By Kalpesh Kapadia, CEO and co-founder, SelfScore
I have previously argued that getting the right cell phone and data plan in the first days of arrival to the US can make a huge difference on the overall quality of your stay as an international student. But if your smartphone is your gateway to the States, then your apps are the keys to unlocking many of the advantages the US has to offer.
There are numerous – at this point more than 3 million – apps to choose from as an international student, but, let’s be real, many of them won’t materially impact your experience. I reached out to my network, both current students and recent alums, to get their take on the apps that they couldn’t live without.
Here are the nine apps you need to download, plus suggested alternates, as soon you as get your smartphone.
My Data Manager
International students have a number of options when choosing a cell phone plan, but once they lock it in, it’s a good idea to get My Data Manager – a free app that essentially ensures you stay within your data plan for the billing cycle. The app gives provides you with real-time updates on your data usage, and can send you alarms if you reach certain thresholds. It can even shut down data usage once a certain point has been reached, so as to avoid overuse and roaming fees.
No matter how good the public transportation system is at your college or university, there will come a time when you need to get somewhere quickly or more easily than a bus or subway. Particularly in the first few days of arriving, when you have lots of errands to run and places to be, having an on-demand car hailing app like Uber will save you an enormous amount of time and stress. The biggest value to Uber, and other ride hailing apps like it such as Lyft, is that you simply drop a pin to your location, type in your destination, and the closest car nearest to you will come pick you up within minutes. You don’t even need to speak with the driver or describe where you are (helpful when you are new to a place and don’t know where you are to begin with!) You will need a debit or credit card to sign up for Uber, and be aware of surge pricing, which is when trips over the same distances will cost more simply because it’s a time of high traffic.
Once you set up your bank account in the States, one of the best apps to download and link to your account is Venmo, a free digital wallet that lets you make payments with your friends and peers. Venmo will come in handy as soon as you start splitting bills or owing people money – and if you have a roommate, that can happen as early as Week 1. With a few taps, you can send or request money. Within the Venmo app, you can also see your friends’ transactions (with amounts kept hidden) on a Twitter-like news feed. In my view, Venmo is the best digital wallet app to make or accept payments to and from many different individuals, whether it’s for a particular hangout, party, event, etc. As you’ll next, there are better apps for payments within a larger group or consistent payments to one person.
Tilt calls itself “the easiest way to collect money from a group of friends for free” and we agree. As opposed to Venmo, which people generally use for different payments to individuals, Tilt is a good way to divide and collect money from lots of people for a big purchase or an event. Tilt also has a crowdfunding feature, which turns out to be really valuable to international students (and students in general) who want to pool their money for either a cause or social event. No one wants to be the poor sucker who buys all the beer for a tailgate, gets promises from his friends for money, and then never gets paid back. With Tilt, you take the messiness and awkwardness out of dividing money owed to your friends, and lets you get to the fun stuff faster.
If Tilt is your best app for splitting the costs of big events, trips, or social causes, then Splitwise is your best app for making regular, established payments among friends and roommates for things like rent, utilities, Uber rides, and beyond. Splitwise also teamed up with the Venmo app so you can now send and request payments and see them alongside your other day-to-day payments.
The biggest and most unnecessary pain with moving money between countries and currencies are the high fees associated with the transfer. When you’re an international student, you still may need to transfer money abroad (for eg, to pay back your parents) from time to time, and no one wants to pay exorbitant fees on a high volume of cash. Transferwise is a peer-to-peer platform and app that essentially lets you exchange money without crazy transaction fees or other hidden costs baked into the transfer. Essentially, the app matches customers with a counterpart in another country looking to transfer money in the other direction, thereby avoiding currency-exchange firms and banks. Currently, the app offers transfers among more than 300 different currencies, so you’ll be able to transfer money essentially anywhere across the globe.
GroupMe is a free messaging app that’s intended for groups. You’re probably thinking, why is GroupMe a “must-have” and not WhatsApp, likely the most popular messaging apps in the world? And you’re right: if you are already using WhatsApp, which has group-chat features, then there’s probably not a strong reason to have both. In the States, WhatsApp never took off here as it did in other markets. You’ll find across US campuses that students may have heard of WhatsApp, but have never used it. What makes GroupMe valuable to an international student is the ability to compartmentalize all your campus life activities and friends into many different group text channels, where messages reach everyone quickly and easily. Best part: your friends and colleagues don’t even need to have the GroupMe app to reach you. You can add people who don’t have the app to your GroupMe conversation, and they can reply to the group just like everyone else.
Free, reliable international calls to your family and friends, no matter where they are. Enough said.
As an international student, you’ll want to have secure and easy access not only to your most important documents (eg, passport, F1 visa, etc) that allow you to study here, but also a place where you can store all of your assignments, papers, photos, and group projects in one central repository that can be accessed from your phone, laptop, university computer lab, etc. That’s why the Dropbox app is essential. At no cost, you can create a Dropbox account that has up to 2 GB of storage. Unless you’re planning to share some big files, this is plenty of space for your coursework and photos over your stay in the US. If it’s not enough, you can upgrade your account or earn space by referring friends.
Studying and living abroad can be very expensive, in unexpected ways. The Mint app allows you to get a complete picture of all your finances, plus gives you a breakdown of how you are spending your money among different categories like food, clothing, entertainment. Based on your spending patterns, Mint can also create monthly, weekly, or yearly budgets so you can remain on target while you’re in the States. If you have a credit card, Mint provides you alerts for when your bills are due. On top of this, Mint provides with you a free credit score (so long as you provide all your financial information).
For international students with only a limited time in the States, FOMO (fear of missing out) can hit as soon as you get off the plane. Download the Eventbrite app is a one-stop shop to discover all the local events and follow the organizations who are hosting the social activities you’re interested in. Or, if you’re planning on hosting an event (International Student Welcome BBQ?) Eventbrite is the perfect platform for inviting guests, tracking replies, accepting donations/payments, and messaging everyone.