Stay Connected While Your Student Is Abroad

Here’s how parents can keep in touch, without cramping their child’s style.

Instant messaging and video chats can help parents and students stay connected during study abroad trips.

There's something about living in a foreign land, surrounded by unfamiliar foods, languages, and customs that can make a kid miss his folks—even if that "kid" is a self-sufficient college student.

Just ask Thomas Nelson, a McDaniel College alumnus who spent a semester in Belgium and is currently in a two-month language program in Tunisia.

[Find out how to learn a foreign language in college.]

"Even the most independent and travel-hardened explorers—I count myself among those ranks—will want to talk to their parents every now and then," Nelson says.

But connecting across oceans, time zones, and continental divides can be tricky business. Your child's cell phone likely won't work outside the United States, and prepaid phone cards can be expensive and unreliable.

Don't panic. There are a lot of free resources available to keep parents and students connected despite the distance, and many of them are already part of your daily lives.

"Facebook is currently one of the best tools to keep in touch with friends and family back home," Nelson says. "Just uploading pictures or posting about the museum you went to that day is, in my experience, enough for parents."

[Learn how to make the most of your time abroad.]

While tagged pictures and status updates let parents know their kids are safe, they are no substitute for real-time conversations. That's where texts and instant messaging can come in handy.

Many students buy cheap, prepaid cell phones when they get to their host country, and text messages, even international ones, are often far less expensive than phone calls.

Even better than cheap plans? Messaging services such as Skype, Gchat, and WhatsApp, an application that users can download to send text, photos, and video messages to international numbers, are free. All three have mobile apps, so you don't need to be tethered to your computer waiting for your child to come online (you have a life, too, after all).

Skype and Gchat also have video options, for those moments when you really want to talk face-to-face; Google+ Hangouts also allow up to nine people to get in on a video chat, so you can get the whole family in on the conversation. This can be especially handy if your child is studying abroad during holidays or birthdays.

"I was away from home for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so having those tools ... was even better on those days," says Nelson. "I was able to see my grandparents, cousins, and friends on Thanksgiving Day, and opened presents my family had mailed to me with them on Christmas."

Lynn O'Shaughnessy, an author and college consultant, recommends these free online tools to any parent whose child is studying overseas. Her own daughter studied abroad multiple times.

"If you haven't downloaded Skype on your computer, do it before your child heads abroad," O'Shaughnessy, who wrote The College Solution blog for U.S. News, advised parents in a 2009 article for CBS News. "My daughter called me almost every day on Skype so I feel like she's never really left."

[Read about study abroad options for grad students.]

But daily communication is a lot to expect of a student trying to soak up all that a new country has to offer in just a few short months. So forgo making a set schedule of when you will talk, and instead just settle on how you will keep in touch, advises Samantha Radell, a recent Wake Forest University graduate who spent a summer studying in Spain.

"It's hectic and difficult to plan in advance for things, and it makes communication with your family seem like a chore," says Radell, who talked to her family via Skype or BlackBerry messenger nearly every day. She admits this was more frequent than most of her peers.

"I was abroad with my boyfriend and some of his best friends, and they thought it was bizarre how often I spoke with my family," she says. "They would get in touch with [their family] maybe once a week."

Parents should be prepared for less frequent communication while their student is abroad, advises the IIEPassport parent resource guide. IIEPassport is website project of the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit that administers international exchanges such as the Fulbright program.