This post contains a list of apps that I have found to be absolutely crucial in the UK, from navigation, to communication, to studying, to safety. While this list is not at all comprehensive or complete, it will give some good information and insight in how your smartphone can be an absolute life-saver in a new country.
***As a disclaimer, I am an american student on exchange in England, many of these apps are region specific and may not be available to you. For example, the app store is not universal, some apps exist in the American App Store that do not exist elsewhere. Now with that out of the way, lets jump into things:
Apps that are excellent for Communication:
This is the app I used back in the states to communicate with fellow students, I also had a group set up with other students from my home university (Iowa State) that were studying in the same area as me in England! In addition, this app has features for direct messaging and QR reading as well (however, with recent apple phones you can read QR codes straight from your camera)! As a downside, the person/s you are communicating with must also have GroupMe.
This is hands down the most essential communications app I have used since arriving at Lancaster University (England). This app is helpful in a variety of ways (and acts as a step up from GroupMe). WhatsApp allows for group message threads, direct message threads, AND calling to numbers in and outside of the UK. Therefore, this is the app I use to call back home; this takes away the hassle of buying minutes from a UK provider such as Vodafone or O2, or getting charged by the minute from your domestic provider. As long as you have data OR are on wifi, calling is free with WhatsApp. However, just like with GroupMe, the person/s you are communicating with must also have WhatsApp.
This is my go-to app for videochatting with absolutely anyone. The marvelous thing about FaceTime is that it comes pre-installed on all apple devices, so if you have a parent/grandparent that struggles with downloading apps, or confusing interfaces, this app is perfect for communicating with friends and family back home and anyone new you meet while abroad. Again, this app is free as long as you are on wifi or have cellular data available.
4. Facebook Messenger:
I have found that this is the go to group messaging app among students here in the UK. My college mentors (the older students that hang out with you during freshers week and make sure you don’t get too drunk or lost) set up all our Flat’s group message threads through this app. What makes Facebook Messenger nice is that you can simply add friends from Facebook, therefore you do not need to get someones phone number (as you do with GroupMe and WhatsApp). Furthermore, as you add international people you meet on Facebook, you can more easily track their future adventures than if you had simply gotten their phone number.
That concludes the major apps I use for communication here in the UK that aren’t super mainstream. Obviously, I use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat daily to communicate with all sorts of people; this post follows the assumption that any young millennial studying abroad already has these at their disposal…if you do not, definitely download them ASAP.
Second, Apps that are crucial for Travel/Navigation:
1. Apple Maps:
While this App does get a lot of hate from the users who prefer google maps, I have always found this app easier to use. While many reports of inaccuracy in determining user location have been reported, I have never had that issue and have been using this app for 6+ years. In addition, this app is extremely accurate when you are using walking routes. The public transit planner within the app is completely useless and I do not recommend ever using it; however, I have additional apps that solve this with ease.
This app is CRUCIAL for all things related to traveling by train in the UK and connecting countries. I absolutely love this app, and I consequently use it to book every train journey I go on. For the american abroad, the public transit system can be very daunting, this app makes it easy. Within the app you can book trips, research potential trips, and store your mobile tickets. The latter is certainly the most important aspect of trainline. Many bookings allow you to purchase a mobile ticket that is available within the app or in your apple wallet. This eliminates the need to wait in line at the station as you simply use the QR generated for your ticket on your mobile device. Again, if you have anxiety about this, don’t. When the train staff does ticket checks, your mobile ticket is perfectly acceptable to show them.
As a side note (while on the topic of trains), if you are 16-25 you MUST purchase a 16-25 railcard. You can do this at any staffed train terminal; the best part is that the card pays for itself after only 3-5 trips. And while you may not think it now, if you study abroad you WILL use the train that much.
Further information can be found here in regards to railcards: https://www.railcard.co.uk/home2/?utm_expid=.oEv9cHDWRdaZiOMjNT4Cjg.1&utm_referrer=https%253A%252F%252Fwww.google.co.uk%252F
3. Airline Apps (Included are Delta, American, Southwest, JetBlue, StudentUniverse, and almost any other Airline): The ones I specifically use are United and StudentUniverse as those are the firms I purchased my tickets from.
The concept with these apps is always pretty much the same: managing your bookings. Personally, I do not recommend buying flights through the apps as the price will be much higher compared to if you shopped around online. However, once you have a flight booked, definitely download that airlines’ app and insert the details to your booking as it opens up options such as mobile tickets, reminders, and alerts for delays/cancellations. In addition, it may also take away the need to have a paper ticket which is always nice to not have to deal with (even though I always print off a paper boarding pass at the airport because I’m paranoid).
This app is certainly not in the main-mainstream, however depending on your travel style, it can be very helpful. The app essentially (based on your location or one you type in) shows a list of walks, hikes, and trails that you can access along with maps and reviews. While you have to pay for full access, the free version still allows you to look up the most popular trails; from here, you can do your own research on the web or by looking at actual paper maps. Personally, I always hike with others who know the area, but if you are a lone wanderer certainly look into this. In addition, many of England’s national parks have large swathes of open-access land which means trails may not be that overtly obvious…therefore always have some kind of guiding resource along with you in the great outdoors.
Third, apps that are nice for safety/peace of mind:
While I was required to download this app through my university, it has been very helpful. The app essentially alerts you to all terrorist events, strikes, protests, demonstrations, and much more in your area (which can extend to the whole country depending on severity). These features are particularly useful as train strikes happen fairly often in densely populated areas (Manchester and London for example), and if you have a train going to that area you may be affected. As a student abroad, do not use the mentality “it won’t happen to me” because you are just as unlucky as everyone else who has been living here their whole lives.
As Lancaster and the surrounding north of England is a very, very safe area AlertTraveler is the only app I use often for safety. Additional strategies for being safe in a new country simply involve understanding where you are, where you are going, and the atmosphere those two places have individually AND towards each-other. For example, if you go to Ireland do not walk up to someone in the north and denounce the Protestant faith (if this does not make sense to you, you are someone who should do research before travelling).
Additional apps I have used include MyTSA to see airline security information. The best app you can use abroad to stay safe is hands down your brain and the common sense it has, you do not need technology to stay safe…although it certainly does help!
Now, featured below is a plethora of random/university specific apps I use while abroad in the UK:
This app allows you to book hotels, hostels, cars, and more within the app; in addition, if you book online through booking.com you can enter your reservation number in the app and see the details of your booking on your phone! This can be very helpful and may eliminate the need to print off lengthy paper confirmations. In addition, you can write a review about your stay, access travel articles, and contact customer support all within the app! There are many alternatives to booking.com that accomplish the same thing such as travelocity. When booking, just pick the website with the best details, they all do the same thing.
If you enjoy staying at Hostels, this app is perfect for you. If you are an american student, and do not know what a hostel is, you are not alone…I truly didn’t either until I got here. Hostels are essentially shared accommodation where you stay in bunk beds, in larger rooms (5-15) people instead of a private room. This may seem sketchy but it really is not if you take necessary precautions in locking luggage. The trade off is that the nightly rate is closer to 30-50 GBP instead of 80-150+ GBP for a private hotel room. In conclusion, this app is essentially booking.com but only for hostels. This app should be your first stop for booking hostels before looking at sites such as booking.com.
If you end up living with fellow Americans while abroad, this app can be very useful within your flat. The app essentially allows quick and relatively free money transfers to other people who have the app; you can simply look up their username and transfer the necessary funds. The app eliminates the need to pay others back in cash for shared purchases; this is critical as an international student whose bank may charge hefty fees for ATM withdrawals…and at the end of the day, the app is safer than cash and still relatively instantaneous. After receiving funds, you simply transfer them to an attached bank account.
Finally, there are two Lancaster-University specific apps that I recommend. First is iLancaster (for all things you would need to know about at the university) and Moodle (the main app for viewing courses and information about them (essentially BlackBoard or Canvas)). The iLancaster app is critical as its used to take attendance in classes. In addition, the app shows laundry information, bus schedules, maps, timetables, and so much more…it can be a lifesaver to a student in foreign university. The app icons are shown below:
Again, while this list is not exhaustive, it should give you a solid footing in a new and daunting country.