What You Should Know About Studying and Living in Istanbul, Turkey
Men carrying flags and banners in Turkey.
You know how children watch television during breakfast, occasionally glancing down to help food reach the mouth but quickly looking back to the screen? This is how I’m watching the Bosphorus. I watch from a lookout nearby the classrooms at Istanbul's Bogaziçi University. Russian tankers are plowing to and from the Black Sea. The view is so dramatic. I don’t want to miss a thing.
Behind me, lording over me and the Bosphorus like a bored god, is Rumelihisari, the Ottoman fortress built in 1451 by Sultan Mehmed II in preparation for the siege of Constantinople. The Bosphorus below, mercurial, ancient, over 100 meters deep, in Turkish means "The Throat." I stare at it closely. I want to see below the nebulous sheen of its surface. I want to see the thousands of ships and skeletons forever sunk beneath.
Right now, if I focus beyond the fifty seagulls riding the azimuth of air between me and the shores of Asia, I see old Ottoman mansions falling down the hill slopes into the water. And in the distance, astride two continents, perhaps the most poignant physical manifestation of Turkey existing: the Bosphorus Bridge, suspended 210 feet above the swirling currents, linking the continent and culture of Europe to that of Asia. Driving either east or west, I could reach Paris in a matter of days, or Beijing in a few weeks.
But, of course, neither Europe nor Asia exists anywhere outside human imagination. They are no more separate geographically than Mexico and the United States. Long ago a mapmaker penciled a line down the Bosphorus and wrote Europe on one side, Asia on the other. Those people over there are different from us, he might have thought. You can swim between them when the tides are friendly, just as easily as Turks swim between the eastern and western shores of their identity.
And it's this swim, these blasts of influence that blow from every direction, rending open and renewing Istanbul’s patchwork ghost – this ambiguity of the present that smothers the millennia and all those extinct worlds and civilizations – it’s this that makes Istanbul the most fascinating city in the world to spend a few months during your study abroad.
Why Turkey? Why Istanbul?
For my study abroad I was looking for a non-Western country where my occasional appetite for Western comforts could be easily satisfied. I wanted an interesting region where it was cheap to travel, and I wanted a university that offered a wide range of courses in English. Above all, I wanted to live in an inspirational city.
Istanbul is unbelievably gorgeous. During the 2600 years of its existence it has served as the capital of two world empires, first the Byzantine, then the Ottoman, and has inherited all the lavish architectural marvels those civilizations raised in demonstration of their power and the majesty of their gods—such beauties as the Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque. One could spend months exploring Istanbul’s historical treasures.
There’s also the modern city—the screaming rush of the traffic, the human sea that floods the pedestrian thoroughfares, the million apartment lights that twinkle among the hillsides, the trees of smoke resurrected above the chestnuts roasters, the smell of baklava and goat spits and fish. It is one of the most alive cities in the world. Rarely, even during the deepest hours of the night, are the streets unpeopled – and the Turks who people them are some of the friendliest I've met.
Living in Istanbul is also relatively cheap, and the nightlife rivals any European capital. The expatriate community, when you desire the company of other Westerners, is enormous, with constant parties, potlucks, meetings, and trivia nights.
Location was also important to my decision. Istanbul is the axis between Asia, Europe and Africa, and you can fly or travel overland to these places cheaply and easily. If you enjoy the sea, you can take ferries or cruises from Istanbul to Greece, Italy, Russia, Cyprus or the Ukraine. And there are many weekend and day trip options close to Istanbul on the Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, or to the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia.
Before You Leave
Before your departure you should learn a few words of Turkish. You can easily get around Istanbul with only this, as most anyone who has anything to do with tourism, along with many young people, speak a little English. Turks, however, will appreciate your effort – and you’ll need Turkish it if you plan on travelling outside Istanbul. Teach Yourself Turkish provides a wonderful introductory booklet along with audio CDs
It will also do you good to learn a few things about Turkey. At the very least you should read Stephen Kinzer’s Crescent and the Star and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. Pamuk is Turkey’s best-known author. He’s written countless novels about life in Turkey, both past and present. Although he’s a bit dry, and not very impressive stylistically, his insights into the Turkish psyche are unmatched by any other contemporary Turkish writer. There is a fine website for a great list of books about Turkey.
Arranging a Program
You will need to meet with your study abroad advisor to learn whether your home university has a reciprocal exchange with one of Istanbul’s universities. If not, you can usually arrange things yourself. The following universities offer courses in English: Boğazii, Istanbul University, Bilgi University, Istanbul Technical University, and Bilkent University, and all of them have websites, in English, explaining their requirements and the process of applying.
All these universities offer Turkish language courses, but if you’re really set on learning you should probably go to a private language school.
Other language academies include: EFINST Turkish Center and KediCat. Private tutors can also be arranged through Craigslist, and language exchanges with Turks can be easily arranged through Couchsurfing.org. Simply post a message saying you’re looking to do a Turkish/English Language exchange on the Istanbul forum and you’ll receive numerous responses.
The Basics: Accommodation and Transportation
Many universities offer on-campus dorm accommodation, such as the Superdorm at Bogaziçi, but dorms can be expensive and the living restrictions can be depressing. Homestays can be arranged, and they’ll do wonders for your Turkish, but they’re often more expensive than alternative housing and due to the often conservative nature of the families who host, they will most likely interfere in your social life.
Most students seek freedom from these restrictions, the freedom to travel, to stay out until 7 a.m. or to have lovers sleep over. The best option for this sort of experience is to arrange your own accommodation. The two best ways to do this are Craigslist or the “Flatmates” forum on Couchsurfing.org. These websites are full of cheap, good accommodation listings.
Deciding where to live is also important. Istanbul is enormous and getting from one side of the city to the other can take hours. If studying is your priority, then house yourself near your university. If a rich social life is more important, then I suggest living as close to Taksim Square as possible; preferably in Beyoglu or Cihangir.
Cihangir is the most European part of the city, with numerous cafes, art galleries and bars. It's close to the action of Istklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main pedestrian thoroughfare, but is still peaceful. Nearby is Beyoglu, which is a little cheaper than Cihangir. It’s the entertainment caldera of the city and can sometimes be overwhelmingly busy, so it’s best to seek a place down a quiet side street.
Basically, look at an Istanbul map and find something as close to Istiklal Caddesi as possible. In general, the further away you are from Istiklal, the cheaper the accommodation, but you should also calculate in transportation costs.
You will most likely be spending many of your nights out near Taksim, and the Metro closes at 11:30 p.m., and many buses cease service, or become hourly, at midnight—so if you cannot reach your home by walking you will probably spend a lot of money on taxis.
Although Istanbul’s Metro is clean and efficient, its network is limited. Ferries are an atmospheric way to save time if you're going between Europe and Asia, but you'll probably be using buses most of the time. The intercity bus network is extensive, but due to traffic it's often VERY slow. It'll take time before you can look at a bus and know exactly which one will take you where you need (they post their destinations on the front and side), but luckily the IETT has a wonderful website, in English, which has detailed information on every bus route.
To find exactly which bus, tram or ferry will take you where you want to go you can use Google. Simply type the business or address you're seeking into Google maps and ZOOM in. On the map near your destination you will find a transportation icon, along with the name of the bus/metro/ferry stop. Look up this stop on the IETT website and it will tell you every bus which goes there, and at what time. All these transportation services are cheap (One way: $1, or 50 cents for students).
Besides buses there are taxis and Dolmuses (shared taxis). Taxis all have meters and aren't very expensive if you use them sporadically or share them with other passengers. Dolmuses serve many of the major bus routes, cost the same, and are usually faster, but inside can be very claustrophobic (Dolmus means "stuffed").
Around Turkey and the Region
Traveling around Turkey is cheap and easy, but the distances can be vast. Domestic flights to most parts of the country can occasionally be found for $30, depending on the season. Many international flights can also be surprisingly cheap (Beirut: $75, Rome/Milan: $70, London: $110, Tbilisi: $75). The cheapest airline, usually, is Pegasus, but you must book directly from the website to get these prices.
Train travel in Turkey is cheap, comfortable, and slow. A map of the rail network, along with detailed information on the trains, can be found Turkey section of seat61.com. Nearly all trains have descent sleeper cars and a dining car. You can also take trains to Iran, Syria, and many European countries.
Buses in Turkey are comfortable, clean, relatively cheap, and will take you just about anywhere (for tiny villages in the interior you might need to take irregularly timed dolmuses). Most buses are equipped with movie screens, but the films are usually dubbed into Turkish. About one in four have internet. During the ride you will be served snacks and hot beverages.
The "Metro" company has the most extensive network and is usually the cheapest. For large cities, or cities where the bus station is inconveniently located, Metro and other companies has "servis" buses that deliver you almost anywhere in the city. Be sure to ask "Servis var mi?" to the driver after you arrive and he will point you in the right direction. If you don't know where you're going it's usually best to head to the city center and find your way from there.
You usually don't have to book ahead for buses, unless you're traveling on holidays or weekends. You don't necessarily need to go to the central bus station either. Companies in major cities have numerous conveniently located offices that run free service taxis to the station or to a location where the bus will pick you up. You can find the location of these on Google Maps. Note: Always ask for a student discount. Companies usually don't have student discounts, but simply asking will occasionally inspire the salesperson to lower their commission.
U.S. citizens, along with most other nationalities, are issued visas on arrival for $20. Most universities require that you obtain a student visa before departure. Do this through your closest Turkish consulate or embassy, but if it’s possible (speak with your advisor) attempt to get out of this. It's a waste of both time and money and not necessary from a customs standpoint.
You'll hear you're required to get a Turkish residence permit during your study, but this isn't true. Getting one is expensive and time consuming and it’s best to just buy a three month visa upon arrival. When your three months is about to expire you can take a trip out of the country, or go to the closest border (Greece or Bulgaria). Most people plan weekend trips to Sofia or Thessalonica when their visa is up, and then return with cheap wine or Duty-Free liquor (both of which are overpriced in Turkey). One company runs ferries to the Greek Islands and back for this purpose.
Note: months ago the government briefly passed a law making it obligatory to spend 180 days outside the country after each three month period, but, due to complaints by foreigners who own holiday homes on the Turkish Mediterranean, the law was revoked. They’ve made vague threats about reinstating it, but it's unlikely. To be safe, check the Turkish Embassy's website. If this rule does return then you will be obliged to get a residence permit.
You will need a work permit if you plan to work certain professional jobs, but as a student, if you’re working, you’ll probably be teaching English, being a nanny, or doing something related to tourism. All of these you can usually do without a permit and get paid cash under the counter. The fastest, easiest way to get a job doing one of these is through Craigslist.
English schools in Istanbul typically pay decent wages and teachers are in high demand. TOEFL certification helps, but, usually, isn’t strictly necessary as long as you’re a native speaker. Some schools will attempt to force you to sign a six month or year-long contract, and will retain a significant portion of your pay to ensure you don’t flee, so it’s best to shop around before you decide on a school. You can also offer private lessons on Craiglist. These are also in high demand and sometimes pay up to $60 an hour.
For women, a lucrative way to earn money is through being a nanny. Many positions are live-in and usually offer $1000 a week.
Thinking of bringing your cell phone to Turkey and slipping a new SIM card in? Think again. Turkey has weird laws concerning foreign cell phones, requiring you to register your phone with the government, apparently a “counter-terrorism measure”. To do this is confusing, difficult, and costs money. It's so confusing that I haven't actually met anyone who has done it. Within two weeks of arrival, if not registered, your phone will miraculously stop working. Unless you feel ashamed using low quality technology, you should probably just buy a used cell phone from one of the ubiquitous phone shops. I got mine for $20 and it has served me well for over a year. These same phone shops, and just about any news or food kiosk, sells SIM card and phone credit. The two major companies are AVEA and TURKCELL, which are similarly priced for pre-paid credit.
Money Saving Card
After your arrival, if you wait until your university has issued a confirmation letter stating you're a student at that institution (it may take a few weeks) you will save hundreds of dollars on attractions. This confirmations letter (ask the study abroad office at your university about it) can be brought to almost any significant tourist attraction in Istanbul (excluding private museums) and exchanged for a MUZE card for $10. This card will get you into most attractions throughout the country for free.
Culture, and Coming Home
With this information you should be able to avoid the major mistakes most study abroad students make in Istanbul, and save money. Besides this, you will need to make slight cultural adjustments in your daily life, but Turks are generally very accommodating when it comes to foreigners and won’t scowl at you for making mistakes.
A few general rules to remember:
- Remove your shoes when entering a home or mosque.
- Don’t shake with your left hand, as this was once the toilet wiping hand.
- When entering a mosque women should cover their hair, and both sexes should be dressed modestly.
- Men, when using a traditional squat toilet, should squat down to urinate.
- Try your best to avoid political and religious issues in conversation unless you’re certain the person you’re speaking with is open-minded.
Keep these in mind and you’ll be prepared for all the wonderful things you‘re about to learn in Turkey. And don’t be surprised when you return to your home country with a tea and backgammon addiction, along with a profound love and admiration for Turkish people and their culture.