I would like to use this post to give prospective exchange students some tips on how to make the transition to a new country smooth. I knew before I got here that I was a guinea pig and that my trip would sometimes be a bit rocky. However, my goal is to take those experiences and turn them into something positive and helpful for other people.
Take my advice; you will definitely want to follow these tips.
1. Before you arrive, make sure you have money for at least the first three months in a bank account.
Bettina and Max were extremely helpful in getting me a list of expenses well before summer started. The fees for your student id (which gives you free public transportation within North-Rhine Westphalia), your visa, and the cost of rent as well as the security deposit are set in stone and every exchange student has to pay them. You have plenty of time to save up the money.
"But I have financial aid," You might say. Well that's great, but what happens if it gets delayed? You've already bought your plane tickets and you have to board that plane whether or not you have money in your account. For example, I rely on monthly stipends from the VA because my dad is a disabled veteran. I figured those checks in addition my savings would pay for everything. Then the government shut down and they decided not to send out checks for the month of November. Because of a very generous scholarship from the College of Arts and Sciences I am okay, but you don't want to be in a foreign country and have no money.
So, as I said, save yourself a headache and just have that money--not a promise that you will have the money.
2. Leave the money in the account.
I have two bank accounts back in Kansas: my regular account and my tiger card account. I didn't want to deal with two American accounts while being overseas, so I got the clever idea to move the money from my tiger account using a cashier's check. I figured I would cash it in my new German account so that I could avoid the fee of wiring money over.
There are several problems with that plan. First, it might take you weeks to open a bank account. First you have to get health insurance and a visa, which can be a total mess. It took me over three weeks to open my account. The second problem was that once you cash the check you will have to wait four weeks for the money to come though. The German bank and the American bank have to communicate back and forth to transfer the money, so it is very difficult for them. An online transfer, however, only takes five days.
I don't know how traveler's checks would be received in the bank, but don't plan on using them around town. Most places in Europe don't accept them anymore. Although a credit card might not be a bad idea. Get one with frequent flier miles though!
3. Plan on using your debit card...just not to purchase anything.
What do I mean by that? Cash is king in Germany. Most restaurants, and I suspect businesses in general, only accept cash. (You can let me know if that's right or not Max.) After trying to use my card a couple places I just gave up. However, you can still get cash from the ATMs. The transaction fee is only $1.97 for me. That might vary depending on which American bank you have.
I just go to the ATM and pay for everything in cash. I don't know if I will change my habits after I transfer my money to my new German account. Plan on using an ATM for your first few weeks. That brings me to my next suggestion...
4. Before you leave the US give a letter to your bank telling them you will be leaving the country.
I told the tellers and the bank, but I never I actually gave the bank a written statement. For the first week I had no problem using the ATM. After my mom deposited one of my VA checks the bank believed the German transactions were fraudulent, so they froze my account. On the plus side my account is secure, on the negative side I had no access to any money. Thankfully my mom got it straightened out by the end of the day.
5. Give your parent (or someone you trust and is very reliable) access to your account.
You'll have to look up how to do that by yourself. My mom's name is also on my account, so I didn't have to do anything to set that up. You need to be able to access your account from within the US; the internet is not going to cut it. Mom is able to cash my checks and she also straightened out my issue with the bank. She has made my life so much easier these last few weeks.
6. Convert currency before your flight.
Once again I had a brilliant idea that was not so brilliant. I took out $100 in cash to convert to euros before I left. Well, the currency conversion desk at the airport was already closed, and I didn't have enough time to convert the money during my layover in Copenhagen. When I got to Düsseldorf I forgot to exchange it before I left the secured area of the airport (I wasn't about to go through security again).
I learned that you can't exchange currency at a bank unless you have an account there, because they do it by putting the money through the account. There is nothing more infuriating than having money sitting on your desk that is the wrong currency.
7. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
If you do run out of money don't freak out, wallow, or pity yourself. Do something. When I found out that my VA check for November had been cancelled I immediately sent out emails to organizations that could help me. I sent an email to Max Maximov asking for help and another one to the Aikido International Foundation asking for a scholarship for the first couple of months of study at Asai Shihan's dojo. After that I did not worry about the matter any more. I had done everything I could; dwelling on it would not help me. I had fun that day even though I had no idea how I was going to make ends meet.
Both Max and Toyoda Sensei emailed me back within hours. Max talked to Dean Paul Faber and other high-level administrators at my college and pleaded my case. I ended up getting an extremely generous scholarship from the College of Arts and Sciences as well as donations from several (unknown) private donors. I actually got to email Toyoda Sensei and tell him that I would not need a scholarship from them after all.
This is my point: people want to help you. No matter what, you will have the support you need to make your exchange a great experience rather than something to worry about. You're not going to starve and you're not going to end up with a mountain of debt. My goal is to get through college without ever having to take a loan, and I believe I will be able to do that.
Doing an international exchange is really not very expensive (at least when you do it from Fort Hays). I would spend more money studying one year at Kansas State than I will in Germany--and that is including my plane tickets. It is more expensive to do a national exchange program than it is to do an international one! Seriously. I've been researching exchange programs since I was a sophmore and I found out that the majority of the international exchanges, whether through a FHSU partnership or with ISEP, are less expensive than the NSE. I will say, though, that going through one of FHSU's partnership programs is the easiest option. Much less paperwork.
Be brave and give it a try--even if it is only for one semester. Follow this guide and I promise you your first few weeks with be fairly smooth. Will you get homesick? Yes. Even if you don't think you will. Will it feel scary sometimes? Yep. But that's all in your head. Will you regret it? No. Not even on your worst day.
Do something brave.