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Settling in for Foreign Students

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US has very tight laws and regulatory measures that can be daunting to some foreigners. Many things have to be done and on time! But if you know what those are, and hopefully, have someone to drive you to these places, it will be over in one or two weeks.


First Thing First!

  • 1. Pay for your housing (if you stay in the university housing )

Before you step onto the UCI campus, find out how you pay your first month rent & deposit, and where to fetch your house keys. For my personal experience with Verano Place, before arriving U.S. I received a housing contract packet, signed the contract, and returned the contract to Verano Place housing office and sent a money order to cashier. On the contract starting day, I met Verano Place housing officer and get my apartment keys. By the way, there are three types of keys: one for your apartment, one for your bedroom, and one for your mailbox. Subsequently, you must pay your rent by the 10th of the month.

  • 2. Social Security Number

Your SSN (Social security number) [1] is one of the most important forms of identification in the US. Students are eligible for an SSN. The nearest office that provides service for attaining an SSN is in Mission Viejo [2] (from UCI: bus 79, stop at Alton and Culvert to get the 86). Alternatively, you may utilize their locater [3] to find an office. You can visit their office after you receive a paper from the International Center [4]. Do this as soon as possible. You will need an SSN for your stipend, credit card, and many other administrations you will encounter.

  • 3. Power outlet and voltage in US

The power supply in US is 120V and requires the following pin [ ]. Make sure you have an appropriate pin head connector and that your appliances can run with 120V. Otherwise, you may need to get a voltage converter.

  • 4. Banking account and check books

Before you open a bank account, you will need a phone number. See [mobile phone].

The closest bank available is the Washington Mutual bank right across from Verano Place. [5]

  • 5. UCI email account

You can now set up your UCINETID online. Go to and follow the directions. You can access your email using your UCINETID via the web, via telnet using pine, or set up a mail server to get your mail (Entourage, Outlook, Mail, etc.). Make sure you set this up ASAP, as your professors, as well as BME, will contact you using that address. Better yet, get a friend to invite you to get a gmail account. [6]

Visiting Scholar Students

How to obtain your UCInetID and ICS log in [x] steps.

  • 1) Have your UCI advisor fill out the Sponsored UCInetID form. Conveniently located at [7]
  • 2) After you get your UCInetID;

- Either go to the ICS 1 building (aka ICS tall); go to the third floor and find the computer lab. Ask the attendant about what you need to do to complete your registration for your ICS ID. - OR have your local advisor email the lab manger and they can set it up for you; however, I recommend going to ICS 1, as it will be faster.

Important People and Places

The tricky part is Carol and the IC has several processes inter-twined. So you will find yourself doing a lot of legwork! (Yes they are not well integrated, as you will learn which is typical of US.)

  • 1. Wendy: Priority! Your stipend and appointment as GRA, TA, or Reader.

(Informatics students only. To be confirmed for other departments.) Carol Rapp is like your HR. She handles your payrolls. So make sure you make an appointment with her asap when you arrive. [8]

  • 2. International Center: Priority! You legal matters being a foreigner to the country.

The IC will handle your legal status as a foreigner. So make sure you visit them at one of the appointment dates (refer to the package you received by mail). You cannot process your Social Security Number before you get a letter from IC.

  • 3. UCItems: Student card

First thing you will need is a student ID. There is no charge for your first ID, but if lost, there is a replacement fee. You can get your ID at UC Items. It has moved for the duration of the renovation of the student center and is now on Periera Drive in front of the UCI Student Center Loading Dock. It is open Monday-Friday 10am-3pm. You can contact UC Items at (949)824- 7555. [9]

Get Your Life Together

  • 1. Groceries

Food! The most basic source of joy! But its a very ethnic-dependent subject so I will leave out other ethnicities which I am not familiar with.

If you don't drive, you don't have much choices. Walk to Albertsons (Higher price, but more fresh vegetables) [10] or Traders Joe (lower price, but fewer fresh vegetables) [11]. There is also a farmers' market every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the University Center parking lot near In-N-Out and Taco Bell/KFC. You can't get it fresher than this unless you grow it yourself. It's not the cheapest produce around, and the vendors only accept cash, but it's all very good. Plus, you're being more environmentally responsible by buying locally grown fruits and vegetables.

General For cheapest price, visit Costco [12]. But you need to buy a lot and may not make sense if you are single. Target [13] offers good price in smaller quantities.

Asian Chinese If you drive, you may like to visit Ranch99 [14]. Its Taiwanese owned, but you can find other Japanese, Korean, and SE Asians ingredients. If you like affordable but local SE asian food, try Pho99 [15].

  • 2. Home furnishing

General Ikea! The love of the world! It offers the cheapest, functional furniture at affordable shipping. Ikea Online has a different shipping rate in the order of hundreds. You are recommended to visit a local Ikea store. Minimal shipping is $40 and may go up to over a hundred if you want a complete set.

Home Appliances Target has good selection of small appliances at affordable price.

Electronics and cheap electronics and fast shipping. Their online transactions are also very secure.

  • 3. Mobile phones

If you are not expecting high call volume, you should consider a mobile phone. If you have a tri or quad-band phone, you can use it in the US. Dual band phone from other countries, except Japan, cannot be used in the US. The nearest sim card and mobile phone retailer is T-mobile and can be found at the University Center. [16]

  • 4. Is your spouse coming with you?

You may like to consider what your spouse is going to do.

Looking for work is pretty popular in US. Also try calling the local headhunters.

Staying at home You may like to consider finding other people from your own country. They can be great activity partners.

Play There are lots of amusement parks (though expensive). San Diego Zoo and Disney offers year round tickets.

Shopping South Coast Plaza offers selection from rags to richest. Its huge too! Fashion Island is nearer. But the people and shop keepers can be indifferent to the less glamorous.

Singapore! There is a small community of Singaporeans in the OC area. We go out once in a while and do what we do best -- Buy things eat things! BTET :p

Living in Comfort

  • 1. Driving license

Your country's driver's license is valid for only 10 days after you arrive. You will need to pass a written test with DMV to get a temporary license for 60 days. And subsequently a driving (behind-the-wheel) test.

Before your first appoint, take at least a day to read through the California Driver Handbook [17]. Also do the sample tests and tutorials [18]. You can only have 6 wrongs out of 36 questions. The test is administered in pen and paper.

If you go to DMV directly, you may have to wait for half an hour but its usually faster than making an appointment. The closest DMV office is Costa Mesa [19]. But if you are taking a bus, Santa Ana [20] is more direct. Check out the bus schedule here [21].

For driving (behind-the-wheel) test, try Laguna Hills [22]. There are fewer traffic and saying is that its easier to pass. Bring your own car for the road test! If you want to do the test with a rented car, make sure you bring a letter from the car rental office saying the car is properly insured and you are allowed to use it for the test. [23]

Even if you do not drive, you may obtain a photo I.D. card ($6) that will be useful for financial transactions. Be advised it takes between four and six weeks to receive your California license. Your old license will be confiscated, so you will need to have other means of identification in the meantime to write checks (a temporary license will only meet driving needs.) [24]

  • 2. Buying your car

Kelly Blue Book [25] or Auto Trader [26]

  • 3. Apply for a credit card (Credit history matters a lot here)

Visa Issues

  • 1. Maintaining Status

As international student you are personally responsible for maintaining F-1 student status. The consequences for falling out of status can range from having to petition with UCSIS to have your status reinstated (for a short laps) all the way to deportation, imprisonment and/or a 3 year, 10 year or lifetime bar from entering the US.

To keep your F-1 status you need two things: a valid and unexpired I-20, and you must enroll into 12 units every quarter (except summer). If you TA or you are done with classes (PhD) enroll into independent research (298/299) with your advisor.

Important tidbits: An unexpired I-20 alone does not give you status, only making "satisfactory progress" (=enrolling into 12 units every quarter) plus your I-20 guarantees your status. If you take a LOA you are out of status and you must leave the US. The I-20 (plus satisfactory progress) allow you to stay in the US. Your visa stamp (passport) is only needed to enter the US. Once you are here its no problem to let the stamp expire, but you will need a new one if you travel outside the US. So don't panic and travel abroad to get a new stamp just because it has expired. That's ok. To enter the US on a student visa you must have "close ties" to your home country. This means you have to convince the consulate that you intend to return to your home country, otherwise your visa stamp will be denied. This restriction only applies for entering the US though. It is ok to file for a green card in the US once you are here. However, you should wait 6 month before doing so (if you get married to a US citizen, for example). Be aware that you won't be able to leave and re-enter the US until you have the proper green card related travel documents ("advanced parole") since your F-1 visa stamp is no longer valid (you have immigrant intent now). If you marry a US citizen you automatically have immigrant intent. It doesn't matter whether the two of you want to stay in the US or not after you are done here. You can't travel and come back on F-1. You have to apply for a greencard, even if you don't really want one.

  • 2. Dealing with the International Center

The most important rule when dealing with the International Center on campus is to double check everything they say. If you break some law because they give you bad advise YOU will go to jail or get deported, not them. There are several websites that deal with immigration issues (F-1 student visas, green cards, etc). Try to read up on the latest laws and USCIS memos.

Very important: NEVER RELY ON ADVISE GIVEN TO YOU BY STUDENT STAFF OF THE INTERNATIONAL CENTER. They have no formal training, and many of them will tell you anything you want to hear or anything it takes to make you go away so that they can get back to studying. If you have any questions, make an appointment with the advisors in the office. They have quite some experience and I have never gotten really bad advise from them. However, its still important to know the immigration law yourself.

  • 3. Traveling

If you want to travel the International Center makes you come and they want to make a fresh copy of your passport and all your documents every time you have to leave the country. If you don't bring your passport, they won't sign your I-20, which is necessary every 6 month. If you travel to 6-10 international conference as a graduate student, its really annoying to constantly carry your passport to the office. While they will tell you that this is somehow federal law, its really not. Its just some internal policy. Just bring your I-20 and insist that they sign it. If they refuse ask to talk to the director, at which point they will sign it, but also ask you to sign a document that states that its your own fault if you can't re-enter the US. Well thats always your fault anyway, so not much to worry about.

As a foreigner you are expected to carry your passport and I-20 at all times. In practice, I never had to show them (ever) inside the US. However, if you travel to San Diego, carry your passport with you. There is a border control checkpoint between Orange County and San Diego (yes, its in the US, not at the border). They will ask you whether you are a US citizen. If yes they just let you go. NEVER SAY YOU ARE if you are not a US citizen. Falsely claiming US citizenship is a crime and will bar you from being able to obtain a green card. Just carry your passport and your I-20.

  • 4. Canadians

Canada has some special deal with the US. While you are in F-1 status and you need an I-20, you do not need a visa stamp, and you won't get an I-94 (record of entry / departure). This confuses a lot of people on campus, including the ICS business office. They will tell you you are out of status and panic. Don't worry. You are actually in status and everything is fine. Just go and read up on the specific regulations regarding Canada and carry a printout of those regulations around when you have to sign employment paperwork or when you have to talk to the international center.

  • 5. Employment

Without explicit authorization from USCIS you can't work anywhere but for the department that hired you as a graduate student. Certain other jobs "on campus" are acceptable as well, but talk to one of the advisors at the International Center first (not the front desk staff).

If your spouse is in F-2 status, he or she CANNOT WORK UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. Don't accept employment without authorization. Even babysitting. USCIS has been quite aggressive lately about going after non-immigrants (like students or their spouses) who work illegally. Remember that you don't have the luxury of being an illegal immigrant who is undocumented. USCIS knows exactly who you are and where you are and what you are supposed to be doing. Its much easier to check up on you then on someone who flies under the radar. The consequences for unauthorized employment are very severe. Companies will make you sign a I-9 form when they hire you. You can either state that you are a US citizen, at which point no further documentation is needed, or you have to show proof of work authorization (a so-called EAD card, issued to you by UCSIS). If you falsely claim that you are a citizen, and USCIS finds out, you will be bared from ever obtaining a green card in the US and there is no way to get this waived. Its just not worth it.

You can apply for 1 year job training after graduation (OPT). It takes up to 6 month to get the work authorization, so apply early and in advance of your expected graduation.