Living and Lifestyle
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So you're a fresh-eyed, first-year, international student who's about to spend the next four years in a country that allegedly runs on a doughnut company and spells "doughnut" as "donut."

Sounds daunting, I know, but don't worry.

Before you land in the five-hour hell-queue of JFK airport's non-U.S. citizen immigration checkpoint this August, I want to impart some knowledge on hacking the international student life.

Join a Frequent Flyer club

Depending on how frequently and how far you fly, frequent flyer clubs may be a great option for you. Let's say you're so international that it takes you two connecting flights to find yourself in New York City. All those flights at least twice a year will rack up a huge amount of points that can go towards upgrades from economy class, lounge privileges, and other fancy air travel perks.

I'd recommend oneworld, since it covers a substantial amount of international airlines and the points carry over. For instance, if I fly Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, and British Airways in a year, I'm collecting points that all go towards the same benefits and rewards—I'm not racking up points in three different places. Yay! Intersectional air travel!

Get your forms in formation

If international orientation (or ISOP, as it's fondly called) is anything like it was in my day (*dons granny spectacles*), then someone will make you practice printing out your I-94 form and you'll have to get your I-20 signed regularly. For the love of Millie the Dancing Bear do not a.) forget to have it signed, or b.) lose the damn thing.

First thing's first: wtf are these forms? Your I-94 keeps track ofyour recent U.S. travel history and will come in handy when you need to do anything related to your visa. Access your I-94 here. (In fact bookmark that link for future.)

Your I-20 is something that (you may remember) was a bitch to attain in the first place. You probably had to go to your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate General to get it signed, answer questions about your plans to study in the US, and then send it off over the summer to be signed on campus before receiving it again so you could enter the country. Whew. Now that that's all done you need to look out for that form with your life. Unlike the I-94, you can't just print out a new one if ever you lose the old sheet.

From now on you will—sorry, no, you must—buy one of those travel folders. You will—i.e. must—keep your passport and I-20 in that folder at all times and know where that folder is at all times.

  • $12.99: Sleeky envelope-lookin' wallet with a TON OF COLOR OPTIONS to show you’re a trendy adult so on top of life that you can spend time picking fancily hued travel wallets. Buy now.
  • $13.89: Thin, sleek, and minimalistic. It only holds the bare essentials (passport, boarding pass, and ID, so no pocket for your phone), but it's trendy and can easily slide into your back pocket. No need to hassle with stuff it in your backpack if you're ever running to catch your flight. Buy now.
  • $8.99: Compact and pocket-sized, but again only allowing room for you passport, credit cards, and boarding pass. However, it is a bit cheaper than the other options, which is always a pleasing quality. Buy now.

Once you're certain that you're protecting your docs with your life, you need to make sure you get that shit signed every six months or less. Don't leave it until the last minute like me. No one will nag you if you don't, but you will find that if you try to re-enter the country with an expired signature, you're not going to stay in the country for very long.

Know your jobs and internships

Planning on working in NYC? Cool! But also take care. Heard of OPT? It stands for Optional Practical Training and, in short, it means you're only allowed to work 12 months in the U.S.A. on your Visa. Any more work you do is pretty much illegal.

There are loopholes though. For instance, campus jobs don't eat into your 12 months. You can work in campus libraries, as a Writing Fellow, as a tour guide, or a teaching assistant (these are but a few of your options.)

In my sophomore year, I was a secretary for the Barnard Babysitting Agency, for instance. However, be warned: babysitting and bartending—which you can do through on-campus agencies—count as off-campus jobs and will eat into your OPT time. Then again there's nothing really stopping you if you babysit without anyone making a formal note of it if you get what I mean nudge nudge wink wink (but like maybe don't do it just in case idk I'm too scared of deportation to try but lmk how it goes I won't tell hehh.)

For more info on finding work on campus, check out this guide.

Flight bookings vs. finals

Chances are the first time you're returning home after starting college will be for winter break. Chances are you're not going to be able to book your flight until after the final exam schedule gets published, which is usually around October/November. Not that great considering December holiday airfares are sky-high by then.

Your options are these: a.) book a flight halfway through finals season and hope your exams are during the first few days, b.) book a flight at the end of finals season and run the risk of being kicked out of Barnard housing before you can leave NY. (You can always stay over at a friend's during the interim.)

However, what I usually do that sometimes works is I scope out exam schedules from previous semesters or hit up the tentative schedule they post a little earlier. They're not always accurate, but sometimes exam times are kept the same for certain classes' time slots.

Also, advice on booking flights:

  • Make Expedia, Trivago, and sites like that your best friends to get more points as well as your frequent flyer benefits.
  • Always buy tickets in incognito mode on your browser. Cookies can sometimes lead to sites jacking up prices.

The deal with airports

La Guardia mainly does domestic (and Canadian) flights so chances are you won't be landing or flying out of there as an international student. JFK is usually the standard drop-zone for international students, but I could not hate an airport enough. If you're not a U.S. citizen, clearing customs can take up to three hours. If you can, try to fly from and to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). It's easy to get to and from, is way less crowded, and you'll clear customs in under an hour most of the time.

That's all I have for you right now, international comrade. Good luck with your journey through this weird-ass, wonderful country.

Anything else you want to know about navigating the international student life? Ask us here, or on our Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat @CUSpectrum.

Sophia Hotung is currently Spectators Staff Directory, was formally Spectrums Editor in 2016, and a Barnard senior. She's a British+Hong Kong citizen and scheming F1-Visa holder. You can reach her at sophia.hotung@columbiaspectator.com.

Updated August 11, 2017 at 2:28 p.m.

international life nsop NSOP 2016 passport Required Reading Required Reading 2016 f1 visa
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