/ LIFE

A Student’s Guide to Living Abroad I

This is the first of a 2-part series. While this one is focused on making preparations for the travel, the next one will (hopefully) provide deeper insight into how life works and what to expect from the outside world based on my experience so far.

Last summer, I told my mom that I’d be traveling to live in a new country: in this case, France.

“You will die of starvation.”

She seemed supportive.

The next few weeks were spent teaching me to avoid dying of starvation and it would seem mom made it work.

Having been through the process, I’ve got some tips and tricks to share for students going about this the first time around. I’ve tried to use broad strokes and avoid region-specific concerns but you can feel free to email me about them.

This post is meant to serve as a guideline for traveling like a beast — obtaining maximal efficiency with minimal luggage; learning the ropes of survival on 35kg of baggage allowance. It incorporates elements of preparedness for moving to a new house, living alone in a new city, with new people around. I’ll try to use examples of my own practices although, fair warning, I’m no expert and still need to sit on my bags to shut them. But at least I don’t have to haggle with the check-in crew for extra kilos anymore (I lied, I still do).

Background

As an Indian boy, especially a Gujarati (we’re known for our affinity with food), traveling abroad I honestly had one single concern.

How much of my kitchen can I possibly stuff into my luggage?

Like it or not, it’s a trade-off between carrying that prized cardigan or a pack of freeze-dried paranthas (Indian flat-breads). In my case, I had about 35 kilos of luggage allowance, but evidently even two bags of 23kg are not enough for some whilst migrating to a new land. A lot of my rather affluent friends purchase additional luggage to transport a sizeable chunk of India along with them.

This post is basically me trying to tell you (and parents possibly concerned about your survival), “Chill out. You’ll live.” (Not) Planning

The first time I traveled to Switzerland for a couple of months, I didn’t bother to plan. That’s a really bad idea.

Last summer, I carried along a lot of stuff that I could actually have bought for cheaper in France/Switzerland compared to India. This included a truckload of clothes, some food items, and spices that I never ended up using. Let’s take a look at these items:

  1. Ready-to-drink Tea Mix: Unless you’re traveling extensively, you’re not going to need more than 5–7 single sachets of this mix. Usually, I prefer the normal way of boiling tea leaves with milk and that’s been replaced slowly by the fantastic coffee I get out here.
  2. Freeze-dried Food: My mother, after substantial research, painstakingly cooked 7 kilos of two different vegetable curries (Pav Bhaji and Mixed Veg.) and had them dehydrated into packs of food that I could then simply boil and eat. To be fair, it was a pretty useful item until I realized that I could actually cook. Then it became a really mundane meal and I kinda liked the fresh, hot, spicy (even shitty) food that I made, so quite a few packs were left unused by the end of my stay.
  3. Chilly Flakes and Oregano: These two Italian spices are used globally, so carrying huge packets, in my opinion, was not a great use of my limited luggage space.
  4. Biscuits: Don’t waste your time and space trying to stuff five packs of Bourbon down your bag when we all know the first thing you’re going to do is buy Oreo in wholesale quantities once you land.
  5. Rice and Flour: A friend of mine wanted to carry along kilos of rice and flour. People eat both these items the world over, so please calm down and search for the nearest grocer. I can guarantee with absolute certainty you will be able to find affordably priced products nearby.
  6. Thermal Wear: Google the weather before traveling, and for heaven’s sake don’t go overboard with your woolens. If it’s a cold place, it’s very likely the stores nearby will stock cheap winter wear. Some of them have really great deals in the summer so buying in advance might save you dem moneys.
  7. Socks: Amazon is everywhere. Amazon delivers the heavens to your doorstep. I carried along like twelve pairs of socks but I could just as well have bought them in France (or via Amazon France). Sure, they may be a little more expensive, but you could use the extra space to carry along spices that you might need more than the socks.
  8. Toiletries: Travel packs are fine, but there’s really little use in carrying along bigger bottles of shaving gel, shampoos, soaps, etc. especially if it’s not medically necessitated.
  9. Clothes: Carrying your wardrobe along is a painstaking process, not to mention an expensive one in terms of baggage allowance. If you’re going someplace in the summer just take a look at the local shops, sales, and order online. In my case, the $100 I would spend on carrying an extra bag of clothes could be used to buy the same number/quality of clothes from local shops (H&M, Celio, etc.) in the summer sales.

Now that you know how that works, let’s move onto the actual planning that would help optimize your packing efficiency.

Packing is all about prioritizing what you need. Some things are vital, others just aren’t.

Rule of thumb: Food is ubiquitous. People eat food everywhere. Don’t look so surprised, it’s true.

Before I left, I had no clue what kind of food I’d rely on in Switzerland, so I did what anyone with half a brain (and little use for it) would do: I brought my kitchen with me. Every single spice I could lay my hands on, I stuffed into the bag. However, when I actually spent 15 minutes searching for alternatives once I arrived in Switzerland, I was able to find a decent set of brick-and-mortar Indian stores in pretty much every major city from San Francisco to Delft, and Boston to Geneva. Apart from that there’s online options available in the USA as well as Switzerland.

We did eventually end up ordering online via a store called Swiss Rasoi that gave us a decent discount since we found 4 other Indians and ordered products in larger quantities.

Pro Tip: They have a sale each month, email them about it.

Of course the trade-off for buying this stuff abroad is that you pay a lot more than you would in India. But if you’re moving abroad for a longer duration, you’re going to have to bite the bullet at some point.

Planning Tips

  1. Know thy City: The internet is at your fingertips. Don’t just search for places, search for people already there. Ask for suggestions unabashedly. Figure out the hacks that can help you live an easier life; I don’t just mean free refills of soda at the local fast food joints.

  2. Know thy Weather: Having knowledge of the kind of weather you are going into is very helpful because it can help you plan the kind of clothing you require. If you’re traveling in the summer, you can purchase winter clothes on sale, saving yourself copious amounts of both, cash and luggage allowance.

  3. Know thy Locality: Even within cities, it is often a diverse landscape and some neighborhoods may be better than others (also more expensive). If you’re traveling, try to use Google Street View to check out the locality, the local stores, and most importantly whether Amazon delivers to the ZIP code.

  4. Know thy Public Transport System: A systematic public transport system is extremely crucial in saving your time and can help you figure out the feasibility of traveling to local stores. Most of the times, you will find that Google Maps offers a fairly accurate picture of the schedules and means of transport but this is not always the case. Try to figure out the apps that help track local bus, tram and train schedules and check your connectivity to assess how likely it is that you can shop for groceries daily/weekly.

  5. Know thy Roommates: I got lucky to find the best roommates ever. We cooked, cleaned, worked, and traveled together. Connecting with your roomies beforehand enables you to split essentials, manage your packing e.g. not everyone needs to carry that mini-pressure cooker or the same old bunch of spices. Besides, it helps to know you’re not living with serial killers. Mostly.

  6. Know thy Telecom Providers: International packs from India cost me between INR 2,500 and INR 4,000 and gives me maybe a hundred minutes of calling to India, a couple of gigs of internet and so on. A Freemobile (yes, it’s a company) costs me 25 Euro (~INR 1,600) and gives me 50–100GB of pan-Europe internet, and unlimited calling to international* numbers (including India). It’s always simpler if you know the plans in the country you’re moving to because eventually you’re going to be getting them anyway. *maximum of 200 different phone numbers, but it’s still a lot.

The Visa Application

I required a Schengen Visa for my work in Europe, but before that I was planning on attending school in the USA so I had an active F1-Visa that I later returned following the return of my I-20.

The Schengen Visa permits travel within 26 countries situated in EU and Switzerland (Switzerland is not officially a part of the EU but for practical purposes, you don’t need to worry about it).

This also means the Swiss use the Swiss Franc (CHF) and not the Euro. Some places accept both, but offer bad exchange rates for Euro to CHF conversion so you’re better off carrying CHF in advance.

The Swiss (Schengen) Visa

For the Visa Application in India, VFS is a courier company that collects your application and biometric details and sends it off to the Swiss Embassy in New Delhi. Some tips for the application for the Swiss Visa:

  1. Be clear about your Visa-type. For students, it’s usually the <90-day Visa or for longer stays (e.g. 1 year), the Type D National Visa (at least at CERN).

  2. Based on the Visa-type there are checklists available for the supporting documents required. Go through these thoroughly before doing anything else. Read a few different checklists if you’re like me and want to get a better idea of what you might need (even though you really won’t).

  3. Preferably book an appointment 6+ weeks before your travel dates. It barely takes a few days for your Visa to arrive but having a buffer period is safer.

  4. In some cases, you need to get a bank statement verified by an official that shows you have some funds to sustain your lifestyle. For most banks this takes a few days so get it done early on.

  5. Get your bookings in order; especially residence. You can use Booking.com or Hotels.com for at least a temporary accommodation solution until you finalize the details of your stay. I booked my return-trip flights in advance but I’ve been told it’s not mandatory.

It’s not a very “stringent” procedure because it’s not “an interview” — as per my understanding, VFS acts as an intermediary, and is supposed to help you out with preparing your application for the Schengen Visa. So no need to be nervous.

The US Visa

For my F1 Visa Application, I have a vague recollection of the procedure so I’ll be brief; please confirm these details before proceeding:

  1. It had (understandably) a far more detailed application form than the Schengen Visa. They asked me about all the times I had visited the USA in the past and I had to dig up my expired passports to look up the exact dates.

  2. They require an I-20 if you’re applying for the F1 or (if I’m not mistaken) J1 Visa. The I-20 must also be presented at the time of arrival in the USA (at immigration).

  3. Here, the fees are to be paid online and cost me somewhere around $160 (INR 10,000) at the time of application. There are two separate appointments: one for collecting your biometric details and another for the actual “interview.” Yes, this is an actual interview and if you do not answer to their satisfaction, they reserve the right to refuse your Visa without justification.

  4. As per what I have seen and heard, your finances matter here. I can’t offer any “magic combination” to pass all scrutiny but simply be clear about what you are saying and avoid falsifying information at all costs.

  5. I have a hunch that your institute matters because I was going only for a summer but I was given a 5-year F1 Visa. My I-20 was from a highly reputed institute so maybe that made life much easier for me. Or maybe I just got lucky (although I ended up returning the I-20 and Visa).

Flight Selection

Booking flights isn’t always about getting the cheapest travel option.

Okay, it mostly is.

As a student, it is easy to just go for the cheapest options but if you’re looking to go a little deeper think about it this way: if you travel smart, the more you travel, the cheaper it gets.

So a slightly more expensive flight option now will get you not only more comfort and luggage allowance now but also help you improve your traveler status and increase the probability of free upgrades in the future.

I will avoid going into details but you can read more about airline alliances that comprise of 3 major groups of airlines that allow you to earn miles when you fly any of them in the same group. Later you can redeem them for vouchers, discounts, and of course free flights. Alliances also have tie-ups with some credit card companies and car rental services to help you earn free miles so take a closer look and maybe you’ll find yourself traveling business class on a free upgrade before the end of the decade.

Another important factor is to request student status, a provision most carriers offer. At the very least you get extra luggage allowance, but sometimes you might get good discounts. Student tickets are often non-refundable so ensure that you’ve got a solid plan in place before finalizing.

Pro Tip: If you travel like I do (overfilled luggage; prepared to haggle at check-in counters), it helps to transfer most of your weight to the ‘laptop bags’ or ‘purses.’ They have never bothered to ask me about the big-ass laptop bag I carried with me (I travel Emirates, in case you’re wondering). Update: Based on a friend’s experience, Etihad did charge them for extra kilos at Abu Dhabi. Avoid pushing your luck.

Layovers

I used to be very excited about flights (note the past tense). The first time I booked my trip from India, I picked a Lufthansa flight to Geneva with a 9-hour layover in Munich because why the heck not!

I had a plan, and a backup plan.

The Plan

I will take the Lufthansa shuttle into Munich and then figure out where I can travel around. I never looked into the places I could visit — I would have data or at least free WiFi and I could figure it out. The Backup Plan

Munich airport is rated 2nd in the World. It has a mini-golf course and a spa, among other amenities. It costs about 6CHF which is decent. Worst case, I play 9 hours of mini-golf. Not a bad way to spend the day.

Reality

Data pack was inactive. No network.

“No problem, I have free WiFi.”

WiFi isn’t connecting and there’s nobody around that speaks English to help. In fact, there’s literally nobody around except a few security guys and cleaning staff.

“It’s alright lets skip the city shuttle and enjoy the mini-golf and spa.”

It’s a Saturday morning. The activities are in another terminal and that’s shut for the time being.

“Fuuu…..”

Yes, that happened.

Eventually I managed to figure out the location of the shuttle stop at the airport and reach the city center. A kind stranger bought me a train ticket and I roamed around some park; I still don’t remember the name. I ate at an Indian restaurant handled by jovial Pakistani dudes (it’s way more common than you’d think). Turns out the city is pretty lively towards the afternoon and I was served some crappy Lebanese brunch (“Sir, your vegan food”) whilst strolling around the farmer’s market before heading back to the airport. Pretty great layover overall, but things could have gone very wrong that day.

Planning Done Right

The second time I traveled to Geneva, I was a seasoned veteran of air-travel (mostly just in my head though).

I still ended up over-packing, rearranged my baggage at check-in, haggled with the personnel, and successfully managed to carry the other half of India into Switzerland.

This time around, I was more aware of what I should carry along and the items that had most helped the past summer:

  1. Cash: It isn’t really necessary in the USA since most stores accept card payment, but in some places around France we still are required to pay in cash so it becomes necessary to carry sufficient cash or find an ATM assuming you have low fees for international withdrawals.

  2. Universal Travel Adapters: Mostly due to my Macbook (USB-C ftw), but also travel adapters are mighty useful to have in general. They can get pretty expensive to buy on airports or souvenir shops so be sure to carry a spare.

  3. Essential Spices (bare minimum):

    • Chaipatti (Dried, Crushed Tea Leaves);
    • Red Chilly Powder;
    • Dhanajiru (Cumin + Coriander Powder);
    • Turmeric;
    • Jeera (Cumin);
    • Rai (Mustard Seeds);
    • Hing (Asafoetida);
    • Chaat Masala;
    • Garam Masala;

Pro Tip: you get sugar, pepper, and salt literally everywhere, including the airplane!

  1. Advanced Cooking (bare minimum):
    • Poha (Rice Flakes);
    • Biryani Masala;
    • Pav Bhaji Masala;
    • Aamchur (Dry Mango Powder);
    • Gud (Jaggery);
    • Imli (Tamarind);
    • Tejpatta (Bayleaf);
    • Elaichi (Cardamom);
    • Laung (Cloves);
    • Dalchini (Cinnamon);
    • Kali Mirch (Black Pepper).
    • Namkeen: You don’t always have time to shop so keep some ready-to-eat food handy just in case you need it:
    • Maggi, always;
    • Haldiram’s Poha.
  2. Ready-made Food Mix: Basically these are powders that you can use for various purposes without much effort:
    • MTR Dosa Mix;
    • MTR Upma Mix;
    • Talod Dhokla Mix.
  3. Vacuum-sealed Stuff: The first time I went, mother made some rotis, theplas, and paranthas (different Indian breads) at home and had them vacuum-sealed at the local grocer. It lasted around 2 months since I put it in the freezer immediately once I reached France. It’s a temporary hack, but it works. She also made me a minced chilly mix that I didn’t use as much but was helpful when we ran out of green chillies.

  4. Cooking Appliances: The Pressure Cooker is infinitely useful. It is indispensable unless you have enough time to spend in the kitchen boiling rice and potatoes in a pan (this doesn’t take as long as you’d imagine). Get a small one along, it is worth the effort. I tried to carry a Roti Maker this time but unfortunately when I tried it out, the voltage shorted it. Sucks. But I can make roti without a roti-maker (that’s a lie, I’m too lazy). Okay fine, I will try again and update this post. Next, there’s the Pav Bhaji masher — I’m unaware of its exact name but hopefully you get what I mean. Finally, carry a good thermos along for the daily beverage or simply hot water, if you can spare the luggage space for it.

  5. Old Passports: If you intend on traveling to multiple countries, some places ask about your travel history for the Visa Application. It isn’t mandatory, but it helps if you have your older (even expired) passports to carry along.

  6. Driving License: One big plus is that if you can drive in India, you can drive pretty much anywhere (in theory). Your license is valid between 6 months to 1 year, but it is advisable to get an international license made because it’s much cheaper in India. It’s amazing how empty the roads are, but ensure you know the road rules. Parking spots are a pain to find and more importantly understand. Fines are hefty. Also, don’t drink and drive. You can’t afford it. It’s that simple.

  7. Photocopies of Documents: At the office, I can take free printouts. But outside, photocopies aren’t priced at a rupee for a side. Carry attested/sealed copies of at least your mark-sheets, passport, and Visa in case it is required on short-notice.

  8. Passport-sized Photographs: Carry about thirty. I’m not kidding; Schengen requires a different format from the standard passport-sized photographs. Get the standard as well as Schengen-format photos printed so that you save time and effort spent on getting them made abroad.

  9. Munchies are awesome. Food here is bland, and most of my junk food comprises chips. “Mobile” Khakhra (Roasted flatbread) is a welcome break when I’m too lazy to get snacks at the cafeteria. Mother dearest found me packs of kurmura (puffed rice flakes) I wish I’d carried Soya Sticks but I believe it should be available at the local Asian store. Update: it was not :(

  10. Energy Bars: They’re available in a range of varieties at almost all grocerie sand they’re extremely easy to carry around. I have 2 in my bag at all times. Usually I prefer to buy them from abroad instead of carrying them from home. But it works either way. Nature Valley is decently priced if you buy the larger packs off Amazon.

  11. Parachute Coconut oil (small bottle): Easiest remedy for dry hair after days of daily shampooing. Honestly. Silky Smooth Amazeness.

  12. Toiletries: While most of these are unnecessary in large quantities, you would do well to carry the tongue cleaner. It’s pretty useful if you don’t find a toothbrush that fits the bill. Seriously. Also nail-cutters; tiny, but very useful once every two weeks (that’s what she said). As a cleanliness freak, I carry a hand sanitizer wherever I go. I just have to.

  13. Backpack: Invest in a sturdy, light-weight backpack that can be useful on both a regular basis as well as weekend trips. Nobody likes lugging suitcases around. You could figure out decent options once you arrive in case you’re aware of good sales. I know for a fact France has great offers during the summers.

  14. Electronics: If you don’t like spending a lot on electronics, carry a decent set of headphones, extra USB cables, and universal adapters. I like to exercise so bluetooth headphones are a necessity. For backups and other data storage. It could actually be cheaper to purchase hard drives in flash sales (or holiday sales) abroad, but we all know the sources of the ‘data’ that you need are of questionable legality outside the country so you’re going to bring one along anyway.

  15. Shoes: If you’re going to indulge in adventure activities please bear in mind that healthcare costs skyrocket pretty easily. If you’re covered by insurance, that’s fine. But since I started play squash, football, and running, I’ve spent a bit of money on good quality running shoes that enable me to run on concrete without the jarring impact to my knees. I’m still dicey on skiing though.

  16. Pack of Cards: Monopoly Deal, Uno, plain old playing cards; try to stuff in whatever you can once you’re done packing the important stuff. Extremely useful when you decide to travel around with your friends and have nothing to do once you’ve uploaded 1500 snap-stories from the car/train/hotel.

So that covers pretty much all of the basic items you’d require to survive comfortably in a new environment. I’ll update the post with relevant information over time. But for now, good luck preparing for your travels!