Your suitcases are packed, you’ve got all your travel documents and you’ve had an awesome farewell party, after which you now own several items with the flag of the country you’re headed to. In short: You’re an international student.
On the road to new adventures, you are about to leave your home country for an exchange semester or even a whole degree program. That's great, except now you need a room or an apartment at your exciting new destination. And finding that accommodation could easily become one the biggest adventures of your stay abroad.
On the plus side: There is no quicker way to get the full scoop of culture in a country than trying to find housing there. Real estate is, by definition, something very local. The way housing markets work can tell you a lot about the ingrained attitudes, policies and values of the people who live there.
The downside: It’s. Not. Fun. Finding a room or apartment to live in can be quite stressful and unnerving in surroundings and amid people you don’t know, confronted with a language you don’t have full command of and with the beginning of the new semester looming ahead.
Therefore, Graduateland has collected a couple of lampposts for you to find your way when looking for accommodation abroad.
Step 1: Check out what your new university offers
The support that universities offer regarding student housing for foreigners varies greatly, but they are always the first address you can turn to. Some universities have their own dormitories and operate housing departments that inform you about the type of accommodation available, the room rates, and the conditions you need to fulfill to get a spot there. These are usually not the cheapest, but the least stressful options as you can simply arrive and take over the keys. Other universities don’t rent out dorms, but have access to a network of landlords or third-party operated dormitories who will rent rooms or flats to students. At the very least, you can get access to student notice boards and link collections provided by the universities’ international offices or student unions. These can also provide a first clue on the average budget you will have to set aside for rent.
If you are going as an exchange student, the international office of your home university might have useful information. They may also be able to connect you with current or former exchange students at your destination, who can give you valuable tips or contacts (see also Step 4).
Step 2: Get booksmart
If you want or need to look into housing options other than university dorms, internet sources like Google Maps, Street View or YouTube as well as travel guides can be a great starting point for your housing search. They give you a concise overview and convey a first idea of the place that is going to be your new home. Some travel guides such as Let’s Go, Lonely Planet or Time Out have extensive budget travel sections that offer insights into life in a place beyond the touristic hotspots. These descriptions may offer first hints at which quarters are nice to live in, where student usually live, which districts you should avoid and which places you definitely can’t afford.
Step 3: Get a feel for the place
However, you will not get out of doing some legwork. Give yourself a couple of days to get settled in: plan your arrival in the country before the semester and intro days start for your exchange or study program. Book ahead some temporary accommodation, preferably one that will let you connect with others right from the beginning. Hostels are a good base because they allow you to connect to other foreign students who may be in the same situation as you are. Another possibility are short-term rentals of private places like AirBnB, Homeaway etc. or couchsurfing because they offer insight and maybe some tips from the host about how the local real estate market works. Websites such as AirBnB also have a section with long-term rentals that might cover the whole period of your stay. However, bear in mind that all countries have different terms for address registration and these may not cover holiday or commuter apartments.
Step 4: Leverage your network
That, of course, includes scanning the social networks for relevant housing and exchange groups and joining those. However, be aware that during peak seasons (usually one to two months before the start of a semester) just about every foreign student leaves his notice in search for rooms or apartments there and the group members may be annoyed rather than helpful. Therefore, you may be more lucky with your personal connections. See if you know someone who knows someone who knows the city and may have a few connections that are renting flats or rooms. Your best bet in these cases are often locals who have lived in the city for a while but have moved there from somewhere else. They know their way around, but they also know what the place looks like to an outsider and can empathise with that. When people help you to find a place or let you crash in their guest room, remember that networking is a two-way-street and make sure to do something for them in return to show your appreciation.
Step 5: Know where to look for housing
Even if your local contacts are not able to find you accommodation, they can give you important tips on the leading marketplaces for rooms and apartments that you need to monitor. Each country (and sometimes even city) has its own go-to hotspots for accommodation listings. Nowadays, it’s mostly certain online portals. However, you should not forget to have a look at the “for rent” sections of newspapers and notice boards - in some places these are still the predominant media for landlords to list rooms or apartments and look for prospective tenants. Scanning these portals, boards and newspaper sections will also help you developing a sense for the average room prices and living standards, so you can decide how far you want to stretch your housing budget.
Step 6: Know how to spot a scam
In cities where the accommodation market is especially tight, an unfortunate side-effect can be observed: the number of scammers who offer fake rooms to take unsuspecting people’s money is on the rise. Scams vary in their professionality and cannot always be spotted right away, but there are some reliable hints: First of all, what should make you suspicious is an apartment offer that is too good to be true. Great location, designer furniture in the pictures, all for a way below average rental price.
If the room offer alone does not appear obviously fake to you, the first response you get upon contacting the landlord will usually contain all you need to know: If the response is prompt, contains an extensive story about why the landlord is not living in the country, directs you to a lawyer’s office in London and/or elaborates on why it is unfortunately not possible for you to view the place, but they will gladly Fedex you the keys once you have wired the money through a non-traceable cash transfer service, then congrats, it’s a scam! Whatever you do, do not ever pay money to anyone before seeing the apartment and signing a contract with a local landlord whom you have talked to in person! If you think this could never happen to you, fair enough. Just don’t underestimate the effect that a frantic and dragging accommodation search can have on the common sense of even the smartest people among us - ‘s all we’re sayin’.
Step 7: Get a room search starter kit
This should first of all contain street and public transport maps of the city you are planning to stay in - either in a download version or, behold, on paper so you have offline access to it. Of course, you can find all that information in your smartphone, but you may not have immediate access to wireless Internet right after your arrival. Also, you should have looked up and written down the most important vocabulary and common phrases in connection to accommodation search in the local language, such as “rent”, “lease”, “room”, “flat”, “location” etc. as rental notices are usually written in the native language of a country. Last but not least you should get a local SIM card for your phone as soon as you arrive, even if it’s just one of those prepaid deals that you will end up throwing away - landlords are simply more likely to respond to calls from a local number than a foreign number.
These are just some of the basic guidelines for your house hunting abroad that will not steer you wrong, no matter where in world you go to study. However, we know from personal experience that every country and all cities have their own quirks and peculiarities when it comes to findings rooms and apartments. Therefore, we aim at adding more detailed guides on how to house search in popular study destinations. Stay tuned!