HousingOne of your first jobs after arriving in the United States will be to find a place to live. This section provides you with a few tips to make your search a happy one.
Temporary AccommodationsWhen you first arrive on campus you will need a place to live while you look for permanent accommodations. Many schools will provide temporary housing for international students who arrive before the semester begins. Ask the foreign student advisor or housing office for information about temporary housing.Another option if you know a student at the school is to ask them to let you stay with them for a few days. New graduate students, can often find someone in their department with room for a temporary guest. You may have to sleep on a couch, but at least you will have a roof over your head. You will also be able to ask questions of someone who is familiar with the area.Most major cities have a Council for International Visitors or similar organization to help incoming international visitors. They can often arrange for you to stay with a local family for a few days, but such arrangements must be made in advance. They also are a good source of information for international students and may provide hospitality and social events. Look for them in the telephone book, or ask at the Traveler’s Aid desk when you arrive. Every major airport, bus station, and train station has a Traveler’s Aid desk. Many cities also have a youth hostel. Hostels are a good place to stay for a few days while you look for a permanent place to live. They provide dormitory style accommodations, sometimes with bunk beds in large rooms. The cost is $5 to $25 a night. You will be able to stay at the youth hostel at low cost if you are a member of the International Youth Hostel Federation. The US branch is called Hosteling International – American Youth Hostels (HI-AYH). A one year membership is $25 ($10 if you are under age 18). For more information, call 1-202-783-6161, fax 1-202-783-6171, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your travel agent should be able to help you become a member. A good source of information about hostels is the Internet Guide to Hosteling. Lastly, you can always stay in a hotel or motel. This is the most expensive option, and you will need to make a reservation with a credit card to guarantee a room. Parking is expensive at hotels, and there is often a large tax on long distance telephone calls placed from your room.
Permanent AccommodationsThe available options include renting an apartment, renting a house, or buying a house. Most international students cannot afford to buy a house, so we will not discuss this option. Most university students in the US live on or near campus. Students who live off-campus generally find a place less than a mile or two away. Not only is this convenient for getting to and from campus, but much of the social life occurs on campus. The US educational experience is not confined to the classroom, and you will find yourself learning as much from your fellow students as from the faculty. If the school offers on-campus accommodations for international students, you should seriously consider living on-campus, at least for the first year. Since this is probably your first trip to the United States and your first time living alone, on-campus housing will help soften the transition to life in the United States. Later, when you are more familiar with the neighborhood, you can consider moving off-campus. Renting a house is usually a viable option only if you will be sharing it with several roommates. You will certainly get more for your money if you rent a house. But most communities have limits on the number of unrelated people who can live together, with most cities having a limit ranging from 3 to 5. These laws are intended to prevent overcrowding for health and safety reasons. In any event, the process for renting a house is similar to renting an apartment. The cost of renting an apartment varies considerably depending on the part of the country and the local supply and demand. A one bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh might cost $400 a month while the same apartment in Boston or San Jose will cost $1,200 or more. The school’s housing office or financial aid office can provide you with an estimate of the annual cost of renting an off-campus apartment.
Finding an ApartmentSome schools provide on-campus housing for international students. Most, however, do not. If your college provides on-campus housing for international students, we strongly recommend taking advantage of it, even though the rent may be higher than an off-campus apartment. This will give you time to become familiar with the neighborhood before committing to a lease. Most schools have an off-campus housing office to help students find an apartment. The housing office will have listings of available apartments and information about the neighborhoods near campus. They may provide a bulletin board for students looking for roommates and run social events to help you find a good roommate. They will probably have pamphlets with information about popular restaurants, shopping areas, parks and recreation, and public transportation. The public library will also have information about local neighborhoods. Ask for this information at the reference desk. You should do a few things before you begin your search for an apartment
- Ask the housing office and current students which neighborhoods are safe and which should be avoided
- Decide whether you want to save by sharing an apartment with a roommate or two
- Get a detailed street map for the neighborhoods you are considering. You should be able to buy a map in the college bookstore. Another good source for maps is the AAA (American Automobile Association). AAA maps and guidebooks are free to members, one of many reasons to join the auto club even if you do not drive a car.
- Spend a few hours walking around the neighborhood to familiarize yourself with the area. Note the location of grocery stores and restaurants, since your most frequent trips will be to school and to buy food. Also note the location of bus stops and other public transportation. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to walk a mile and 5 minutes by bike.
Understanding Apartment ListingsRental costs depend primarily on the size, condition, and location of the apartment, and whether utilities are included. Larger apartments and apartments which are closer to the school or shopping will cost more. The first distinguishing characteristic is the size of the apartment. The different sizes are defined as follows:
- Sleeping Room – A sleeping room is a single room, usually furnished, located in a private home, with a shared bedroom and kitchen. This is the least expensive option, but provides little privacy.
- Efficiency – An efficiency is a single room with a private bathroom. The room will include a small space that serves as a kitchen and should provide a stove, refrigerator, sink, and cabinet space.
- Studio – A studio is somewhat larger than an efficiency, and has a separate kitchen and eating area.
- One, Two, or Three Bedroom – Regular apartments include a separate kitchen, bathroom, living room and/or dining room, and the number of bedrooms advertised.
- Utilities – If the advertisement says that utilities are included, that usually means electricity, heat/gas, and water/sewage, but not telephone or cable TV. If the advertisement does not specify any utilities, presume that you will be responsible for paying for them. Heat will cost you an extra $500 to $1,000 a year in the snow belt and electricity a similar amount. If heat is included, this sometimes means that the landlord controls the temperature, not you. Water and sewage fees are usually paid by the landlord, except if you are renting a house.
- Furnished or Unfurnished – A furnished apartment will include a bed, chest of drawers or dresser, a couch or sofa, and a dining room table and chairs. A furnished apartment will also include a stove and refrigerator. An unfurnished apartment will include a stove and refrigerator but nothing else. A furnished apartment will cost you an extra $50 a month. You are probably better off renting an unfurnished apartment and buying used furniture. Graduating students often sell their furniture to incoming students. Most apartments are rented unfurnished.
- Parking – If you intend to own a car, an apartment that includes a garage or off-street parking is better than one that does not. It is sometimes difficult to find a parking space on the street, especially if many students with cars live nearby
- Leases – A lease is a written contract between the tenant (you) and a landlord which allows you to use a dwelling for a specific period of time in exchange for monthly rent payments. The lease outlines the restrictions on the use of the dwelling and the responsibilities of tenant and landlord. A lease is a legal document and should be read carefully before signing.
- The amount of the monthly rent and when it should be paid. The lease might mention how the rent will increase in subsequent years. Whether utilities are included in the rent, and if so which ones. Heat and electricity are the most important
- The time period covered by the lease, usually one year
- Restrictions on the number of unrelated people who may occupy the dwelling
- The amount of the security deposit, which must be paid in addition to the first month’s rent when you sign the lease
- Restrictions on pets, children, and noise. Many landlords do not permit pets because of the potential for damage and noise. The lease may also contain a provision prohibiting noise from musical instruments, stereo systems, loud parties, and other sources
- Landlord responsibilities, such as repairs to heating and plumbing facilities and fire or water damage
- A clause about terminating the lease
- A clause about eviction proceedings. This clause describes the rights of tenant and landlord should the landlord want to force the tenant out of the property during the term of the lease. The most common reasons for an eviction include failure to pay the rent when due or causing significant damage to the property
Moving In UtilitiesIf the rent does not include utilities, you will have to get the utilities turned on when you move in. The landlord can provide you with the name and telephone numbers of the gas, electric, and telephone companies that service your apartment. They may be able to schedule service over the phone, or they may require you to visit their offices. If you do not have a good credit history, they may require you to pay a security deposit. The security deposit will be refunded (with interest) after one year if your bills are paid promptly. The gas and electric companies typically provide two payment options. The first requires you to pay the full amount due each month. The other lets you pay an estimated budget amount each month, with any difference being reconciled at the end of the year. Some people find this more convenient, since gas and electricity bills can otherwise vary considerably during the summer and winter months. Most utilities have programs which allow you to have the monthly bill automatically deducted from your bank account. You still receive a copy of the bill, but save the cost of a stamp to mail in the payment.
US Monetary SystemThe US Monetary System is a decimal system, with one dollar equal to one hundred cents. One dollar is written as $1 or $1.00. One cent is written as 1¢. One dollar and twenty-five cents would be written as $1.25. Dollar amounts are written with a comma every three digits, so one thousand dollars would be written as $1,000.00. Paper currency is used for amounts of $1 or more, and coins are used for amounts under $1. The most common coins and their dollar equivalencies are as follows:
Paper currency is most often circulated in the following denominations: $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. Occasionally you will encounter a $2 bill. The denomination of all currency is clearly marked on the bottom of both sides of the bill, and on all four corners. Some stores will not accept bills larger than a $20
|Coin||Value (Cents)||Value (Dollars)|
|Penny||1 cent||0.01 dollars|
|Nickel||5 cents||0.05 dollars|
|Dime||5 cents||0.10 dollars|
|Quarter||25 cents||0.25 dollars|
|Half Dollar||50 cents||0.50 dollars|
|Dollar||100 cents||1.00 dollars|
- You will need a checking account to pay bills, such as rent and utilities. It is not safe to send cash through the mail. It also is not safe to carry large amounts of cash on your person, so you should pay for most of your purchases using a check or credit card
- To open a checking account, visit a bank and ask to open a checking account. You will need to deposit money into the account when you open it. You can deposit cash or traveler’s checks, or arrange for a wire transfer from your home bank (cost around $35). American Express also offers a variety of services that make it easy to withdraw money from your checking account back home. Additional deposits and withdrawals may be made at any time
- The bank will ask you for your Social Security Number. If you are exempt from this requirement, fill out an IRS Form W-8, which you can obtain from the bank
- If there insufficient funds in your account to cover the check, the check will “bounce” and your account will be overdrawn. This means that the bank will refuse to honor the check and will return it to the depositor. In addition, the bank will charge you a bounced check fee of $15 to $35, so it is important to make sure you always have sufficient funds in your account to cover any outstanding checks
- If you want your bank to honor checks even when your account is overdrawn, you must ask for overdraft protection. There is an extra fee for this service, and the amount your account is overdrawn up to a limit is treated like a short-term loan. (You pay interest on the balance due.)
- When writing a check, the amount of the check is written twice, once using numerals and once using words. If you were writing a check for $23.35, you would write the words as “Twenty-three and 35/100 dollars”, where the word “and” separates the dollar amount from the cents. You would write $23.00 as “Twenty-three and NO/100 dollars”. Draw a horizontal line through any leftover space, to prevent someone from adding extra digits to the amount
- At the end of the month the bank will mail you a statement showing all deposits and withdrawals from your account, as well as the current balance of the account. They will also return to you any cancelled checks. Cancelled checks are checks you wrote that have been processed. They are stamped (cancelled) to indicate that the money has been withdrawn from your account. Cancelled checks should be saved, since they provide proof of payment. This is especially important when you need a receipt of payment, such as for the security deposit on your apartment. You should reconcile the statement against your checkbook to make sure there are no errors
- Most banks offer a variety of checking accounts. Some banks will offer a “free” checking account with no monthly service charges if a minimum balance is maintained in the account. Typically the minimum balance is $1,000, although some banks require as little as $500 and some banks as much as $2,500. If your visa allows you to work and you receive a regular paycheck, you may be able to avoid the monthly service charges by having your paycheck direct deposited into the account. Also, certain checking accounts will pay interest if a minimum amount of money is kept in the account. Such accounts are known as “Checking with Interest” or “NOW Accounts”. But the interest rate on these accounts is very low compared with other investments, so you are better off putting your savings elsewhere
- When you deposit checks into your account, there is a waiting period of a few days before you can withdraw the money. The length of the waiting period depends on the bank upon which the check is drawn. Local banks will have a shorter waiting period than out-of-town banks. This delay is to protect the bank in case the check bounces
- Most checking accounts will include a debit card you can use to withdraw money from your account at any ATM, 24-hours a day. This lets you make deposits, withdrawals, and other transactions at any time, even when the bank is closed. ATM’s are very convenient because they are located throughout the city near shopping areas and sometimes even inside grocery stores. Most people do not carry a lot of cash, because they can get cash from an ATM when they need it. ATM’s limit the amount of your daily withdrawals to a maximum of $300, as a safety measure
- If your ATM card is ever stolen, notify the bank immediately. Your liability for a stolen or lost card is limited to $50 if you report the loss promptly
- Be careful in selecting an ATM to use, because the bank that owns the ATM can charge a fee in addition to any fees your own bank may charge for ATM withdrawals. So it is best to use your ATM card to withdraw money only from ATM’s owned by your bank. Although you can make withdrawals from almost any ATM, deposits should be made only at your bank’s ATM’s
- Some banks offer a debit card that combines the features of an ATM card with a credit card. You can use it like a regular Visa card, except the charges are directly debited from your checking account. This is in contrast to regular credit cards, which provide a grace period of 20 to 25 days for you to pay the bill before interest is charged. On the other hand, it helps avoid the temptation to carry a balance on the card. If you don’t already have a credit card, it is worthwhile because international students sometimes find it difficult to qualify for a credit card after arriving in the US
- In recent years, utility companies have started offering direct debit services, where they deduct the monthly bill directly from your checking account. There is no charge for this service, and it saves you the cost of a postage stamp. It is recommended that you sign up for the direct bill payment services offered by the utility companies
- All of your bank accounts are insured against loss up to $1,00,000 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The FDIC is a federal agency that protects you against losses caused by bank failure
- Most students choose the bank that is most convenient for them. This may be the bank with a branch closest to their home, a bank located adjacent to the grocery store, or a bank near school. Another consideration is the fees charged by the bank (especially for ATM card usage) and the minimum balance required for waiving the monthly service charge
- Bank lobby hours typically run from 09:00 a.m. to 04:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Some banks open as early as 08:00 a.m. or as late as 10:00 a.m. Some banks are open on Saturdays. Very few banks are open on Sunday. Most banks are closed during national holidays
- If you pay for purchases at retail stores using a check, they will want to see some form of identification, such as a driver’s license or a major credit card (Visa, MasterCard, and American Express). A passport can also serve as a photo identification, but it is not wise to advertise that you are an international visitor. Also, checks are only accepted if they are drawn on an in-state bank, so you cannot use them if you travel out of state
- Credit cards are such an ingrained part of the American way of life that you will have trouble making certain purchases with anything other than a credit card. If you want to place an order by phone, cash a check, rent a car, or buy airline tickets, you need to have a credit card
- So it is better to use a credit card to pay for purchases. But you must take care to pay off your balance in full at the end of the month. Otherwise you will incur interest on the balance. This can considerably increase the balance due
- Many international students find it difficult to get a credit card in the US, because they do not have an established credit history. So if you already have a major credit card such as a MasterCard, Visa or American Express, it is a good idea to bring it with you. American banks can check your credit limit on the foreign card, and this may make them more likely to issue you a credit card. Also, if you opened a checking or savings account with a bank that offers credit cards, it may be easier to get a credit card from that bank since you have money on deposit with them
- The Bank Rate Monitor and CardTrak web sites also provide information about the least expensive credit cards
- The major credit cards in the US are Visa, MasterCard,and American Express, Visa and MasterCard are offered by many banks and financial institutions. American Express is offered by only one financial institution, but are accepted by many businesses
- Traveler’s Checks are one of the safest ways to transport money. If the traveler’s checks are lost or stolen, you can easily get them replaced. Do not countersign the checks until you are ready to use them
- If you bring traveler’s checks with you to the US, you should bring traveler’s checks that are denominated in US funds. Most businesses will accept US-denominated traveler’s checks. Taxi drivers and bus drivers will not accept traveler’s checks, so you should bring some US currency with you as well
- Within the US, you can purchase traveler’s checks from many travel agencies, banks, Thomas Cook, and American Express offices for face value plus a 1% commission. The American Automobile Association (AAA) sells them to members without charging a commission
- Aside from the AAA, the three largest sources of traveler’s checks are American Express (1-800-221-7282), Citicorp (1-800-645-6556) and Thomas Cook (1-800-223-9920)
Exchange RatesSome banks will exchange foreign currency for a fee but no bank, however, will exchange foreign coinage. You can also exchange currency at the airport or at a major hotel. You can also exchange currency through Thomas Cook Foreign Exchange. Call 1-800-287-7362 for the closest location. Exchange rates are usually printed on the financial pages of the local newspaper. You can also get daily exchange rates from several web sites.
Unlike other countries, The United States does not provide socialized medicine. Because medical care can be very expensive, it is important to have health insurance, even if the school does not require it.
General ConditionYou will need a checking account to pay bills, such as rent and utilities. It is not safe to send cash through the mail. It also is not safe to carry large amounts of cash on your person, so you should pay for most of your purchases using a check or credit card. AIDS is as much a problem in the US as in other countries. College students are a particularly high risk group because of unsafe sex practices and unrealistic beliefs about HIV transmission.
Medical EmergenciesIf you need an ambulance or emergency medical care, dial 911 on any phone 24 hours a day. You can also dial 0 to reach the operator. They will send an ambulance to transport you to a hospital emergency room. The hospital will need the name of your health insurance company and policy number, so you should always carry your health insurance card with you. Your school may have a health center on campus for minor health issues. Most such health centers are staffed by a nurse practitioner, with a doctor on campus only one or two days a week. For genuine emergencies, however, you should go directly to a hospital emergency room.
Medical RecordsBring a copy of your medical records with you to the US, including immunization and vaccination records and prescriptions. It is generally a good idea to visit your doctor before you leave for the US. Some schools will require you to complete a physical upon arrival.
Health InsuranceInternational students should note that in addition to tuition, fees, room and board, and living expenses, they will have to pay for health insurance. US law requires universities to verify that international students on a J-1 visa (and their J-2 dependents) have health insurance before allowing them to enroll. The federal government does not require students on an F-1 visa to have health insurance, but the school may set its own requirements. Many schools require all international students to have health insurance, regardless of the type of visa. Your school will probably offer a group health insurance program to students who do not have their own health insurance There are a variety of student health insurance programs that are available to international students
- Academic Risk Management offers the International Student Health Insurance Plan. Their plans meet the F-1 and J-1 regulations and are affordable. For more information, call 888-308-7320, fax 817-421-9432.
- Student Insurance Division (SID) offers a variety of student health insurance programs, including several that are open to international students. For example, they offer a health insurance program for graduate and professional school students that is endorsed by the NAGPS. For more information, call 1-800-237-0903.
- Insurance for Students, Inc.. For more information, call 1-800-356-1235.
- Rust and Associates Premier International Health Insurance Plan. For more information, call 1-800-336-0747, fax 1-515-292-7684.
- Time Insurance Student Select. For more information, call 1-800-296-6565
- Champion Insurance. Champion Insurance provides short and long-term health insurance for full-time students at US colleges and universities, including international students and their dependents, temporary health insurance for recent US graduates, and health insurance for US students for study or travel abroad. For more information, call 1-410-879-4577, fax 1-410-836-7441, write to Champion Insurance, PO Box 1050, Bel Air, Maryland 21014-7050.
- CNA Cultural and Educational Exchange International Student Insurance Program
Finding a DoctorIf you need help finding a doctor, call the campus health center. You should receive a list of local doctors that participate in your health insurance program when you enrolled.
Culture ShockOne consequence of traveling to another country is culture shock. The stress of a new situation, confusion due to language difficulties, and a myriad of small cultural differences add up to culture shock. You might feel depressed, be homesick for your country and family, have difficulty sleeping or concentrating, and avoid contact with others. If you experience these symptoms, try talking to someone. Talk to the international student advisor, a friend, the staff at the campus counseling center, or your neighbor. It also helps to participate in social activities. Write a letter to home. Take a walk in the park. Read a book. Watch a movie. Eat a good meal at a fancy restaurant. Visit the museum or an art gallery. Play a game with some friends.
Business HoursThe hours of operation depend on the store, and can vary from city to city. Most stores will open between 09:00 am and 10:00 am and close at 05:00 pm or 06:00 pm, Monday through Friday. Some stores will open as early as 08:00 am and some will close as late as 09:00 am or 10:00 pm. Banks tend to close at 03:00 pm or 04:00 pm, restaurants at 08:00 pm or 09:00 pm, and bars at 11:00 pm to 01:00 am. Stores in shopping malls keep longer hours, with the typical mall store being open 10:00 am to 09:00 pm, Monday through Saturday, and noon to 05:00 pm on Sunday. When most stores in a shopping area close at 05:00 pm or 06:00 pm weekdays, there will usually be one day a week when they are open late. The day varies from community to community. Some stores will be open on Saturday. A smaller number of stores will be open on Sunday. Stores with Sunday hours tend to open between 10:00 am and noon, and to close at 05:00 pm or 06:00 pm, even if they are open until 09:00 pm or 10:00 pm the rest of the week. Large grocery store chains are usually open 24 hours a day, except possibly on Sunday. Some pharmacies will also be open 24 hours.
Sales TaxThere is no national sales tax in the US, but each state has its own sales tax. The sales tax is charged as a percentage surcharge on purchases, and is printed on the receipt. Rates differ from state to state. Rates may even differ within a state. For example, Pennsylvania charges 6% sales tax in (city of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities where the sales tax rate is 7%). Unprepared food such as groceries is exempt from sales tax, but prepared food purchased in a restaurant is not. Clothing and medicine may also be exempt from sales tax. Many airports have duty free shopping areas, where sales tax is not charged. This is only worthwhile when you are traveling to a country with a high sales tax rate. The average state sales tax rate in the US is 3%. You can usually find the same items on sale in the US for a lower price, even when sales tax is taken into account.
Saving MoneyMajor department stores frequently have sales in which merchandise is sold at a discount, anywhere from 5% to 25% off the normal price. Not everything in the store will be on sale. Sale prices are usually advertised in the Sunday newspaper. Stores will use almost any excuse for a sale, such as holidays and end-of-season clearance. The Christmas shopping season officially starts the Friday after Thanks giving, but some stores will offer sales starting the weekend before Thanksgiving. The major department store chains are Sears, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and JC Penney. Supermarkets are large grocery stores, often part of a chain of stores. It is generally less expensive to shop in a supermarket than in a small local grocery, and the selection is larger. The major grocery store chains advertise their sale prices in circulars that are distributed by mail toward the end of the week, and sometimes as an insert in the Sunday newspaper. The Sunday newspaper will also include collections of manufacturer cents-off coupons which you can clip and give to the cashier to save on purchases. Some supermarkets will double the value of manufacturer coupons. For non-perishable goods, it is worthwhile to stock up when the item goes on sale. The supermarkets may also have their own brands which sell for less than the popular name brands. Some supermarkets have membership cards which the cashier will scan to give you automatic discounts on some items. The supermarkets use the cards to track your purchases, enabling them to better target their promotions. Discount stores sell name brand merchandise at prices which are less than the prices charged by department stores. The largest discount stores are Wal-Mart, K Mart, For electronic goods you can also go to Circuit City. For computer equipment, you can visit a CompUSA store, but you’ll probably be able to buy it at lower prices by mail order from CDW, PC Connection, or Insight. Micron Electronics and Gateway sell high quality computers through mail order as well. For toys, go to a Toys R Us store. For discount clothing stores, there is, and Marshalls. Department stores may have a clearance section, where merchandise they no longer stock is being sold at a discount.
ClothingAll stores will accept US currency. No stores will accept foreign currency. Many stores will accept US-denominated traveler’s checks. Traveler’s checks in foreign currency will be refused. Most people, however, do not carry around large sums of money. Instead they pay for purchases with a credit card or personal check. Most stores will accept the major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, and American Express). Even grocery stores are starting to accept credit cards. The larger department stores will try to encourage you to open a charge account at the store, often by offering a 10% discount on your purchases the day you open the account. Store charge cards work similarly to credit cards, For more information on credit cards, please see the Money and Banking section of this site.
Paying for PurchaseClothing stores often have trial rooms. It is strongly recommended that you try on any clothing before buying it, since clothing is tailored differently in the US and clothing sizes are not consistent. Clothing sometimes uses approximate size measures, such as XS (Extra Small), S (Small), M (Medium), L (Large), and XL (Extra Large). These letters are especially common on T-shirts. Each letter may represent a range of two or three numbered sizes. Dress sizes depend on both height and figure type. A junior size corresponds to a height between 5’2″ and 5’5″ with a slender figure. A misses size corresponds to a height between 5’5″ and 5’7″ with a well proportioned figure. A women’s size corresponds to a height between 5’5″ and 5’8″ and a fuller and rounder figure.
This section describes the local transportation options available in most cities. Traveling from a foreign country to the United States is discussed in a separate section of this site.
Traveler’s Aid InternationalTraveler’s Aid International is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to help travelers in need. They have Traveler’s Aid desks at every major airport, bus station, and train station. They do everything from answering traveler’s questions, to serving as a lost and found, to helping the homeless. The Traveler’s Aid web site includes a directory of local Traveler’s Aid societies.
CarsYou probably don’t need to own a car during your stay in the United States. A car is certainly convenient, but only cost effective if you use it almost every day. If you live near school, you will find walking, biking, and public transportation to be reasonable alternatives. If you decide to purchase a car, you can get a 10-year-old used car for $1,000 to $2,000 and a 5-year-old car for $5,000 to $8,000. It will probably need to be repaired frequently, but the total cost will be less than a new car. Used cars are advertised in the classified advertising section of the local newspaper. After you take the car for a test drive, you can usually bargain with the seller, knocking 10% to 15% off the price. If you haven’t previously owned a car, bring along a friend who knows something about cars. You may want to pay a mechanic at the local gas station to inspect the car for you before buying it. An alternative is to buy a used car from a car dealer. Such cars often come with a 90 day guarantee, but cost more than the ones advertised by individuals. If you want to buy a new car, ask friends about their experiences with different automobiles. Consumer Reports regularly reviews new and used cars, and is one of the few consumer magazines worth subscribing to. You can also read it in the local library. You can also find new and used cars for sale on the World Wide Web. Some of the more popular web sites include Autobytel, AutoConnect, AutoVantage, AutoWeb, CarSmart, Edmund’s Automobile Buyer’s Guides, and Microsoft CarPoint. We strongly recommend getting a local driver’s license instead of relying on an international driver’s license. Traffic laws and driving habits in the US differ so much that it is best to take a driving class and get a local license. Some states will require you to get a local license.If you decide to get a local driver’s license, leave your national and international driver’s licenses at home. Otherwise, you will have to turn them in when you receive a local driver’s license. If you do not already know how to drive a car, you will need to get a Learner’s Permit. This allows you to learn how to drive while a licensed driver is in the car with you. After you have learned how to drive, you will be able to take the driving test. We recommend learning to drive through a driving school. Driving laws differ somewhat from state to state and considerably from what you are accustomed to. Here is a list of some of the more significant differences.
- Speed Limits: Speed limits are designated in Miles Per Hour (MPH), not kilometers. Within cities the speed limit is usually 25 mph (40 kph). Highways have a speed limit of 55 mph (88 kph). Penalties for speeding are severe and can result in higher insurance premiums and license suspension in addition to large fines.
- Driving on the right: Unlike the UK, Asia, and Australia, in the United States cars drive on the right side of the road, and steering wheels are located on the left side of the car.
- Liability Insurance: Most states require you to maintain certain minimum levels of liability insurance on your car in case you are involved in an accident. The insurance covers your liability for damage to the other car and injuries sustained by all people involved in the accident. We strongly recommend getting insurance that covers more than the legal minimums. You can also get collision insurance to cover the cost of fixing your car and comprehensive insurance if the car is stolen, but this is only worthwhile for a new car. If you do not have car insurance, you will not be able to register the car.
- International students often find that many insurance companies will not issue them a policy because they do not have a driving history in the state and they also don’t have an existing insurance policy from another state. If you do succeed in getting a policy, it will probably be through the state’s assigned-risk program, which automatically classifies you as a high-risk driver. If you are under age 25 you will also be classified as a high risk driver, especially if you are male. So your premiums will probably be fairly high.
- Stop Signs and Yield Signs: You should come to a full and complete stop at both signs and wait until it is safe to continue driving. At a four-way stop, cars may proceed in the order in which they arrived at the intersection. So you should allow the cars which were there when you arrived to go before driving.
- Yield to Emergency Vehicles: If an emergency vehicle approaches with sirens and flashing lights, pull over to the side of the road to allow it to pass, even if it is approaching from the other side of the road.
- Turn Signals: Automobiles in the US are equipped with turn signals that cause the front and rear lights to blink to indicate an impending turn. The left lights blink to indicate a left turn and the right lights blink to indicate a right turn. It is important to indicate your intention to turn left or right or to change lanes by using the appropriate turn signal at least 25 feet before the turn or lane-change. If you do not use the turn signals, you may cause an accident.
Taxi CabsIf you do not live far from school, you may find it less expensive to pay for an occasional taxi than to own a car. You can find the telephone number for the local taxi dispatcher in the Yellow Pages. Call the dispatcher at least half an hour before you need the cab. It is best to call at least an hour in advance, especially on busy days. When calling for a taxi, let the dispatcher know if you have a lot of baggage. If you have more than 3 or 4 large bags, ask for a station wagon. You can also pick up a taxi at the local airport, train station, bus station, and in front of major hotels. It is also possible to hail a cab downtown or on major streets, but you may get a quicker response by calling for a cab. To hail a cab, raise your hand and arm at a 45 degree angle to your head with the index finger (the finger next to the thumb) extended as a taxi approaches. If the cab does not have a passenger and is not traveling to pick up a passenger, it will stop. Taxi fares are metered in most cities and based on the distance. After an initial “flag down” fee for use of the taxi, the meter will charge a fixed amount per mile, typically $1.00 to $2.00 per mile, depending on the city. There may be extra charges if the taxi driver has to lift your bags for you. It is customary to give the driver a tip equal to 15% of the total fare. If someone approaches you at the airport or bus station offering to undercut the taxi fares, don’t accept. These are illegal and unsafe. They aren’t licensed by the city and do not have insurance. In some cases international students have taken rides with strangers only to be robbed of their belongings and money, and dumped in a remote location. Only take taxis with identifiable markings (name of the cab company and cab number) and colors (typically yellow) at an official taxi stand. Many hotels have free or low cost shuttles from the airport. If a hotel is located near the school, this can be an inexpensive alternative to taking a taxi. Such shuttles usually leave on the hour or half hour, but you may need to call upon arrival at the airport to make a reservation. Bus fares range from $1.00 to $2.00 for a one-zone ride, depending on the city. If you need to change buses, transfers can be purchased for 25 cents in most cities. You give the transfer to the driver on the second bus instead of paying a second fare. Transfers can be used for a return trip, if you will be returning within the time limit. Bus drivers do not carry change, so you will need to bring exact change with you when you get on the bus. Most cities also sell monthly bus passes, which provide you with unlimited travel for a set fee. Bus passes will save you money only if you take the bus every day. Bus passes can usually be purchased from the local grocery store or supermarket. Some subway systems use tokens or farecards, which are sold at the station. Subway fares may depend on the time of day or the distance traveled. For example, the Metro system in Washington, DC, uses farecards, with higher fares during rush hour. Some cities have you pay as you get on the bus, some when you get off the bus, and some depend on the time of day. Some will have different rules depending on whether you’re headed inbound or outbound. If the bus driver puts his hand over the pay box as you enter, it means that you should pay when you get off the bus. If you are confused, ask the driver. Just before the bus reaches your stop, you should alert the driver by activating the “stop requested” signal. Otherwise the driver may skip the stop. You can activate the “stop requested” signal in most buses by pulling on the horizontal wire above the windows. Trolleys do not have such a mechanism because they stop at every station.
Intercity Buses & TrainsIf you need to travel from one city to another within the United States, there are four options:
- Driving yourself
- Intercity bus
Newspapers & MagazinesEvery city has one or two daily newspapers. These represent a good source of local information. There may also be several ethnic newspapers specific to the interests of a culture or religion. There are also a few national newspapers: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Major weekly news magazines include Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report
Television (TV)Each US city has a half dozen or so free broadcast television stations. As many as 100 television stations, however, are available from cable TV or satellite TV, depending on the level of service purchased. These stations included specialized stations for news, weather, home and garden, children, sports, science fiction, movies, and everything else possible. They also offer the broadcast stations, but with better reception.
Telephone ServicesWhen you arrange for telephone service, you will have to choose a long distance carrier. The major carriers are AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. You can change the carrier later. After your service is installed, call each of the carriers and ask about their discount calling plans. You will need to be persistent in asking for the discount plan that offers you the greatest savings based on your calling patterns. Remember to mention that you will be making international calls. The telephone company will ask you how you wish to be listed in the local telephone directory. We suggest asking them to list your full last name but only the initial of your first name. You can also ask to have your number unlisted, but there will be an extra charge for this service. You will also need to get a telephone. You can get inexpensive telephones from discount stores, department stores, pharmacies, and the ubiquitous Radio Shack store. A basic telephone will cost between $15 and $45. Be sure to get one that provides touch tone service. Soon after you arrange for telephone service, you will receive free copies of the local telephone directories. The telephone directories are known according to the color of their pages. The White Pages list the telephone numbers of residents, organized alphabetically by name. The Blue Pages, often part of the white pages, contain a list of government telephone numbers. If you need the telephone number for the local immigration office, look in the blue pages. The Yellow Pages contain listings and advertisements for businesses organized both alphabetically and by type of business, product, or service. The white pages provide instructions for making local, long distance, and international calls. Local telephone numbers have 7 digits. To make a long distance call you need to dial 1, the 3 digit area code, and the seven digit telephone number. To call an international telephone number, dial 011, the country code, the city code, and the telephone number. Omit any leading zeros from the country code. You can find a list of country and city codes in the white pages. Toll free numbers are like long distance numbers, but with an area code of 800, 888, or 877. Telephone numbers with an area code of 700 or 900 are for pay services and usually involve substantial per minute charges. We recommend asking the telephone company to block access to 700 and 900 numbers on your phone lines. If you need someone’s telephone number but do not have a telephone book, you can call Directory Assistance for the number. They will ask for the name and city of the listing, and tell you the telephone number. They will charge you for each time you use this service. To reach local directory assistance, dial 555-1212 or 411. To reach long distance directory assistance, dial 1, the area code, and 555-1212. To find the toll free number for a major company, call 1-800-555-1212; there is no charge for this call. There are also several free searchable directories on the world wide web, such as WorldPages and Yahoo People Search. Payphones charge 25¢ to 35¢ for a one-minute local call. Charges for long distance calls are much higher. Most payphones accept credit cards, either directly or by dialing a toll free number. For example, dial 1-800-CALL-ATT to charge a telephone call using AT&T long distance to your credit card. You may also purchase prepaid phone cards from many businesses, such as grocery stores and gas stations. To make a collect call (reverse the charges), dial 0 followed by the area code and telephone number. Tell the operator that you are making a collect call. You can also make collect calls by calling 1-800-CALL-ATT (1-800-225-5288) or 1-800-COLLECT (1-800-265-5328). Telexes can be sent by Western Union. Call 1-800-325-6000 for the nearest location. You can also use Western Union to send money, but the fees are very high. Call 1-800-225-5227 for more information.
Internet ServicesYour school may provide dialup numbers that let you access the campus computer network and the Internet from home using a computer with a modem. Otherwise, the telephone company or any of a large number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can provide unlimited Internet access at modem speeds for fees of about $20 a month. Internet service allows you to browse the web and to send and receive email. If your friends and family back home has access to email, sending email can be one of the most cost effective methods of communicating. Higher speed Internet access is becoming available in many major US cities. There are two main methods of providing high speed access, one using the telephone wiring (ADSL) and one using cable television wiring (cable modems). Both provide high bandwidth incoming and somewhat lower bandwidth outgoing by using the wiring’s underexploited transmission capacity. The incoming bandwidth is at least twenty times faster than modem speeds. Of the two, ADSL is a bit more secure and will ultimately provide higher bandwidth.
Mailing Letters & Shipping PackagesLetters and packages can be mailed using the US Postal Service or one of several private delivery services.
US Postal ServicesThe US Postal Service delivers letters and packages and sells stamps and postal money orders. They deliver mail both domestically and internationally. Letters weighing up to 16 ounces with the appropriate postage affixed can be deposited in the blue mailboxes located throughout the city. Mail is removed from these boxes twice daily. You can also mail letters and packages directly from the post office. International letters and packages must be mailed from the post office and must be accompanied by a customs form.
Addressing MailWhen addressing mail for delivery within the United States maintain the zip code. For more information on addressing mail and other topics, please see the Consumer’s Guide to Postal Services & Products. If you do not know your address in the US before you leave, mail for you can be sent “General Delivery” to your name at the main post office in your destination city. It is a good idea to write “Hold for 30 Days” on the front of the envelope. General Delivery mail will not be held for more than 30 days. You will need proof of identity, such as a passport, to pick up your mail.
US PostThere are four main types of mail, each with a different set of postage rates:
- Parcels and Packages: The cost of mailing a package depends on the weight of the package, the distance mailed, and the class of service. The maximum weight allowed is 70 pounds and the maximum size is 108 inches (length and girth combined). Within the United States packages can be sent by first class mail or parcel post. Parcel post is somewhat slower, but also less expensive. Packages sent by parcel post travel by surface transportation (truck or train) and arrive within 7 to 10 days. Books can also be sent by third class mail (book rate) at a significant discount, but will take much longer to arrive.
|First Class Mail|
|United States||All Other Destinations(Airmail)|
|Letters||33¢ for first ounce22¢ for each additional ounce||$1.00 for the first ounce40¢ for each additional half ounce|
Other Postal ServicesOther services offered by the post office include:
- Express Mail
- Certified Mail
- Return Receipt
- Insured Mail
- Registered Mail
- Federal Express (FedEx). FedEx is the world’s largest express transportation company. They are well known for delivering letters overnight, but also deliver packages with guaranteed on-time delivery
United Parcel Service (UPS)UPS is frequently used for shipping packages because they are often less expensive than the US Postal Service, especially for heavy and bulky packages. They are the first choice for shipping by many mail order companies. They also offer guaranteed overnight delivery for letters. With any of these services, including the US Postal Service, it is important to package fragile items carefully. Insurance will cover damage to the item only if there is visible damage to the outside of the box. Use the four-foot drop rule: the article should be packed so that it can survive a drop of four feet without damage. This means wrapping fragile items in bubble wrap and using Styrofoam packing “peanuts” to cushion the item within the box. Use enough packing material so that the item doesn’t shift or compress the packing material in transit, or the carton may be damaged upon arrival. Paper may be used for wrapping items, but should not be used as filling around the items. If there is more than one fragile item they should be wrapped individually, so that they do not touch each other. You should have at least 2 or 3 inches of packing material around the contents of the box. This will minimize the likelihood of breakage. The carton should be made of sturdy corrugated cardboard, with no string or wrapping paper on the outside of the carton. It is best to ship appliances and electronic items in their original boxes and shipping materials. Use shipping tape, not cellophane or masking tape. Reinforced filament tape is best. Remove any old shipping labels from the box. Include the origination and destination addresses on both the inside and outside of the box. This is in case the address on the outside of the box gets obliterated. If you need boxes, many of the delivery services will provide shipping materials for free. If your item doesn’t fit in one of the standard sized boxes, you can buy boxes from any stationery supply store such as Office Max, Office Depot, and Staples. Peanuts, bubble wrap, and other packing materials are also available from these stores. You can also get boxes for free by speaking to the manager of the local grocery store. An International shipping company in the US is: DHL Worldwide Express
This section describes the Entertainment, Tourist Attractions in US etc.
EntertainmentMajor cities often have one or more guidebooks that list the local attractions. It is worth buying a copy of this book. You should be able to find it at local bookstores. The AAA provides free guidebooks for members. The Sunday newspaper will include a section on arts, music, theater, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
Addressing MailMany museums and tourist attractions offer discounted admission to students. You will need to show your student identification card. A college ID works fine. You can also get an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) for $20. Membership includes a booklet listing available discounts and a 24-hour help-line (1-800-626-2427).
Tourist AttractionDuring your stay in the United States, you may wish to do a little touring. The US has a lot to offer the international visitor. Tourist season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. During the off season the attractions will not be as crowded and hotels won’t be as full. But some attractions, such as amusement parks, shut down when school is in session. Some of the more famous attractions for international visitors include:
- Niagara Falls
- The Smithsonian Institution
- Disney World
- The Grand Canyon
- Yellowstone National Park
- Statue of Liberty
- Maine Lobster
- Mall of America
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Chicago, Illinois
- Hollywood, California
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Miami, Florida
- New York City
- San Francisco, California
- Washington, DC