Direct Debit and Me

Yesterday I FINALLY finished my registration after a, what, two week process (or probably three). Like I've said in earlier posts: the british way promotes doing things at the time that they're supposed to be done, not before, not after (... definitely, positively, not before).

Anyway, so I arrive here on September the 4th with the next plan on my head:

  1. Get an account with direct debit. This is needed as The University of Manchester requires that I have this type of account for me to be able to pay my tuition fees by instalments, if not I have to pay the whole tuition fee in one setting during registration (and, because of the type of postgraduate program I'll be taking, that fee is around £11,000... you can now guess why we went for the pay-by-instalments plan). It is also needed because that's the way that I'll pay my residence fee (by instalments)... so basically if you want to pay stuff by instalments you need this type of account. I've enquired around and apparently this is also needed (or, at least, encouraged) to pay the bills and rent in a large part of the U.K.
  2. Give the details of my account to the University to register myself in their system.
  3. Give the details of my account to my Hall of Residence and get online after that to tell the story.

Easy enough plan, right? Well, from what I've learned these past weeks, a simple, pre-thought plan is usually one that won't work out as it was intended to...

I applied online before coming to the U.K. for an international student account with HSBC U.K. (my parents have the money in HSBC Mexico, so it sounded logical). We also researched in how to make a transfer overseas, and apparently HSBC U.K. and HSBC Mexico are two completely different banks: they have very similar logos and names but that's it, their systems aren't referenced to each other like I thought they would be, so the overseas transfer it's just like any other overseas transfer between two banks... bummer. Oh well, that just basically means that it will take a little bit longer (a day, I think) and will cost a little bit more (£10 per transfer, if I remember correctly).

The online application, after it finished, told me that I would get in post mail everything that I needed to bring to the HSBC U.K. branch to deposit the money and order my card. Now, I was in Mexico at that moment, so when I read that I figured it meant that I would get the information in my Mexico postal address; I didn't receive anything. I knew my postal address over in the U.K. (which was one of the things that the application process asked of me). So when I was over here in the U.K. and went to a HSBC U.K. branch, I was told that the information will be sent to my address here in the U.K. This was around Sept. the 5th; I wasn't getting in my residence until the 14th (the contract said so, and no mail could be delivered before that date), and the registration process was going to "start" the 15th (I'll explain the quotes later on). So I was completely stumped: what now? This step was the initial part of the plan, without an account I can't do anything. Add to that the fact that when I was in Mexico, I didn't know my flat number (which I did have, but didn't know that that weird number was actually my flat number: xx.xx.xx, how is that a flat number???) so I didn't give it to the application process, just my name and the hall's address (which I have been informed that is enough, just takes a while); so now, not only did I didn't have an account, but I also didn't know if the information needed to open it was going to arrive properly and on time.

So, I said, f**k that account: let just open another one here that has direct debit. HSBC replied: the only account we have with direct debit for persons that are not U.K. citizens is that one, and you can only apply for one online.

So, I said f**k HSBC: I'll look in other banks. The other banks said: do you have an address here so we can send you the information? I said yes, but I can't receive any mail there until the 14th. The banks said: well, we can start the application process before that with a letter from the university confirming to us that that's your address or you can wait until the 14th to start the process. I went to the university to ask for such letter, for which I receive a friendly sign that that sort of letters will not be printed until the registration process.

So here was my problem: the bank, to give me an account, needed a letter of the university which it can only give me during a process that needs a bank account... beautiful, isn't it?

Everywhere I read information about the university (the site, prospectus, booklets, etc.) almost at the end all of them said something like "if you're in trouble or need of help, contact the Student Service Centre". I deduced that I was indeed in trouble and needed help, so I went. I encountered another friendly face...

I just have to make a little parenthesis to make a quick but important note: even though this whole situation was tiresome, I have to admit that every person that I met during it was very helpful and very friendly, and made their best effort to help me given the circumstances. Very cool, and very patient =) Thank you again if you're reading this!

Anyway, another friendly face; when I finished explaining to her my situation, she was kind of distraught:

"Uhmm, well, you're kind of early. We don't start the process until the 15th".
"Exactly, I'll need the account by that date."
"Actually, you won't. If you don't have it by that date, you can temporarily register; that being you're going to receive a temporary card that'll get you in the library and computer clusters and get you in our database as a normal student. Then you'll have from two weeks to a month to get that account and give the details of which to us, and then we'll give you a permanent ID card. We're very sorry for the confusion, we've getting a lot of these situations over the last few days. Don't worry, just wait till the 15th to start dealing with all of your registration concerns."

Heaven came down and lifted this enormous weight from my shoulders... the registration process starts on the 15th, of course! I could still completely register after that date (almost two weeks, apparently). So there I was: tired, weight-free and with nothing, NOTHING to do but wait.

When my dad heard the news, he said "Ok, good. Then it's time to switch over to tourist mode!" And he went wild with it: we visited Liverpool and London over the next days. I loved Liverpool by the way; I can't put my finger on why, but I felt drawn to that city. I'll probably visit it a few times during my postgraduate year. We also visited the Regent St. Apple Store in London: beautiful, just beautiful, I'll write about it in a later post.

During these days, another worry came about: what's going to happen with my residence payments? They need a direct debit account also. But later I checked the dates for such payments and the first one is until october, which is congruent with the fact that we payed through the telephone £150 to confirm my acceptance of the place. So, another worry taken care of.

We visited, touristed, and got accustomed to the new hour schedule (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that during all of this, I still wasn't accustomed to the new schedule so everything felt like a surreal dream, haha).

The 14th came. Moving in was actually very simple: I showed my contract and got my keys and my resident ID and magnetic card without question, they also sold me some bed covers for £27. When I got in my room everything was were it supposed to be and my parents liked it. I unpacked in a matter of minutes and we were done for the day.

The 15th came. Went in Whitworth Hall (the building that I was appointed to register), did a fairly short line to get to a "purple person" (the official color of the university) and he helped me get through to the rest of the registration. He gave me a temporary ID card and told me to get that letter I needed over at the Student Service Centre. I went and they told me that they couldn't give it to me right there because the system was in "acquisition mode", and printing those letters would take all day, so I should come back monday 18th. That was OK, because now I had my ID card so I could get in the computer clusters and signup for an IT account. I also wanted to see about the internet in my room, but that also was going to begin in monday. So basically, the lesson of all of this, is that we got here REALLY early: a lot of stuff can or must be done during classes.

My parents were going to leave the 16th very early, so this was my last day with them. We went shopping to the Trafford Centre and Piccadilly Gardens. Finally we hugged and they got into a cab waving a Kodak moment goodbye. We tested my cell phone to see if it was receiving calls and said epiloguish goodbye's.

The 16th came. My parents gone... déjà vu all over again.

The 18th came. Activated my room internet access. Went to the Student Services Centre and was informed that there was a bank over at Whitworth Hall that didn't need the letter from the university that confirmed my address to open a bank account with direct debit. Just a passport and an acceptance letter from the university (which I already have). The bank's name is Barclays: it was the first bank to ever use a credit card (called Barclaycard, term that the bank still uses) and one of the largest banks in the U.K. The staff was very friendly and had a type of account for my situation; I called my parents for an opinion on it and they told me that it sounded fine and that it was up to me. I went for it; the bank's staff told me that my account would be ready by friday 22nd. By that date they would give me the account details (account number and sorting code, both needed to start a direct debit payment) and that I should bring whatever money I intended to deposit so they could order my debit card that will be delivered to me by post. So, one week to get the account, and another one to get the debit card; I really didn't mind at that moment that I'd have to wait another week to get my card, I just wanted somewhere to put all the money I had with me in Traveller's Cheques and an account with direct debit within the registration week time-slot. That same day I went climbing... it still hurts, hehe.

The 22nd came. As advised by the lady in Barclays', this was the plan for that day:

  1. Go down to the Barclays' branch to get my account details.
  2. Go to the American Express office and cash in all of my Traveller's Cheques.
  3. There was another Barclay's branch near the American Express office (about 100 m. apart, very practical) so I could deposit the money in my account there. Walking around with that much cash in the city centre or in a bus doesn't scream safety. The other option was to deposit the Traveller's Cheques as they were directly into my account in my account's branch, but it would've taken about a couple weeks to clear them (because of the large sum); the first option, which I preferred, would make it as so that the money would immediately reflect on my account... enough waiting around.
  4. Then come back to my account's branch and asked them to order my debit card, now that there actually is money in there.
  5. And finally go down to the university so they could finish my registration and give me a permanent ID card.

Well, everything went fine until the final step: the direct debit account is needed by the university to ensure the payment of the LAST TWO INSTALMENTS (there are three in total); you have to actually pay for the first payment during the registration process. You can do this online by paying with a credit or debit card (which I still had to wait another week to get), you can do the same in person or by cheque (my account didn't handle these) or cash (which was kind of unsecure). Went back to the bank to see what solution they can offer me and said that a lot of students were using what they called a "Banker's Draft Cheque", which is a cheque that is charged by my account but with the name of the bank as the payer and the name of a certain institution as the payee. Went back to the university to see if this was viable (I really didn't want to have a cheque for that large sum with me and realized at the end that it won't work), and two different persons confirmed that it was ok. Went back to the bank (I know what you're thinking: why didn't I just called the university from the bank to confirm that? And you're completely right, but, first, I didn't know the registration help hot line number, and, second, frankly I felt more confident with a person, face to face, telling me that it was fine; we're talking about a lot of money here) and got a Banker's Draft Cheque for the amount of money that I needed (if I would've deposited the Traveller's Cheque, this wouldn't have been possible, so, ha, good decision after all). Went back to the university, made the long queue again (yeah, it's "queue", instead of "line") and everything went smoothly. I have now with me a permanent ID card (which, well, it's not really permanent, it expires July of 2007, but well, an ID card for the rest of the year, so it's all good).

So... people coming from overseas: listen up. This is what you must do if you ever come to the University of Manchester (maybe even most other universities in Europe) and are plainning to pay by instalments your tuition fees:

  • If you can, get an U.K. address as soon as you can and make sure you can get stuff delivered there at the moment you arrive, it makes life much easier. They ask you for an U.K. address for EVERYTHING here, much like they ask for a local address everywhere in the world.
  • Explore for banks. I've tried HSBC, NatWest, and Barclays', the latter being the one that I chose because of the circumstances. I'm pretty sure (this coming from all of the banks that I checked over here) that there are options with which you can set up accounts of this type from overseas successfully having an U.K. address. I tried, but I misinterpreted the whole thing: do as I say not as I've done, jeje.
  • Bring a credit/debit card with you from an account of your country with some money in it. It will probably take some time before you can actually open an account here (even if you already applied for one online), so you'll need to eat and have a roof over your head before that, and you don't want to cash in that big cheque for your tuition fees to pay for it. If it has Visa or Mastercard logo on it, it's all that's needed for you to use it over here as a cash card to take money out of ATM's.
  • Try to think everything in pounds (£), even before you come here. Thinking "that burger costs £2.50, which translates to around $50 mexican pesos, wow, that's a lot" is mental torture, really. If you think by those terms, everything will be expensive. Coming here is expensive, and you better get over it soon. That doesn't mean that you can go in a shopping spree everytime you want: one thing is mental torture, another is living by a budget. If you can cut costs in stuff, like meals (eating in is much less expensive than eating out, cook your own dinners and breakfasts, etc.) and accomodation (getting a shared appartment, not using that much water or electricity, etc.), go ahead, but don't go hungry or sleeping out in the rain because of it: your study time is going to suffer as a result and that's your main goal and job right now. Just think that if you ever are in need of money, having a student account in a bank here opens a lot of possibilities in terms of loans and credit; there are also possibilities of part-time jobs inside the university as teacher assistants; and the psychiatric department is always in need of subjects for their research, and most of the time they are willing to pay you for taking part in their psychologic experiments (I haven't even started classes yet and I've already received three such like offers through email).
  • For your initial deposit in your new bank account, there are two options that seem rather safe as well as practical:
    1. Traveller's Cheques. It apparently has the best of both worlds: it's much safer than cash but potentially has it's immediacy. The thing is to find a bank near an American Express office so you don't have to walk around with all of your cash and expose yourself for too long. You're probably wondering why I'm advising to go to an American Express office for this; I mean it is possible to cash in Traveller's Cheques in any bank, but it comes with a cost, BIG cost, almost 0.5% of the amount to be cashed in (that comes to being hundreds of pounds if you're cashing in your tuition fees).
    2. Plain Old Cheque. If you feel that Traveller's Cheques is not a completely safe solution, but you're willing to wait: bring a plain old cheque for your deposit. Knowing what I now know, I probably would've gone with this solution: even though it was immediate, that 100 m. walk was a real nerve test for me. I don't like carrying that much money with me (£80 and up makes my neck quiver) and probably a lot of people out there don't either.
  • Find out what's the amount of the first instalment. The Crucial Guide that's on the web about a month or two before the registration week should inform you of this. Although, because the Crucial Guide is a more general guide for all programs and degrees, it probably won't reflect the exact total amount of your fees for your specific course or program; however, it WILL tell you how many instalments will there be. You can take that number and use it to get the instalment amount: just divide the total amount of your fees, which you WILL be informed by post mail after getting your acceptance letter, by that number. If after the division, the instalment amount has decimals, just rounded it to the upper most integer... yeah, I'm an engineer, sorry... if your total tuition fee is £5000 and there are three instalments per year (which usually there are): 5000/3 is 1666.6666, so your first instalment payment will be £1667.
  • To make your first payment during the registration process bring some sort of cheque, a credit/debit card with a LOT of allowance, or wait until you have openned your account and get a Banker's Draft Cheque; don't bring cash to pay for your first instalment, people get nervous with that option and frown upon it. Don't forget your account details to ensure the payment of later instalments.
  • Be patient, VERY patient. The queues that I've encountered were generally between 30 minutes to 1 hour and a half during the registration week (also called the Freshers' Week); although that may sound like a long time, consider that the "purple people" have been there helping others for much more than that. It's a strenuous, confusing process, and everyone is aware of that: you're not alone, so ask if you want to, there will be people there to answer; and, again, you're not alone, so don't act as if your problem is the only one without a solution, because it does have an answer (it just might take some time to figure it out) and that attitude is tiresome not only to you and the staff, but the people around you that also have some sort of problems. I encountered some rude people in the queues, including one that skipped ahead of me; I asked him is he was kidding, because it was so obvious what he just did, and he plainly said that he was pretty sure that he was in front of me since the beginning, which he wasn't (a young lady and a gentlemen behind me, eye-witnesses to the fact, later confirmed to me that he indeed skipped ahead), I finally replied that "Well, I'm pretty sure that I was in front of you, but fine, if you think that it's that important for you to be first, go ahead. God!". There wasn't a need to make a spectacle of the thing, and everyone else (well, at least, the ones that I talked to later) agreed that it was the best thing to do. If I would've taken that further, some sort of conflict would've arosed and I probably would've lost my position in the queue because of it. Interestingly enough, I, and I think some others behind me, finished the registration process before him...
  • And, this goes out for EVERYBODY that will go through a queue... I can't believe that I'm the one saying this... please, for the love of God, TAKE A BATH BEFORE YOU TAKE A QUEUE! The community smell that is collected in the registration halls can sometimes be unbearable, and that coming from me means that I wouldn't be surprised if some people passed out from it.

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