Author: Alistair Crooks
You’re packing. The day before, obviously. You don’t know any other way. You fire up your laptop to print out your flight details. All a mere formality. Toronto bound, with a Philadelphia layover. You read. You notice some small print. You read closer. You’ve forgot your ESTA.
You’ve forgot your ESTA.
Nobody told you that you needed an ESTA. You have your Canadian study permit and maybe that will cover it. It’s only a layover and maybe you don’t actually need it. A quick peruse of the American government’s website ensues. No, your Canadian study permit will not cover it. And no, you definitely need it.
Panic. Lots of panic. Thoughts of re-booked flights. Thoughts of hotels, accommodation cancelled. Thoughts of thousands of pounds down the drain because you didn’t read the small print. Why, WHY didn’t you read the small print?
The American government advises against applying for an ESTA within 72 hours of travel. The unofficial online literature, however, advises that an applicant can reasonably expect status to be granted within minutes of submitting the online form. This is the case for 90+% of applicants. The odds are in your favour and to your relief, after a long hour of waiting, your ESTA status is approved. You can still do your exchange. And after that fleeting but intense anxiety you arrive at the airport the next day to discover your flight is cancelled and rescheduled for tomorrow. Off to a flyer.
This is all to say that in my short experience studying abroad so far, the getting there is harder than the being here. Juggling study permits, accommodation hunting, biometrics (which admittedly involved a nice trip to London), course selections, bank accounts, and phone contracts can lead to a sense of constantly looking over your shoulder (or reading and re-reading the Study Abroad Guide on Moodle) to check that you haven’t missed anything.
Additionally, it’s a long summer. The waiting almost inevitably builds nerves until one day, maybe about a week before your flight, you realise you are actually going away for quite a long time. I know it didn’t really sink in for me until I was actually in the airport. Only I had that experience slightly robbed of me by my cancelled flight – American Airlines had unwittingly given me a trial run at my own departure.
Any concerns melted away when I arrived in Toronto because the hardest part for me was done. I had made it here. The work now was essays, lecture notes, exams – all the kind of work I was familiar with in Glasgow. It might have looked externally as though I was out my comfort zone but truthfully, in that respect, the only thing that had changed was the setting (and, admittedly, most of the law). I knew what I was doing because I had already done it for two years previous.
Meeting new people was as easy as they say. The community of international exchange students at the university was, and continues to be, massive – I’m still meeting new people all the time. But despite the size it’s exactly that: a community. I’ve met people I know I will keep in touch with for a long time and looking back it seems strange that I ever thought otherwise (although, I should point out that none of them are Canadian). That’s one misconception that my Toronto experience has shattered and of which I was unaware – I’ve found you are much more inclined to meet fellow exchange students than you are any “natives” of your host country and that this isn’t unusual. If anything, it makes sense; same boat etc.)
I can’t recommend it enough. The city is fantastic. I’m writing this from a restaurant in New York, on a reading week adventure with friends I’d never met until 9 weeks ago. The person who suffered that panic-ridden morning a couple of months back might’ve thought this was too good to be true if I’d told him. But I would just tell him the same thing I’d tell everyone else.
Remember your ESTA.