Feedback from Scott Strong, CSE major who visited Saarland in 2014:
One thing to note: I didn't know any German before coming here. None. Zero. This definitely affected the difficulty of my first couple of weeks. In the end, however, I had a fantastic time- my lack of language didn't bring the overall experience one bit. That being said, I highly recommend getting some survival German under your belt before coming. If you already speak it ... well done.
Monthly and/or overall cost of living for you?
- Overall: Waaaay cheaper than Seattle.
- My rent was 250€/month. This included utilities.
- Internet was 15€ (total)/month, so each of us had to pay almost nothing (I lived in a 6 person, mixed-gender apartment).
- Be aware, however, that internet providers in Germany are much less "on the ball" as in America- many of my friends had to wait two or three months before receiving wifi. Much of the time, the companies simply move slower here, and there's just nothing you can do about it.
- Food is cheaper too, but I eat a lot, and I generally buy the "nicer" brands: my budget was ~150€/month
- Social things were usually about 15€/week -- all the hype about beer is true (unless you don't like wheaty/lighter beers), and I ended up going to bars quite a lot with friends.
- Weekend travels- (Saarbrücken is close to a lot of really cool places- Strasbourg, Cologne, Paris, Luxembourg City, Heidelberg, Trier...and on) ~50€, including train tickets, usually about two trips/month. Again, this was a thing I did with friends.
- Insurance: 77€/month. Insurance here was one big confusing mess. Saarland University requires you (as a student) to have what they call "unlimited" insurance. Basically, this means that you should be covered for...everything, with no limits. Even though I was using Premera Blue Cross insurance at the start, they still would not accept it. I'm afraid I can't help you with the specifics of this, but I've included a really good contact at the bottom (where I'll include all the other contacts here).
Was the price for your flight one-way or round-trip? Since I've been looking at one-way SEA->FRA and seeing ~650, while round trip is ~1100 if I return around Christmas time. So 900 is way out of the price range I saw for either, and I was curious why that would be... I guess I might just be looking for tickets too early?
Seems like you may just be looking too early. In your case (you're staying the full year, right?), the arrival/departure dates are so far apart that it may behoove you to simply buy two one-way tickets (the return ticket would be purchased while in Germany).
Are the non-CSE courses all in German? I'm thinking of taking one easier course such as art or something for my first semester to make sure I have time to get adjusted, and am wondering if that is possible with just English.
The vast majority of non-CS classes are in German, from what I heard. The course listings will tell you which language the course is taught in. One note: registration is much more relaxed here than at UW. For the first few weeks, you simply attend whatever lectures you think you'll take the rest of the semester, and stop going to the ones you don't like. Personally, I went to Graphics, Algorithms, and Security the first week, and dropped Security.
How did you manage finances? - I'm guessing get a German bank account and a special credit card for use in Germany
This is kind of a broad question, so I'll try and narrow it down.
First, you are indeed required to get a German bank account, as part of the process which confirms you as a resident of Saarbrücken. Some students choose to use that account to pay things like rent, but I personally just withdrew the appropriate amounts from my American accounts and paid with cash each month.
For getting cash, and other day-to-day money stuff, I just used my American credit cards. I would generally withdraw about 400€ at a time, and dole it out over the course of several weeks. This prevented me paying a lot of ATM fees, and I know that other US students have done the same thing.
Personally, I would recommend having both Mastercard and Visa debit/credit cards. It's probably overkill in the end, but better safe than sorry.
ALSO - notify your credit card companies that you'll be studying abroad, otherwise there's a good chance that your card will be shut down: the company suddenly sees that your card is used in Germany, and goes bonkers.
Which of the dorms they offer are good/acceptable? - I'm looking at the Kaiserslauterer Strabe due to proximity to campus and being cheap
I actually live at the Kaiserslauterer apartments, and yes, I'd definitely recommend them. Getting to school takes either 15 or 25 minutes (depending on your departure time), and it's about 15 minutes from several different supermarkets (better than most other dorm options). The 6-person aspect was nice for me, as it made the place more lively. If you're a runner (or hiker, I suppose), the Kaiserslauterer apartments are about 1 kilometer from a huge, beautiful, well-trailed forest. Also, you get your own kitchen (+ oven), which is key.
The other main dorm option is Waldhaus. These are single rooms, with tiny kitchenette areas. Not my preferred place for living, but here's the catch- it's the main student housing, so most of my friends lived there, therefore most of our hangouts started there. It's only a 20 minute walk from Kaiserslauterer though, (and a 5 minute bus trip if you catch it), so it almost didn't even matter living away from it.
Could you talk a bit more about the dorms, specifically kitchens? As I understand, Waldhaus had a small kitchenette for each individual room, and the Kaiserslauterer apartments have an actual kitchen that is shared between 6 people?
Would it be manageable to arrive in Germany knowing no German, but still taking the German class they offer? I'm considering taking an intensive German course at the UW the summer before, but am not sure if it would be necessary
There is an intensive (free) German course offered from Saarland University to exchange students which runs from Sept. 1 - Sept. 22. I couldn't do this, because I had an internship which ended Sept. 16, but if this is possible, I would recommend it. A lot of people became really good friends through this course, and ended up hanging out the whole semester together.
Otherwise, coming with ZERO previous knowledge is super non-recommended. It just makes the initial transition sooo rough. Maybe a summer long intensive course isn't necessary, but I really suggest getting some basics under your belt before getting on the plane.
Electronic chargers - did you have to buy special european ones since the voltage is different in europe, or do the ones from the US work?
We're pretty lucky in this regard. Voltage-wise, our chargers all work in Europe (unless it's really old). The only thing you need is a physical plug adapter, to match the sockets.
Exception: You can't just plug an American power strip into a wall with an plug adapter. It if has any electrical components (like a light on the reset button), it will explode. Like, smoke and fire explode. Learned that the hard way, but luckily I had a power strip with zero electrical components, so I just used that instead
How soon should I arrive in Saarland before the German language classes actually start? Is a couple days good enough to begin to get adjusted?
If you are taking the Sept. 1 language course, I would say that you don't need to arrive more than a day or two before it. The course allows you a pretty large amount of free time, from what I heard, and Saarbrücken isn't exactly a big city, so you'll have plenty of time to explore.
Here's what I did- I arrived in SB on Sept. 20th. Courses start on Oct. 20th. This gave me a full month to do what I wanted, so I stuck around town clearing up red tape for about four days, then I headed out to Oktoberfest in Munich, Switzerland, and Spain. I got back around Oct. 15th, which gave me plenty of chill time before classes. That 3 weeks of traveling is still one of the better experiences of my life.
On p12 of the handbook for exchange students, they mention you need an international student card for the cheaper bus ticket. How do you get that; is it automatically given to you?
The card is just part of the first-week red tape that I mentioned before. The card should be a priority - paying for every bus feels like you're hemorrhaging money. The international office will guide you through that process once you get to town.
How soon in advance should I buy the plane ticket, and should I get it round trip or one way and decide when exactly I want to return after arriving in Saarland
I bought my ticket four months before traveling, and it cost about $900. I've heard from a bunch of travelers that flying to Copenhagen or Stockholm from America is insanely inexpensive (I've heard figures in the 100's, if you can believe it). From there, you could use RyanAir or EasyJet (two extremely cheap in-Europe airlines) to get where you're going, which in our case is probably Frankfurt. Basically, you just have to do your research.I used IcelandAir to go Seattle->Frankfurt.
How long are you staying, and do you wish you could stay for a shorter/longer time?
I stayed for 1 semester, aka 6 months. For me, this was the perfect time- any shorter, and I wouldn't have done all I wanted.
I had that ~month of travel at the beginning, a solid four months of study + friend time, then an additional month at the end, where I traveled to Belgium, Berlin, and Turkey, staying at those friends' houses the whole time.
Did you have to buy textbooks?
Nope, you can rent them from the CS library on campus. Also, I've heard it said on the street that typing "name_of_required_textbook pdf download" into a little something called google will get you some good results.
OTHER STUFF YOU DIDN'T ASK ABOUT, and Saarbrücken specifics
Prologue: Don't try to memorize this stuff. This would be something you could look at when you finally make it to Saarbrücken, to help make that first week easier.
Before you come:
- Get your housing squared away ASAP. This is huge. Many students, including foreign students, had to spend several days, even weeks, at hotels while they found suitable housing. Get your housing application turned in like you would at UW, and you'll be fine.
- You cannot torrent anything in Germany. They really crack down on that stuff here. Why do I mention this? No reason.
- Learn German.
- Make a conscious decision- do you want to focus on learning German, or CS? -- I chose the CS path, so even though I've been here for six months, my German is still negligible. On the other hand, I implemented a ray-tracing engine from scratch, so there's that.
- Be aware if you're arriving late Saturday or Sunday. Every store will be closed, except those at train stations. This is not a joke; Germany has the most restriction closing times anywhere, and food is important.
Stuff you might not know you need to bring from America:
- At least 4 biometric photos, passport size
- Unlockable smart phone. The unlockable part is important - I'm on Verizon, and my iPhone 5S was unlockable.
- Multiple debit/credit cards. We already touched on this.
So, you've arrived. What do you do first??
- Get a German SIM card with mobile data. This is top priority. I use Aldi Talk (you can buy the SIM at any Aldi store), which is cheap, but can only be used within Germany. Other companies include Vodafone, O2. Maybe check 'em out before you come.
- Talk to the people at Saarland University's international office (specifically, Sina Krauss or Valentina Tibesh- info below). They'll sort you right out.
More on arrival: After a flight and a long train ride to Saarland, plus whatever paperwork is needed to get keys for the dorm... I might just fall asleep in the middle or something...
Good news: This is a great question!
Bad news: You're just going to have to force yourself to stay awake for all this stuff. My personal experience was really rough (my bus Frankfurt->SB was late, arriving after the key office was closed), so I had to sleep at the Ibis budget hotel for my first night. Late buses are not uncommon, by the way- the whole "Germans are soooo on-time" only really applies to trains). Assuming this doesn't happen to you, you'll be fine. Honestly, you'll be fine even if it does happen. I've included the Ibis address anyway, as a backup.
Mainzer Strasse 171, 66121 Saarbruecken, Germany
Other initial info:
- Download the Saarfahrplan app. It's a transit app for the Saarbrücken area, and it's super rad.
- Grocery stores/Supermarkets: Netto, Aldi, Rewe, Real
- Everything-else shopping: Bahnhofstraße is the main shopping street, and the Europa Galerie is the main mall.
- If you know you have a lot of free time (like, seven days or more), plan a trip somewhere. Saarbrücken is small, and it's easy to be bored here. Also, I'm guessing you don't want to waste your Europe time, right?
- There's only 1 mac repair specialist in the whole area:
Haus & Gross it.services GmbH
- Another good app to get: Converter+
Life in Saarbrücken:
- Streets are safe: I've walked home from the City Center many times after 2 or 3am, and never been accosted.
- Winter weather is bleh, like anywhere else. We got snow a few times, but that's it. Summer/Spring are supposedly amazing here.
- Things are pretty laid back compared to the really big cities, like Berlin, Istanbul, or Paris. Personally, I really enjoyed that feeling.
- Registration, like I've said, is much more relaxed than UW. Don't freak out about it.
- Two CS courses is a full load, three is death, unless one of those three is a seminar.
- Informatik students (the German way of saying CS), have the option to take German language courses through the IMPRS during the semester (IMPRS is the umbrella name for CS stuff). These classes are generally considered to be better taught than the other German courses, and they're certainly at better times.
- Budget cuts: Be aware that Saarland U just experienced some massive budget cuts, and although the CS departments didn't really get hit with them (the Max Planck Institute has a lot of private funding), many other things will be downgraded.
- Grades: Expect that they will be lower than what you got at UW. They do not curve grades, and they test hard. Just be cool with the fact that you might be getting the equivalent of 2.X.
- Midterms: If you fail a midterm, you fail the whole course (although you will have a re-exam opportunity, I highly recommend against getting to that point. Just pass the damn midterm). Many people fail midterms, more than at UW by a long shot, so take them seriously.
- Expect to do work over Christmas break. You might get lucky and have nothing to do, but then again, you might not.
What's the deal with this "re-exam period"?
If you fail either the midterm or final of a class, or you just want a better grade, you have an opportunity to redeem yourself. Often, these re-exams are more difficult than either midterm or final (in the case of AlgoDat, the final only covered material from after the midterm, while the re-exam covered everything). Additionally, they happen at the end of your break, so all your fun time is destroyed by studying.
Do not torrent
You mentioned several times that torrenting is really bad, but you also said that for textbooks you can just get their PDFs online. So where is the line actually drawn for what you are allowed to do?
ZIS/Exkursions: The office for international students has a branch called ZIS which organizes "exkursions" to surrounding cities. I highly recommend these, as they are a great place to meet people (it's where I met my friends!). Just ask about it in the international office.
Some contacts which will hopefully be help you before going abroad:
- Sina Krauss (firstname.lastname@example.org) - Easily the most important person I talked to during my stay. She sorts out everything.
- Valentina Tibesh (email@example.com) - A co-worker of Sina's, who helped me through the red tape.
- Wolfgang Heintz (firstname.lastname@example.org) - Director of the International Office. Usually people contact him first about studying here, but although I exchanged a few emails with him, I never actually met him.
- Christian Brehm (email@example.com) - This guy was so incredibly helpful about everything insurance related. Highly recommended you go face to face if you have any questions.
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