Getting a local Dutch SIM card
I bought a Vodafone SIM card instead of simply activating the free Labara SIM card (by local telco KPN) that they were giving out at the lobby of the Guesthouse. This was because KPN and T-Mobile doesn’t offer any option for overseas data roaming. This means that when you are not in the Netherlands but urgently need to get online using your data, you can’t, even if you are willing to fork out a million dollars. Vodafone allows you to roam but of course it is a lot more expensive. Still, it is useful to have at least this option of roaming.
The SIM card comes with 3GSM, but it operates on a daily pay-per-use plan, where you pay 1 euro to have 100MB worth of data per day. This is good as you don’t have to pay anything if you don’t use any data for that day, but if you do use, you still have to pay 1 euro even if only 1kB of data is consumed. Thus, I only switch on my mobile data when I travel within the Netherlands and I know I need connection to the Internet but free WiFi is limited. Other times, I rely solely on the WiFi connection in school and hostel, which are the two places that I will be spending most of my time anyway. And and, did I mention that the trains in the Netherlands have free WiFi?! 😀
Setting up a Dutch Bank Account
The obvious choice for exchange students would be ING Bank, as the university has an agreement with the bank to offer its students to set up a short-term account for free. Most banks are reluctant to let exchange students set up accounts because of the short time frame that we will be spending in the Netherlands. In order to set up an ING account, you will need a letter of declaration from the school, and you will receive this letter from the school on your first day of orientation, together with your UM card and certificate of enrolment (no deposit is needed). During the first week of school, ING will set up a booth at the Student Services Centre to cater to students wanting to open accounts. Bring your letter and passport there and the counter staff will guide you in filling in the forms (which are all in Dutch). Depending on the staff that you get, sometimes they will help you apply for Internet Banking on the spot, or they simply give you a few sheets of instructions telling you how to apply for Internet Banking online. It is best to do it on the spot to speed up the process. Ask to apply if the staff doesn’t mention anything about Internet Banking. I didn’t know about this and had to apply separately when I went to the ING branch at Brusselsepoort.
The whole process is very tedious. About 5 working days after sending in the application to open an account, you will be mailed 3 letters and you will need to bring them to the stated ING branch to collect your ING card and PIN (no, you can’t choose the combination of numbers yourself). Same goes for Internet Banking. You will receive about 2 letters and one of them will contain your username. You will have to go to the stated ING branch to collect your password (and you can change this online later).
Buying a second-hand bike
As we arrived only a few days before the start of school, second-hand bikes were running out quickly. It is usually cheaper to source this online (some groups such as Fleamarket Maastricht are good sources of second-hand bike sales, or look at Marketstuff or Marketplaats), but collection of bikes can be an issue as many of these sellers live across the river, which is pretty far away. Also, as the second-hand market for bikes is very active, bikes get sold really quickly.
For a while, I was contemplating not getting a bike at all and just rely on my own two legs to get me to places. However, I quickly decided that it would be so much easier to get a bike. It takes 20 minutes to walk to school and a mere 7 minutes to cycle. Furthermore, having a bike is useful for grocery shopping as you could just dump everything in the bicycle bag and cycle, instead of having to carry the stuff back.
I got mine from Jules & You, which is a profit-making organisation meant for students at UM. They do everything from second-hand textbook sales to rental of apartments, and yes, they do sell second-hand bikes but at a flat rate of 65 euros (60 euros if you bother signing up to be a member at 15 euros). Their stock of second-hand bikes run out quickly and W and I were lucky enough to get our bikes during their second stock-up (and they didn’t have many bikes left). In general, most bikes have huge frames and this is not very suitable for the smaller sized Asian. So when the Jules & You guy led us to the courtyard where their bikes were stored, I made a beeline for a smaller-framed bike. That purple bike was the first to catch my attention because it looked new (but it’s far from new on closer inspection) and I just knew that that was mine!
When choosing a bike, make sure that you test the brakes and look at the tires first. It would also be good to look at the gear size and ride the bike for a short distance. Some bikes have very small gears, so a single pedal doesn’t bring you far, regardless of the size of the wheels. You might then end up pedalling very hard in order to cover the same distance. I got lucky that my bike was quite ordinary (definitely not a racing bike but easy enough to cycle), much like the ones for rental at East Coast Park in Singapore.
It is useful to note the difference between the frames of the bike. Some bikes have a skirt guard (a plastic fan-like plate located on the back wheel) which prevents skirts from being caught in the spokes of the wheel. This is meant for females, obviously. Additionally, some bikes have a cross-bar between the handles and the seat, while others have a step-through frame. Again, the origin of the step-through frame was meant for ladies, but now it’s kind of unisex. My bike is most definitely a lady’s bike, which works well for me. I didn’t know about all these different features beforehand when I was choosing my bike!
I got my bicycle bag at 4 euros at Wibra (there’s one at Brusselsepoort). It’s not shown in the picture but you fasten it on the metal rack behind. This allows you to store things such as your groceries when you cycle.
It is mandatory that all bicycles should have lights when cycling in the dark. Although my bike was already fitted with a proper bicycle lamp when I bought it, the lamp doesn’t work. (To be exact, the Jules & You guy said that it “would be a miracle if any of these lights work”!) I got mine from HEMA at 3 euros, for front and back lights. They are little keychain lights that fasten using an elastic string. I learnt later that Blokker sells bicycle lights at 2 euros instead, which are not only cheaper but are much easier to fasten onto the frame. Oh well… :/