I am an international student, and I am going to be doing an MS in Structure and Materials in Aeronautics at MIT. Before I arrive, what do I have to do?
Some key things that any international student will typically need to do before arriving in the USA:
- Obtain a student visa. Your institution will be able to support you, but you are likely to need to lead the process yourself, including going to a US consulate in your country. This can take a long time, so it is important to start many months in advance.
- Make sure you have any required vaccinations and health certificates (I'm not sure whether this is part of the visa, or separate; your institution and the US consulate can advise)
- Find housing. Some universities will help with this, many do not. For example, MIT is notoriously bad about this, and the Boston rental market is insane.
- Ensure that you will have health insurance. The US (still) does not have a national health system. Your institution will likely provide insurance, and may assist you in enrolling, but not all institutions will.
- Ensure that you will have access to money from your bank accounts, if needed. This can sometimes be a difficulty, and many things in the US are much more difficult to do without a working credit or debit card.
- Ensure that you will have a working cell phone. The US does not use the same standards as most other countries, though this is slowly changing. Just changing to a local SIM card may or may not work.
Caveat: I might be missing some things from this list...
Regarding scholarships: the USA does not have any organized system of scholarship exams. In many cases, however, graduate programs in STEM fields ensure financial support for their students through TAships or RAships. Any reputable Ph.D. program will do this, but Masters programs are much more mixed. Check with your particular program to find out what they advise.
To add to jakebeal's answer:
When an international student is admitted to a US university, they will be contacted by the Office of International Students (these offices go by various names, which are usually a permutation of the words office, international, students, and/or scholars).
The folks at the international student office are the best (and in fact the appropriate) people to contact with any questions about the logistics and details of being an international student, including visa issues, housing, travel, etc. Many of these will be addressed on their websites, see for example: ISO at MIT, OISS at Rice, Berkeley IO, Harvard IO, etc.
In addition to the international student office, you should consider looking up whether there is a community of students from your country at the university. Some of these organizations also help out incoming students, and might have helpful information on their websites. For example, Sangam at MIT, ISAR at Rice, KSAS at Stanford, etc. (There are often active Facebook groups/pages as well, where you can ask specific questions.) In addition to information specific for your community (e.g. best ways/rates to call a particular country, closest places of worship, etc.) these organizations are also helpful for more informal things, like finding a roommate from your country. The graduate international student organizations at my graduate institution also picked up students from the airport, which was extremely helpful.
And some things to think about doing, which haven't been mentioned yet:
- If you can find out which textbooks are going to be used in your courses, it'll possibly save you a bunch of money to buy them ahead of time in your home country
- Same for kitchen utensils, clothes, shoes, etc.
- Certain food items are hard to find depending on where you will be. E.g., in a large city like Boston it's not hard to find Indian spices, compared to being roughly impossible in smaller collegetowns.
- Be careful about bringing electrical items from your home country. US power supply is 110V, unlike several other countries. If you must bring electronics, e.g. a laptop, make sure you have an appropriate power cord/adaptor (the power outlets in the US are also a different configuration than in several other countries).
Source: I was an international student in the US both for my bachelors and doctoral degree. I was also heavily involved in the graduate Indian student organization at my graduate institution (Rice University) and occasionally worked with the office of international students and scholars there. In fact, I compiled a "Starter Pack" for incoming Indian graduate students to Rice which might be helpful to you.
I just started as a graduate student in the US, and here is what I learned from my experience and that of some of my friends:
1) Get the visa and book tickets to fly in
2) Book a hotel / hostel for the first night. Even if you manage to get a rental before going there, it is unlikely that you will be able to sign the contract and get your keys on the first day.
3) Try to find a place to live. Your university may have a site where students who have an apartment can look for roommates, and if the rental market is really bad, this is a good place to start looking. Don't freak out if you don't have a rental before flying to the states. You can be more efficient once you have arrived. I stayed in a hostel for 3 weeks when I first got here, before I could find a place and move in to it.
4) Make sure you have health insurance / travel insurance / home insurance for the first few weeks. If you get health insurance through MIT, it will likely not start covering you until term starts, and you can get stuck with a $5000 bill for a broken leg or food poisoning or something like that. Not a fun way to start your time here.
5) Look at phone contracts online and pick one that would suit you. If you have an unlocked smartphone, you can just go to a store your first day in the US and get a SIM. Smartphones from the rest of the world are compatible with the US system, as long as they are unlocked. You will need a working phone pretty quickly here, so this should be prepared before you go. If you don't have an unlocked smartphone, you can buy a simple phone for $10-$20 with some number of minutes on it.
6) Make sure you have access to plenty of money. The first few days will be expensive when you are setting everything up. Figure out how much money you think you will need, and make sure you have access to double that in an emergency, including a few hundred dollars in cash (if your bank decided to shut down your card for accessing it abroad). You won't need all of it, most likely, but unexpected things will pop up and you will be grateful that you budgeted extra money.