FAQ for International Students at Rice University | IBP Event Records
The International Buddy Program (IBP) is a program to connect new and returning international graduate students at Rice University. IBP helps new students to have a smooth transition from their homeland to the new school. I work as the returning student in one of the groups. Here are some of the frequently asked questions from our group meetings. I write it down with the hope that it might help more students.
Disclaimer: This blog is sorely based on my personal experience. It does not represent the views of Rice University. The information provided on this blog does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
Q: How do you like university housing?
A: Personally, I think it’s the best place to live for the first year when you don’t have a car.
Background information: Houston was built on the assumption that “everyone has a car”. Places are far apart, sidewalks are poorly built, and bike lanes are often non-existent. During my living experience in my first year, for example, there is no grocery store within a half-hour walk from my apartment. If you live in university housing, the school provides shuttles to campus and supermarkets. Our university offers 3 housing options, you can check them at graduate housing.
Secondly, I don’t know much about RGA, but RVA is on high ground, so you don’t need to worry about flooding. Just buy enough food and stay in your room before a hurricane.
Last but not least, the relationship among graduate students is not as close as undergraduate; if you live in the dormitory, there will be some organized activities, which are good opportunities to get to know your schoolmates.
Q: How do I rent an apartment off-campus? What if I don’t have SSN or credit history?
There are two types of housing. One is the apartment, which is rented directly from an apartment company; you can find plenty of those on google maps by searching “apartments”. The other is a condo/townhouse/single-family house, rented from a private landlord; the Texas (broker) official website of these private housing is har.com.
If you are looking for a private house, it is better to take a look by yourself, so it is not recommended for new students. You can consider this channel when you want to change your house in the second year. In addition, you may need an agent if you are renting from a landlord; they will help you find a property, review the lease, and negotiate the price, and the landlord will pay for the agent fee (about half a month’s rent). If you don’t need an agent, you can also use this as a reason to bargain, after all, the landlord will not have to pay the agent fee.
If you don’t have SSN or credit history, typically you can use the certificate of deposit provided by your parents; you may need to email/call/zoom meeting with the apartment to explain your situation. If the apartment doesn’t accept it, it means that they don’t have much experience in leasing to international students. I would suggest finding another one familiar with international residents.
Q: What clothes do I need to prepare? Do I need a thick down jacket?
A: Houston has long summers, so you will mainly need summer clothes (30-40 Celsius degrees outdoors), with a small amount of fall and winter clothes. In addition, the school is generally about 22 Celsius degrees indoors, so students who are afraid of cold may need a light jacket. In general, there are only a few cold days in winter, so a light down jacket is enough; however, if you encounter extreme conditions like the Great Winter Storm in 2021 and a power outage at home, you may also need thick clothes or a combination of blankets.
Q: Should I buy the meal plan?
A: The meal plan information is provided on this website. The Meal plan is limited to the graduate, so if you don’t hurry to buy one, you no longer need to worry about it 😂. The food is American-style buffets, the taste is pretty good, and the menu will be changed daily. If you have a picky taste, you may get tired of eating the same style of buffet for a long time, but otherwise, it’s a decent plan.
Q: What to do between two classes?
A: Many students will go to the library between classes to study, and the building is not far away, so you don’t have to worry about finding a place to go in between.
Q: Which parking lot is more convenient?
A: North Annex is generally closer to the graduate buildings (note: please check the specific school building for your class or office) and slightly more expensive. You can also choose West or even Greenbriar, which will be cheaper, but you need to take the shuttle/walk to the building again. See Rice Parking for details.
Q: How about security near the school?
A: Generally speaking, the vicinity of Rice is a safe and quiet place in Houston. The security situation fluctuates slightly from one neighborhood to the next. If you want to know, you can check the last six months’ crime reports of the neighborhood by googling.
Q: How do I buy furniture when I’m new here? Do I have to move the IKEA furniture up by myself?
A: As far as I remember, IKEA delivers directly to your room, you don’t need to move it yourself. Usually, on the first or second day of arrival, students visit IKEA to buy furniture and get them delivered to the door. You can also order online in advance.
On the arrival day, you might be tired from the long flight journal, you can choose to stay in a hotel for a day or two to avoid the instant trouble of installing furniture, especially the bed.
In addition to IKEA, international students often use online stores, such as Amazon, Wayfair, Walmart, etc… You can estimate the delivery time and place your order before you depart, and it will be delivered exactly one or two days after you arrive at your apartment if well planned. However, better not to deliver before you arrive in person, as many apartments may reject it.
Q: What about mobile plans?
A: For the first day, you can use your old number for international roaming or buy a temporary U.S. phone card before you depart. After arriving at the United States, get a new sim card / mobile plan as soon as possible. Rice and many apps ask for a phone number to register; so if you get a US number very late, it will be more troublesome to change from your old number to the new one.
There are three U.S. mobile operators, Verizon, AT&T, and T-mobile, whose post-paid packages may require an SSN and are generally more expensive.
Many international students choose to use virtual carriers, such as
- VISIBLE using Verizon service,
- CRICKET using ATT service, and
- MINT using T-mobile service.
VISIBLE party plan is $25 per person per month for 4 people or more, with unlimited data and SMS calls, each person has an account to pay separately. The CRICKET family plan is the same price, but you have to pay together for one account. MINT personal plan is not expensive, too. Many other carriers are available.
If you want to order a sim card online, it usually takes 1-2 business days to arrive. You can order in advance by following the strategy of buying furniture online in the last Q&A. cricket also has stores near the school, so you can go directly to the store. If your phone is compatible with esim, you can install an esim plan within a few minutes.
Q: What about bank accounts?
A: You must have used a foreign currency credit card during the application process. You can bring your own foreign currency credit card with you and use it for the first few days when you first arrive. You will need a bank card to use apps such as Uber / Lyft to take a taxi; if you buy something in a store, the $100 denomination dollar bills brought over from home will most likely not be accepted, only $20.
After arriving at Rice, you can go to the Chase branch located at 6560 Fannin St, Houston, TX 77030 to open a checking account. This branch is very proficient in opening accounts for international students. Checkings are bank accounts that can be used to pay as you go, and there will be a linked debit card, which corresponds to a domestic debit card. In addition, you can also write a check. If you do not have any US income, you can choose to open a Chase College Checking, and you can get a free monthly fee while you are a student. If you have a stipend from Rice, you can also open an account such as Total Checking. It is not recommended to open their savings; the APY is as low as 0.01%; you can not withdraw from it as often as you want, and there are monthly fees.
Once you have opened a bank account, you can deposit all the cash (anything larger than $20 bills) you have with you. If you want to keep some cash with you, you can deposit it and then withdraw it as $20 bills. When you open the account, you can get the routing number and account number, which can be used to receive a wire transfer from your home country.
When you get the debit card of the U.S. account, try not to use the credit card brought from home, or even report it list; otherwise, it will be very troublesome if it is stolen.
In addition, there is an ICBC branch in Houston. If you have an ICBC account in China, you may get a discount on the wire fee.
Q: What should I do first on the day I get off the plane?
At the airport, you’ll need to pass the customs and border protection (only at the 1st airport inside the US). Summer is the peak time, therefore it might take ~2 hrs.
There will be wifi at the airport. You stay connected with the world :D
Go to your residence by uber/lyft/taxi, etc. You may also book a pickup in advance.
After checking in to your residence and dropping off your luggage, head to a supermarket and buy some food and daily supplies. (The jet lag is for both sleeping and eating, so if you are hungry in the middle of the night and have nothing to eat, it would be very sad😂.)
A few things I would suggest doing within 2 days after the arrival:
Set up bank account.
Get a US phone number.
Q: Which electricity plan should I use?
A: You can shop at powertochoose.org, which is the official (?) Texas website. Just go with the cheapest one, because they are just power retailers, not power generators/power infrastructure maintainers.
This website shows how much 500/1000 kWh of electricity costs. If you want to know how to calculate the specific cost of electricity, you can click on the fact sheet to view it.
Estimation of electricity consumption: 1 bedroom APT consumes (per month) <500 kWh in spring and autumn, 500-1000 kWh in summer, and more than 1000 kWh in winter.
The most problematic part for new students is finding a package that accepts no SSN. Most electricity packages are postpaid, so you have to contact customer service about what to do if you don’t have an SSN. Some manufacturers may require a deposit, some may not be able to do it, and some may have a prepaid plan that may not require SSN.
Q: Will the university register the medical insurance for me? How should I pay for it?
A: Please check Student Health Insurance for details. In summary, if you don’t register by yourself, the university will register you automatically in Aetna.
I would suggest registering manually, even for Aetna. The automatic registration will take a few days after the enrollment period is closed. Manual registration might make the plan effective a few days earlier compared with the automatic one.
You will receive a bill from the university’s e-billing system (where you pay your tuition and other fees). You can set up a payment plan with the service fee waived if you have a stipend from the university.