Peer Advising: Living in Boston

Once you have landed safe and sound in Boston, gone through all the immigration paperwork and found a place to sleep, unfortunately it isn't over! There are still many things you should take care of so that you may live a relatively hassle-free life when you are here. Not to worry! Below, I have listed a few things you should consider, and some basic advice that will save you some time figuring things out. Once the semester has started, you'll want all the extra time you can get!

Note that some of these concerns will apply more to international students than to U.S. citizens. Also, this is certainly far from a complete list of things to consider. Many other student are dealing with or have dealt with these same questions, so don't hesitate to ask your new friends, your mentor, or others for advice! Finally, I am always available to help answer questions by email. I will not know the answer to everything, but I will try to point you in the right direction.

Banking

If you do not have a bank account in the US, you should have one. In addition to being convenient, it may be necessary for you. For example, if you plan to do any work for the university, you need a US checking account so that you can be paid by direct deposit. I also recommend that you get a US credit card if you expect to stay in the US for more than a year or so, both so that you can cover unexpected expenses, and so that you can begin to build a US-based credit history (see below).

Checking Accounts

Many local banks offer free checking accounts, usually with some basic restrictions. These banks also frequently offer non-free accounts with additional features (most of which you are unlikely to require), so be sure when you sign up that you are getting the account you want. There are a number of banks with a large presence in the Boston area, and you should feel free to find the one that best suits your needs. Since all banks now offer similar online banking features, the main difference between banks from your perspective is likely to be the convenience of affiliated ATMs and/or branches. Bank of America and Citizens Bank have branches on campus, and ATMs around campus too. If you expect to travel frequently to specific other cities (for example, to visit family or a significant other), you may want to consider which bank has the best network in your expected destinations. You will always be able to use an ATM that is not affiliated with your bank, but you will be charged fees for doing so that can add up over time. Most of these banks have dealt with international students before, so you do not have to be afraid that opening up an account as an international is going to be an issue.

There are also purely Internet-based banks in the US, such as Charles Schwab. These banks have no branches or affiliated ATMs, but they generally allow you to use a wider range of ATMs for free by reimbursing you for the ATM fees. They may also yield you more interest on your money if you carry a large balance. I do not have personal experience with these banks, but I have heard good things and they may be worth considering.

Credit Cards

For those of you who are planning to stay in the US for a longer period than a year or two, either because your program is longer, you intend to keep studying in the US or get a job, I highly recommend that you try to get a credit card. However, please note that it is a bit more difficult to get a credit card here than to simply open up an account. All types of loans in the US, whether they are housing, auto, or simple "credit card loans," are made based on computerized records of your prior "credit history." These records are maintained by private credit bureaus, and they generally include a full listing of your current and prior credit accounts, information on whether you made prior payments on time, and a single numeric representation of that information known as a "credit score." Simply put, if you have never gotten into trouble with paying off your loans you have good credit, and this means that applications for anything that requires you to have a good credit score, such as applying for a credit card, are easier. However, here comes the tricky part: It is pretty much impossible to build a credit score without a Social Security Number. And if you are not working you are not eligible for such a number. Thus, applying for a credit card without this number means that you have to make some other arrangements.

Some banks will be willing to give you a credit card if you "back up" the allowance on your credit card before hand. That is, suppose you want a $1,000 limit on your card every month. They might ask you for a $1,000 in advance, that they simply put in a separate account, in case you don't pay your bill one month. Then, usually by the end of the year, if all payments have been made and no issues, they will simply transfer the money that you initially set aside back to your checking account. This is normal. Of course, this means that the bank is not truly providing you with much, if any, real loan value. However, this can be an effective way to build a credit score, and thus to have access to better credit cards and many other types of loans in the long run. For example, after one year is up, it is very likely that you will be able to apply for and receive a traditional credit card.

Another option that may help you to establish a credit history in the US is to have a cosigner. Basically, if you have a family member, a relative, or another person who lives in the US or has a good credit history here, then that person can sign up to be liable for paying your credit card debt in case you fail to pay. In exchange for them taking on this risk, you may be able get access to a higher credit limit, a lower interest rate, or other benefits. This may not be feasible for many international students, but if you have close contacts in the US who are willing to help you, then it may be a good option.

Finally, a word of caution. The credit card market in the US is highly sophisticated, and that means that credit card offers will vary on a lot of different dimensions, such as credit limits, interest rates, international exchange fees, over-limit fees, and many other potential benefits or fees. Before signing up, be sure that you understand your contract well to ensure that you are getting the best deal for your situation, and to ensure that you are not hit with unexpected fees or charges in the future.

Social Security Number/Tax ID number

Matters regarding SSN and tax ID numbers can sometimes be a bit confusing, and sometimes you don't always know where to turn. If you have questions about filing for taxes, please contact the ISSO as they will have most of the information on hand for you. Even if you are an international student, you will likely be filling out a lot of paperwork that is used primarily by US citizens. Therefore, you may often receive the question "And what is your SSN or Tax ID number?" It's helpful to be prepared so that you know what to do even if you have neither!

Fortunately, in most places, this is just a formality. Most of the time, you can still order a product, book a reservation, or accomplish whatever it was you wanted to accomplish without one of these numbers. Simply tell them you are an international student on a student visa, and since you are not working you do not have this number.

If you have any formal questions about getting a SSN or a Tax ID number, please contact ISSO or the graduate school.


Cell Phones

If you want to get a cell phone here there are a few things you should know. There are 4 major providers: Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, and they use two different core technologies for their networks called GSM and CDMA. Most other countries use GSM, so if you are an international student, you might be leaning toward either AT&T or T-Mobile since you can typically use your existing GSM phone with them. However, your exact choice. Within the Boston area, the networks of these major providers are all reasonably good. However, if you expect to travel a lot, you may wish to determine which provider will have the best coverage in your destinations. It's always a good idea to ask around to friends and classmates to see what their experience has been like with a particular service provider.

If you do not already have a phone, or you if you plan to stay in the US for more than a couple of years, then things may get more complicated. Unlike much of the world, cell phones in the US are typically purchased at a heavily subsidized price. In exchange for this subsidy, consumers sign a contract agreeing to maintain service with that provider for a fixed term, usually two years. Terminating a contract early can lead to substantial fees. This type of contract option may make sense for some students, especially since there is rarely a discount on monthly service for foregoing the device subsidy. Note also that most of the higher-end CDMA phones on the market today have "fallback" features that make it possible to use them internationally, even in countries that use GSM. However, this may not be the best or least expensive option, so investigate your options thoroughly before committing to a contract.

"Prepaid" SIM cards, similar to those that are common in many other countries, are also available through some providers, though they are less well-advertised. You may wish to investigate these options depending on your specific needs.

If you are signing a contract and you do not have a credit history (see above), then cell phone providers will typically ask for a deposit. This deposit is usually up to $500. Recently T-Mobile introduced a new offer called FlexPay where you do not have to do that anymore, which you may wish to investigate. I advise you to do some research online before deciding on which provider you want to use. However, it may also make sense to find a nearby shop, go in, and simply ask if they are willing to provide you with a contract without a deposit. Always mention that you are a BU student and be willing to provide evidence of that, as these companies are used to dealing with international students, and thus may be willing to be more lenient if you can prove that you are affiliated with a nearby institution.


Going out in Boston

Boston has a very active nightlife, with many different types of options that are worth exploring. While going out isn't always the best thing for your pocketbook, it's a good way to get to know and understand the city and its culture better, and it's a good way to relax and get away from your studies.

If you are an international student and you expect to go out in Boston, I highly recommend you either get a MA driver's license or a MA Liquor ID. Bars, restaurants, and clubs in the Boston area are generally quite strict about checking the IDs of their young patrons, because most undergraduate students are under the legal drinking age of 21 and Boston has a lot of students. Many places will not admit you at all without checking your ID, even if you do not intend to drink (for example, the BU pub).

The Liquor ID is not very expensive and it will enable you to buy alcohol and get into bars without carrying your passport around 24/7. You can of course just use your passport if you do not go out very much, but frankly, it's not a great idea to carry around your passport all the time. Losing your passport is a hassle and a risk that you don't need to take! If you decide to get a Massachusetts ID, read the website carefully, as you will need to provide 3 different documents of identification that show different things. Lines at the RMV in Chinatown can be long, and you do not want to go there more oftent than you need. However, it's a hassle that may be worthwhile for you, especially since, while your passport is legally considered to be acceptable identification for proof of age, a few places will give you a hard time if you try to use it.


Local Transportation

Depending on where you are coming from, you may find that Boston is exceedingly easy to get around, or you may find it to be exceedingly difficult. Boston is much older and more dense than most other US cities, and its road system is notoriously complicated to navigate by US standards. The wide range of weather throughout the year doesn't make getting around any simpler, either. Fortunately, there are many different modes of transportation available to you. Figuring out the best ways for you to get to and from school, and also to and from other places, will help you out greatly in the long run. Hopefully the advice below will help you with that.

Cars

The US transportation system is first and foremost oriented around the car. However, living in Boston means that a car is much less necessary for most people, especially students. Most BU students do not own cars. Also, driving to the BU campus and parking it daily can be quite expensive. However, in some circumstances, such as if you plan to leave town frequently or travel often to rural locations, you may wish to consider buying a car. Of course, buying a car will involve many different costs, such as maintenance and insurance, and that discussion is beyond the scope of this website. If you are considering buying a car and you have specific questions, feel free to email me and I will see if I can be of some assistance.

Luckily, even if you do not own a car, there are a number of ways to rent one. Boston has many rental car agencies, including all the major national companies. There are smaller rental locations throughout the city (including close to campus), while the largest rental location is in Logan airport. Prices can vary dramatically depending on the time of year and other factors, but renting a car for a day or a few days can often be very affordable. I find that the website Hotwire is a great place to go when searching for a rental car, as they often have special last-minute deals. In general, the rental car companies provide very similar service, and many of the brands are in fact owned by the same 2-3 corporations, so don't worry much about that. Rental car companies will try to sell you many extras, most of which you can safely decline. Do, however, make sure that you understand the extent of your insurance coverage on your rental, as you could be liable in an accident. You may want to consider purchasing their extra insurance. Also, some credit cards provide insurance coverage on rental cars, so you may wish to investigate if your card does that.

Another method of renting a car (of which I am a fan) is Zipcar. Zipcar is easy, as it allows you to book a reservation through your phone, then simply show up to a car, unlock it with your membership card, and be on your. Insurance and gas are included in the cost, and the cars are scattered throughout the city, which means there's usually one nearby when you need it. However, with a Zipcar, you typically pay by the hour, and that means that you will often pay more for the convenience of the system. To use Zipcar, you must become a member, but BU has a special arrangement with them which gives you a membership discount. Check out this site for details. Depending on your home country you will need to provide different documents in order to join.

In the case of Zipcar, all rentals are round-trip, and so you must return the car to the same place you picked it up. For rental cars, it is possible to pick up a car in one place and leave it somewhere else (i.e. in another city). Usually, however, driving a rental car one way will be a lot more expensive than renting a car round trip, and it often will not be cost-effective relative to other one-way transportation options such as taking the bus, taking the train, or flying.

The T system

The Boston MTBA subway system ("The T") is old. In fact, portions of the Green Line constitute the oldest subway system in North America. Simply put, the T may not be modern or elegant. However, it's still an indispensable option for getting around town. If you expect to ride the T with any frequency whatsoever, you should get a Charliecard. These are refillable cards to which you can add value and which allow you board the T and the bus quickly. While it is always possible to pay cash on the T system, you will pay a premium for doing so.

If you expect to use the T system very often, such as part of your daily commute, then you will want to purchase a semester pass, which allows for unlimited travel on the T for the duration of the semester, and which costs a flat amount for the semester. You can find more details about these passes on the BU Student Link site.

The T system also encompasses a large network of bus lines. Boston's bus system is good by American standards, but not very good at all by the standards of many other countries. Nonetheless, the bus can be a great option, and it's worth learning which bus lines run near where you live or to/from the places you may want to go (such as the BU campus). Most lines have adequate service during rush hour, but you may find that buses are less frequent during off-peak hours, except on a few high-traffic routes. As with the T's subway system, you can pay with your Charliecard.

All of the mapping and timetable information that you might need can be found on the MBTA website. Also, Boston's buses are now equipped with GPS, which means that you can find out when the next bus you want will arrive at your stop using the NextBus system. There are many apps for cell phones, etc. that allow you to make use of this information, and I highly recommend searching for them.

Bicycles

The bicycle is a popular mode of transportation in/around Boston (including for yours truly). Within the city, it's cheap, fast, and relatively convenient. There are usually plenty of places to park your bicycle wherever you go, and the city has an increasing number of dedicated bike lanes that have helped to make biking even more comfortable. While biking in the dead of winter is not always feasible, this can be a great way to get around for most of the year.

I am a cyclist, and I can highly recommend biking to you. However, you may find that cyclists sometimes have a poor reputation in the U.S., because they have a reputation for failing to obey traffic laws and being reckless. You will probably see some cyclists wearing headphones while biking, cycling without a helmet, riding the wrong way down one-way streets, and engaging in other behaviors that can be dangerous to themselves and inconsiderate to others. Don't be one of these cyclists! If you're going to be biking regularly, I strongly encourage you to learn about local bicycle laws at MassBike.org and to learn about general bike safety and BU-specific bicycle policies on the BU Bike Safety site. A little knowledge and some common sense will go a long way toward keeping you safe!

If you buy a bike, be sure to invest in a solid lock. A cable lock won't do, so get a good "U-lock" style lock. While bike theft in Boston is not as much of a problem as it may be in some other cities, it is still very much a concern, even on campus. You may wish to register your bike with the BU police so that they can be helpful in the event that it is stolen. And remember, no matter what you may see others doing, it's always a good idea to wear a helmet, use a headlight and taillight at night, avoid distractions such as headphones, and generally obey traffic laws.

Boston is also now home to a bike-sharing system called Hubway. In exchange for an annual fee, a user gets to take unlimited rides that go point-to-point, from one Hubway station to another. There are over 100 stations throughout the Boston area, which means that there is typically one close to your destination. Shorter term passes are also available. Depending on your needs, this may be very useful option. There is a Hubway station very near to the Economics department, which should help to make this convenient. However, most parts of the Hubway system shut down for the Winter, so this is not a viable year-round transportation option.


Furnishing your apartment

So, you have an apartment but no furniture? Or maybe you like to cook, but you've got no dishes or cookware?

I highly recommend getting cheap used furniture and other items using craigslist. It's an enormous market, so you can find all sorts of things, often at fantastic prices. In particular, Craigslist is a great way to get furniture that is of higher quality than what most grad students can afford to buy new. You will generally have to pick up your furniture at the seller (rent a car or a U-Haul van). You will also have to pay in cash at the time of pick-up. Don't agree to pay by any other method, as Craigslist can be used by scammers. Also, always take a look at the stuff you're buying before you buy it. Highly sought-after and unusually cheap items will sometimes go quickly, so if you're looking for something specific, it's good to check the site regularly.

Some items are best not purchased through Craiglist, especially mattresses. Unfortunately, bedbugs have become increasingly common in US cities over the past several years, and they are known for being especially prevalent in student-heavy parts of the city. I would also be careful purchasing any items that have large amounts of upholstery such as a couch. If you do choose to purchase these items used, do your research to determine how to ensure that you are not accidentally inheriting an infestation. Trust me, you do not want to deal with a bedbug infestation if you can avoid it.

Other good sources of cheap used items are yard sales, Goodwill stores, and other thrift stores. Yard sales are usually advertised in their own section on Craigslist, and they are especially popular in the summer. Sometimes, these places have large furniture items, but they are often better for smaller household items and the like. As with all such options, be sure that you know what you're buying, as not everything will be of high quality or in great condition.

It is common for outgoing grad students in the department to sell off some of their stuff when they leave Boston. This is often a great way to get useful items cheaply, so look out for individuals who are doing this. Finally, if you are in the city around September 1st (when many old apartment leases end and new leases begin, you will find that many students simply leave perfectly good items at the curbside for others to pick up or to be discarded. This is especially prevalent in Allston, where it has affectionately earned the nickname "Allston Christmas." As per the above warning, I do not recommend getting mattresses or upholstered items in this way, but it may be a great option for you, and you certainly can't beat the price.

Of course, it may be that you would prefer new furniture. There are many options for this that can be quite reasonably priced. One of the best options is to go to Ikea. It’s in Stoughton, MA, about 30-45 min south of Boston. You’ll need to rent a car/van to get there. There are also smaller furniture stores that specialize in inexpensive new furniture for apartments, especially in and around Allston.


Out-of-town Transportation

Intercity Buses and Trains

If you want to get out of town, you may wish to consider taking an intercity bus or a train. Greyhound is the largest US bus company. However, it is terribly run, and therefore I cannot recommend it for most trips. For trips between large cities (especially between Boston and New York), there are many smaller companies that provide frequent, inexpensive, and high-quality service. I have experience with Megabus and Bolt Bus, both of which are reasonable options, though there are others. Their prices vary, but they are generally quite cheap, and most of these buses have complimentary wifi. For train travel, Amtrak is your only option. Taking a train to other major cities on the East Coast can be a very good option, it is certainly a comfortable and relaxing way to travel, and the trains make stops in smaller locations that may be difficult to reach by the intercity bus companies. However, Amtrak tends to be more expensive than taking a bus, and it is not usually much faster, since even the US high-speed trains are relatively slow.

Both Amtrak and Greyhound provide some discounts to individuals who are are enrolled with ISIC International Student ID cards. The ISIC card isn't free, but if you're a frequent traveler, it may be worth signing up for one of these cards so that you can get the discount.

Flying

While flying in the US is hardly glamorous anymore, it is very affordable. Boston's Logan airport has many domestic and international flights, and for more specific international travel needs, it is generally easy to get connecting flights to the major international hubs of New York's JFK airport and the Newark airport.

In searching for most domestic flights, I find that Kayak is a good option, though there are many others. Most of the major US domestic airlines provide similarly mediocre service, so you don't need to worry about which airline you will be flying most of the time. One airline whose flights do not show up on the major travel websites is Southwest, which offers many inexpensive flights and is often worth checking separately.

Airport and air travel security in the US is taken very seriously, so I strongly advise you to learn about the security requirements ahead of time and be prepared before you show up at the airport. This will make your life easier when traveling.