We hope that this page will address some of the most common concerns of international students. Do let us know if we are missing anything. Also feel free to contact your international officers–it’s what they’re there for!
Societies and Organisations
For international students (and there are quite a few–approximately 50% of all graduates are from outside of the UK), there are clubs and societies representing most nationalities. You can find a comprehensive list of official University organisations, most of which make an appearance at the Societies’ Fair at the beginning of Michaelmas Term.
We won’t lie to you: setting up a bank account in the UK is not a walk in the park. Most banks want your great grandmother’s birth certificate, your first grade report card, and three blood samples before they even consider giving you the sort of account that you had when you were 11 years old. Some banks, such as HSBC, are quite likely to reject the majority of applicants (after making you wait several weeks for an answer) and seem to deny accounts to any international students here with loans. Even if a bank will take you, it may be difficult to find a bank that will easily give you cheques and a Visa debit card. Barclays is one of the fastest and most hassle-free banks to get a Visa debit card and cheque book from, but be warned that accounts for international students carry a £5 monthly fee. If the idea of that fee puts you off, some students use Natwest instead, as that bank will give some international students Visa debit cards (though at least one MCR member was only allowed a solo card despite repeated protest) and online banking access. However, Natwest will NOT give you a cheque book (no matter how much you complain). Some have found that Lloyds TSB offer international students the same account as domestic students complete with Visa facilities, no minimum balance and a cheque book. If you regularly want to withdraw your cash overseas (e.g. Europe), you’ll find that almost all banks will charge high commissions and fees, except for Nationwide which doesn’t charge any fees or commissions. For those who travel a bit, it can pay to open up a separate account there.
Some MCR members have found the Royal Bank of Scotland (who own Natwest) to be very friendly to international students: chequebooks and online banking are easy to obtain (although again, VISA cards are more problematic) and the counter staff at Trinity Street (the branch right by college) are always very friendly and helpful. One positive thing about Barclays for international students with Bank of America accounts: the two banks have a partnership and you are able to pull money out of Barclay’s cash points with no fee charged!
Another difficult issue is setting up a joint bank account for international students wishing to bring partners over to live with them (as the Home Office now requires proof of funds for both international students and their dependents for visa applications). Some banks (i.e. Barclays) will not offer a joint bank account to international students and their partners unless the partner is employed and earning £24,000 per year (in which case the international student can be added as a joint member on their partner’s account). However, as this is unlikely to be the case for most international graduates looking to bring their partners over to the U.K. initially, an alternative that the Home Office will accept for visa applications is to provide a bank statement or certified letter from an overseas bank demonstrating the required funds.
Currency Exchange and Money Transfers
International students may have a bit of trouble sorting out currency and transferring money overseas. Plan ahead with your home bank; it’s helpful to have a designated person to transfer money from your account to your Cambridge bank. Another option is to carry a certified banker’s cheque with you when you come to England, so that you have money to deposit in the bank right away. If you anticipate delays in transferring money, be sure to notify the Trinity Hall Bursar’s Office as soon as you can, as they can offer you a grace period on paying your bills until your funding comes through. Local spots to exchange currency without a commission include the Post Office and Marks and Spencer (2nd floor of the department store, next to the ladies’ lingerie).
The US Federal Reserve provides a useful daily history of the USD→GBP spot exchange rate. These are based on a statistical sample of noon buying rates in New York for cable transfers. They provide a useful reference for planning rate-sensitive transactions and for comparing the exchange rates various banks offer (banks typically apply a ”spread“ to the rate they obtain on the market, and the Fed market data can help you estimate this spread). See also Google’s exchange rate graphs, which juxtapose exchange rates and related news stories.
If transferring a large amount of money, one of the best ways is a wire transfer. As a tip, it is sometimes better to have your home bank send the money in your native currency and let the receiving bank convert it. Similarly, if creating a cheque to take with you, it is sometimes better to keep it in your native currency. For less-popular currencies it may be better for a home bank convert it first. Every currency conversion place effectively charges a commission even if they say they don’t, so a good strategy is to ask for both their buy and sell rates – divide one by the other to work out the spread – the closer to one, the lower their commission. Fixed fees may also be charged, so be sure to ask about those too. Barclays has been known to provide good rates for major currencies, but the situation varies so it is best to check.
Yet again, signing up for a mobile phone plan as an international student can be very difficult. It seems in the UK people don’t want to just take your money for some insane and unknown reason (and don’t appreciate being told why their policies are stupid) but take it from us, you aren’t going to be able to sign up for a mobile plan right away if for no other reason than you probably don’t have a credit rating in the UK.
The difficulty of getting a contract means you will probably want to use a Pay-As-You-Go service. In the end they are all about the same though you might want to fish around for the best deal for you. If you only plan on being in the UK for a year, get a cheap phone off of eBay and a chip at any of the stores. You are able to top up your Pay-As-You-Go phone at nearly every store and at any Cash Point (even if the Cash Point is not from your bank). Some stores, such as Carphone Warehouse, offer deals at the beginning of the year, and last year you could get a basic Nokia phone (no frills) and SIM card for £20.
Some companies (such as 02) offer Pay-As-You-Go deals where paying £5 at the start of the month gets you 30 days of free (UK) calls. If you’re not interested in getting the latest iPhone 15S, this may be the most straightforward way to stay in contact. You can typically pay fairly modest fees (£5-£10 per month) for large quantities of data.
If you plan to do a lot of overseas calling from your mobile phone (though Skype is always the cheapest option), you might want to consider Mobile World as your provider–calls to North America, for example, are only 5p per minute.
Visas and Visa Issues
Except in special circumstances, non-EU citizens will need a visa to study in the UK. If you need to apply for a new student visa or extend your student visa (i.e. if transferring from an M.Phil to a Ph.D) you must make your application under the UK Border Agency’s new Points Based Immigration System Tier 4 Student (General) legislation. The Points Based System applies to all students who are registered at the University of Cambridge (undergraduate and graduate). Please see the information listed here on the BoGS website.
To obtain your initial visa, if applying from outside the UK, you will need to go through the British Embassy in your home country (or whichever country’s British Embassy your country is assigned to). This may be a lengthy process so be sure to start right when you receive your visa letter from the Board of Graduate Studies.
If you need to renew your visa, please be aware that renewal applications can take a long time to process, so plan ahead. The service target for postal applications is for 70% to be decided within four weeks and 90% within fourteen weeks, though don’t assume you’ll be one of the lucky ones and get it sorted in the shorter time period! Since you need to send in your passport with your application, you will be unable to travel during this time. Premium applications can generally be decided on the same day (service target 98% within 24 hours), but you have to travel in person to the Public Enquiry Office in Croydon, south London, and pay a higher fee. NOTE: You must phone at least a week ahead of time to book an appointment at Croydon. Expect to spend the whole day traveling to the PEO and waiting in line. Paperwork supporting visa renewal applications also needs to be dealt with through the Board of Graduate Studies. Again, please see the informaion here. The visa renewal fee is currently (as of 25 May 2009) £357 for postal applications or £565 for in-person applications at the Public Enquiry Office.
If you have already sent in a postal application and need to travel soon, you may ask for your application to be withdrawn and your passport will be returned. However, note that: 1) your old visa must not have expired yet, or you will be in the country illegally, 2) you won’t get your money back, so you’ll have to pay a second time to apply again, 3) it may still take over a week to get your passport back. In case of true emergency such as family illness abroad, you may also ask for your application to be processed urgently. Further information is available from the UK Border Agency.
Registering with the Police
If you are from Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Cuba, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Yemen or if your passport is stamped ‘The holder is required to register with the police’, then you must go to the Parkside Police Station and register for a fee of £34 within 7 days. Make sure you take your passport and two passport-sized photos along with you when you go.
Doctors and Dentists
As a student of Cambridge, you are entitled to all the benefits of the National Health Service (the NHS). This means Doctor visits are free, medication is subsidised (or free in some cases), and that you shouldn’t hesitate to seek help if you are ill. One thing you must do ahead of time, however, is register with a doctor. You can find your local doctor on the Doctor’s Surgery Finder.
It is highly recommended you register with a doctor as soon as you arrive in Cambridge. Once registered, you can make an appointment to see your doctor (general practitioner or “GP”) for routine problems by calling the surgery; the waiting time is usually 1-2 days. Your GP is the first port of call for any medical problem, and they will refer you to a specialist at a hospital if necessary. For genuine emergencies visit A&E at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. GP appointments, hospital visits and ambulances are all free. Prescription medications typically have a nominal fee of about £8 (regardless of what the medication is); as a student on a low income, it can be possible to fill in a form to get prescriptions for free, though this is seldom worth the effort.
The University Dental Service is also yours to use. They are friendly and their rates are more than reasonable for someone on a student budget. Again you must go over there and register with them in person, but once you do they will take you instantly in an emergency situation as well as let you book cleaning in advance. (And don’t be put off by the shabby exterior of the building–they’re actually quite good!)
Driving in the UK
If you have a valid driving permit from your home country you are allowed to drive in the UK. To reduce hassle, students from non-English-speaking countries may wish to get an international driver’s permit, which basically translates your details into a number of languages, though one is not needed to drive in the UK. An interesting quirk in the system, however, is that you are only allowed to drive on your foreign permit for 12 Months from the date you first arrived in the UK to take up your studies. To continue driving further you must obtain the provisional driving license and pass the driving test before the 12-month period elapses.
Getting to Cambridge from the London Airports
Odds are, if you’re an international student, you’ll be arriving by air and not by sea. The easiest way to arrive in Cambridge from Gatwick and Heathrow Airports, particularly with luggage, is by bus. National Express runs several buses to Cambridge each day. National Express offers a student card that provides a 1/3 discount on bus tickets, and it’s worth it if you’re taking the bus more than twice a year. If you’re coming through London, trains to Cambridge leave only from Kings Cross and Liverpool Street Stations. From Heathrow, you can take the Piccadilly line to Kings Cross and take the train from there; from Gatwick, you can take the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station, then the Victoria line to Kings Cross. If you fly through Stansted, National Express has dozens of buses to Cambridge each day from the airport, or you could take the train directly from Stansted Airport to Cambridge’s rail station. In the event that you fly through Luton, there are buses to Cambridge but they are infrequent. National Rail also offers a student discount card, for which you’ll need a passport sized photo. Student discount cards are available at the bus and train stations, respectively. You can also get a rail card at the Graduate Union.