Coming to the UK to study for the first time is an exciting experience for any student. Aside from its world-class universities, the country is rich in history and culture and there are many sites and attractions you can explore.
But before you jump on a plane there are a few things you need to think about to make sure your stay runs smoothly. The international team at St Mary’s University, London, has some great tips to help you get started.
1. Applying to British universities
This may seem obvious but before you even think about coming to the UK you need to make sure you have a place to study and you are choosing the right course for you. British universities are very welcoming to international students but courses with the same name can be completely different and you need to do your research, checking out what individual courses offer. If you know what you want to do after university, pick a course which gives you the specific qualifications you need. If you’re not sure, think about what you enjoy and what you want to learn about. The University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) Website has some really useful information on it to guide you through the process of searching and applying.
2. Get your visa in order
If you’re outside the European Economic Area then you will need to get a student visa before you can start your course.
Arranging a student visa can take time so it pays to get working on it as soon as you know your application to study has been successful and you have an unconditional offer. You can apply for a Tier 4 (General) Student Visa from the UK government once you have been offered a place on a course. You normally do this about three months before your course and it generally takes about three weeks for it to be issued.
You will need to meet specific English language entry requirements, have enough money to support and pay for yourself and meet certain other criteria. Most student visas can now be applied for online which makes the process easier but you will need to have your photo and fingerprints taken at an approved application centre in your country.
As of 18 March 2016, the visa application fee is £328 for all entry clearance applications made in a student’s home country. Your university’s admissions team will be able to give you lots of advice but you can also find plenty of helpful information on the UK government website.
3. Make sure you have proof of qualifications, finances and language skills
It sounds obvious really but you need to make sure you can have the means to pay for the course and support yourself. You will also need to prove you have the necessary qualifications for both the course and any visa application.
Make sure you have the original certificates of any qualifications you have, not photocopies, if you haven’t already supplied them to the university. You will also need to supply the university with your passport and visa details.
You may also need to prove your language skills and your university’s admissions team can advise you whether you must do this or not as certain countries may be exempt. You might have to take a test at an approved centre to satisfy university and visa requirements. St Mary’s University relies upon the IELTS for accepted evidence of English language proficiency and this test is also accepted by more than 9,000 universities.
4. University scholarships
On top of university fees, you will have your living expenses to consider as well. But some universities offer scholarships which will either reduce the amount you need to pay or cover the whole amount.
St Mary’s University currently has 14 international scholarships available to full-time undergraduate and postgraduate degree students and each scholarship is worth £3,000 off the first year of your study. This figure will vary at other universities.
Applicants will naturally be considered on their academic qualifications and achievements, but any outstanding academic and personal achievements will also be considered.
You will have to fill in a Personal Statement, which is an important part of the selection process, and should be used to tell the university about any extra-curricular activities, why you want to study in the UK, what contribution you can make to your chosen uni and what you have done for your community.
5. Look for a place to live
Coming to study in the UK can be exciting and daunting at the same time so arranging somewhere nice to stay in your first few weeks to help you get settled is really important. At many universities you can stay in halls of residence which can be a really great idea if it’s your first time in the UK. You know your accommodation will be clean and comfortable and close to the university. It is the perfect place to relax, meet friends and study. You may even find some of your meals are included in your contract.
If you’d rather find something off-campus there is always plenty of private rented accommodation available. The best way to find out what your options are is to get in touch with your university accommodation team who can advise you on the best way to go about it and often have a list of approved properties and landlords. When looking for properties you may need to give the name of a guarantor based in the UK and your university should be able to advise you about ways to meet this requirement.
Kristen Pilbrow, International Student Experience Manager St Mary’s, says: “House shares can be a great way to have your own space while still developing close friendships with other students. Having housemates also means you have a built-in group of people to travel to campus social events with, helping you stay involved at your uni.”
St Mary’s has set up a website, The Studentpad, which allows you to connect with other students looking for a place to live. Ask your university whether it offers a similar service.
6. Look after yourself
Hopefully, your time in the UK will pass without incident and you will remain happy and healthy but in the event there is an emergency it pays to be prepared.
If you’re studying in the UK for six months or more you will be covered by the National Health Service, a publicly-funded healthcare system which provides medical services for UK residents. However, since April 2015 all international students now have to pay an annual health surcharge, though there are some exemptions. If you’re here for less than six months you will need private medical insurance as will any friends and family members coming to visit you.
Get a full health and dental check before you arrive so you’re up to date on any issues and medication you might need. Upon arrival you will need to register with a GP (General Practitioner). Once you are registered you will be sent an NHS card which you need to keep with you as it is proof you are entitled to NHS treatment.
7. Getting a bank account
You will need a bank account to keep your money in, pay rent, tuition fees and so on.
All the major UK banks offer students incentives to open accounts with them. These can include subsidised rail travel, free concert tickets and the like. But the best thing you can look for, unless the freebies are really good, is an account which offers you a 0% overdraft facility. Many students will rely on this facility from time to time and you don’t want to have to pay extra fees to use it. That said, be sure not to exceed the overdraft limit set by your bank, because the fees then shoot up.
To open a bank account, you will need to take along your passport, visa or national identity card if you’re from the EU and a letter from your university confirming your study details. The exact requirements vary by bank, so once you’ve decided which one to go with, contact them for details. Your university will be able to advise you which banks in the local area are popular with international students.
8. Working in the UK while you’re a student
Taking on a bit of part-time work in a bar or a shop is a great way to supplement your finances whilst you study. International students studying full-time on a Tier 4 visa are normally allowed to work up to 20 hours a week during term time or full-time during the holidays. It is very important to stay within the conditions for your visa, so check with your university’s UKVI officer if you have any queries. There are currently no employment restrictions on students from the EU or Switzerland.
If you don’t need to do paid work but want to develop your skills with some on-the-job training, there are plenty of charities and organisations that provide volunteering opportunities. In addition to improving your language and communication skills, volunteering allows you to give back something to the community which you are in. It is also a great addition to your CV, especially if it is in area you are likely to work in once you have completed your studies. Academically focused internships, such as those offered through St Mary's Centre for Workplace Learning, are also fantastic for boosting your employability.
9. Cheap travel and discounts for students
One of the best bits about being a student, international or otherwise, is you can get plenty of student discounts. Rail companies all offer student railcards which allow you to buy tickets at discounted rates and loads of major retailers and high street stores will give you anywhere between 10% and 25% discount off products. You can get cheap haircuts, gym memberships, cinema tickets, entry to visitor attractions and even flights and holidays all by virtue of the fact you are a student.
Just remember though you may be required to show proof of your student status before you are given money off.
Kristen Pilbrow adds: “Be sure to check with your university’s Students’ Union about discounts they may have negotiated in your local area.”
10. Your final checklist
So you’ve finally done it – got your university place sorted, received your visa and found your accommodation. You’re just a plane ride away from the experience of a lifetime. But before you finally embark on it, take one final moment to double check you have everything organised. Make sure your visa is in order, your passport is up-to-date and all your paperwork has been filed away carefully for the journey. Double check that your accommodation is sorted and you know where you are going when you arrive (remember that many universities offer a free pick-up service from the airport). Finally, have fun and enjoy the experience!