I had a lot to learn about coming to study in the United States. At ICO, they do a great job of coaching you on what you need to do and what paper work needs to be filled out, but most of this information is given to you during orientation. In hindsight, I wish someone told me these things before my arrival. So, to save all you prospective international students out there some time, I’m going to run through four of the major things that I had to do as soon as I arrived in Chicago.
1. Get Health Insurance
At ICO, health insurance is not mandatory but it is encouraged. The majority of my American classmates are covered under their parents’ insurance plans (until the age of 26). For the Canadians, many of us were not insured when we arrived. Our provincial health plans cover very minimal costs while we study abroad, which isn’t be enough.
Note: Be sure to contact your province or territory to let them know you will be going to school in the U.S. so that they are aware so that you will still be eligible for medical coverage. If you’re out of the country for an extended period of time, the Ministry of Health can cut off your provincial health coverage without warning if you do not notify them of the reason for your absence.
The American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) offers a health plan to all optometry students who are enrolled in a recognized optometry school. To become eligible for the health plan, you must first become a member with AOSA (membership forms are handed out during the first week of classes) and then apply for the health insurance plan. On average, the plan costs about $330 per quarter (3 months).
For me, I couldn’t afford the AOSA plan on top of all of my school and living expenses. Instead, I went with the International Student Organization (ISO) health care plan, which costs between $29-$195 per month, depending on the package you choose. I bought the “Silver” package, which cost me $29 per month for everything I needed in terms of medical coverage. The great thing about the ISO plan, asides from the cost, was that it can be used anywhere in the world. So, even if I decided to travel outside of Canada and the U.S., I would still be covered.
2. Apply for a Social Security Card
One of the many reasons why I chose to come to ICO was because of the work-study opportunities, but in order to work, you need a Social Security Number. Of course, it would be a good idea to apply for a Social Security Number regardless of whether or not you decide to work during school because it’s just SO much more convenient to have.
For instance, if you want to apply for a Rewards Card from Target to get five percent off all your purchases, you need a Social Security Number! Also, many of my Canadian classmates (myself included) had the hardest time getting a working wireless phone plan because we didn’t have a Social Security Number. The wireless provider needed this information to check our credit background, which, as international students, we didn’t have a to begin with! As a result, all of our plans were suspended for “fraud.” Luckily for my friends, their phones started working again after two days but unfortunately for me, my SIM card was suspended four times in a week before they decided to completely cancel my account altogether. This wouldn’t have bothered me if not for the fact that I paid a $500 deposit BECAUSE I didn’t have a Social Security Number (as per their policy). My classmates decided to share a family plan and they had to pay a $1,000 deposit between the five of them.
The lesson? Apply for a Social Security Number!
So, how do you apply for a Social Security Number?
You must have been in the U.S. for 10 days from your last entry and be registered/validated in SEVIS (more on this later).
Get two work authorization/employment verification letters from ICO’s Registrar and/or Financial Aid Services. These letters were very general. They just included your name, a general “made up” working position, start date, and end date. Each of my friends were given the same copy of the letters, but with our own names. You just walk right into the Financial Aid’s office and ask for your letters.
Bring the following documents to the Social Security Office:
- A valid passport (self explanatory);
- I-94 (a small white card that was likely stapled into your passport when you first arrived in the U.S. and went through customs);
- I-20 form (your “study permit” that was signed by the registrar at ICO and sent to you before you arrived in the U.S.)
- Proof of employment letters (refer to item two above);
- Completed Social Security Card application form (ICO provides blank forms or you can find it on the U.S. Social Security Administration website)
I applied for my Social Security Number early one Friday morning with three of my classmates before class and I received my card in the mail a week later. It can take up to two weeks for your card to arrive but if you bring all of your documentation, the process will be much faster!
3. Open a U.S .Bank Account
I opened up a bank account with Chase simply because Chase ATMs are the most common around ICO and a main branch is located not too far away. Chase offers a “College Checking” account for students with no fees whatsoever AND you get to choose the design of your card (I went with Mickey Mouse!). All you need to bring is your I-20 form, a valid passport, and a proof of address. That’s it. Opening my bank account was probably the easiest part of this whole process!
4. Order a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Card
Public transportation in Chicago is very convenient so it would be a good idea to get a CTA card. There are many different cards you can buy, from 1-Day Passes to 30-Day Passes to the Chicago Card Plus, which is the one I have.
The great thing about the Chicago Card Plus is that you don’t have to go to a CTA kiosk to load more money onto your card. Instead, your account is directly linked to your credit card or bank account and will automatically reload a pre-determined amount of money for you whenever your card reaches or goes below $10. The card expires after four years, so it was perfect for me! To get the Chicago Card Plus, you need to order it online and you’ll receive your card in the mail within a week.
I hope all you international students out there found this information helpful. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!