Survival guide for international students: your first 168 hours in the United States

A successful businessman who came to America as a young student shares his advice for incoming international students

September 13 2016
Student with suitcase

There are a plenty of examples in life where the first hours of an event shape the outcome, even if the outcome isn’t expected for a long time. From criminal justice, we know that the first 48 hours after a crime is committed are key to the case being solved. From medicine, we know that the emergency care provided in the first hour is critical to the patient’s long-term health prospects.

For international students, the seven days prior to orientation – what we at SelfScore call “Survival Week” – is a period in which crucial decisions are made that can impact the quality of your entire stay in the United States. We hear first-hand from international students about their early misfortunes, “wish-I-knews” and hindsight, and every time we wonder why this information isn’t more widely available.

Your Survival Week is really about getting basic tools and services set up so that you can hit the ground running as soon as school starts. In the spirit of sharing time-tested advice, here is a survival guide for what to accomplish in your first week in the United States as an international student.

1. Choose a US-based cell phone plan

Perhaps the most unsettling feeling when you step off the plane in the US happens when you pull out your mobile phone and see a “no service” signal. It’s in your best interest to get to a cell phone store as soon as possible after landing, as many of the following survival tips require a phone.

You have three choices when it comes to cell phone plans: 1) using an unlocked cell phone from home and purchasing a new SIM card in the US 2) buying a new phone and setting up a pre-paid plan 3) buying a new cell phone and setting up a contract plan.

For option 1), it’s important to note that most international phones are locked in the US, which eliminates the option. If you have an unlocked phone, campusSIMS is a great option for purchasing a new SIM card. For option 2) pre-paid plans require you to pay a fee each month upfront but do not require a contract. In general, they cost more per month, but do not require a Social Security number (SSN) or a credit check. For option 3), contract plans generally last two years and require either a SSN or a credit check, which most international students cannot provide. T-Mobile is one carrier that does not require a contract, nor deposits or a credit check to set up a contract, which makes it a great option for international students.

We highly recommend that you do not continue to use your home cell plan and pay for international minutes while in the US. It’s simply uneconomical and unnecessary. Second, it doesn’t make much sense to add international minutes to a US-based cell plan. There are plenty of free mobile and desktop messaging apps – such as WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and WeChat – that will allow you to freely call home at any time.

2. Fight your desire to sleep during daylight

Your first instinct coming off the plane and arriving at your apartment or dorm may be to sleep. Unless you cannot physically keep your eyes open because of jet lag, it’s best if you fight the desire to sleep during daylight hours. First off, all the places and businesses that are important to your first week generally aren’t open outside the hours of 8am to 6pm, so daytime sleeping can have the negative effect of delaying important tasks from getting done.

In the broader sense, getting into a consistent, eight-hour sleep routine as early as possible will be extremely beneficial to your health once classes begin. According to Clifford Saper, a doctor who authored a Harvard Medical School study about jet lag, it takes an average person a week for their circadian rhythms to adjust. Hence, part of your Survival Week is simply getting sleep at the right hours to allow you to make your best decisions. Once classes start, don’t throw away the work you did to establish a consistent sleep pattern, either! It’s a peculiar and perverse badge of honour across many American colleges and universities for students to stay up late studying, or “to pull an all-nighter”, as if it demonstrates superior work ethic or stamina. Don’t let this get to your head, whether it’s the first week or finals week.

3. Open a bank account and set up a credit card

Cash is crucial in the first hours after you arrive, but credit is for ever in the United States. I’ll explain what that means in a second. First, you’ll want to bring some volume of cash – the limit is $10,000 before you have to declare. However, relying on cash will quickly become unsustainable after the first few days of your stay. Having a US bank account will make it much easier to manage your finances, get to money quickly without crazy fees, and easily pay off your credit card bill.

Because most international students generally don’t have cars, or don’t want to take an Uber every time they need to grab cash, it’s best to check out which banks have ATMs/cash machines on campus, and/or which banks have branches within walking distance of campus. In addition to proximity, you’ll want to do a bit of homework on what types of bank accounts they offer and what the requirements are. In general, you’re looking to set up a checking account that has low to no monthly service fees; doesn’t require a high minimum balance; and has a modest transaction limit that safeguards your account if your debit/ATM card gets stolen.

From our experience, most international students don’t understand the need or benefits of having a credit card while staying in the US. Particularly in the first week, there are so many urgent tasks to take care of that setting up a credit card seems abstract or unnecessary. Out of convenience, most international students are set up as an authorised user on their parents’ debit card or credit card, which routes back to an international bank account. At the superficial level, this set-up guarantees that every – every – purchase you make will be visible to your parents on their account. Seeking privacy and independence, most international students get so far as opening up their own US bank account and setting up a debit card but stop short of getting a credit card.

As I mentioned, credit is for ever in the US. Setting up a credit card is your ticket to establishing a clear, reliable financial footprint, which opens doors later for everything from renting an apartment, getting a loan, being hired at a new job or starting a business. You may not know if you want to stay in the US long term, but having a credit card and paying your bills on time can have the biggest impact on your ability to make a life in America – more so than any other tip on this list. If the long-term prospect is not motivation enough, using a credit card is also much safer than regularly using a debit card. It’s difficult to see the difference between a debit card and credit card when you make a swipe, but unlike a credit card, a debit card is not protected. If your debit card is stolen or lost, and someone gets access to your account, there is no way to recover the money lost.

4. Review your health insurance options and sign up

As an international student, you are required to have health insurance during your stay in the US. However, in the US, you don’t simply “have” health insurance, you choose to have it. The distinction is important because in most countries, there isn’t a long, complicated or expensive process for people to get health insurance. If you are a citizen, it’s implied that you get it.

In America, not all health insurance is created equal. Trust me when I say that the average American doesn’t understand the US healthcare system. My best advice is to work with your international student office and have them assist you in understanding each insurance option and what it offers in terms of cost and extent of care. Most likely, your medical needs can be addressed at the campus health centre, but in the event that you need a medical specialist, you may want to investigate which doctors’ offices are near to campus and if your insurance applies.

As a student already making significant investments to live and study in the US, the last thing you want is to become saddled with medical costs in the event of an unexpected illness or accident. That’s why we recommend reviewing your insurance options within the first week, and if possible signing up, so you can rest easy knowing that you are covered and cared for during the entirety of your stay.

Got any other Survival Week tips? Let us know in the comments below!

Kalpesh Kapadia’s career spans 20-plus years in the US and Asia, primarily in technology and finance. He earned an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University and also holds an MS in industrial engineering and operations research from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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