For the international student starting university in a foreign land, nothing feels more urgent than booking a place to stay. After nearly 24 hours on a plane, being able to settle into your new digs and unpack those family heirlooms almost immediately after touch down feels like exactly what you need.
So naturally, you want to get a place firmed up way ahead of time. And as a student in the digital age, this means hammering every keyword combination possible into the Google search bar to find that perfect student home. As tempting and sensible as this sounds, it's not necessarily the wisest thing to do.
But, you protest, surely planning and booking everything in advance is how things should be done in what is going to be the most monumental journey of your life? Nuh-uh. Not when it comes to accommodation, we say.
The problem with booking a place to stay in advance - and by that, we mean your permanent place to stay for the next nine months to a year at least - lies with how this booking is done. Ie. Online. You've surveyed a couple of websites, weighed the pros and cons between on- and off-campus and with your credit card details keyed in, you've secured a base to land, ready for you when you arrive.
What could possibly go wrong?
But consider this: booking a student accommodation, even for on-campus options, isn't too far off from renting or buying a new home. In fact, it is pretty much one and the same, ie. it's a big decision that deserves great thought and consideration beyond browsing websites.
Online photos and details may give us an idea of what it looks like, but unless it's a 360-degree, immersive Virtual Reality tour of the place, you'll most likely be served photos of just the best bits, hiding from view that one (or more!) significant crack or dent on the ceiling that could irk you for the rest of your lease.
Nothing beats getting a physical feel of the place in person.
This is how you can put your five senses to work to find out whether you could love living here for the next year. Touch that carpeting, check the doorknobs, listen out for any disruptive noises, smell for anything rotten or mouldy and even taste the nearby chip shop on how reliable a spot it will be when the late-night munchies inevitably kick in.
And it isn't just the inside of the house you should be checking out. An international education isn't merely confined to your campus borders, it's an entire experience of living in another country as well. Getting to know the locals and the community is equally as important as earning that degree.
Having a feel of the neighbourhood, from the camaraderie of your potential neighbours to the facilities and amenities, could really inform your student accommodation-seeking exercise.
Find out the public transport routes, learn about the availability of grocers (especially for those with dietary restrictions), test out how easy it'll be to communicate with locals - these are things that could make or break your stay there.
In gentrifying places where locals have been priced out by foreigners, it pays, even more, to know how welcoming a particular district will be to someone who looks like you.
Their judgment based on what they perceive your race and ethnicity may not be right, but if you sense you're not really welcome there, especially if your monthly rent at the new luxury student flat is equal to a local's monthly salary, it would be better to know early and seek a more welcoming location.At this point, you would likely ask whether it is possible to delay booking your accommodation until you could scope the place out in person.
It's understandable that as a foreigner, you may lack the know-how to go around and start leasing places on your own. What if flats run out and you're stranded without one when you arrive?
But we would advise that, if your funds permit, it is entirely do-able for you to book an AirBnb or guesthouse for a temporary stay while you scout for a more permanent base.
The start of semester for many courses should leave you with ample time to do some house scouting, which would be more productive than drinking oneself senseless on Fresher's Week (and there is plenty of time to do that later anyway).
Plus, it's a great way to explore the new town or city you're in. It's a win-win situation - do it!