My name is Jack Heuberger and I’m a junior currently studying abroad in Amsterdam. I’m a CS major and a Level II Tech/Dev for STS. Outside of school I play Ultimate for Contraband and I’m helping to organize Hack WashU!
Any conversation about international phone plans inevitably turns into a conversation about Apple’s anti-consumer practices. This post is no different — you’ve been warned.
Phone Plans in the U.S.
December 2, 2022
In Europe, most phone plans are pre-paid rather than post-paid. You probably use a post-paid plan in the US. You make an agreement with AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile (most likely for unlimited talk/text & data) and get charged at the end of the month. My family’s phone plan in the U.S. is easily more than $150/month for 4 lines! The only thing worse than needing to call your phone plan provider with questions about your account is calling your internet provider, and a lot of times they’re the same company.
These plans are post-paid. You receive the service first (unlimited talk/text & data), and pay for your usage after the fact. Your carrier is able to sneak hidden fees and other things in your bill, and then you have to argue with them once your promotional period ends. In 2009, Verizon was caught adding random $2 charges to people’s bills. These companies suck, and charge you too much money for the service they provide.
Pre-paid plans are where you pay a fixed amount of money each month, for a limited service. Most US carriers actually have pre-paid plans, but they bury them on their website and make them prohibitively expensive to the point where you should rather just commit to a 24-month post-paid plan. Even then, these are usually just shorter contracts that you pay in advance, there’s no option for a month-to-month plan.
Phone Plans in Europe
When I stepped off the plane in the Netherlands, my very first step was getting a new SIM card. A SIM card is that tiny little chip that you place in your phone in order to make cell service work. It’s a little circuit board that tells your carrier “Hey! Let this phone/watch/device use your network!” Once you put it in, it lets the network identify your phone as yours.
Europe has significantly more carrier options than the U.S. There are your tier-one carriers that own separate networks like Vodafone, O2, Orange, etc. Then, there’s a large selection of tier-two carriers like Lycamobile and Lebara who don’t own their own infrastructure and instead rent it from their larger competitors. This lets them have the same coverage as the big players at a lower price, sacrificing connectivity speed.
The U.S. actually has a few of these carriers — Cricket, Mint, and even Google Fi. However, especially when compared to Europe, you feel the slowdown in your data on these carriers.
The European carrier network is also structured differently than the U.S. in terms of what services they provide. In the U.S., 2G service is just now starting to be shut down, while in Europe it’s been disabled for years. The EU also outlawed roaming charges within the Schengen zone, so if you travel across borders your data/text rates stay the same. Even then, every European that I’ve spoken to about this pays less than $20/month for their phone bill.
I can count on one hand how many text messages I’ve sent while abroad — 2. One was a confirmation to my credit card company authorizing a charge, and the second was to my mom reminding her that I wasn’t going to reply to text messages. It’s not that I’m not sending text messages per say, I’m just doing it all via WhatsApp. WhatsApp is 100% the dominant messaging force in Europe (though Signal is slowly picking up steam). I don’t know a single person that actively uses SMS or iMessage while here.
Phone plans in Europe used to be expensive, and before EU regulation, you couldn’t easily text media across country lines. The solution to this was WhatsApp — a messenger that uses the internet rather than phone service. Because of this, most people here don’t pay for the ability to talk or text — only for data. I pay Lycamobile $15 per month for 5GB of data. If I use all of that data up, then I can easily buy more since it’s pre-paid. If I don’t use it all, then I scale down next month and pay for a cheaper plan instead. Everything uses data and internet connectivity instead of SMS.
Chances are that you already do this too, just with different services. You and all of your friends probably have iPhones, meaning you use iMessage and wifi-enabled calling by default. On the off-chance that someone dares have an Android phone, you either struggle with sending green bubbles or cope by using another platform. Europe doesn’t have this problem because everyone just agreed to use a different platform. More on this later.
While abroad, you’ve probably noticed (and used) services like AT&T’s International Day Pass, where you get charged $10/day for the service you already pay for, just in a different country. Before you travel and break the bank on Data, you should instead get a cheap SIM card in the country where you’re staying. Sure, you won’t have access to all of your data, but when was the last time you sent a green-bubble text? You can still receive iMessages to your old phone number, and everyone with green bubbles has another platform you can contact them on.
Ok, here’s the Apple rant that I promised.
The iPhone 14 — Better in Europe
Apple announced the new iPhone this fall, notably without a SIM slot. In order to connect to a network, you now have to use e-sim. This lets you have multiple carriers on your phone, with multiple phone numbers!
Sadly for Apple, dual-sim phones have been around for years and receive heavy use in Europe and Asia, especially from people who frequently travel between continents. The onset of e-sim also means that you are severely limited by what carriers you can use. This is the current list and it’s… lacking. Most of the carriers listed aren’t the budget carriers you want when traveling, and are most comparable to ATT and Verizon.
At first glance, this seems a lot like when Apple killed the headphone jack. Sure it sucks (and I’m still mad about it!), but the rest of the industry will eventually catch up and make this the new standard, right? That’s not the case here.
It turns out, that the iPhone 14 actually DOES ship with a SIM slot, IN EVERY COUNTRY EXCEPT THE U.S. Don’t believe me? Here’s the link to Apple’s iPhone 14 tech spec page in the US, and here it is for the UK. Scroll down to the section titled “SIM Card”. The UK model supports nano-SIM, while the US model only supports e-SIM.
They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, or to move the industry forwards. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that they must be getting a kickback from the big US carriers to give them more control over consumer devices, but there’s no proof for this. No matter which way you look at this, it’s clearly an anti-consumer move that specifically hurts American customers.
I could complain about iMessage, or Apple deliberately continuing to use an objectively worse charger for their phones, but I don’t have anything to add to these conversations. What I will say, is that it’s nice living in a place where regulators are actively fighting for consumers’ rights, like with GDPR or Apple possibly being forced to open up iMessage.
Your Grades Abroad Don’t Matter, so Optimize for Free Time
October 23, 2022 I’m writing this blog post on a Sunday in a random Beirgarten in Kettwig, Germany. Three hours ago, I had never heard of this town, and I didn’t plan to go to Germany until 2pm yesterday. This is also finals week for half of my current classes, and I’ve barely studied. I’m not writing this post as a flex, but rather an argument. At WashU, studying abroad essentially lets you get senioritis a semester early, but you’ll only be able to enjoy it under certain conditions.
I can’t speak to every program and every situation, but here is how WashU considers your grades abroad.
The secret is that they don’t (they actually do, but only a little bit!)
As long as you pass your classes abroad, the credit for them just show’s up on your transcript (like AP classes), but without grades. This doesn’t mean you don’t get graded though. Depending on your country, school, and program, you’ll get issued a transcript after you return home (and the program receives payment), and this transcript is what has your grades. Your major & program probably might have different requirements than McKelvey, but for a class to count I need to get at least a C-. Get above a C-? In terms of credit, there’s no difference.
But what about GPA? Study abroad classes don’t count towards your WashU GPA. If you have a 4.0, but get 12 credits worth of C-‘s abroad, then your GPA when you come back and the credits transfer will still be 4.0. The caveat to this is that you still have a transcript issued, so if you have your transcript and apply to graduate/med school, they might ask on your application to send all academic transcripts you have, and recalculate your GPA based on that. But if you applied before you receive said transcripts…
In conclusion, unless you have extenuating circumstances, there is therefore no difference between a C- and an A when studying abroad! That means the next step is to figure out how not to fail.
Failing Classes and Optimizing for Free Time
While I’m not sure how it is in other countries, at least in the Netherlands it’s very common to fail classes, and I’ve talked about that in a previous post. It’s very common for classes to have a single exam that accounts for 50% to 100% of your grade, which is one way someone might fail a class.
However, and this is the more important part relating to travel, many classes also track attendance. In most cases, attendance is not built into your grade as it is in the US — it’s a requirement to pass. In my Dutch class, if I miss more than 3 classes, then I automatically fail. There’s another study abroad company here in Amsterdam where you can’t miss any classes. Apparently if you’re sick, you need a certified Doctor’s note in order to not fail. Ouch. My friend Emily in Madrid has required attendance in three out of her five classes. Coincidentally, these are also her three non-CS classes.
Dutch is (thankfully) my only class with an attendance requirement, but that’s mostly because CS and Math classes are all lecture based and don’t require discussion. Sure it would be better if I went to every section of my concurrency lecture, but recordings from previous years are also posted online, and I only need to pass.
Therefore, in order to maximize your free time and travel potential, you should prioritize classes without attendance no matter the cost. If you have a required class on Monday, then that will severely limit cheap travel options for weekend trips. Required class on Friday means you’ll be limited on when you can leave, meaning you might not be able to fly to Barcelona in time for Friday night shenanigans. European schools also have much shorter class-switching periods, meaning you might be making decisions with limited information. Classes (at least in the Netherlands) don’t publish syllabi in the same way as in the US, but the increase in flexibility is worth emailing professors over if necessary. It’s also worth taking a harder class (within reason) over one with required attendance, because again, all you’re trying to do is pass.
Travel, Eurail and Caveats
When you start considering the price of international train tickets, a Eurail pass will pay for itself. A last minute ticket from Amsterdam to Essen costs €50. A 15 days in 2 months Eurail pass costs $363, or about $25 per day of use. That means as long as your train tickets for the day cost $25, you’re saving money by having a Eurail pass. Even last-minute tickets to Brussels, the closest/fastest international destination from Amsterdam, cost €25 each way. You can really save money when considering the fact that overnight trains are both a form of transportation AND save you the cost of booking a hostel for the night.
A word about hostels: I don’t know anybody that’s had a bad experience in a hostel. Instead of booking on HostelWorld, try to go directly through the hostel, it can be €15/night cheaper sometimes. HiHostels is an international directory of student-oriented hostels. Make sure to bring a padlock, you can find them any hardware store. I also usually cough up the extra 2 Euro to rent a towel, unless it’s just a weekend trip and I have extra space in my bag.
However, Eurail is sadly not going to get you everywhere for free. When I went to try and go visit my friend in the UK, I learned the hard way about seat reservations. Direct trains from Amsterdam to Paris or the UK are run by a company called Eurostar, which only have a limited number of pass-holder spots available that are bookable in advance. In addition, you also have to pay for these seat reservations. You could always cough up the entire price of the ticket, but that’s at least €140 for a round trip. Part of this is due to Brexit, which makes sense as everyone needs to go through passport control before boarding the train, which cannot make any stops. But you also need a seat reservation just to go to Paris, which makes traveling through France annoying.
I’m sadly not going to be able to travel extensively through France so I don’t have the solution to this, but I’d love to know if you figure it out!
In my opinion, most people should buy a Eurail. However, if you live somewhere like Spain or Portugal, it might not be your best bet. Train travel out of the peninsula is limited by a sliver of land that is fairly far away from large population hubs (except Barcelona & Zaragoza), and if you want to go anywhere other than France, it’s going to be a long journey. Your money is most likely better spent on the plethora of budget airlines in this region (EasyJet, WizzAir, RyanAir, etc.).
Arrive to every airport two hours early! I can’t stress this enough. I was glad to have the little time I did have for a 7am flight from Madrid. It was painful getting up that early, but it was necessary. This is especially true for Amsterdam!!! Security is generally 45 minutes minimum, and that’s short based on the horror stories I saw from this summer. Don’t risk it like you’re able to with the STL airport.
As of this week, my time in the Netherlands is half over. I’m also glad that I’ve spent the majority of these past 8 weeks not traveling, and getting to know Amsterdam and the Netherlands as a whole. However, I’m definitely ready to get out of dodge, and travel. If my class strategy doesn’t end up working out, I will definitely make another post and explain! Fingers crossed that I pass my exams.
Higher Education in the Netherlands: Course Registration, and University
September 24, 2022
The hardest part about registering for classes here in the Netherlands was WashU’s confusing course selection “Study Plan,” but that’s a rabbit hole for another time. Course registration here in the Netherlands is fundamentally different from universities in the US in a very interesting way.
I’m in Amsterdam until December, which is the equivalent of two “periods” of school. Each academic year is divided into six periods, each eight weeks long. Some classes are just for a single period, while some span multiple. Classes across periods are usually worth ore credits than single-period classes due to them being twice the length and covering twice the amount of content. Here are my 5 classes:
- Concurrency & Multithreading – P1
- Equational Programming – P1
- Discover the Dutch – P1/P2
- Numerical Methods – P1/P2
- Secure Programming – P2
I’m currently enrolled in four classes, but next semester I’ll only be enrolled in three, even though I’m taking five classes total. A bit confusing right? Don’t worry it gets better.
There’s nothing like registration day at WashU (especially as a CS major). Waking up early, double checking your registration sheet, and then getting a sinking feeling in your stomach as you refresh WebSTAC and watch the number of available seats plummet.
The difficulty of registration in the Netherlands stems from the fundamentally different approach to higher education than in the US. 1. People here generally take fewer classes per semester — I haven’t met a single person taking more than 3 classes, other than US exchange students. 2. Classes are more DIY. While you might have lecture twice a week, it’s usually up to you to really understand the material on your own. There’s no graded busy work, leading to my next point. 3. Classes here are structured differently. It’s not uncommon for classes to have an exam worth 70% to 80% of your final grade. You can’t start off strong and then slack off towards the end of the semester in the same way as in the US because your grade has no padding. 4. There’s no freedom in the classes you take. Your program lists out a certain number of courses and when you complete them, you get your degree. There aren’t the same elective or breadth requirements as in the US
People fail classes much more often in Europe than in the US, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer classes have prerequisites, and a significant number of students take more than the standard three years to graduate. If your tuition is only €X per year (don’t click the link – it will make you upset), the financial burden of not graduating on time is comparatively negligible when compared to schools in the US.
On that happy note, we can move on to scheduling.
In the US, classes are generally the same week-by-week. For each class, you’ll usually have a lecture at the same time, in the same room, either M/W/F, or T/H. Maybe you’re in a subsection that’s in a different room or one lecture is at a different time. Either way, it’s the same week by week.
That’s not the case at the VU. Each class’ schedule might change week over week. Because of that, you have to check for course conflicts over the entire length of the class, not just at a single week. Here is the schedule for my first two weeks of class:
During the first week, I didn’t have my computer lab section of Numerical Methods on Tuesday. Similarly, my Concurrency class was cancelled on 9/9. The Practical Tutorial section of Equational Programming is the class’ office hours, which is built in to the schedule of the entire class! While this graphic doesn’t show it, the only class that is in the same room for every section is Concurrency. Every other class is in a different room for each section. That even goes for the two back-to-back sections of Equational Programming on Thursday — halfway through, the entire class gets up and moves to a different room across campus.
This doesn’t even show my favorite part of class: breaks. CSE347 gets a bad rep at WashU, and I think that’s due partly to the weekly lecture structure. The material is extremely dense, and lecture takes place once a week for 2.5 hours. That’s 2.5 hours of intense algorithmic and proof analysis, without a break. In the Netherlands, it’s standard for every class to have a 15 minute break, generally halfway through. All of those 1hr 45min lectures are actually only 1.5 hours of actual content, with a 15 minute break halfway through. Honestly, it makes all the difference between me taking notes or zoning off in class.
while classes here might be faster paced and more intense, there’s less overall pressure than in the US due to the amount of classes people take per semester, as well as the cost of school itself. The scheduling system is unique in its structure, and makes every class interaction immediately available. It’s nice having flexibility in class times — I can go grocery shopping on Monday afternoon before my class, or just skip it all together and watch an old Zoom recording of the material. If I understand all the exercises in my Equational Programming class, then I can sleep in on Thursday and just go to that class’ lecture. Having everything blocked out like this allows more flexibility for students who have other commitments, and makes planning your week easier.
The Netherlands: Optimizing for the 90%
August 29, 2022
One key thing that I’ve noticed during my first week in the Netherlands is that the entire country is significantly more technologically competent than the United States. I’ve found that companies in the Netherlands would rather be extremely efficient for 90% of people than immediately present a solution that works for everyone. Let me explain.
My first large hurdle in the Netherlands was opening a bank account. After doing research online, I eventually chose my preferred bank and looked into how to open an account. The first step for all 3 of the banks I looked at was the same: download the app. There’s no way to do it online — only via app. This actually makes a lot of sense, because as part of opening an account you need to scan your passport.
I am both a U.S. and a Swiss citizen (my dad is from Zurich), so I decided to scan my Swiss passport. After scanning, the app then activated the NFC chip in my phone, and asked me to hold my phone up to the front cover of my passport like I was making a Apple/Google Pay payment, and it scanned my biometric data off of my passport and did a facial scan.
While U.S. passports have the same NFC chip in them (the briefcase/chest looking symbol on the front), I’m not sure what data they store. I’ve never had to be fingerprinted/facial scanned as part of renewing my U.S. passport like I have for my Swiss passport.
After confirming all of my biometric data, I was told that because I was born in the States, I needed to go into a branch instead of using the app. I repeated the process with two more banks. One gave me the same result, and the second told me that it would take a week to verify my information.
I decided to just bite the bullet and go into an ING branch. On the way to the branch I selected, I passed a service point (i.e. a mini-branch that was inside of a post office). In there, they told me they didn’t have access to override my tax info, and that I needed to go to a main branch.
The U.S. is one of only two countries that taxes its citizens no matter where they live. From the IRS: “You are subject to tax on worldwide income from all sources and must report all taxable income and pay taxes according to the Internal Revenue Code.”
I carried on into the main branch and waited my turn. Eventually I walked up to the teller and asked to open an account. They told me that they couldn’t help me unless I had an appointment. When I explained that the service point had told me to come in, they recognized that I was already “in the system”, and just needed to change some details. After confirming that I had no tax obligations in the Netherlands, and giving my Social Security Number, they said I would receive my card by mail by 5 business days.
What’s the best case for this kind of situation? Just opening the account in the app like they advertise. Most banks in the States, save the big banks like Chase, BofA, etc, don’t even let you open an account online. I used to have an account with a small local bank in my hometown, but switched because their app and most of their ATMs wouldn’t let me deposit checks.
The Dutch banking system forced me to use a process that works for 90% of people, but then I was in one of the 10% of edge cases that needed to go into a branch. If the app had worked for me first try I would have been very pleasantly surprised, but I was expecting to go into a branch anyways.
Registering for classes, buying subway tickets, and even buying food at the grocery store all try to get 90% of the people out of the way by minimizing options and letting the system work (the banking app), rather than designing a tedious process that works for everyone (going into a branch)