I had the opportunity to spend about five months in Amsterdam, attending the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU). I will try and focus on as many practical tips as possible!
The visa process was handled by VU. The cost was €200 at the time of my application. Do pay careful attention to the required documents you need to submit. My documents were rejected twice due to minor technical details. Once my visa was approved, I needed to hand in my passport at the Dutch consulate in Cape Town and within a few days my visa was ready for collection. On arrival in the Netherlands, I had 90 days to collect my residence card.
In terms of accommodation, I chose the residence options offered by VU. I would highly recommend doing the same, as finding housing in Amsterdam can prove to be very difficult and expensive. Furthermore, being with other international students means it is easy to meet new people. The housing application fee was €200. The residence was between 5 to 10 minutes cycling from the university, and about 30 minutes by metro or bicycle from the city.
As the exam dates for my VU courses were not yet available when I booked my flight ticket, I booked my return flight for the very last day of the exam schedule in February. In the end my exams ended about two weeks before my return flight. Therefore, it could be a good idea to purchase a flexible ticket when booking your flight ticket.
You are likely to return with a fair amount of things purchased abroad, especially if you are there during winter. Consider the luggage allowances when booking your ticket. The Middle Eastern airlines such as Qatar and Emirates tend to be more generous with luggage allowances.
Experience at the Host University:
I would highly recommend taking part in any welcoming events offered by your university. It is the period during which you meet the most people, and forms the basis for the rest of the semester. There are certain compulsory steps when arriving in the Netherlands, such as registering with the municipality and undergoing a TB test. However, the international office of VU clearly guides you through each step.
In terms of academics, there was quite a difference in format compared with Stellenbosch. Each semester is divided into 3 periods, and modules run over a single period. So, for each period you focus on a maximum of 3 courses. I took a minor programme in Real Estate Investment and Management. A minor is a “package” of five courses that follow a similar field of study.
Classes lasted between two and three hours. In terms of difficulty, I found it easier to perform well than at Stellenbosch. However, I felt that the classes were based much more on practical learning as we had regular field trips and speakers from the industry. I had rather interesting lecturers – one flew in from Switzerland, one was the former head of the real estate division of the Dutch Railways pension fund, and another co-authored papers with a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The course I enjoyed the most was Behavioural Finance, as it integrated finance with psychology.
Other practical matters:
Bicycle: In Amsterdam, a bike is essential. A really popular service is Swapfiets, a bicycle rental company that charges €15 per month. I was fortunate enough to find a second hand bicycle to buy for €50 and as such did not use Swapfiets.
Bank account: I needed a bank account in the Netherlands. I would highly recommend N26. It is a digital bank, meaning you can open the account online. I initially opened an account with ABN Amro, but found the process much slower than with N26.
Medical Insurance: For the first 90 days I could use my South African health insurance, but thereafter I required Dutch health insurance. Based on the VU International Office’s recommendation, I selected a policy from AON. It was very comprehensive, and cost €1.8 per day. I was uninsured for a period of five days, so rather apply early to ensure your new insurance begins as soon as the other one ends.
Public transport: Transport in Amsterdam is expensive (see more below). To use the trains, metro, trams and busses, you require an OV chipcard. During my time in Amsterdam, a new service called NS Flex was introduced. It is essentially a subscription you load onto your OV chipcard that allows discounts on trains. There are different options, but for €30 per month, I could travel for free over weekends on all Dutch trains, and received 40% discount outside peak hours during the week. However, this was only valid on trains, not busses/trams/metro.
Cost of living:
Amsterdam is known to be an expensive city. I found supermarkets to be similar to us in terms of prices. However, restaurants, bars and clubs are incredibly expensive when compared with South Africa. Public transport also tends to add up, with a return ticket to the city centre costing about €5. A day pass costs €8. Therefore, cycling is advisable, but this is of course weather dependent.
I was very fortunate to be able to travel extensively during the semester.
Busses: Busses are very affordable in Europe. However, they can be unreliable in terms of timing. I used the following companies: Flixbus, Ouibus, Regiojet.
Flights: Google Flights is possibly my favorite travel tool. If you are flexible with destinations, you simply enter dates and Google Flights finds the cheapest places to fly to. Using this tool, I found seven flights for €200 in total. Budget airlines include Ryainair, easyjet, WizzAir. Be aware of baggage restrictions to avoid penalties. Also consider that return prices are often simply two one-way tickets added together, so sometimes it could be cheaper to fly into one airport, but fly out from another, visiting a different city while doing so.
Trains: Although I love train travel, it is expensive unless you plan long in advance. I used trains mostly when I needed to be sure of arriving on time, or when airports were far outside the city. As a temporary European resident, I have been told that one qualifies for the Interrail rail pass. It is expensive but allows for flexibility and comfortable train travel.
Accommodation: Hostelworld, Booking.com, Airbnb.com. When travelling in larger groups, renting an apartment on Airbnb can prove to be a better option. Otherwise hostels are likely your best bet.
Return to Stellenbosch:
I landed the day before classes began in Cape Town. Although glad to see family and friends again, I would have liked the exchange to have lasted a full year. When you only have one semester and try to fit in as much as possible while travelling, studying and experiencing your host city, it can feel a bit rushed.
Coming back home made me appreciate things we have here more. The natural beauty, warm people and relaxed way of life is often taken for granted. I landed just as load shedding began, which was quite an interesting concept to explain to friends I made in Amsterdam!
Following my exchange, I am investigating possible Masters or graduate programmes, either in Europe or the USA. I did not feel academically disadvantaged at all compared to students from other countries in my classes abroad.
I would highly recommend an exchange to anyone interested. It completely changes your perception of the world and the opportunities it offers.