Apply for a Capital One Venture Card
– The card I applied for has no annual fee. There are other card options with a $0 fee the first year and then some fee the year after. I didn’t consider these options because I didn’t thoroughly research the cards.
– There are NO international transaction fees
– You are charged in U.S. dollars (USD) and you can pay your bill from your U.S. account. For example, if I buy a croissant for 2 euro (EUR) in Belgium, my card will show a $3.00 charge, and I pay that $3.00 bill from my U.S. account.
– There will likely be some sort of 0% APR Promotion, meaning that, if you pay
the minimum monthly balance (i.e. $25) you won’t owe interest on late payments. Granted…this may not be the greatest move for your credit score – but it’s a good safety net to have for the first year!
– There are perks! When I signed up for the card, spending $3,000 in the first month earned me an extra 20,000 miles. To be honest, I don’t quite know how this works, but I plan to use these miles to purchase my holiday flights.
This card is my saving grace and has saved me so much money by avoiding international transaction fees. Using a standard U.S. debit card or credit card often comes with a 3% transaction fee, ATM fees, AND conversion fees. Those can add up quickly!
Use TransferWise for International Transfers
– For transfers up to $300, the flat fee is $3
– For transfers up to $5000, the fee is 1% of the transaction
i.e. if you transfer $5,000, the fee is $50
– Anything over the intial $5000, the fee is 0.7%
TransferWise will show you the current market exchange rate and you can check for yourself that you’re getting a good deal! In fact, they encourage you to do so! That’s exactly what I did, and so far, they’ve been spot on with fair exchange rates.
Because part of my fellowship comes in USD and the other in EUR, TransferWise was extremely helpful for me! Do not send money between bank accounts!!! I contacted Bank of America to inquire about foreign bank transfers and the transaction fees were outrageous and the conversion rate was garbage
Find short-term housing for at least 2 weeks
– Give yourself time to get settled
– Familiarize yourself with the environment
– DO NOT BLIND LEASE. EVER. Make sure you know what you’re looking for in a new home and don’t be afraid to check every nook and cranny; ensure that the faucets work, the water gets hot, etc.
– Practice your commute to school/work/etc.
Make a True Budget in Excel
– Make columns for income and expenses and estimate how much money you’ll make each month and subtract your monthly expenses.
– Don’t guestimate or do rough calculations in your head (like I did). Sit down and fill in true values for each cell i.e. 25 EUR per month – phone bill, 55 EUR per month – internet, etc. If you don’t know the exact value, overestimate.
When I calculated my budget for rent, I did a lot of rough guestimating, thinking that I was being conservative. I found the perfect apartment and when I crunched the real numbers I could BARELY afford it… actually no … I could not afford it at all! I was very upset but I bounced back and found something that was within my true budget (200 EUR LESS per month). The last thing you want to do is sign a contract for something you cannot afford!
– As a rule of thumb, whether taxes are owed or not, I always budget 20% of my income for taxes
Set up a (ING) bank account BEFORE you leave
Update!! ING charges a 36 EUR annual fee for resident accounts and a 100 EUR annual fee for NON resident accounts. Be sure to update your address ASAP.
I was charged the 100 EUR fee and had to hassle people to get refunded 64 EUR.
– This may be specific to Belgium, but see if you can open an ING bank account in your country before your arrival
– If not, find another bank! See what your options are for expediting the process.
Having a bank account opened in advance was a life saver. I sent the necessary documents before my arrival and made an appointment to finalize the account the day I arrived. I had a Belgian debit card on my first day in the country.
Write down important information
– Write down phone numbers, addresses, etc. on a physical piece of paper and keep it with you.
A friend of mine recommended this and it came in handy! Phones die and having a hard copy of important information can be super helpful!
Get a Mobile Plan Abroad & Unlock Your Phone
UPDATE – IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A RESIDENCE CARD – SIGN UP WITH ORANGE FOR THE FIRST MONTH.
Quite a few of my friends mentioned to me that they were unable to sign up for monthly plans without having a Belgian residence (which I currently do not have). Orange will allow you to sign up for a month-to-month plan without a residence card. Luckily for me, Orange was the first provider I saw and I had a phone plan within 10 minutes. Naturally, I thought getting a phone plan was easy peasy. Had I gone to Base or Proximus first I would have been denied. The funny thing is, I ended up switching to Proximus during my second month (still without a residence card) and I believe I was only able to do this because I already had an Orange plan (and they probably assumed I had a residence card). Either way, start with Orange and switch when you want!
– Your best bet is to get an international phone plan (with lots of data if needed) and use WhatsApp to contact people abroad.
– I unlocked my U.S. phone and left my U.S. number connected to WhatsApp so my U.S. friends wouldn’t have to learn a new number, and my Belgian friends could just text my Belgian number.
**IMPORTANT** Do not upgrade your phone before leaving the country unless you plan on paying for your upgrade in FULL. You cannot unlock your phone unless the phone is paid for in FULL. I conveniently destroyed my phone the month before I left the country and was eligible for an upgrade. I decided to get my phone fixed instead (I had mobile insurance) and paid off the remaining 1 month balance and got my phone unlocked. It takes about 2 business days. I recommend ensuring that your phone is unlocked (place a different provider’s sim card in your phone) BEFORE you leave the country to be safe!
– I signed up with Orange, no contract, month-to-month with the option to upgrade or downgrade any month. I started with a 25 EUR/month plan (3GB of data, unlimited text, 5h of calls). I ended up downgrading my data to 1.5 GB for 15 EUR/month.
I then switched to Proximus, they have a 16EUR /month plan where you can use one app (from a select list) with unlimited data, unlimited texting, and 1-2 hours of calls/month. I mainly use WhatsApp to contact my friends, I use my minutes sparingly, so this is the best deal for me.
Look up Student Discounts!
– Don’t make any major purchases without inquiring about student discounts.
– A yearly metro pass in Belgium is 50 EUR for students (under the age of 27) and 500 EUR for adults (27+)! Fortunately for me, I was just over the age restriction and had to pay the full 500 EUR (yay!)
Make Triplicate Copies of All Important Documents
– Yes, triplicate. Almost every administrative task I completed, someone asked to keep the duplicate copy of the official documents that I had. When I applied for my visa to Belgium they wanted TWO copies of everything.
Bring Hella Passport Sized Photos of Yourself!
– TIP! Use a mobile app to take a 2×2 passport photo (or get one professionally done at CVS) and take a picture of that. Copy and paste 2×2 photo next to each other in multiple rows and print as an 8×8 photo (16 photos for ~5 bucks)! Passport-sized photos (2×2) are overpriced because they know we need them. Larger sizes will cost you less money and you can cut the pictures out yourself!
– Consider the country! Bring passport photos with various sizes. I came to Europe with U.S. passport sized photos and had to take more pictures with European dimensions (it cost me 6 euro for 6 photos…much cheaper than $13 for 2 U.S. passport photos). Most metro stations in Belgium have a place where you can take your government official (passport, ID) photos.
Take Pictures of Your Passport and Visa
– Sh*t happens. Keep an electronic copy of your official documents.
ASK FOR HELP
– I found out about TransferWise and CapitalOne by making a Facebook status asking “What’s the best way to spend/send money abroad?”
– Reach out to friends you know who’ve traveled abroad and ask all the questions.
If I think of anything else I’ll update this post! If you have questions leave a comment 🙂