Student Exchange to the US: Some Practical Considerations

Hello, everyone! I’m back at it again with yet another exchange program article. I know it’s been a while since you’ve heard from me, but I’m busy with another summer internship. Fortunately, I have something to look forward to — my exchange program to Boston! I’ll be flying in mid-August, so I have some time to look around before my orientation on 1st September.

And because I’ve recently had to go through the whole stress of dealing with the logistics that accompanying an exchange to the United States, I’ve decided to write about it so that you can (hopefully) take away something if you plan to go for exchange! And although this article will be most relevant to those going to the US, it also provides important tips and considerations for those going to other countries. So, let’s get right into it!

1. Finding Accommodation

One of the large things to consider when applying for exchange is accommodation: you will be overseas for a whole semester and need a place to stay. Now, some countries will likely have cheaper accommodations provided by the university. If you are travelling to one of those countries, congratulations! Just wait for further instructions from your university on dorm applications, and enjoy your stay.

Unfortunately, if you are traveling to the US (like me), your accommodation will likely be expensive if you apply for lodgings with the university. There is a caveat: some universities (like Boston College) are very helpful to students. They provide a list of seniors who are also going for exchange during the same semester that have offered to sublet their apartment (note that the term sublet means to rent out the place for a short period of time). However, other universities (like mine) are not so helpful and do not have such a list. Thus, my only options  are to either pay for accommodations in the university or to find housing elsewhere.

First, let’s discuss university accommodations. For my university (Boston University), I essentially gamble for a place. I fill up a form stating that I wish to apply for on-campus housing (and pay the accompanying fee — 600 USD, in my case) and select my preferred option. What is important to note is that I am not guaranteed what I selected. In the case where on-campus housing is fully booked due to many applicants (particularly in the fall semester i.e. my semester), the university will assign you to a hotel. And US hotels are extremely expensive. In summation, I not only have to pay for a costly place for four months, I also cannot opt out of the accommodation allocation unless I pay the full accommodation fee. So no — given the probable financial deficits, I don’t plan on going through with that.

Since I opted to reject on-campus housing, the only other option is to attempt to find a place for myself. If you plan on taking this option, I highly recommend that you try to find people who are also looking for off-campus housing. That way, the cost is split, and you will be with other NUS students as opposed to a potential random stranger. Additionally, based on my experience, it can be easier to find housing when there are more of you actively looking rather than just desperately searching by yourself.

I initially wanted to find housing independently, and since I didn’t have a list of seniors to contact, I had to try online. The main difficulty is that you are only there for one semester, and most people renting an apartment tend to want a lease (i.e. housing contract) signed for an entire year. This means that your best option is to sublet. To find sublets, the best options would be to join Facebook sublet groups or try Craigslist. Websites such as June Homes also offer furnished sublets, but at a higher price. I invested a lot of energy in the Facebook space, as it was the most cost-effective. However, the number of people who reply to you is not very high. Additionally, it can be difficult to find accommodation for your particular semester that is near your university. And do watch out for scams — my friends and I originally found a place on Facebook, but later discovered that the seller was banned for being fake. While this isn’t common, it can happen, so do be careful.

If you want to find accommodation in a group, the first thing to do is to join a Telegram channel for your university. When there are around ten to fifteen members, you can ask whether anyone would like to find off-campus housing with you. If on-campus housing is rather costly (like mine), there should be a few members who express interest. You can then create a group chat and start finding potential places together! Do note that, if this is your plan, I suggest you start finding accommodation early — it can be difficult to find places convenient for university travel at a low cost, so make sure the entire group is willing to search for housing throughout the semester.

Some places my group and I tried were Facebook and Craigslist, but we finally found a relatively decent option on Airbnb. For solo SEP travellers, Airbnb can be quite expensive, particularly in the US. But if enough people can split the cost, it can be somewhat cost-effective. Overall, do your best to search for the available options, and hope that you can find something for your upcoming semester abroad.

2. Document Preparation

Oh boy…I hope you all are ready for heavy administration because travelling to the US requires a lot of documentation. I mean, to apply for an SEP in NUS, you already need to submit a whole load of administrative matters. For FASS students, I’ve made it easier for you by attaching a link to the main FASS SEP website. When you go to the website, under ‘Application Materials’, immediately download the SEP Application Checklist. Typically, students leave for SEP in Year 3, so the honours letter of undertaking does not count. Students also don’t often change majors, so the undeclared major is likely irrelevant. However, everything else (including a personal statement, submission of unofficial transcript, and study plan) needs to be submitted.

For the study plan, you need to pick out a maximum of five universities that you are considering. For each, pick out five modules that you might wish to map. I strongly suggest that you check your mapping restrictions (also on the website) before selecting any modules. To see what modules are available, there was a link to a PDF containing all the partner universities and the modules offered. I honestly forgot how I got it, but I believe the SEP website will upload a link to that file closer to the application date. Download that PDF and map whatever modules and universities you wish.

When mapping modules, I recommend having a common subject or theme in mind. It helps your personal statement, especially if you mention that you selected your modules and universities for a particular reason. For example, my module mapping contained a lot of modules relating to developmental/child psychology and policy, and I explicitly mentioned that I wished to learn overseas child policies in a country where policy planning and implementation for children is quite established, so that I may bring my knowledge back to Singapore.

Once you’ve successfully submitted all your documents and you’ve been selected for SEP, congratulations! The partner university  will now contact you for more documents. For me, these documents included my official transcript, a professor/tutor recommendation letter, my passport photo and identity card, and a bank letter that proves my parents have enough money to sponsor me.

After you’ve sent these, congratulations! You will be sent even more documents because you have to apply for your visa! For the US, the partner university will send you the DS-2019 form. This form will contain something called a SEVIS number and student exchange number. You need to apply specifically for a J-1 visa, which means you need the DS-2019, the DS-160, the SEVIS/I-901 payment confirmation and a scheduled appointment for an interview with the US embassy in Singapore. I’ve included the link to the official website for the J-1 visa.

You still need to wait for the DS-2019 before being able to complete certain things (e.g. scheduling an interview), as it contains a specific ID number. Unfortunately, when you obtain the DS-2019 is dependent on when the exchange university sends it to you, which means you might have to wait for a while before being able to complete the application and schedule an interview.

Also, don’t forget to complete the immunization requirements form! I believe most — if not all —US universities require you to fill up this form where you state which vaccines you have/have not had before. This, unfortunately, required me to dig up my very old immunisation records from primary/secondary school, and to see if I need any additional vaccines. I am fortunate as Boston University’s health insurance provides me with the necessary vaccines for free (although I do have to pay for the health insurance), and I can go to the BU medical section to get vaccinated. However, this is not the case for every US university, and sometimes you need to get the vaccines in Singapore. Check your university’s website to ensure you get what you need.

3. Financial Considerations

Finally, one has to consider payment. In the United States, they don’t have payment modes like Paynow and Paylah, or DBS — do check for your SEP country before you leave, as it can be pretty important. For example, you have school fees to pay: you probably need to pay for school insurance, and if you’re staying on campus, you need a bank account.

The best way to deal with that is to open a student bank account. The two most popular options (for the US) are Chase Bank and Bank of America, both of which offer student schemes (i.e. they give you USD if you open an account with them and complete a certain number of transactions). If you plan to travel there for SEP, do compare student schemes!

However, the bank is only for university payments. What does one use for day-to-day transactions? Simple! I recommend a YouTrip card; I’ve used it before for Taiwan solo travel, my seniors have used it and recommended it to me for US exchange…It’s a really good card! It’s good for several reasons:

  1. It’s easy to use
  2. You can use it practically anywhere overseas
  3. The exchange rate is golden

To use the YouTrip card, simply download the YouTrip app from the Apple or Android app stores! Once you’ve downloaded the app, follow the instructions and sign up for your account. After your application, account approval takes one to two days. Afterwards, use your email to verify your account, and you can start using the e-card. A physical card will also be sent to you (I received mine in approximately a week).

The YouTrip card is a multi-currency card. If you want to use it overseas, simply top up your account through the YouTrip app — you pay using your DBS account, and YouTrip will then generate the required currency based on the exchange rate. For example, if I put $10 SGD, YouTrip will give me approximately $30 ringgit. I can then spend this $30 ringgit using the e-card or my physical card. Easy, right?

Finally, what’s also really good about YouTrip are the high exchange rates. YouTrip’s exchange rates use real-time exchange rates, and does not incur additional fees or markup. This means that it’s likely to be higher than what money changers offer, for practically all currencies and for all e-cash (i.e. you don’t have to be afraid of someone stealing your physical money). In summation — I highly recommend you try it, not just for exchange but for overseas travel in general.

And that’s all I have to say for now! If you have any further questions regarding SEP recommendations or considerations, just leave a comment below. Thanks everyone!

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