C o m i n g t o B E R K E L E Y    


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How do I get to UC Berkeley from the San Francisco airport(SFO)?
What do I bring from my country when I come?
What are the first things I should do when I arrive here?
Where should I stay during my first few days?
What kinds of IDs are used in California?
Banks and credit cards. What are checkings, savings account?
How can I find housing near Berkeley?
Email accounts and internet access on campus.
How can I get phone service in my new home?
Obtaining driver licence in California

Disclaimer: The opinions or statements expressed are those of Sung-Joo Lee and should not be taken as a position or endorsement of the University of California, Berkeley.

How do I get to UC Berkeley from the San Francisco airport(SFO)?
If you can't get a ride, consider taking a door-to-door van(
Bayporter) to the campus. It is as convenient as a taxi, but costs less. Like a taxi driver, they will help you load your luggage, and will drop you off in front of the door of your destination. If you are coming to SFO( San Francisco International Airport) from outside the US, you will pickup your luggage and go through customs. You will go out through a gate where people are waiting for other people to come out. Take escalator/elevator to go to the top level, which is level 3. Go outside, and across the street you will see a small island designed for people to wait for buses and door-to-door vans. There will be a person with a 2-way radio. Tell this person that you are going to Berkeley. This person will call a van for you, and it will arrive within a couple of minutes. (picture). You need to tell the driver the address you want them to drop you off. An address by itself is usually not enough information for the driver, and you may be asked for the cross street(the closest street that meets the street in the address). For example, "Bancroft and Piedmont" is better than 2299 Piedmont Ave. One way trip from SFO to Berkeley is around $22. Discount round trip tickets are available at the travel agency in King Student Union and some other locations near campus.
Good news! The much anticipated San francisco Airport BART station is open! (BART is the name of the local subway)
You may purchase a BART ticket by credit card or cash. Luggage is permitted on BART. More infomation here. (PDF)
For your info, downtown Berkeley BART station is the closest one to campus, and it is about a 20 min walk uphill to the international house in case you have heavy luggage. There are taxi's waiting outside of the downtown berkeley BART station main exit(the only one with an escalator).
If you are renting a car at the airport, driving directions can be found here. Information on taxis and other transportation methods can be found at the official SFO site. Click on "ground transport".

What do I bring from my country when I come?
The amount of money to bring depends your housing situation. If you did not find a spot in one of the dormitories, then you should bring an extra $1,500 to $3,000. This is because upon signing a renting contract, you will be asked to pay the first month and last months rent, and a deposit equivalent in amount to a months rent. In addition to this, you will need to spend a couple hundred dollars in buying books, furniture etc. If you are buying a computer, expect to pay at least about $1000 for a new one. The following is a comparison of different methods to bring funds. (Reference: SISS welcome email)

Traveler's checks
               Immediately available as cash or to open bank accounts
               Can be replaced if stolen
               Large checks (over $50) can be difficult to use in shops

Electronic Banking: ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) or check cards
               Immediately available
               Good exchange rate
               May have daily limit ($200-$300)
               May have a fee for use

Credit cards from non-U.S. banks
               Immediately available
               Good exchange rate
               Not all international cards are accepted

Bank checks
               Useful for large sums of money
               Not available for 3 days to 3 weeks after deposit
               Cannot be replaced if lost

Wire transfers to an existing bank account
               Immediately available
               Must open account at U.S. bank first
               Fees will be charged

Keeping in mind of the weight/utility ratio, I recommend you bring as much items from home to save money. For example, comparing to where I'm from, most factory made products are cheaper here except textbooks, utensils, blankets and clothes, so I brought a couple of my favorite. Because international house didn't provide blankets, I really appreciated my favorite blanket from home. Berkeley is in sunny Califonia, but the weather is not like what it seems like in a Bay Watch episode. That's more like Los angeles. No, the beaches here are very different from Bay watch. Wake up!
A summer night can be as cold as a winter day, and if you come here with T-shirts and shorts, you could experience what Mark Twain did. "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Even during the winter, the temperature in Berkeley seldom drops below freezing point, so you don't need to dress up for snow, but warm clothing and blankets are good to have. You may not find the good bread or good noodle soup you love back home, but there are a lot of places you can find international/ethnic food near berkeley, so perhaps it's better not to bring food with you. Also, when you are bringing electronic goods, make sure they are compliant with the 100-110V 60hz electricity standard here. If not, keep in mind that the converteres are available here but are heavy, bulky and expensive. There are two more thing I think is very useful. First, an international drivers license, or at least the ability to drive a car. You might have to rent a car for a week when you look for a room to live. If not at least try to learn how to rid a bicycle. This will give you more choice for housing.
Second, a credit card such as Master or Visa. If you get sick, and you need to visit a non-campus hospital, they might NOT treat you unless you show some proof that you can pay for it. Welcome to USA.
Hospitals do accept credit cards, like most commercial establishments here. I had a friend who paid $1,500 due to a minor bicycle injury before his UC berkeley insurance was in effect. The $1500 breaks down to the 5 minute ambulance ride ($500 ), 5 minute doctor consultation ($600) and the rest for using the emergency room for an hour or so. So you get the idea of a suitable credit card limit. Make sure you are covered for health insurance for all of the time you are here.

What are the first things I should do when I arrive here?
If you haven't found housing, you might want to rent a car so you can drive around for house shopping.
If not I would go buy a bicycle.
First, do what the University asks you to do. Orientations and so forth. Especially attend the required orientation that explains matters of visas and I-20s. (Visit
SISS's web page. for more info)
Other than that, these are the thing you need to do.
Get a social security number if possible. Due to the tragic event on Sept 11,2001, it has been hard to get social security numbers.
Open a bank account. Make a credit card.
If you don't want to carry your passport everytime you want to buy beer, make a California ID or get a drivers license at the nearest DMV( Division of Motor Vehicles). DMV issues the most authoritative identification within California. UC Berkeley student ID is not considered a 'valid' form of ID outside of the campus.
If you have an email account, and want to be informed about immigration procedures, financial aid opportunities, fun trips, and anything else of interest to international students at Berkeley, subscribe to the SISS email list. To subscribe, send an email to majordomo@listlink.berkeley.edu and include "subscribe ucb_international_students" without the quotes in the body(message). Leave the subject line in the email blank. They are very good about not sending you junk mail.

What kinds of IDs are used in California?
In California, the most authoritative ID card (identification card)is the California drivers license. You can obtain this at the nearest
DMV. If you do not plan to take the driving test immediately, I strongly encourage you to still apply for the identification card since it's just as authoritative as the drivers license. It usually takes a month up to six months to get either IDs, so make sure you apply as soon as possible. ID verification procedures are widely practice here, for instance going to night clubs, buying beer, cigarettes, renting video tapes, and verifying personal checks at stores. In most cases, your passport works fine. When you wish to purchase something using your personal check(refer to checking account), you must present some form of identification. Some small businesses refuse to accept passports as IDs, so be careful. Even at big electronic stores such as Circuit City or the Good Guys, they often have to take your passport to the manager, making you wait quite a while. Cal student ID does NOT count as an ID for purchasing with a personal check. You will not be able to even borrow a video without a proper ID and a credit card. In most cases you will NOT need identification for using your credit card. Exception being low-budget stores like Target. Your signature is often enough.

Banks and credit cards. What are checkings and savings account?
If you plan to stay in the US for at least 6 months, I strongly suggest you to make a bank account, especially when you don't have a credit card. You need personal checks to pay phone bills, tuition and so forth. It acts like a money order, but you don't have to go to a bank to issue them. Personal checks are pieces of paper that your write to authorize a person or business to withdraw money from your checking account. Usually it costs eight to ten dollars per month to keep a checking account, but it differs from bank to bank, and for instance
Bank of America offers free checking when you have more than $2000 in your account.

A savings account is just like a normal bank account where you keep your money and earn interest. The interest rate is somewhere around 2%, so you won't gain much interest out of it. If you want higher interest rates, ask your banker for a CD account. These have rates around 3 to5% depending on how much and how long you are willing to deposit.

One thing about the choice of your bank. The most important factor for me is the abundance of ATMs(Automated Teller Machines). Most of the usual bank transactions can be perfomed on an ATM, such as withdrawal and deposit, and transfer. As you open a savings or a checkings account, the bank will send you an ATM card within a couple of weeks. Near the Berkeley campus, there are many Bank of America and Wells Fargo ATMs. Right now, I have a free savings account at Bank of America, and savings and checkings at Wells fargo. You can have as many bank accounts as you wish. I didn't keep my checking account at Bank of America because of the high fees they charge for silly things. You might be interested in Washington Mutuals free checking account.

When it comes to borrowing money, probably no bank or auto dealer will offer an attractive rate than credit unions. The interest rates are typically higher than commercial banks. Drawback is fewer ATMs.

Things you might need to open an account.
1. Social security number(Forms and info). It is not clear to me whether you absolutely need it. I have been told that depending on who you ask in the same bank, they give a different answer.
2. Picture ID. A student ID is nothing but a name card outside the campus. Bring your passport or drivers license for identification.
3. Initial deposit. Most banks require an initial deposit of $100 to $200 for just opening an account.

Credit cards are needed when you want to borrow a video, rent a car, order something on the internet and so forth. Some companies offer deals such as 2% cash back, or extended warranty, and sometimes free rental car auto insurance. Most of the time you need to get a social security number to be eligible to apply for a card. Credit card choose tool Visa and Master cards are most widely accepted. Discover and American express follows. Beware of the scams that bank credit cards pull on you! When you report address change to your bank, DO NOT assume that the credit card department will get the same report. I had a Bank of America credit card that I never activated, and got a phone call 4 months later telling me I owe them $96 in finance charges. I could've avoided paying this money if the credit card department had my new address. For the whole time they were sending me my credit card bills to my old address, while sending my savings and checking statements to my new address.

How can I find housing near Berkeley?

Due to the high demand of housing near campus, it is very competitive to find a decent place. Some agree that it is harder than getting into UC Berkeley. Some people end up spending their first couple of days or weeks sleeping on a coach or even in their labs. But the bottom line is, at the end you DO find housing, and that this shouldn't discourage you from coming to UC Berkeley.

If you are eligible, you should apply to International House as soon as possible. If you plan to come in August, applying as early as April or May is a good idea. If you apply early enough, the chances of getting in is pretty good. If you are not a law student and thinking about Manville apartments, you can forget about it. The chances of getting a spot for your first semester is so small, it isn't worth the application fee.

This is what typically happens when you come here thinking you can start searching when you come here. You plan to stay at a hotel or a friends house until you find housing. You get a rental listing, and you start calling the landlords to see the place. Most of them don't call you back. If they call you back, you set up an appointment to visit the place. And then you realize why they bothered to call you back. The place looks like it could appear in a horror movie. Sometimes they will tell you to come to a 'open house', where you and other people can come and look around. You show up, and find several dozen people waiting outside. Some dress up, as if they came for a job interview, with their tenant resume in one hand. Obviously landlords can choose whoever they want, so you are not sure if you are the most charming person in the crowd. Perhaps drawing a straw will give you bettter chances? After several open houses, you are tired, and irritated and disillusioned. You realize you might have to look for places outside of Berkeley. Now the search get harder as you need to travel further away to visit landlords. But at this point, it's easier to find housing because less people are willing to travel this far to find housing. You finally find a good place, and you sign the contract, pay around $2,000 for deposit, first and last months rent.

These are my suggestions.

1. Live at International House, or the Units. It's so much easier if you know you have a place to stay.

2. Get a bicycle if you are house hunting. Even renting a car makes sense if you are 21 and up.

3. When you visit the landlords, bring your I-20 and passport as a proof that you have the money to pay the rents.

4. Do not rely too much on the student rental listings. They are referred to by too many people. My berkeley links page includes several places to go for rental listings. The best source of information is from people you know. Contact people in your department and ask if they can help you to find other people who needs a roommate, etc.

5. Don't confine your search near campus. Find a place in Oakland, El Cerrito, Kensington, Albany or Emeryville. These cities relatively close to Berkeley and are pretty safe. You can bike to school, bus, or take BART (the local subway) to school. Bus fare is free if you are a UC Berkeley student. Some bus routes operate 24hrs a day. Knowing how to ride a bike broadens your options a lot as well. Although parking is scarce close to campus, driving to school is not impossible. Motorcycle parking is abundant. Oakland is close too, but is sometimes dangerous to live. If in doubt, check the police statistics at a police web site.

6. Because it's a sellers market, Berkeley landlords tend to be negligent and arrogant. And don't think that all Berkeley people are like that. Of course there are nice landlords too.

7. Online maps are useful in locating places.

8. Team up with other people and search for a three bedroom or bigger apartment. These are easier to find. Perhaps its better to forget about finding one bedroom apts or studios near campus in August.

9. Find a place to live for a couple of months, move out when you find a better place. It's a lot easier to find a place at the end of a semester.


Visit Berkeley Links for more information.

Email accounts and internet access on campus.
The most common email account assiged to new students is the
UC link email accounts. Your uclink account login can be used to download useful software like Exceed or antivirus programs at software.berkeley.edu. Open Computing Facility (OCF) gives out free unix accounts to students. I owe them their server space to host my web page. Long live OCF!

Socrates unix accounts are available for graduate students and faculty members. There are several useful mathematical and statistics programs available on socrates.

There are several places where you get internet access on campus for free. For instance Doe library, Life science library have computers with internet and you don't need a student ID to use them. Remember these computers are intended for library research. More info. Several other labs are free but require a student ID card. Emailing is OK in these labs. Copy centers around northside, westside and southside of campus are also a source of internet access, but you need to pay several dollars per hour.

Where should I stay during my first few days?
There are several hotel and motels in Berkeley that you can stay on your first few days. The housing office has compiled a
list of hotels and motels with rates and phone numbers. If you are looking for a cheap place, try YMCA. You need to make a reservation weeks in advance. There is a Youth hostel in San Francisco, and subway connects it to Berkeley.
More Hotel links.  

(The preciding hotel description was from http://www.ayurveda-caam.org/hotels.htm ) with some modifications, update.
More accomodations at the Berkeley Convention and Visitor Bureau

How can I get phone service in my new home?
The phone system in the US can be quite confusing to most foreigners. For instance, there are local phone companies and long distance companies to choose from. To establish a phone line, you must call
SBC ), and apply for a residential phone service. There are actually so many options to choose from, it would help to visit their web site at http://www.sbc.com before calling. Most people I know order flat rate local toll with call waiting. This way, even though you use your modem all the time, you only pay a fixed amount of fee per month. If your annual income is below a certain amount, you may apply for universal life line service, which means saving a couple of dollars each month. After all this, you have to choose from a long distance company, because without one, you will either have to use calling cards or special connection numbers (like 1010 numbers) to call places outside a mere several miles from where you live. A huge list of these companies can be found on Yahoo.

Obtaining driver licence in California

Even though you don't plan to buy a car immediately, I suggest you get your drivers license as soon as you can. First of all, drivers license is accepted as a valid form of identification for most purposes, and it carries more authority over your passport. Another minor reason to get it early is because you pay much less for automobile insurance if you have been licenced in the US for more than 1.5 years. It's pretty irrelevant whether you drove a car or not during this period. Insurance in around here is very expensive by the way(from $200/yr to up to $1,000/yr). The specifics of getting the license is well documented at www.dmv.ca.gov. Basically, you have to read a booklet called 'California Driver Handbook' and take a written test on it. You can download it from the web. It's pretty easy to pass the written test. After passing that test, you can set an appointment for a 'behind-the-(steering)wheel' driving test. You need to study the booklet pretty well and practice actual driving to pass this test. A good summary of information of the written test is compiled here. (Thanks Dave). I've seen most people fail at least once or twice. It's a good idea to get private driving lessons to prepare for it. (Tips: learn your hand signaling, always turn your head to look over your shoulder before lane changes) After you pass, you take a picture and wait for the ID card to arrive in mail. For foreigners, it can take anywhere from 1 month to a whole year to get your ID. I heard this is because DMV waits for the approval from the BCIS(former known as INS)(Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration services ) and this can take a long time. California DMV is notorious for their inefficiency and bad attitude. My labmate was accused (and being yelled at) of being an illegal immigrant despite of showing her I-20 and visa at Oakland DMV. Should this happen to you, report the incident to the manager.

Note:¡¡What DMV means to most people is waiting and waiting in long lines. To avoid the long lines, make an online appointment.

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