Twice a year, many students embark on a journey, and have, what should be, the best year of their lives. This journey starts in a city where things work differently; Istanbul, a large, vibrant, exciting but sometimes overwhelming city. If you are one of those lucky enough to be part of this experience, you probably know where we are getting at; the exchange program in Istanbul. Many do have the best time of their lives during the 6 months or year they spend in the city. But some are unable to find that same spark. Although most Turks are unbelievably honest and would go the extra mile to help you rather than rip you off, in a city with well over 18 million inhabitants, you’ll always find a few people with different intentions. This article, written by and for exchange students, helps you navigate the city and hopes to ensure you have the best time of your life.
Istanbul is a really large metropolitan city which houses at least 18 million people. All of those people are living in Istanbul’s 39 districts, not only in Taksim or Kadıköy or Beşiktaş. So why should you limit yourself to those areas? It is nice to explore the city, and think about the possibility of living elsewhere during your exchange. The city-center has, contrary to what is believed, houses that are in poor condition due to age. Moreover, house-owners in the area are aware of the incoming exchange students, and may divide already small rooms into two in order to make a profit. They will also charge prices which are unimaginable for locals to pay.
So keep in mind that there are other locations. Pretty much any location in Istanbul which is within 5-10 minutes walking distance from a metro station or bus station would be convenient enough to make your way through the city. This would mean that you can find a house which is in a better condition and for a lower price. Moreover, it allows you to encounter local living and engage with the culture.
Be careful about “Erasmus Istanbul” Facebook groups. The truth is that there’re certain people who uses these groups frequently, posting advertisements of the certain Erasmus houses by different fake Facebook accounts. You will learn that those advertisers are not to be trusted, and they will charge you high fees. If you do happen to encounter someone who seems fishy; do not sign anything. Usually papers have no legal value and any problems that might occur will not give you the right to as for legal counsel. So you may ask: “how do I find a room that’s best for me?” This is not a question that can be answered in a straight-forward manner. Many universities will have their own private housing groups on Facebook, those are usually used by students living in and around the area of the university so this could be an option. You could also use Craigslist and Airbnb or real estate websites such as Hürriyet Emlak or Sahibinden. However, the best way is to scour for friends or friends of friends living in Istanbul and asking them if they know anyone with an available room. Do not forget the expats in Istanbul have developed an extensive network of friends, acquaintances, and previous roommates.
If anything bad happens – for instance; you go on holiday for a few days, and when you come back, you see that your property is in front of the door, which you cannot open because the lock has already been changed – the first thing you need to do, is of course go to police! Please, send us an e-mail to (firstname.lastname@example.org). We are collaborating with a group of volunteer lawyers who would love to defend your rights.
If you have no idea where to live, please read our article: Where to Live in Istanbul?
There are several reasons for students to spend their Erasmus time in Istanbul, but beyond a shadow of doubt the cultural differences of Istanbul and Turkey is the first reason for the incoming-exchange students. As this is not very secret, of course there are some locals who would love to take advantage of it. However, avoiding them is not very difficult as long as you do research about travelling in Turkey.
The best way to escape from the tourism trap is of course by travelling with a buddy or with your friends. In this way you can optimize your expenses and explore the beauties of Turkey as you like. Trains, buses and planes all work, and what’s more you can rent a car and drive in Turkey with a valid driving license. Turkey is also an extremely hitchhiking-friendly country. The murder of Pippa in 2008 was an unimaginable event, but definitely was an exception. On the other hand, there is widespread prejudice concerning the willingness of Western girls to engage in casual sex with random strangers in this country. So, the female solo – hitchhikers had better know how to deal with these situations.
Do you think everything will become easier if you pay for a trip? Unfortunately, the answer is no. To be honest, this becomes more complicated and confusing for the exchange students. How come? There are a few locals as well as foreigners – probably you already know – who attempt to make “Erasmus Business”. They add you on Facebook via their fake accounts, invite you to their events including party and travels, posting their events in certain Facebook groups that you are already added to, and with this there’s a huge pollution of information. Before you know it you have a very unsatisfying trip. Think twice before you pay a good amount of money for a travel experience you may have one chance to do. Do not follow the “trip offer” event pages on Facebook which doesn’t inform you about the departure place. Instead just find out information through locals and by your own googling-skills. There are a lot of bus-companies, airlines and there is a big train-station close to the New Mosque. Just use those general companies, rather than going for a package-deal and you can arrange your own travels. If you want to go low-budget CouchSurfing is also a good option in many cities. Please, also do not forget to ask TÜRSAB number to the travel agency that you buy a trip.
Istanbul has a killer nightlife, and many of the Taksim Clubs probably will be your second home. Despite the amount of options that Istanbul offers, Istanbulites usually have their one or two roofs that they have fun under, and that is probably what will happen to you as well. Until that time probably each Erasmus student would have one strange story to tell. That is unpreventable!
Taksim is really a unique place where all the languages of the world are spoken. The night begins and all the tall buildings you see are full of dancing people. In such a chaos there’s really one thing that you have to do; do not drink every glasses of alcohol you are offered. (Do not tell us that we don’t know what friendship, love or share means, but let us tell you the fact that everybody is playing their own games in this city, where Istanbulites say “don’t even trust your father in this city.”) In 2015, only a year ago, two men were accused of raping an exchange student after mixing a drug into her drink.
Girls should be careful about this, some people may follow you or snipe you, if you are in such a situation enter a café or anywhere you can find and tell the situation to any worker. You can get disturbed even on the İstiklal Street, if you really don’t feel safe, simply scream! Because an undercover cop or random person will be your ticket for safety.
Boys should be careful about this, do not follow any local guy who seems to be looking for trouble. Worse luck, Istanbul is home to bunch of people that are beyond measure. For those, Taksim becomes the main attraction on Saturday nights.
Think twice if you will join any “Boat Party” organized by Erasmus so-called companies, because there is a risk of drinking fake alcohol or it never turns into a party… If you really want to go to the “Boat Party”, there are many organized by professionals in May and June.
Last but not least, you should be careful about taxis at night. Behave like you know the road. Not all, but some taxi drivers ravel the road to earn more money. Also find a “stop taxi” which is attached to any station. Be careful! Have fun.
Just like every city in the world, Istanbul’s foreigners are the target for a variety of scams. We will discuss some of the most well-known tourist scams that could end in robbery. The girls should be more careful at night, but the guys should pay attention to these, because they are usually the victim.
As expected, most of the scams occur in Istanbul’s touristic areas such as Sultanahmet Square, İstiklal Avenue and its surroundings. In residential areas it is less likely that you come across a scam.
One of the most popular scams operated in Istanbul is the “Let’s Have a Drink” scam which results in you paying hundreds of Turkish lira for a few drinks. (It can be even thousands!) Here is one variation of hundreds; a stranger approaches you and starts to have conversation which ends with a suggestion of having a drink together. Once you fall for his trick, you find yourself at a table with beers, and you see that women and other men also sit at your table. Sooner or later the bill which you will be expected to pay will come. If you protest the scam, you may be beaten or even threatened with death. This is one of the most popular scams, and you can find thousands of stories that actually happened on the internet.
Another one usually occurs in the Grand Bazaar. A stranger approaches you, and the conversation begins. They will ask you to show you around and this small walking tour will eventually end with a suggestion of meeting his family in a carpet or leather shop where of course you are first offered a cup of Turkish tea. Sounds like honest Turkish tradition? The intention is different. That friend will never call you back if you don’t want to buy anything. Just let you know that that carpet-making family may have many fake sons doing the same work.
There’s no need to tell a lot about pick pocketing. Keep your wallet in the front pockets of your pants and carry back-packs on the front of your body while you are in crowded street or public transportation.
Taxis. Well, we already mentioned about them in the nightlife topic.
“If you are a foreigner no one will hassle you.” or “Police are not trouble, just give 20-30 dollars.” The first sentence is completely false and if any local friend of yours tells you the second one, please offer to him/her paying 20-30 dollars to carry the stuff for you. Then, let’s see if the Turkish police are trouble or not!
To be honest, you are not going to find good stuff in Turkey. Not because it doesn’t exist, contrary to what is believed, the Turks don’t love talking about drugs, which means even if they do, they won’t share with you. If anyone offers you easily, that guy or girl is not a real smoker, and so the stuff will be either bad or very expensive. Simply, as long as you have a good smoker friend, you won’t stop complaining about stuff in Turkey.
If anyone offers you to go to Tarlabaşı area for this, do not fool around too much in the backstreets. Instead of getting high, you may find yourself in a situation that you have no money, phone or even your beautiful jacket. Even if everything goes all right, what you will get best is very bad stuff. You can even smoke a kilogram, nothing will change.
Let’s say you are lucky and everything is all right! Enjoy it in an authentic nargile at your home, but do not smoke in public! If you are caught by a police, you will be taken to police station for a few days, your Erasmus Programme will finish, and you’ll be deported from Turkey. The process will result within a week. (That actually happened.)
To be honest, the most important thing to tell you about drugs is; “Bonzai” (Bonsai-Phenazepam), a synthetic drug that has taken hold of Istanbul recently. Some people may offer you this drug, and you may think that it is weed. It is not. 100% when you first smoke it, within a few seconds your nightmare will start. No exaggeration, some people offer this stuff to the tourist in Taksim, and after they smoke, they lose consciousness, and they see that everything is stolen when they come back to the real world. Yes, that much! Its arrival dated back to 2010 when it was similar to “K2 synthetic cannabis” in United States, but recently this drug has found its Turkish style, and stories of bonsai-linked deaths have become very popular. One of the cheapest drugs, anyone with different intentions may get it, and so please do not smoke the joint which is rolled by a random person. Even if it is a friend, kindly ask!
Most exchange students arrive in Turkey on a visa valid for 90 days. Since the laws regarding tourist visas changed in 2014, you are not able to extend your stay in Turkey by exiting and re-entering the country, as was possible before, and so you have to get a residence permit or İkamet in Turkish. If you don’t know how to get a residence permit, please read our article: How to Get a Turkish Residence Permit?
Nowadays, all applications are processed by the Directorate General of Migration Management, and you need to make an online appointment at first to start the process. Here’s a tip; if the online system gives you an appointment for a very late date, you can change computer’s (so the IP), and try to get an appointment date for an earlier date. It also helps to check the system at unusual hours (such as in the middle of the night or really early in the morning) there are usually more spots available then.
Once you made an appointment, you need to collect all the necessary documents, and arrive at the directorate half an hour before your appointment. You will need about 30 minutes to pay your fees and find your way around. Make sure that you have collected all the right documents in advance, because otherwise they will not be able to process your request.
Some universities have decided to centralize the residence permit process on their own campuses, you can check this with your contact person at the university before you make your own residence permit appointment.
GENERAL HEALTH INSURANCE
Many of the exchange students are intentionally directed to the Private Health Insurance, but the fact is that a foreign student who is living in Istanbul has the right to demand state insurance. This is only valid once they have attended the residence permit appointment. If requested, it is compulsory that the university to provide them with this insurance.
You can also check Social Security agreements between Turkey and some European countries. If your country is on the list, you can go to your national Social Security Office and ask for the form certifying your coverage. (Bilateral agreements : www.sgk.gov.tr) After all, you’ll receive an SGK number upon the registration at the health authority.
Private health insurance probably will be your last choice, but at least you should know that if you buy one in Turkey you can meet the legal requirements asked for the residence permit. There are several companies that provide private health insurance.
- Ak Sigorta : www.aksigorta.com.tr
- Allianz Sigorta : www.allianzsigorta.com.tr
- Anadolu Sigorta : www.anadolusigorta.com.tr
- Axa Sigorta : www.axasigorta.com.tr
- Groupama Sigorta : www.groupama.com.tr
- Güneş Sigorta : www.gunessigorta.com.tr
- HDI Sigorta : www.hdisigorta.com.tr
There are tons of questions about registering cell phones in Turkey, and that’s very normal because clarity in the matter is not readily available. If you are indeed confused, you might want to seek help of someone who speaks Turkish. If you just want to be able to text and call, and use the extensive Wi-Fi-network on your phone, you can always decide to buy a cheap Turkish phone. This is probably cheaper than unlocking your own phone. If you do want to go through with the IMEI registration, you can go any GSM operators shop. In addition to that you have to pay the fee at the tax office or bank. One of the central offices is located in Galata, very close to the Şişhane metro-stop. Going to a GSM subsidiary also has a cost, which is between 10 and 20TL.
To register and use your smart phone in Turkey, you first need to pay a fee at a tax office or a bank. Don’t forget to bring your passport to the bank because they will need your id number and the IMEI number. You can retrieve the IMEI/MEID number on virtually any phone by dialing in the universal code. Dial *#06#. After all, with the paper showing that you paid the fee, you can register at any GSM subsidiary. Usually the officer in charge will generate the IMEI number themselves, you simply hand them your phone. Do not forget to go back to any phone-company store to complete your registration as soon as possible. Within 90 days you will lose the right to use your registration and you have paid for nothing. It is also important to keep the receipt they hand to you at the tax office or bank.
If you want to get a sim-card its usually easier to find a local who can register it to their name; this way you are able to use the special offers rather than the more expensive packages for foreigners.
TRANSPORTATION PASS FOR STUDENTS
Get your transportation pass for students as soon as possible otherwise you would spend a good amount of money to go around the city. You can apply directly to the offices of IETT after you visit your school for a “Travel Card Request Form”. If you like to do online, simply fill the application form and complete the payment with your credit card. Your Istanbulkart will be sent to your address. Here is the link for it: istanbulkart.iett.istanbul
Some universities will also centralize this process, you can check this with your contact person. They might arrange it so that you can pick up your transportation card at the university service desk within the first few weeks of your arrival.
ISTANBUL WALKING TOURS
There’re really too many things to write here. However, we’ll cut the long story short.
There’re “walking tours” that are organized by professional tour companies in Istanbul. They usually serve the tourists, and so the price is usually very high. Despite that, those tours are not always satisfying due to the regular change of the guides. If you do research, you will definitely find very good guides that are very knowledgeable and have a great understanding of Turkey past and present in many aspects.
There’re also “walking tours” that are organized by individuals for free. There are a few university clubs and a few old Istanbulites (we don’t name but Istanbul is a real love for them) who organize walking tours, and even some free workshops. On the other hand there are some individuals, who are always young, organizing free walking tours for free, but with different intentions!
SEVEN THINGS NOT TO DO IN ISTANBUL
- Do not expect the drivers to stop for pedestrians even if they should.
- Do not show you’re wealthy because there’s always a risk of falling victim to theft crime in Istanbul, especially when you are foreign to the city, its culture, and its people.
- Do not pick restaurants that do not provide menus because even if they are not fancy, it can turn out to be awfully pricey
- Do not buy a touristic tour packet from any “Erasmus so-called company”
- Do not bother with taxis if it is possible
- Do not drink every glasses of alcohol you are offered.
- Do not be afraid of haggling