and sorting out my NIE, etc. when I arrive. When contacting your skills, ensure you show you enthusiasm to be working there. Perhaps in advance you can research the area and the schools and mention the things that interested you. By building a good rapport with the school, you will have people to turn to for help and support when you’re abroad.
Erasmus Work Placement Grant
Please note: this procedure may change following Brexit.
If you are a student, you will be eligible to apply for an Erasmus Work Placement Grant which will provide you with extra funding for your year abroad. This money is not to be relied upon, however, to finance your first few months in the country, as the first part may not arrive until November. As a Queen’s student, you will be emailed about this and asked to fill out an attached form which you then print out and give to your respective department office. During the academic year 2018/2019, the deadline for those going to Spain to fill out this form was 20th February.
On 16th July, the Erasmus department at Queen’s emailed me asking for the details of my two schools. It’s important that you reply to this email as soon as possible, and with the exact information, as this is used to create your Erasmus Work Placement Contract (i.e. grant). If you have not yet been told your school(s), please let the department know you are still waiting, and then provide them the information as soon as you find out.
On 19th July they sent me an email confirming that they had received the 2019/2020 Erasmus funding contract from the British Council and that the details of the grant would be sent in August. I received my Erasmus Work Placement Contract by email on 9th August. Please remember that you won’t receive this email until you have provided your school placement details. This may also be the case if you are doing an internship abroad (not with the British Council). The email went into great detail explaining the forms to fill out, the grant, Brexit, and the Online Language Assessment (see below).
The Erasmus grant is typically around €3000. 70% of this is paid to your UK or Irish bank once all of the necessary forms have been filled out and sent back to the Erasmus department at Queen’s (or the institution you’re studying at), the Online Language Assessment has been completed and the institution has received the funds from the UK Erasmus National Agency, which could be anytime in October or November. I received my first payment on 6th November (and I had sent all of the required forms, mentioned below, back by 1st October). The remaining 30% is given once the remaining forms have been filled out, the second Online Language Assessment has been completed, and, again, the funds have been received, which could be any time after July the following year.
It’s due to this that I say you shouldn’t rely on the Erasmus Grant to fund the start of your Year Abroad. Please be aware, also, that the grant is paid in euros, meaning you will be charged for exchange rates if this is paid into a UK bank. You can speak to your bank to find out more information about this.
To give you an idea on the form-filling process, I will explain to you the procedure for the 2019/2020 contracts. Feel free to read over this section in advance but wait to read through your own email and contract before raising any queries. The process can and will most likely change due to Brexit, but it might help you to have a rough idea on how the procedure has typically followed.
For my year, the first thing we had to do was print out the first four pages of the ‘Contract’ PDF, sign and date the third page, and then fill out our bank details (which your grant will be paid into) on the fourth page, as well as sign and date that. Please check all your details that the university has filled out are correct before signing. Assuming the form is the same for future contracts, your “Placement Provide/Employer’ is your school(s) (write down all of them) or your internship details, and the exact dates of your placement are the dates written on your employment contract. If you don’t know your Bank Swift Code or IBAN, you can ask your bank directly. This needs to be done as soon as possible, before you start your placement. If this isn’t possible, please contact the Erasmus department at Queen’s (or the institution which sent you the email). Do read through the Contract thoroughly. If you have more than one school, you may find only one school is written on your Contract – this is intentional but you do need to make sure that any forms you’re sending back include the details of all your schools, and not just the one written on the contract.
For Queen’s students, we were told all the required documents had to be printed, filled out, and scanned back through with a computer scanner (not a scanning app on your phone or as a photo). Some documents can’t be filled out until you’re abroad, so it’s worth checking with your school(s) in advance if they have a scanner. You could also check the local library. To save time, print out all the necessary documents (multiple copies) before going abroad. If scanning isn’t an option, you’ll need to contact the Erasmus department at Queen’s/your institution to let them know you’ll be sending your documents by post, and what address to send them to.
At the end of the Contract, there was a Student Placement Form of Indemnity, which also appears in the Learning Agreement for Traineeships (see below). This is the basically the form stating the legal and financial procedure of Death, Injury or Damage during your work placement. We were told, however, that the copy from the Learning Agreement for Traineeships was the one that needed to be printed out, filled out, signed by us and our school(s)/internship and scanned back within a month of starting our placement. If you have more than one school, print one form out for each school. Queen’s will sign the final part after receiving your completed document.
The Learning Agreement for Traineeships needs to be filled out and sent back within a month of starting your placement and should be completed with each of your schools/internship, meaning a copy must be printed out for each school. To clarify what is said on the form, you are the trainee, your university is the sending institution and the receiving organisation is your school(s)/internship. We had to fill out the details of each school/internship, and then discuss the mobility programme with the employee from each school/business who was responsible for us. It’s rather straightforward; essentially, it’s a plan of what your work will involve, what skills you’ll gain, and how you will be monitored and evaluated. We only needed to write four or fives lines for each section.
Following this, there was some other contractual information to read over before we could sign it and the person responsible could fill out their details and sign (again, this has to be done for each school). This is then scanned back to the Erasmus department at Queen’s/your institution and they then sign the final bit.
There is also another form to be completed DURING the mobility, ONLY for exceptional major changes made to the original Learning Agreement, and then a form for AFTER your placement. When your placement finishes, this needs to be printed out for each school/internship, filled out, signed and scanned back as soon as possible.
The final document is an official Confirmation of Attendance, which is to be filled out when your placement commences and then again when it finishes. All the information must be recorded accurately, signed, stamped, and then sent back within one month of starting your placement to avoid a delay in receiving your grant. As the before and after is on the same page, the confirmation of completing your placement must be recorded on the same page your confirmation of arrival was recorded on. This means you scan and send back the same page twice: once upon starting your placement and again after you finish it.
The Online Language Assessment is a compulsory part of receiving your Erasmus grant but is certainly nothing to worry about. It is merely a way of Erasmus assessing how much your year abroad can improve your language level – there is no minimum language level to receive and you will still receive the remaining 30% of your grant if your language level has not gone up by the end. We were told the first assessment had to be completed before 14th September to receive the grant, and full details of this are sent in a separate email (which I received 15th August). Again, you will not receive this email asking you to do the test until you have provided and your placement details and received your Contract. The final assessment is sent to you after your placement finishes and must be completed to receive the remainder of your grant. With my placement finishing at the end of May, I received this email on 16th May to be completed by 14th June. The date you receive the email for the second language test will vary depending on when your placement finishes.
The final element of the Erasmus Work Placement Contract and grant for us was that we had to fill out an online survey/report about our Erasmus placement. We received this at the end of our placement (for me this was the 30th May but again it varies depending on when your contract finishes) and had to fill it out within 30 days in order to receive the remainder of our grant.
Having done the second language test, the online survey and sent back the completed Confirmation of Attendance and Learning Agreement for Traineeships (for AFTER the mobility) to Erasmus all within the first week of June, I received the remaining 30% of my grant on (still pending).
I appreciate this information may be quite overwhelming at first. I would like to stress that it is only meant to be a rough guide to prepare you for what procedure you may have to follow before commencing your Year Abroad. The process could change completely after Brexit and so it is not worth raising any questions or concerns about this area with your institution until you receive your own Erasmus Work Placement Contract in August, if indeed the grant is still offered post-Brexit.
As of March, students will be contacted by Student Finance to reapply for the upcoming academic year. I advise applying for this as soon as possible to avoid any delays in receiving your student finance as you may be relying on this to finance the first few months of your year abroad. During the application, all of my peers and I were told we would be paying £825 worth of fees to Queen’s during our year abroad. Whether you accept this figure or change it to 0, your final written confirmation will state that you won’t pay any fees to the university.
After applying, I was sent a Course Abroad form which my Year Abroad Convener had to fill out to prove I would be spending an academic year abroad. Not all of my peers received the same form (we’re still not sure why to this date) but we all received the allowance we expected. Following this, I was sent another form to reconfirm that I was an independent student. Only once I had returned the documents to Student Finance was my application approved. To help you gauge your finances during your year abroad, you should find that the allowance you receive from Student Finance does not change from previous years. In my case, it increased slightly. You should also find that your first payment arrives the middle of August.
I later received another letter from Student Finance to claim for reimbursement of travelling expenses for study periods abroad which I filled out after my year abroad. If Student Finance don’t send you this letter, you can ask them to send you one.
ICPC (International Child Protection Certificate)
Shortly after your region has been confirmed, the British Council will email you to ask that you apply for an ICPC (again, applicants for France typically receive this email later than those going to Spain). Do not apply for the ICPC until you have received an email from the British Council telling you to do so. Without this certificate, you will not be able to work as English Language Certificate. The certificate costs £60 and the British Council will set a deadline of when you have to send it to them. In my case this was 21st June. Although this seems enough time, the entire process is quite lengthy and so again I recommend you begin the application as soon as possible.
I received my email on 24th May and completed the application on the 27th. The application is completed online and the British Council will send you a link to the form. Once again you have to fill out your personal details, including your address history for the past ten years. The main part of this form is providing the following supporting documents: evidence of current address, passport, a recent passport-style photo (which goes onto your ICPC) and the email from the British Council confirming your region allocation. You must have an electronic copy of all of these which you then upload to your application. Please ensure you follow the instructions exactly to avoid a delay in your application. The site will advise you on what will be accepted as evidence of your current address, what file types you can upload and how to upload them.
The final part of the form is providing the details of an endorser who can leave a reference for you. This must be someone you have known for at least two years (so for students in 2nd year, your lecturers won’t count). The site will advise on who is an acceptable endorser. You should let this person know that they may be contacted to avoid any delay in your application.
Once all the information has been provided, you select your delivery preference. Standard delivery is free, whilst special delivery is £9. The latter is the recommended option, especially if you started your application late. I opted for standard delivery and then paid the application fee of £60.
The ICPC takes 10 working days to process – I received an email confirmation that it had been approved on the 7th June and that it would be sent via the delivery method I had selected. Although it said in the email it could take up to 8 working days for delivery within the UK, I received my ICPC the following day.
According to the British Council instructions, I had to photocopy my ICPC twice and then send them the original, one of the photocopies and a stamped enveloped with my address on, so that they could send the original back. Please consider your delivery options carefully, as if your ICPC gets lost in transit and you are not covered, you will have to buy a new one. I opted for ‘Signed For 1st Class’. I also advise that you have an electronic copy of your ICPC before sending it to the British Council in case you are asked for it when you find out your school placement.
I sent the above to the British Council on the 11th June and Royal Mail confirmed it had been delivered the following day. The British Council only confirmed to me that they had received it on the 28th June and I finally received my ICPC back from them on the 2nd July. Due to this long process, I recommend choosing some form of tracked delivery; without it, you may not know for a few weeks whether the British Council have received your ICPC or not.
Year Abroad Meeting (Queen’s Students)
Queen’s University held a Year Abroad meeting with the British Council on 29th May 2019. All of those applying through the British Council scheme had to attend this meeting – everyone else only had to come at the end to find out information regarding the academic work to be completed during the year abroad and welfare advice.
The meeting provided information on the scheme itself, as well as advice and tips on planning a lesson. Previous Year Abroad students came in to shed light on their experiences, where they found their accommodation and to answer questions. Although it may start to feel redundant hearing their stories, you may have more questions to ask them than you did before so do take advantage of the opportunity when given it.
Whilst it may still feel at this point that you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t panic. Upon arriving to the country, you will attend a day-meeting which will provide training as an ELA, in addition to setting up official accommodation (if you haven’t done so by this point), banking and other admin, such as the NIE (for Spain). You can read more about my Welcome and Orientation Day in Asturias here.
Throughout the academic year, we were told about a Learning Journal (to complete over the course of the year abroad), a Reflective Report (to fill out at the end of the year) and an oral exam (which we will do at the beginning of final year). This was not fully explained to us until the Year Abroad meeting which was perhaps to not overwhelm us during our studies. Such information regarding your academic assessment for the year abroad will be explained to you in due course.
British Council Tools
The British Council sent two further emails in June: the first offering “Teaching English” training to help prepare us for our role as an ELA; the second introducing the launch of the “Language Assistants'” podcast in which a range of matters surrounding living abroad and the ELA experience will be discussed. I imagine these will be available and updated for future years – they are certainly worth listening to for additional tips and advice.
Whilst the Teaching English training could provide useful information and advice on being an ELA, please remember that you are not expected to have any teaching knowledge and you will be given all the training you need prior to starting. The paid courses are simply an additional tool you can take advantage of if that interests you. There are three free modules on how to use the site, Child Protection and Special Educational needs; if you’re unfamiliar with the last two, I recommend completing those. That said, as an ELA, your enthusiasm, diligence and motivation are all you need to succeed.
Please note: In August, the British Council will email you asking to complete a separate Child Protection course which provides specific information on procedures and who to contact should a situation at your school(s) arise. The course takes about thirty minutes and you can print off a certificate at the end. To avoid wasting time, I recommend waiting for this email and then completing this course before deciding whether to do the other free Child Protection course which I mentioned above.
During the summer, the British Council well send you an information pack, providing you with essential information to read through before starting your year abroad, including: your role as an ELA; school posting information; pre-departure information; health and well-being; arrival in the country; accommodation and admin (such as the NIE); finances; insurance; in-country advice; and teaching tips and resources. Whilst it can’t cover every aspect you may come across during your year abroad, it is a valuable resource and I highly recommend reading through all of the country notes.
They should also provide you with the contact details of previous ELAs placed in your region (if any), in addition to locals from that area who have been a Language Assistant in another country. They can give you information and advice on where you’ll be living and the locals may become a valuable acquaintance who can support you upon your arrival.
Once you’ve found out the location of your school(s), you can start to look into accommodation. I strongly advise against doing this beforehand, even if you know the region, as you may be placed on the very outskirts. For Spain, there are various sites online where you can start doing some research:
For France, you can search the following sites:
https://www.leboncoin.fr/ (select you region and search under ‘locations’ and ‘colocations’)
For Spain, France and other countries involved in the Erasmus programme:
This final site is ideal if you’re a student and are looking for other students to share with in another country. It also advises you on whether the property has been verified or not, giving you further reassurance before you view it in person.
Living in shared accommodation is perhaps the most cost effective route, and even at that it can cost about €400 a month depending on location. I chose this option not only for the price but because I took comfort in the thought of having company when I felt homesick, and yet also the choice to stay in my room if I needed to be alone. What’s more, I was quite keen on finding native Spanish-speakers to live with and so made sure to enquire about that with landlords.
Facebook groups are another way of searching for fellow expats and accommodation. There is usually always British Council one for those going to France and Spain every year and if you can’t find one, make it yourself! I also recommend joining Facebook groups for the area you’re going to, especially Erasmus groups and those with English Language Teachers and expatriates in mind. By making connections before you go, you will have a strong support network to help you when you arrive. You may also find other people you’d like to live with through such groups.
If you belong to a church or another religious organisation, it’s worth searching for local ones in your area; it’s another way to connect to the community and they may offer their own accommodation for students.
Moreover, your school(s) may be able to assist in finding accommodation. Sometimes they will already have a small apartment available for their language assistants which is either free or certainly very cheap. I wasn’t given this opportunity but I would have taken it had it been available. Even if I didn’t want to stay there permanently, it would have allowed me to take my time to find somewhere else to live.
Normally, however, your school(s) are willing to help you out as much as possible. My schools sent me advertisements of people wanting to flat-share in Avilés and also gave me the contact details of a Spanish girl they knew who had shared her flat with their language assistant last year. I was truly overwhelmed by their kindness and am grateful to have had such support from the very beginning.
Shared or not, it’s important to spend time searching and to not rush into anything. Send as many enquiries as you wish but don’t make any immediate decisions. You should only contact landlords who provide photos of all rooms of the property, leave a sufficient description and state that it is equipped with at least the main appliances (cooker, fridge freezer, washing machine, toilet, sink and shower). These are basic requirements and I would be suspicious of anyone who couldn’t provide that. Ideally, you should look for furnished apartments and houses; this will make things easier for you both when you move in and leave.
I found my shared apartment on Idealista, located in Gijón, the largest city in Asturias. It was much cheaper than others I’d seen in Avilés, even with the transport from Gijón to Avilés included, and it was close to the bus station. I was satisfied with the advertisement and contacted the landlady, explaining that I was a student from the UK and would be working in Asturias as an English Language Assistant. She was very quick to reply and was eager for us to discuss more, leaving me with her email and mobile number. We communicated via WhatsApp (in Spanish, as she didn’t speak English) and she explained that she was looking for female students (as she’d had problems with boys in the past) and was understandably strict about parties and ‘guests’ staying for too long. Her requirements for a quiet, all-girl household was exactly what I was looking for. Below you can find the questions I asked her regarding the property, which I advise you ask any landlord before making an agreement:
- Does the kitchen come with plates, cutlery, a microwave, pots and pans? Are there towels, bedding and bed sheets?
- Is there a fire/burglar alarm?
- Is the area and street safe?
- Is there a lock for the bathroom and bedroom?
- Are there others who will be living at this apartment (and are they Spanish/French)? Would I be able to speak with them/any previous tenants?
- Does the rent include all bills (electric, Internet, water, heating)? If not, how much are the bills on top? Are there any other costs I should be aware of?
- Do I need to pay a deposit and when would I have to pay the first month’s rent? When would I have to pay the rent every month?
There is no right answer to these questions but it’s important to consider the response. Whilst you should ensure you are coming across as polite and interested, you must also pay attention to how the landlord replies. If they agree to everything you say and the property sounds too good to be true, maybe it is. Moreover, the questions they ask you will indicate what kind of tenant they’re looking for and how much they care about the property. Even if the landlord is genuine, they don’t know you are, so you need to be as honest as possible without putting yourself at risk (i.e. sending money, providing personal details without good reason).
You can ask as many questions as you feel necessary but do be aware that asking, for example, the number of friends you can invite over and how long they can stay for, could raise the landlord’s suspicions about your intentions. Questions regarding cleanliness, safety and finances, however, demonstrate maturity and consideration.
I asked to videocall the landlady and one of the tenants who had been living there for two years already. Both were very happy to do so and, again, you should be wary of anyone who refuses. Pay attention to their behaviour during the call and the room they’re talking to you in. If anything doesn’t seem right to you, question them on this. Don’t be afraid to repeat a question you’ve already asked – if they’re being honest they would give the same answer.
The tenant I spoke to was a Spanish student from Asturias who was studying nursing in Gijón. As well as asking her the same questions I posed to the landlady (to see whether they gave the same answers) I asked the following:
- Her opinion on the landlady, Gijón and the apartment itself, along with her own photos of it
- The locality of supermarkets, public transport, banks, doctor’s surgeries, dentist’s surgery and hospitals
- How the electric was normally paid (this was the only thing not included in the rent)
- How the cleaning was typically organised amongst tenants
- What she liked to do in her free time/during the weekend
The purpose of our conversation was also to judge her character and decide whether she would be someone I wanted to live with. Fortunately she turned out to be very kind and even offered to do things together during our free time. We exchanged social media accounts and kept in touch during the lead up to my arrival. Little things like this build upon a person’s credibility and are essential in making rationalised judgements about who they are.
The final step is to view the property in person. If you’re already in the area, questions can be asked during the viewing and videocalls might not be necessary. As I was spending the summer in France, viewing the property before arriving to Asturias wasn’t possible for me.
Landlords are eager to find tenants as soon as possible and are unlikely to wait potentially two months for you to see the property – if someone says yes before you, they will lease it to them. This doesn’t mean you should feel pressured into signing a contract before you see the property in person and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do this. If you’re unable to spend even a week abroad viewing properties you’re interested in, the best option is to book an Airbnb for the first two weeks. This should give you enough time to find a suitable property (although, this will hold up other administration tasks which should be done before starting your placement).
I decided to take the risk of signing a contract before viewing the property; it was exactly what I’d been looking for and I had no reason to mistrust the landlady or the current tenant. Having had a lot of experience with meeting people through language exchange websites who I’ve then gone to meet in person, I consider myself to have good judgement. On the small chance I was mistaken, I was aware of the financial implications and accepted this. Please note that I would never advise someone to do the same, and I strongly recommend that you view any property before signing a contract for it.
The property cost €230 euros per month, which I had to pay at the start of every month, and the contract was for 9 months. Even though I only planned to stay from the middle of September to the middle of June, I had to pay September and June in full. To sign the contract, the landlady only wanted the deposit of €230 – she didn’t need the first month’s rent until the beginning of September. To verify my identity she asked for a scanned copy of my passport and I offered to show her my Carta de Nombramiento to prove I could pay the rent each month. She also needed my UK address for the contract. If you are signing a contract in Spain, you shouldn’t be asked for any further information. If you’re relying on Student Finance and Erasmus grants to finance your year abroad, you may need to provide evidence of your allowance, if asked for it. Alternatively, you can find a guarantor but it’s highly unlikely you’ll need to resort to this.
In France, it’s somewhat more complicated. Usually, you need to provide the following information to rent in France:
- A letter from your guarantor in French (parents, etc.)
- Guarantor information – Photocopy of passport, photocopy of employment contract, last three payslips and last tax declaration.
- Your passport
- Residence permit (your Arrêté de Nomination).
- If possible, a Relevé d’Identité Bancaire (RIB – Bank reference form). You can retrieve this once you have a French bank account
If you’re a mature student or a working professional (in which case you are essentially your own guarantor), you’ll need to provide the following information:
- Proof of income (usually 3x higher than the rent and charges)
- Last tax declaration
- Residence permit
- If possible, a Relevé d’Identité Bancaire (RIB – Bank reference form)
If you’re unable to provide sufficient proof of income, you’ll likely need a guarantor.
There are often complications when trying to find accommodation in France, as landlords require you to have a RIB, and yet you need a French address to open a bank account and retrieve a RIB. There is no right or easy way to get around this. The best course of action is to explain your situation to the landlord and see if they will accept your UK bank details for the time being. I was able to transfer money to a Spanish bank account from my UK one (see below). Alternatively, you can explain the same situation to the bank, and see if they will allow you to open an account even a temporary account with your UK address.
For further support on this, I recommend speaking to your school, previous ELAs in France and searching online.
My UK bank is Halifax and you can easily transfer money to a foreign bank account with them. See here for guidance on international payments with them. I asked the landlady to provide me with specific details from her bank, and so she sent me an official document from the bank with the necessary information, as well as provided her address. Once the deposit was transferred, she sent me a signed copy of the contract which included both our details we exchanged. I read it over, signed it, and scanned it back through to her. Please read the contract carefully before signing it – even a simple typo can cause problems for other admin tasks. Make a note of what items are marked down in the room, as well as any defects, and be sure to take photos of the property as soon as you move in.
We kept in touch over the summer and I arranged a time to collect the keys from her once I’d booked my flight to Asturias.
Finding accommodation can be complicated and many people doing British Council have been cheated and lost a significant amount of money. There is nothing wrong with living in an Airbnb for the first few weeks while you look for and arrange your accommodation. As long as you are sensible, careful and patient, you’ll succeed in finding somewhere you like.
University students should be covered by their university for the duration of their placement. Please read over the insurance policy carefully to ensure you are covered for all of your needs (including specific medical requirements and gadget cover). In most cases, you will not be covered for the time spent abroad before and after your placement, any flights home during this period and travel to other countries. This means that you will need to take out additional insurance.
I personally use the Post Office travel insurance, which covers me for the time I’m in Spain in September (before starting my placement) and June (after my placement ends). Please note that you need should consider taking out Gadget cover for your mobile, tablet and/or laptop. For travelling home and return to the country, you can normally buy insurance for the single trip through the airline. And finally, in terms of travelling to from a foreign country to another, you will need to research the insurance options online.
If you are not covered by your university, the Post Office offer backpacker’s insurance, and I’ve been told Endsleigh is a popular, reliable option. With either company, the estimated cost of insurance for the year abroad is £200-£300, depending on your medical and gadget needs.
Booking your Flights
Once you have confirmation of your region, you can begin to look into the best options to travel to your destination. The sooner you can book, the better, but you should ensure you know where you’re going once you’ve arrived (e.g. Airbnb, your accommodation, etc.) so that you can work out how to travel there from the airport. As with anything I’ve mentioned, don’t leave this to the last minute. I had to book the coach from Asturias airport to Gijón online about a week before my departure in order to guarantee a place on the bus for the time I wanted.
I recommend arriving about two weeks before your placement or university course starts. This will allow you ample time to sort out all of the necessary administrative matters, including finding accommodation if you haven’t done so already, and means you can settle in and familiarise yourself with the area.
Please note: I used DHL to send a 20kg box worth of items home from Spain (the ESN in Asturias were offering a 30% discount with them) which included some Spanish food. My box got checked in customs and the state of the contents and the box itself when it arrived in Northern Ireland was shocking (that’s not DHL’s fault and I would recommend their service). With that in mind, do consider carefully what items you want to send, especially if they are valuable or sentimental, and be sure to package everything securely inside the box. Also check a list of what items you’re allowed to send internationally. You can find some information from the Post Office here.
This concludes the Year Abroad Guide. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions regarding any of the matters above (Queen’s student or not) and feel free to take a look at my Year Abroad Checklist to ensure you have everything prepared before you go, in addition to my post Moving to Gijón to find out my experience of getting set up in Spain.