First weeks in Helsinki as an international student (by Amiirah)

They say time zooms past when you’re having fun. I’d say it is also true when you’re a new international student, not only adjusting to life in a new country but also adjusting back to student life after almost 3 years of not studying…

Today is already Day 50 of my being in Helsinki.

Some days, as I’m striding purposefully to my destination – hands in my pockets, head down and unsmiling (like a stereotypical Finn?) – I feel like I’ve been here for years.

Most days though, it seems like just yesterday I was suffocating in the tropical Singapore heat, and now here I am living the student life in chilly Helsinki. The people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made here have been nothing but warm and friendly though.


From summer to glove weather in 50 days

I generally try to do a bit of research before doing anything. (I am a REMS student after all… 😉 ) But it seems like I’ve missed out on quite a bit due to websites not providing these information, and also because a number of websites are still all in Finnish and Google Translate can only do so much…

So here are some of the things which I didn’t find any information on and wished I had known before coming to Finland. It would have definitely made my first few weeks here less frustrating and much more enjoyable.

  1. You need a Finnish identity number for *everything.
    *Everything referring to all the essentials you need as a student: a bank account, travel card, student card…

    The identity number provided on your certificate of attendance from the university (for the University of Helsinki at least, not sure about other universities in Finland) is not the official number. To get the official number, you need to personally register at your local maistraatti. Be prepared to wait up to 4 weeks to get this number if you registered with everyone else during orientation week.

  2. You need a Finnish ID for a lot of things.
    This is separate from your Finnish personal identity number. That official looking residence permit card you got from the Finnish embassy in your home country? It’s not a valid form of ID in Finland. (Can someone please explain the rationale behind this?!)

    To get this Finnish ID, you need to personally go to a police station and apply for an identity card for foreigners.

  3. Opening a bank account can be a hassle.
    Firstly, you need a Finnish identity number to open a bank account. If you want to have internet banking services, you’d also need a Finnish ID. (See points #1 and #2.)In addition, if you’re from outside the EU, you need documents proving you’re a good client from your home bank in order to open a bank account in Finland. Because of the waiting times involved to get the Finnish identity number and ID, it’s best to bring enough cash to last at least for your first month in Finland. If you have a bank card without any foreign transaction fees, that will now be your best friend.

    Take note that there are exceptionally high fees involved in depositing overseas bank drafts (paper form), so if you have the option to transfer money online, that’s usually a cheaper method to transfer money from your home bank to your Finnish account.

  4. Taking money out from that new bank account can be a hassle.
    You need to pay a small monthly fee for your new Finnish bank card and internet banking access if you have them. For this reason, you need to have regular monthly deposits into your account. That can be quite difficult to do when you’re an unemployed student, so what you can do is to do it the old-school way and be like the pensioners – queue up at the bank to get money out when you need it.

Despite all these administrative and bureaucratic annoyances, the other positive aspects of Finland have made my experience thus far really positive.

It is refreshing to have such a diverse group of people in the REMS program, and the seniors have been really helpful in easing us into student life. I had a lovely time during the REMS welcome picnic organised by the seniors – surrounded by beautiful greenery, with an awesome panoramic view of the sea, and even better company.

rems picnic

REMS Welcome Picnic in Kaivopuisto

I’ve also found Helsinki to be a quaint little city. I’m lucky enough to live right in the city area and every place which I’d ever need to go to is easily accessible on foot. Helsinki’s transport system was also recently ranked as the best in Europe for the 4th time, so I know I can rely on that once winter rolls around and it gets too cold for me to stay outdoors for longer than 10 minutes…

Or perhaps I would be more like the Finns by then and have a higher tolerance for the cold – what with their winter ice swimming and rolling in the snow… Ask me again in a couple of months. :-p