What's It Really Like to Live With a Host Family?

Every exchange student knows the feeling of anticipation while waiting for a host family, and the excitement and nervousness of finding out about their host family. After all, host families play a huge role in an exchange student’s experience. But they are not just friends and not exactly family, so what’s it actually like to live with a host family?

Well, for starters, it depends on you. This might sound strange – wouldn’t it depend on the family? A bit, but I would argue that exchange students who practice gratitude, take on new experiences with enthusiasm, encounter strange ideas with humility, and try to make the most of every situation will enjoy living with a host family more than those students who expect the host family to make the experience amazing. Some host families will try harder than others to create the perfect experience, but no host family is perfect, and I think the key to enjoying life with a host family is having the right attitude and communicating early and often.

That being said, because every student and every host family are different, each experience will be unique. However, there are several constants when it comes to living with a host family.

Living with a host family is eye-opening

For most of us, this is the first time living away from our families for an extended period of time. Living with a family and in a culture completely different from your own offers perspective on what you always thought of as “normal” and helps cultivate gratitude for things you had previously taken for granted. You will likely understand yourself and your family better after living with a different family.

family sitting on bench

Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, I often dragged my feet when my family chose to spend yet another evening at the cold, windy ocean. My German host siblings were shocked when they heard this and said they would never turn down an opportunity to visit the ocean. A few weekends later as we pondered what to do one Saturday morning, my host dad suggested touring the ruins of a nearby castle, to which the kids responded, "oh no, not another castle!" As it turns out, both the oceans and historic castles make for a fun weekend outing--if you have the right attitude.


Living with a host family requires communication—lots of it

When you and your host family have differing understandings of normal, miscommunications and assumptions can overwhelm an otherwise good relationship. It can be tiring to communicate about things that feel obvious, like whether toilet paper can be flushed down the toilet (believe it or not, in many countries this is a no go!), but communication is the bridge that helps two well-intentioned people succeed in building a successful relationship. Without communication, even the best intentions will fall short.

kids in car in winter clothes

Living with a host family is rewarding

Sharing the precious traditions from my family and my culture with my host family created some of my favorite exchange memories, from making a pumpkin pie from scratch to filling up stockings on Christmas morning--neither of which is normal in Germany! In fact, pumpkin is typically only used for savory dishes, so it was with much reluctance that my host siblings even tried the pumpkin pie!

teen girl baking with little boy

The stockings on the other hand were quite the hit and started a new tradition for my host family. This past Christmas--ten years after I lived in Germany--I received a photo from my host mom. The entire family was opening the stockings that I had bought and filled for them a decade earlier. Seeing that tradition live on warmed my heart.


Living with a host family is funny

Whether your mistakes or someone else’s, living in an unfamiliar family is bound to have comical moments. Less than a week after I arrived in Germany, my shower was interrupted by my 5-year-old host brother who made an unannounced entrance into the bathroom and stood laughing as I scoured my tiny German vocabulary and came up with “Nein!” which I repeated emphatically until the preschooler left me in peace. My host mom later told me that when she saw me playing with him a few hours later, seemingly unscathed, she knew I would make it.

teen girl holding two young boys

Living with a host family is life-changing

Not to sound cliché, but after living with another family for a year, or even a semester, you won’t be the same. You will think differently about things, question things more frequently, listen more carefully, and cherish things you had once taken for granted.

teen girl having tea with mother

For me, this happened in some obvious ways, like my German-inspired love for direct communication - why waste time beating around the bush? But mostly I saw it in a multitude of subtleties, like trading what had always been an afternoon coffee for a cup of Earl Grey, loyalty to Germany's soccer team as they chased Brazil for the honor of most World Cup victories, the desire to ride my bike rather than drive across town, and the ability to throw together a loaf of bread without even glancing at a recipe.

Living with a host family is valuable

Living with a host family isn’t always easy, but are any of life’s greatest endeavors? Pressing into and overcoming the challenges will only change you for the better. And learning to embrace the adventure of the unknown in a new family will leave you with memories and stories that you’ll cherish for a lifetime.

family at the cold beach

I'll never forget that June day when I waved goodbye to my host family through misty eyes and walked through security in Frankfurt. Although my year with them was over, we would go on making memories together for years to come. The following summer I shocked my host siblings with a surprise visit. The year after that my two worlds collided as my host family of six travelled to Oregon to meet my family and see my home - and true to their word, the kids never tired of afternoon trips to the ocean! When I walked down the aisle in 2019, I was proud that my German family was there to celebrate with me.

bride & groom with family

Now I'm married with a baby and my host siblings are all in high school or graduated. Life has changed so much, but their place in my heart will never fade. And that's what it's really like to live with a host family.

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Growth, learning, new experiences, and lots of fun are just a few of the benefits of being an exchange student.  The benefits are many, and they last a lifetime! 

There's still time to apply to study abroad this fall, and our awesome Study Abroad team would love to give you more information and answer your questions.  

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Tags: Host Families, Exchange Student, Study Abroad, Youth Exchange, Student Experience

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