By Jess Aszkenasy
We asked international students what they wish they’d known before coming to the UK – these are their top need-to-knows!
If you’re an international student (from the EU or somewhere further afield) coming to the UK to study, we get that it can be a bit overwhelming – especially if it’s your first time at uni. Recent studies show that the majority of overseas students are undergraduates!
From visas and tuition fees, to health insurance and bank accounts, there’s a lot to consider – so we’ve broken it down in this step-by-step guide.
We spoke to a number of international students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) and asked them what they wished they’d known before arriving in the UK to study. Here are the top nine things you need to consider before making the leap across the pond!
1. Plan your funding and research scholarships
Before you do anything else, you need to make sure you have the finances to fund your degree.
EU students are eligible for Student Finance in the UK, meaning the cost of your tuition fees is covered by a loan that you’ll pay back at a later date. More info on that here!
EU students remain eligible for Student Finance for the 2019/2020 academic year. The status of funding for EU students beyond this date is yet to be confirmed – but we’ll let you know as soon as we do!
However, students from outside the EU (apart from in certain specific circumstances) aren’t eligible for the loan, and you’ll have to fund your degree yourself. Plus, you’ll often have to pay fees much higher than what UK students pay – anything from £10,000 – £35,000 a year.
Don’t forget that for your visa application to be successful, you’ll need to provide evidence that you can cover this cost, as well as your living expenses.
If you don’t have the money to pay for yourself, there are options available. In our complete guide to international student funding and scholarships we cover loads of opportunities which you might be eligible for, and you could also look into education loans or exchange programmes.
For more information on how much UK tuition fees cost for international students and eligibility criteria for UK student finance, check our guide to tuition fees for international students.
2. Organise your student visa
As an international student coming to the UK you might need to apply for a visa, depending on which country you’re from.
EU, EEA or Swiss nationals
If you’re a national of a country in the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA), or you’re Swiss, then you won’t need to apply for a visa to study in the UK.
You’ll be able to travel to the UK using your normal passport – just don’t forget that you’ll need to sort some form of health insurance, such as an EHIC card.
If you’re from a country outside the EU, EEA and Switzerland, you’ll need to apply for a visa to study in the UK.
If you’ll be studying in the UK for less than six months, you’ll need a short-term student visa (but note that with this visa you won’t be able to work in the UK, including work placements as part of your course and part-time jobs – if you need to work, apply for a Tier 4 visa instead).
Here’s everything you need to apply:
• Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) – This is a 14-digit reference number you’ll receive from your university once you accept your offer
• Proof of finances – You’ll need to prove that you have enough money to pay for your first year of tuition fees, or your whole course if it’s less than a year. On top of this, you need to prove you have £1,015 (£1,265 for those studying in London) per month to cover your living expenses. This can either be through self-funding, an official sponsorship or an education loan
• English language skills – You’ll have to prove you meet the minimum level of English language proficiency, usually by taking a secure English language test (SELT).
The Tier 4 visa costs £348 if you’re applying from outside the UK, and you’ll need to be in your home country to apply.
You may also have to pay a healthcare surcharge as part of your visa application. This costs £150 per year and will allow you to use the NHS.
You can only apply for your visa three months before you start your course, but it’s best to apply as soon as possible as it can take a few weeks to hear back. Here’s a list of visa processing times for each country.
If your course lasts for longer than six months, you’ll need a Tier 4 (general) student visa.
3. Prepare for British life
Culturally, the UK is very diverse and welcoming of people from all around the world. You’ll find plenty of fellow international students at all universities, and most will have societies to help you meet like-minded people, and those from similar backgrounds.
We would also recommend searching for Facebook groups related to your university (they often have groups specifically for international students) so you can discuss any questions you have and even make some friends before you arrive!
In case you weren’t already aware, the UK is known for its cold and wet weather! Pack lots of warm clothes and a waterproof coat for the winter months, and don’t expect summer to be very hot very often.
It’s not student budget (or environmentally) friendly to have the heating on all the time (although we have tricks to help you save on your energy bills), so warm clothes are essential.
4. Sort your student accommodation
You’ll want to get your accommodation sorted before you land in the UK – the last thing you want is to turn up and have nowhere to stay!
Your first port of call should be your university itself, as they will often offer guarantees to house all students who apply before a certain date.
Most students either live in university accommodation (called ‘halls of residence’ or ‘halls’ for short) or rent a room from a private landlord.
Living in halls is best for your first year of study, as it removes the hassle of trying to find a suitable room elsewhere, and some universities even have halls specifically for international students to help you make friends easily.
These will either be self-catered (meaning you’ll have access to a shared kitchen to cook your own meals), or catered (meaning your meals will be provided at a canteen). If you’re looking to save some money, self-catered is by far the cheaper option, and we have loads of student recipes to help you develop your culinary skills!
Unlike American universities, the vast majority of rooms both in halls and private housing are single occupancy – meaning you won’t have a roommate, but a room to yourself.
If you’re not interested in halls and you’d prefer to do the accommodation hunt yourself, check out our student letting agents directory to find houses in your university area and consult our guide to viewing student houses so you know what to watch out for!
And, of course, if you’re not sure where you’d like to live, check out our guide comparing all your options.
5. Make sure you’ve got health insurance
All international students, from both inside and outside the EU, will need to prove they have health insurance to cover them for any healthcare they need while in the UK. Here’s how it’s done:
If you’re from the EU, organising your health insurance is a doddle.
You’ll just need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which will entitle you to free or reduced healthcare from the National Health Service (NHS) while you’re here in the UK.
If you don’t have one, it’s as simple as applying for one through your home country’s national health insurance provider.
If you’re a student from a country outside the EU, you’ll have to pay a health surcharge as part of your visa application, giving you access to the NHS during your stay here.
Also check any health insurance you already have, as that may also cover you while you’re abroad.
However, don’t forget that neither the EHIC or health surcharge will cover any extra expenses or losses incurred as a result of illness or injury – cancelled travel plans or lost course fees, for example.
Endsleigh offer travel insurance for international students coming to the UK which will cover these extra expenses.
6. Set up a student bank account
If you’re staying in the UK for longer than a few months (so longer than a semester), we would recommend setting up a bank account.
This will make it easier to pay bills, keep your money safe, and avoid foreign currency charges you’d otherwise be paying if you used a non-UK bank account to pay for things in Britain.
Setting up a bank account can be a lengthy process, as banks will need lots of information to verify your identity and credit rating.
Check whether you’re able to get the ball rolling from your home country to save time, and look into whether your current bank has any links to UK banks, as this will likely make the process smoother.
How to set up a bank account in the UK
In order to open a bank account while you’re here in the UK, you will need the following:
• A valid passport
• A valid visa – Non-EU students only
• Proof of address in the UK – A tenancy agreement or utility bill should suffice
• Proof of address in your home country
• Proof of student status – You’ll normally receive this once you enrol at university
• Proof of income – This may mean a credit check and interview to establish you will be able to maintain the account.
You’ll almost certainly have to attend the bank in person to get everything set up, so don’t expect to be able to do everything on your laptop!
Student bank accounts are a great option, as they offer numerous benefits including an interest-free overdraft of up to £2,000. However, it’s worth knowing that not all banks offer student bank accounts to international students (you’ll still be able to open a regular current account, so don’t sweat!).
Since it can take a while to get a bank account set up, and around 10 days for your debit card to arrive, it’s best to take money with you to cover the first month of your stay – we’d recommend a pre-paid card for this, as carrying large wads of cash can be unsafe.
See our guide to the best UK international student bank accounts, and use our list as a starting point to find an account that best suits you.
7. Work out the cheapest way to make international calls
If you’re panicking about whether your current phone will work in the UK, the answer is most likely, yes!
The UK operates on the same GSM band as most of the world, but if you’re coming from Japan or North/South America, your phone may not work in the UK, so this is worth checking.
If your phone doesn’t look like it will work here, it might be worth selling it for cash and buying a new one. Check out our guide to getting the cheapest student mobile phone contract here!
However, the worst thing you can do is keep your current SIM card in your phone while studying in the UK. You’ll pay extremely high charges for calling back home, as well as local numbers.
Here are our top tips for keeping connected on the cheap!
For calling local numbers
If you already have a mobile phone then you will need a new SIM card. With a Pay As You Go (PAYG) SIM you’ll need to top up your phone with credit, which is a good way of keeping track of your spending but can be a hassle if your credit runs out at an awkward time.
Monthly contracts are usually better value for money, as you’ll likely get unlimited (or close to) minutes and texts, but you will have to pay out every month and this comes with added long-term responsibility. The best deals we know of are all right here.
If you would like a new phone, check out our comparison tool to get a great deal that will have minutes, texts and data bundled together for a low monthly price. You can even keep the phone when the contract finishes.
But if you’re keeping a phone you bought in your home country, you’ll need to unlock it first before you can start using your new sim card!
For calling back home
In recent years there have been lots of low-cost international call providers popping up, such as Lebara, LycaMobile and RebTel. However, from what we’ve gathered, RebTel offer the best value, with some calls under 1p a minute and your first call free.
Alternatively, use services like Skype, FaceTime (iOS only), Viber, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to have audio and video chats for free!
Check out our guide on the cheapest ways to make international calls to compare and contrast!
8. Figure out public transport
Getting to grips with the public transport system when you first land in a country can be a bit daunting – so here’s a simple guide.
All cities will have a local bus service which is often the most convenient way of travelling around a city. First suss out how far away you’re going to be living from campus, and whether it’s worth investing in a student bus pass to save some cash.
Bigger cities might also have a subway system, like the Tube in London or the Metro in Newcastle, and you might be able to invest in a yearly pass to help keep costs down. For travel in London specifically, take a look at the Oyster card – it is by far the cheapest option and can be used across various different modes of transport.
If you’re confident enough, travelling by bike is a great way to save money while being environmentally friendly too.
If you’re over in the UK for the first time, you’ll probably want to visit a few different cities and sights while you’re here.
Your two main options here are coach or train.
Trains are often the quickest and most comfortable way to get around the UK. However, tickets should be booked as early as possible to save money – check out our guide to saving on train fares.
You’ll probably also want to invest in a 16–25 Railcard or a 26–30 Railcard, which will save you a third on all rail fares!
Coaches are a cheaper alternative to trains, but they can take twice as long to get from A to B.
Our top pick for saving money is Megabus, with journeys starting at £1 between the major cities. But if you can’t find a suitable arrival and departure point, then try National Express as they offer the largest coach network in the UK. We also have an extensive guide on how to save on coach travel for you to check out.
Travelling by plane is also an option for longer distances, for example if you’re travelling from London to Edinburgh, although it can be expensive. Check out our list of tricks to help you save on flights!
9. Know how many hours you’re allowed to work
If you want to make some extra cash while you’re studying, then you may be wondering what your rights and options to work in the UK are.
If you’re from a non-EU country, you’ll be able to work up to 20 hours per week while studying, and full-time during the holidays, as well as before and after your course starts.
If you’re coming from an EU country, you are free to work as many hours as you wish and can continue working as long as you’d like after graduation.
However, you shouldn’t rely on a part-time job as your main source of income to fund your living costs in the UK. While they’re a great way to boost your finances, you’ll unlikely be able to earn enough to live off, and working long shifts will distract from your studies. Here’s how to balance the two!