Disclaimer: I’m a British citizen working for a PhD in the USA on an F1 visa. I moved abroad during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in August 2020. Therefore, some of my experiences will be different to other students, particularly of different nationalities and/or attending universities in countries other than the USA.
Working towards a PhD is hard. Working towards a PhD outside of your home country is even harder. While you have the excitement of meeting new people, experiencing different cultures, and traveling the world, you may not have an established group of family or friends that you can lean on, you may be caught up in bureaucratic visa nightmares, and you may experience bad homesickness.
In this post, I’ll share some advice on moving to a new country to start a PhD – things I wish I had known before I left my home. I hope that this page will help you navigate visa applications and travel-related issues, while being a landing page for you to return to in the future when you’re looking for inspiration. If you notice anything missing in this page too, or you’d like to share your experience, share them in the comments below!
Step 1: Preparing to Fly
Congratulations! If you’re reading this section, it means that you have just been admitted to a PhD program and you need a visa. Be sure to apply with plenty of time, ideally soon after you accept your place. Your university’s international student services should guide you through the process – this department should be your first point of contact if you have any visa-related problems, so get to know them really well! In the US, you’ll be directed to apply for a Form I-20 (for F1-visa students) or Form DS-2019 (for J1-visa students). These forms detail your identity, program, start and end date, and sponsor (the university). These applications typically require a fee to process.
You’ll likely have to be interviewed at your closest embassy. Apply for an appointment as soon as possible because waiting times can be long. While you wait for your interview, check that your vaccine record is up to date and fulfills visa requirements.
When you are interviewed, stay calm and be prepared to answer questions such as: which university will you be attending? What will your research field be? What courses will you be taking, and how will you be funded? (E.g. a fellowship offered by the university). Generally, the interview is to confirm that you’re entering the country to study, and not for any other reason. Your passport and travel documents will be returned to you a few days after the interview.
Search for accommodation through university-ran services, social media groups, or as I did – by emailing your new department. Current PhD students in particular will have excellent knowledge of accommodation available to you. Take note that some rental properties require a deposit before moving in, or some require that you sign a guarantee that you can fulfill your contract. Buy your flight tickets and plan to move 2-4 weeks before you start your PhD to settle in. Ensure that you’re able to access funds from abroad and have enough money in your home bank account for the time between your move to your new country up to your first paycheck.
Before you leave, remember to make the most of your home, family, and/or friends before you begin your new adventure. Gather mementos such as pictures, posters, and other reminders of home. Then pack up, take a deep breath in, and fly.
Step 2: Travel and Settle
When you arrive, take the time to settle into your new home. Unpack, and make your room nice and comfortable for you to rest. Be sure to contact your university’s international student services as soon as possible to ensure that all of your documentation is in order.Set up a local bank account and get a tax identification number as soon as possible (in the USA, this is the Social Security Number (SSN) or Tax Identification Number (TIN). Ask your international student services for advice). If you’re eligible, also apply for a local ID card such as a Driver’s Licence. All of these services require your passport, visa, I-20/DS-2019 (or other documentation), and potentially proof of your new address.
Once you have a bank account, contact the university’s financial department to start getting paid. Note: depending on your nationality and visa status, you may be taxed differently to your peers (e.g. in the USA, some international students are taxed at 14% while others receive a tax-free fellowship). Be sure to know how much you’ll be taking home every month and budget accordingly. Know the rules of your visa, such as for off-campus employment. You’ll likely not be allowed to work a second job.
Get ready for your new classes by gathering the stationary, books, and accessories that you need. Get in touch with other new PhD students and start hanging out with them. Sleep well, recover from the big move, and get excited about your new academic life.
Step 3: Life and PhD
Make the most of living in a new country! Learn how to navigate your new town/city with public transport, or buy a bike/scooter. Find the closest grocery store or market (in particular those that sell international goods!) for convenience. Find the closest green space to you and take time to rest and enjoy nature.
Find your community, whether it’s a group of people who share your identity, language(s), religion, politics, and/or interests. Immerse yourself in local culture and traditions while celebrating your own. Find ways to have fun outside of research to avoid burnout. Befriend local people and try out new things that are unique to your new home.
Get to know the physical and mental health systems at your university, and know your rights and benefits in case of an emergency. Have regular physical check-ups and take advantage of all of the services available to you. It’s unavoidable that you’ll get homesick at some point, therefore ensure that you practice self-care. Access mindfulness and meditation resources on apps such as Headspace. Bake your favourite cultural dish and access media from home such as TV, films, podcasts, and music. For example, I’m from a minority language community (Cymraeg) and I don’t have a group of people like me here, therefore I enjoy listening to my local radio station and bringing books in my own language to read when I’m in need of home comforts.
In case of emergency, either at your new home or your old one, devise simple, workable plans in case you must go home. Keep an emergency fund to buy flights when needed, and know who to contact at the university if a problem arises. Check if your university offers therapy to help you through difficult events, and be sure to access it whenever you need it. Moving abroad can be overwhelming at any point, so don’t be afraid to seek help.
Get involved with student and international organisations and support your fellow international students. Just so you know, in the USA, you’re defined as a ‘worker,’ therefore you’re eligible to unionise without retaliation from immigration services (this could be different in other countries). These groups can be excellent resources for advice, community, and resources.
Finally, remember why you’re here and how you got here. Don’t let imposter syndrome take you down. You’ve been accepted to a PhD program to conduct world-leading research, so get stuck in, do your best, learn with every opportunity, and have fun, both in and outside of the PhD.
If you have advice or questions, write them in the comments below!
Astrobite edited by Lucas Brown
EDIT 05/18/23 – The title of this article was changed from “Brave New World: Immigrating for a PhD.” Other references to the word “immigration” and related terms have also been changed for clarity. This is because the word “immigration” legally means to move permanently to a new country, which isn’t the case for non-resident PhD students. Thanks to Mason Ng at MIT for pointing this out,