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I was looking on the internet but really haven't found anything definite on this. I was writing a letter for IELTS practice and I came with this phrase:

"When I arrived to the school I really did not know what to expect.".

I'm doubtful about whether the "to" is well placed there.

I think the following option with "at" instead of "to" sounds better as in:

"When I arrived at the school I really did not know what to expect."

but I'm not sure if those two are interchangeable in this particular example.

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It seems that formally the only correct preposition in your context is "at".

"When I arrived at the school I really did not know what to expect.".

Based on Cambridge dictionary and Oxford dictionary and Merriam Webster dictionary, the correct preposition in your context is "at" except for countries and cities names (such as New York) that then you have to use in the preposition "in".

I arrived in New York.

Cambridge dictionary explains:

We use the verb arrive with at or in to talk about ‘coming to’, ‘getting to’ or ‘reaching’ a place where a journey ends. If we see the destination as a point, we say arrive at. If we see it as a larger area, we say arrive in. We don’t say arrive to a place.

But according to Collins dictionary we have to distinguish between to "arrive" meanings:
The first meaning with preposition "at": When a person or vehicle arrives at a place, they come to it at the end of a journey.

The Princess Royal arrived at Gatwick this morning from Jamaica.

The second meaning with preposition "in" When you arrive at a place, you come to it for the first time in order to stay, live, or work there.

...in the old days before the European settlers arrived in the country.

Anyway, it's very common to see people that use the preposition to in such context, but it's considered as a common mistake even among native English speakers.


By the way, the words "arrive at" can be also an expression:

"Arrive at something", means "to come to a decision about something after much consideration" as Cambridge dictionary states.

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  • Uses a rule from one dictionary to justify a specific chosen definition cited from another dictionary, not logically coherent. Also rather lengthy and sprinkled with visual interruptions. Expected consequence is confusion for new learners. Recommended action is to condense it and avoid strict formal rules analysis. Recommended action to voters is bear this in mind when voting for answers, only the most useful should be upped, emphasis on simplicity and common usage. Commented Jan 7, 2023 at 20:49
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Hah, there are lots of different prepositions you could use after arrived!
"When I arrived in New York" (always has to be in, I don't know why, nothing else sounds right)
"When I arrived at New York Harbor" (in would be a different kettle of fish)
"When I arrived on the moon" (you could be at it, too)
"When I arrived over New York" (returning from the moon, perhaps)
etcetera. But I'm having trouble thinking of a place that "arriving to" would be as comfortable a usage as "arriving at". Count me in the at camp.

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Places normally take the preposition at, and "school" is a place. However, to X is often used when X is a destination of a motion or trip.

When I arrived to the school I really did not know what to expect.

So this isn't wrong, but it implies previous sentences or speech were focusing on the trip to the school, for example: you may be touring or visiting well-known places, rather than attending classes at the school.

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I was taught to use "arrive at" in written or spoken dialog, not "arrive to." However, I notice a growing number of news reports (online and in print) using "arrived to," which makes me groan.

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The OED also reports that arrive with to (as well as with into) is now obsolete. If that was indeed the case for a while, it no longer is: while arrive at (a destination) is far more common, arrive to has been seeing increased use for all of the current century and especially since the late 2010s.
Merriam-Webster

I typically use "to". However, I would probably say "arrive at one's final destination.

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Yes, the dictionary explanations would seem to indicate that “arrive to” was once common, became obsolete and is now creeping back into common usage, at least here in the U.S. What is often not mentioned is one of the main reasons for its proliferation: we’re constantly hearing “arrive to” uttered by non-native speakers of Romance languages such as Spanish, from whose native tongues the common preposition following their verb for “arrive” is usually translated as “to.” As an ESL teacher, I usually teach students that “arrive at/in” is the norm, while “arrive to” falls into the category, since I work mainly with Spanish-speakers, of “mistakes that you will most likely want to make.” Ironically, Spanish-speaking ELLs will almost always mistakenly say, “I’m leaving TO México,” even though the most common translation of the Spanish word “para” is “for.”

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Ngram viewer would strongly suggest that "arrive at", historically, is so overwhelmingly dominant, whether concrete or abstract arguments are appended to the preposition, that it can only indicate that the alternative is less of a synchronic or dialectic variation, and more of an idiolectic failure of cognition: a (randomly occurring or L2-acquisitional) developmental failure to grasp that "arrive" is a verb of completive/conclusive state.

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  • Lol at trying to call people who use "arrive to" developmentally disabled while claiming "Ngram viewer" suggests things to you. This does not answer the question however.
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Both are grammatically correct and will be understood by many English speakers. Regional preferences may exist.

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