6 things to know before studying abroad in Brazil

Published on USA TODAY College http://college.usatoday.com/2015/08/20/6-things-to-know-before-studying-abroad-in-brazil/

Home to the 2014 World Cup, 2016 Olympics and countless tourist attractions, Brazil holds unforgettable experiences for students studying abroad. However — especially in big cities — the extent of culture shock and local norms aren’t known to everyone before arriving.

Here are a few things students should know before attending to make the most of their trip.


If not fluent in Portuguese, a basic hold on Spanish will still get you far, as the two have many cognates. Not all businesses have English speakers or translators, even in areas known to be frequently visited by tourists.

In my opinion, the most essential phrases are:

de novo: for when people speak too fast for you to understand and you need to hear again

onde esta (insert place here): to ask where a location is

quanto custa (insert item here): to ask how much an item costs

obrigada/o: to say ‘thank you.’

It can be helpful to bring a list of common phrases along in your pocket, just in case.

Traveling to Brazil with only knowledge of English could still make for a great experience, but the language barrier limits cultural immersion. Not to mention, some of the emotion and eloquent articulation often spoken in Brazilian Portuguese can be lost in translation.


Visiting Cristo Redentor and Sugarloaf mountain, travelers get breathtaking views of the city, but there are certain spots that only locals may know about. Meeting Brazilian students can get you insight on culture, the best places to go and great Portuguese practice.

Brazilian favelas, shantytowns, hold a large portion of the population. Less-fortunate students may live here and invite you to experience the lifestyle. Seeing favelas can be an enriching and eye-opening experience, but you will learn a lot more by visiting with a local rather than going through a large tour company. Residents tend to dislike having their homes and lives on display.

Local and family-owned restaurants trump chains by a long shot. Quilo restaurants allow you to pay for food by weight, giving choice of how much or little you’d like to eat.


Withdrawing a large amount at once in reais will save you money in the long-run. International fees add up quickly, and many places don’t accept credit or debit cards as payment. Always carry at least R$50 on you, in case of emergency and because the street markets always catch your attention.

With an currency more than 3 times the amount of Brazilian reais, your U.S. money will get you far. If something costs more than what you would pay in the states, you’re getting the foreigner price. To ensure that you get a great deal, buy at places with prices listed already rather than where you have to ask “quanto custa?”

Set aside funds for specifically for water, since it isn’t free in Brazil and drinking from the tap can be questionable. In addition, most public restrooms cost money. If you’re anything like most tourists, the local foods will catch your attention too, so an acai and salgado budget may be in your best interest.


Taking public transportation is typically much cheaper than a cab. A standard metro ride costs R$3.60 — about $1 in U.S. currency — no matter how far you ride, whereas cab price in Brazilian traffic is unpredictable.

Buses can run a little higher, up to R$15 per ride, and hold less personal space. Still, it may be preferable to a cab depending on the destination, as many go directly to popular attractions and airports.

If the cab is preferable, gather a group to go. As like anywhere else, the more in the cab the cheaper each person has to pay. Only take cabs that have a company sign and phone number on the side, those without are unofficial and can easily scam or put you in danger with no one to call and hold accountable.


Street crime is prevalant in Brazil, especially in big cities like Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo. Avoid taking out technology in public if possible, especially in areas where locals don’t have theirs out. Tourists are easily identified through speaking English and specific styles of dressing, so attempting to blend in by speaking Portuguese whenever possible and dressing like the locals can keep you from being a target. Unless attending a formal event, avoid flashy jewelry and accessories.

Whatever bag you choose to carry, keep it in sight at all times. That means purses, wallets and backpacks should be on your side or front at all times. Even at restaurants, hold your bag in your lap, if small enough. All it takes is for you to look away from your belongings for one second for someone to swipe it. If going to one of the many famous beaches, don’t leave items unattended or trust strangers to watch it.

For female students, traveling alone isn’t recommended unless you know the area well. Catcalling and street harassment are rampant, but responding as some would in the U.S. isn’t advised. The retorts aren’t worth the trouble, as it could escalate into an unwanted and dangerous altercation


“You put the toilet paper in a trash can?”

Yes, toilets in Brazil aren’t built to hold the paper without clogging, but bins are changed regularly for sanitary reasons.

Local businesses and informal events tend to run on a laid-back schedule. Things may not open or start at the specified time, don’t think too much about it or you’ll be disappointed often.

When greeting someone, people say “tudo bem,” (pronounced too-doo behn), which means “all is well.” As a response, people generally say in affirmation, “tudo bem.” People also may greet by giving a small kiss on the cheek, as the culture is typically very affectionate.

These are just a start to the vast and diverse culture of Brazil, but expecting to deal with them will save a lot of trouble. Studying abroad can be a life-changing experience and, should you choose Brazil, these tips will enhance what will already be a wonderful trip.


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