Getting Your Finances in Order

If you receive Pell grants the money aspect can be taken care of for the most part with financial aid. Loans are available, as well as quite a few scholarships. Given that you will be abroad for an extended period of time you will also need to have people you trust to take care of things while you are away, which will necessitate giving someone power of attorney over you (a parent or guardian is the best choice). There is also a small matter spending money, the visa process requires you have either $3,000 in your account, or a financially secure friend or relative who can sign a statement saying they will support you while you are in Japan. They ask for financial records to verify the amount, so lacking a rich relative you may have to save or work a second job for a while. Luckily, the bulk of the cost of tuition and fees should be taken up by financial aid, just like at your home institution.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

This portion can be frustrating because it requires cooperation between two bureaucracies, the Financial Aid Office and the Study Abroad Office, so you may be doing a lot of leg-work to get things smoothed out. Remember to fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible, and check in with the financial aid office often to see if there are any problems. There are many loans that can help, including Stafford Loans and Parent PLUS Loans, with the Stafford Loan being the better of the two in my opinion. That being said, the best money is money you don't have to pay back, and that is why you should apply for positively every scholarship you can lay your hands on.

There are many scholarships available to those who want to study abroad in Asia, and relatively few people applying for them so you stand a good chance of receiving at least one. Keep in mind however that scholarships are not free money, most of them require something in return, either in the form of an essay on your experiences, a project to raise awareness, or some form of community service. If you receive more than one scholarship, you may be quite busy upon returning home, so plan accordingly.

Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program

This is one of the two big-name scholarships for people studying in Asia, and the one I received when I went to Japan. Gilman gives consideration to typically underrepresented groups in study abroad: the ethnically diverse, community college students, students with disabilities, and oddly enough, students studying engineering or the sciences. In my case I was a dual Computer Science/Math major from a low-income family and a documented learning disability. This is especially good for those people who have to work one or more jobs and can't break that elusive 3.5+ GPA barrier that most other scholarships seem to require. Requirements are that you currently be receiving a Pell grant, be studying for the fall or spring terms, be going to a country that is not on the State Department Travel Warning list), and, like all the other scholarships on this list, be in a program where your are receiving academic credit for your study abroad. For the full list or requirements, go here. To apply you will need to fill out the Gilman Online Application, which involves one or two essays on why you want to go to Japan, your circumstances, and a project proposal that you will need to implement upon returning to the U.S. Remember to keep the essays you submit, you can use them for other scholarship applications and save yourself some time, also you will need your project proposal so you can start work once you get home. You will also need your study abroad coordinator and a financial aid advisor to be certified by the Gilman foundation, and you will need to send them three copies of your transcript. You should probably talk to your study abroad coordinator first about the scholarship so they can get financial aid to work with you.

Freeman ASIA

This is the second of the two big-name scholarships. To be eligible you must currently be receiving financial aid, have a few semesters left when you get back to your home institution (presumably so you can finish up your scholarship project, more on that later), have not studied in the country you are applying for previously for more than 4 weeks, and this is a one-time only scholarship so you are not eligible if you have received a Freeman ASIA scholarship before. The full list is here and the application instructions are here. Freeman ASIA awards can be up to $5,000 for a semester abroad and $7,000 for an academic year. This scholarship, along with the Gilman Scholarship requires a service project upon returning the United States, this usually involves talking to people in your home community about your experiences studying abroad, scholarships available, and maybe a little web programming if you are so inclined.

Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholarship

This scholarship seems pretty generous, especially the year-long "ambassadorial" scholarship. Contact your local Rotary Club for more information, these clubs are fairly widespread so you should be able find one near you.

Fulbright Program

Technically it's a grant, mostly dealing with doing research overseas. If you have research that involves a foreign language or culture you should definitely consider this.

Local Scholarships

Your best bet at getting a scholarship will be from your local study abroad office, ask your study abroad councillor about which scholarships you may be eligible for. Many colleges set aside money specifically to encourage students to study abroad, so don't miss out on opportunities that may be available locally.

Bank Issues

If the school you are going to isn't affiliated with your home institution you may have to have your tuition money directly deposited into your account. This brings up a whole slew of problems when you go to pay your tuition, since banks are typically wary of large transactions being made abroad, especially in the current environment of widespread identity theft. Here are some things you need to ask your bank before you go to Japan:

"Can I use my debit/ATM card overseas?

Most debit cards have some sort of international network that will allow you to use the card overseas, but check to make sure, especially if you use a local credit union. Make absolutely sure you remember your PIN number, in Japan if you get your PIN wrong a certain number of times the machine will eat your ATM card. You may want to write it down somewhere using a simple cipher, like add one to every other digit (1234 = 1335) or multiply by your birthday so (1234 * 01011980 = 1248783320) just to make absolutely sure you don't forget it.

"Is there a spending limit on my debit/ATM card? If so how will I play my tuition?"

You would think that there would not be a limit, given that it is in fact your money, and you would be wrong. Banks, or at least my credit union, are pretty paranoid about identity theft. To provide an example from my college credit union: no charges over $1,000 without prior notice and no charges over $5,000 period. This created quite a problem when I tried to pay my tuition of more than $8,000 only to find out several months later that the charge didn't take and Texas Tech wanted their money NOW. Eventually I had to have a "Teller's Check" sent, but would have saved myself a lot of problems if I had just sent a check through the mail. You need to know how your debit card works and plan accordingly.

"Will I be able to access online banking from Asia?"

Online banking is, well online, so the assumption would be that you could access your account from anywhere in the world, and that assumption would be wrong. Until recently my bank simply blocked access from Asia, once again in the guise of preventing identity theft. This can be quite frustrating when you are trying to pay your tuition and don't know how much money you have in your account (you can't check account balances of foreign accounts from postal ATM's). Another problem you may face, even if your bank does provide online banking abroad, is near constant network timeouts, which seem to plague Japan's supposedly advanced network infrastructure.

Japanese Financial Issues

Japanese banking for foreigners (外国人 gaikokujin, literally "outside-country people"), usually revolves around international ATM's which are located at local post offices. Japanese money is wider than U.S. dollars so you may have to purchase a new wallet when you get to Japan. Coinage in Japan extends up to 500 yen coins (a little over $4), local temples have donation boxes that are a great way of staving off the plague of one yen and five yen coins that will no doubt accumulate and will keep your pockets from jingling when you walk. If you get a scholarship in Japan will have to get a Japanese bank account, which may require a family seal (判子 hanko). Most people in Japan just go to the store and get a ready-made one, try as I might there don't seem to be too many Peckhams in Japan, so one had to be custom made for me (prices vary, but it is precision work and requires a skilled artisan). One of the great things about Japanese ATM's is they can update your passbook automatically, just click English > passbook update and stick your passbook into the slot and the machine will automatically write down all of your transactions since you last updated it.

Legal Issues

When you go abroad you will need someone at home to take care of any business that comes up that may require you to be there in person. For this reason you need to give a responsible person you trust, as in trust with your life, power of attorney over you. Power of attorney allows them to act as your agent while you are abroad, this permits them to sign contracts and conduct business in your place. Keep in mind this also permits them access to your financial data, so make absolutely certain they are trustworthy. Power of attorney is just a matter of going to a local lawyer and signing a form, the cost is typically less than $100 (though I live in a rural area, your cost may vary).

To sum things up:
  • You will need $3000 or a relative/friend to promise to help you.
  • Apply for all the scholarships you can get.
  • Find someone you trust, like a parent, to have power of attorney over you.
  • Ask if your ATM/Debit card will work overseas.
  • Ask if there is a limit on how much you can charge on your debit card.
  • Ask if online banking will work from computers in Asia.
  • Take your PIN with you and keep it somewhere safe.
  • Bring a check book just in case.
  • Buy a wallet in Japan, it'll make a nice souvenir and hold the wider Japanese currency.