There are few things more exciting than watching foreign ground peek out from the fluff and fog of clouds as your plane descends. The moment you arrive abroad, you may find yourself either eager to explore and indulge in unabashed tourism or, if your have had a particularly long trip, ready to do nothing but sleep. As an international student, however, you have a few very important things to do upon arrival in preparation for your studies. It is nice to arrive a few days or a week before the beginning of your orientation to give yourself a bit of time to enjoy your new homeland, however temporary; but if you can’t arrive ahead of time, don’t worry, you will have plenty of time to immerse yourself in the culture while you are there!
Whether you have one week or one day to get your affairs in order, just relax and keep a clear head. Universities have new international students arrive every semester, so they know what steps you will need to take to set yourself up in their community. It may seem like you are caught in an endless web of administrative confusion, but be patient and soon you will be standing solidly on your own two feet on new soil. Here is a checklist of some of the most important things to do or consider:
- Get through customs:
- As long as you have your visa paperwork in order ahead of time and have a current passport and another form of identification, this should go smoothly. However, every rule has its exceptions, so be aware of any immigration quirks for the country you are entering. For example, due to unusual border regulations between Ireland and the U.K., one of my friends who flew into Dublin before coming to Scotland had to leave the country and come back to get the right passport stamp for her immigration paperwork. Do your research and try to find and avoid any customs oddities. If you do encounter a customs obstacle, don’t panic. Your university has probably dealt the same issue before, and they should be able to advise you.
- Go to your university:
- Once you are in country, you need to make your way to your school! Before arrival, find transportation from the airport to your university. Airport shuttles are often the most budget-friendly option and some may go directly to your university or even your hall of residence.
- Have your visa approved and finish any immigration paperwork:
- Once you reach your school, they will have to check your visa before you can be fully enrolled as a student. If they do not arrange an appointment for this with you ahead of time, go to the student resources office or office of international programs to get further instruction.
- Universities may refer to it as registration or enrollment or matriculation, but all names refer to the process of actually becoming a student at the university. Before you leave home, check with your host school to see what documents you will need to provide. Pack your documents in your carry-on bag and pack copies of your documents in a checked bag or personal item so you will have back up copies in case something gets lost in transit. Registration may also include choosing your courses for the semester or even the whole year, as it does here at St Andrews, so have a list of your top choices and second choices prepared.
- Move in:
- Assuming you have made arrangements to live in university or private housing beforehand, move into your residence! Look out for any used home goods sales on campus or browse local secondhand shops to find affordable decorations, dishes, and the like.
- Money matters:
- Depending on how long you will be abroad, it may be a good idea to open a bank account in order to avoid conversion charges from ATM’s. If you decide to open a bank account, choose a bank with a branch nearby and compare branches’ offerings from international student bank accounts. You may need a bank letter or proof of acceptance from your university to set up a student account, so it is advisable to have a printed copy of this on hand when you meet with the bank along with any other identification documents and previous bank statements they require.
- Sort out your phone plan or find alternative communication:
- If you are going to be abroad for longer than a semester, you will probably want to get a local phone number. One of the most common options for international students is to get a sim card with a bundle or pay-as-you-go plan to swap with the sim card in your current phone. If you can, talk to other students who have gotten phone plans before you to find out what they did. Since international calls are expensive, a lot of students use instant messaging apps with internet calling capabilities, like Facebook Messenger or What’s App, and video chat apps, like Skype, to stay in touch with those back home.
- Explore the neighbourhood:
- Where is the nearest grocery store? the pharmacy? the church? the best cappuccino? These are things you must know. Take a stroll around town (with a good map in hand!) and locate places or facilities you will need to go to while you are there.
- Outfit yourself for the semester:
- While taking a stroll, be sure to buy any living and studying essentials. Look for school supplies, clothing items you may not have packed, and any home goods you need.
- Register with a doctor:
- In the U.K., my visa registration included registration with the National Health Service to cover my healthcare while I am here. I have yet to register with a doctor here (oops!), so I will doing so as soon as I get back from Christmas break. In any country, you may have to register with a national health program or a health care provider within the university (most schools in the U.S. have an on-campus health center). Do note, you may need to provide forms from your doctor to attest to any existing health problems and prove that you have all necessary vaccinations.
- Find transportation:
- How will you be getting around town? If there is a good bus system in the area, try it out. If you want to have a bicycle but will only be staying for a short time, consider renting one from a shop or even from the university, if they have such a program. If you will be abroad for a longer duration or if it is more reasonable than renting a bike, you can buy a new or used one and a helmet (always a good idea!). Be careful to learn and follow any traffic laws which you aren’t accustomed too and stay on the correct side of the road.
- Attend orientation:
- Orientation is meant to orient you to be successful, so skipping it is just silly. Look out for any sessions meant for international students, especially those pertaining to academic differences.
Keep your wits about you when you arrive. Jet lag, culture-shock, and all of the things you need to do before you begin classes can make your first days abroad very trying, but remember than many, many people have survived the transition before and so will you! Be patient and know that you will feel much better once you have everything sorted.