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?

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    Since you have mentioned MIT specifically, just go to their website, they will outline all the requirements of the graduate admissions process. – JNS Jan 9 '15 at 14:45
  • @jakebeal it's not clear to me from the original text whether the OP means he intends to gain admission to this program, and is asking how, or he is already admitted. I ran with what you started... How sure are you of your interpretation? Thangaraj Sundaramoorthy can you clarify? – ff524 Jan 9 '15 at 15:27
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    @ff524 I'm not certain of my interpretation, but of the two possibly interpretations it is the one that is actually answerable here and likely to have value for others, so I went with that. – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 15:54
  • @jakebeal agreed. I just want to make sure the OP realizes that if he's not admitted yet, he has to do... an entirely different list of things. – ff524 Jan 9 '15 at 16:05
  • I don't know why this was closed as "primarily opinion based" - the answers are perfectly subjective and not at all opinion based. "Too broad" could have been defensible... – ff524 Jan 16 '15 at 2:39

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.

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    For what it's worth MIT's housing is bad for upper-year graduate students. First-year students have priority in the graduate housing lottery precisely because the market in Boston is insane. But getting in after the first-year is really, really hard. – aeismail Jan 9 '15 at 15:15
  • @aeismail To the best of my knowledge, housing is not still not guaranteed, and especially not for Masters students. – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 15:26
  • No, they can't guarantee housing, because they don't have enough to do so. But it's still better than it used to be, and they are working on it. (Disclosure: I am an MIT alumnus.) – aeismail Jan 9 '15 at 15:39
  • @aeismail Me too... and since I was from the area, I never even tried to compete for on-campus grad housing. :-) – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 15:53
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    Great list. Some banks offer "international travel cards" which are prepaid debit cards loaded with the currency of the country you are planning to travel to. This is what I used my first few months in the US. – Jay Jan 9 '15 at 18:02

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:

  1. 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
  2. Same for kitchen utensils, clothes, shoes, etc.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

  • To be contrary, is finding a roommate from the same country the best thing to do? It gives a sense of stability, which can't be under estimated but it also lessens the integration into the remainder of the student community. In my experience (admittedly not extensive) the international students who communicated solely with other international students didn't integrate well, whereas those who chose to live where fate took them knew many people from all over the world as well as a sizeable portion of people from the country of the university. – Ben Jan 9 '15 at 19:09
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    @Ben in general I agree; as an international undergrad and grad student my friend circles consisted more of US students than fellow Indians. However, there can be good reasons to want a roommate with the same background. E.g., it is a wonderful feeling to talk to someone in your native tongue-something I didn't appreciate until I was in a situation where I couldn't, even as a fluent English speaker. Or, you might desire that only vegetarian food be cooked in your kitchen (I'm an omnivore, but not everyone is). Such concerns are not very important to me personally, but are to many people. – Aru Ray Jan 9 '15 at 19:19
  • On food... if you're looking for your home cuisine in a restaurant, it can be hard to find anything good outside of big cities. For groceries, however, even in medium/small cities, there is often somewhere that serves the international grocery needs of faculty, and they will know which store it is. – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 20:27
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    @jakebeal my college was in a small town in upstate NY. The nearest grocery store with a non-trivial international section was about 40 minutes away by car. Since I didn't have a car (faculty members tend to, international students don't always) this was generally hard to get to. However, senior students in the same community are more likely to have cars and are often generous with rides, which is another good reason to contact some international student organizations! – Aru Ray Jan 9 '15 at 20:40
  • @AruRay Good point about cars... that's another thing that Americans (like myself) tend to forget about the difficulty of living without... – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 20:58

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.

  • SIM cards will definitely work a large city like Boston. In smaller campus towns, however, you may be out of luck. – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 17:14
  • @jakebeal True. I wrote the answer considering that both the asker and I have experience from larger cities, where it will not be a problem. In a small town it might be a good idea to buy a SIM online and have it mailed to the department and pick up when you arrive. – user141592 Jan 9 '15 at 17:17
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    I'm actually saying something a little stronger: the cell phone infrastructure in many smaller cities is not yet upgraded to be able to support a SIM card in an international phone. – jakebeal Jan 9 '15 at 17:22
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    Good call on the travel insurance. A friend of mine was stuck with a hefty bill after getting sick before college health insurance started. – Jay Jan 9 '15 at 18:04
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    @Jayraj One of mine did too, so that's how I know. – user141592 Jan 9 '15 at 18:09

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