Mundusian Guide to living and studying in Berkeley, California

Need some help wrapping your head around life in California at one of the world’s best Journalism schools? This guide will help you figure out the what and how and provide helpful information about course options, living costs, the Berkeley vibe, visa and health insurance.

2020.06.23 | Sophie Timmermann and Thess Mostoles

Welcome to CAL - home of the Golden Bears!

Berkeley is located in the Bay Area, a 30 min drive across the bay bridge east from San Francisco. It is home to roughly 120,000 citizens, of which students make up more than a third. Known as the birthplace of the 1964 Free Speech Movement, Berkeley is a catalysator for progressive thinking, human rights, technological innovation and - of course - journalism. The University of California forms the center of a vibrant, international and forward-thinking daily grind. Strolling along the historic Telegraph Avenue, south of the university, you will find cosy cafes, vintage shops and internationally acclaimed restaurants.

For those Mundusians who are accepted to study abroad, your semester at Berkeley starts in the second semester of your Mundus Journalism endeavour. At the Graduate School of Journalism, your studies will focus on hands-on classes tailored to enhance your writing, reporting, analytical and data skills. You’ll have a range of course options, from advanced writing, introduction to coding, earth journalism, open source investigation to intersectional identities and much more. Need inspiration? Look at some of the previous classes and keep an eye out for the current courses.

Study at one of the world’s best universities

The University of California, Berkeley is consistently ranked as one of the best universities in the world - and the #1 public university. Be prepared to be taught by Pulitzer-awarded professors, attend conferences taken by Nobel prize winners and have the opportunity to talk to world-ranking experts from diverging fields. UC Berkeley has been the home of 20 Nobel Prize winners, 30 recipients of the National Medal of Science, the founders of more than 250 companies, and its students and alumni have won more than 200 Olympic medals… Need we say more?

The Berkeley vibe

Berkeley is a cosy city and can easily be discovered by foot. True to the Californian spirit, you have endless options to choose from: from hour-long hikes in near-by hills or catch a local bus for an afternoon spent in San Francisco? Nothing quite compares to the Bay Area and its striking contrasts. Here, the beautiful landscape of the Napa Valley and the technological prowess of Silicon Valley meet one of America’s biggest homeless populations and skyrocketing housing prices.

City of innovation, college champions, culinary diversity & more

Berkeley is anything but boring. Mundusians have embarked on exciting sport endeavours, perfected their culinary tasting skills, increased their vintage clothing collection or simply enjoyed the shafts of sunlight laying on the lawn in front of Doe Library.

While a few rainy days in the beginning of the year might make you escape to Yosemite Park to ski down powdered slopes, March spoils you with sunshine and gets you excited about spending time outside.

If going through one of the 12 million available books in Berkeley’s libraries doesn’t quite satisfy you, why not visit the Berkeley Art Museum, get inspired in Berkeley’s Energy & Climate Institute or explore the Botanical Garden.

Top Berkeley Recommendations:

Needless to say, this list could go on forever, but here are some of the must-dos to make the most of your Berkeley time:

●      Swoop up the Sather tower (for free for students) and enjoy the 94m high four-faced view on Berkeley and its surroundings.

●      Hike up to Lawrence Hall of Science for a beautiful sunset with view on San Francisco’s impeccable skyline.

●      Don’t miss Taco Tuesdays at Raleigh’s bar.

●      Bike or run down to Marina Bay and immerse yourself in idyllic scenery.

●      Hike up the Panoramic Hills and make it all the way to Tilden Park - beware of Mountain lions who may want a share of your lunch.

●      Walk down College Avenue toward Elmswood, you’ll find cozy bakeries, bagel places and coffee places side by side.

There are many more fun activities and events that we recommend you to check out in Berkeley!

Short trip recommendations

1 Day:

-       Spend the day in San Francisco. Whether by BART or by the local F bus, you can be there within 30 minutes.

1 Day:

-       Go to Embarcadero, in San Francisco, (Bonus points if you catch the farmer´s market) and take a ferry to Angel Island. There you will find not only an amazing hiking path and secret beaches, but also a museum about the inmigration detention centers from the 20th Century, in what has become the Ellis Island of the West Coast. 

2 Days:

-       Santa Cruz: a 1.5 hour drive away, walk along the beautiful beaches, take a deep breath of fresh air, go surfing or listen to the choir of sea lions barking

2-3 Days:

-       Yosemite Park: Perfect retreat in the nature park. Note: having  a car to get there and around is highly recommended


Fed up with rainy days and darkness? You don’t need to worry anymore. California will be the shining knight in armour and provide you with your daily dose of Vitamin B. Located in the northern part of California, Berkeley doesn’t get as hot and sometimes unbearable as its southern counterparts Los Angeles or San Diego, but be ready for 20+ degrees in late February and March onward. You can expect some rain in the first months of your arrival (January / February), but as the days get longer in early March, you won’t be needing your jacket much longer.

Nighttime can get chilly at times, so come prepared and bring a warm jacket and some additional layers just in case. You don’t want to catch a cold watching the sunset in the Panoramic hills while looking over San Francisco’s skyline.

Living Expenses

Berkeley is an expensive city and the Bay area is known for its hefty accommodation prices. Please carefully review your finances before deciding to take on this adventure. You want to make sure to be able to afford all the perks of living in Berkeley and its surroundings. In the past, Mundusians managed to maintain a comfortable living for €1000-€1500 per month depending on your personal spending style. Also, bear in mind possible health costs and emergency expenses when you plan. Remember these prices are based on previous years and they might change over time.

Here is a break down of the average monthly expenses in Berkeley:

●      Housing: €600-€1000 (more about housing types and options below)

●      Health insurance: €60 (depends!) -By law, you are required to be covered for the months of your stay in the U.S. Check your international travel insurance beforehand. You can submit a waiver if your insurance meets the external requirements. The university also offers a cheap insurance plan, which ranges from €45-€70. Generally speaking, try to do most of your check-ups before.

●      Transportation: €0-€40/ month. Berkeley is very accessible by foot and bike. Most Mundusians have lived close or in walking distance to campus and did not buy any public transport card.You can get a monthly bus pass for €40, and a bus trip goes for around 2.5€.

●      Groceries: €300-€500/ month. Food is expensive, but Trader’s Joe is your friend!

●      Entertainment: Grab a pint or eat some tacos at Raleigh’s, especially on Taco Tuesday.

●      Gym: Visiting scholars must pay for a membership in order to use the gym facilities, but you can ask for a 30-day trial for free.

Groceries & Supermarkets

Top picks for grocery shops are Trader’s Joe, Safeway and the Berkeley Bowl. All of these offer a good choice of organic and vegetarian food. Given the large Asian influence in the Bay area, you can also find interesting picks in Chinese and Japanese stores, and Berkeley Bowl has a large selection as well. UC Berkeley also offers a food pantry to fight food security which is open to students and faculty staff.

Living on a Budget

Berkeley is on the high-end of the expense scale, but there are always options to find student discount and cheap options. There are a lot of places within a block or two from campus, but remember it is customary to tip in the U.S., and that taxes are added on top of the price, so a 10$ salad might be 15$ after taxes and tip. 

If you want to try to lower your grocery expenses while still maintaining a healthy diet, try meal prepping and learning about the different supermarket options. Trader Joe's has a very good balance of quality and price, but the price changes in each store, and the one downtown seems to be more expensive.

Berkeley Bowl is amazing to buy produce ( such as a bag full of bell peppers for 1$, or four bags full of produce for 14$), but everything else is, while very good quality, very expensive. If one of your new friends has a Costco membership, check if there is anything you can buy in bulk to save some money.


Finding a room in Berkeley can be challenging. But so far, every Mundusian has managed to find a place to stay, so don’t you worry. Generally speaking, Facebook and Craigslist are your friends. The university offers good advice on how to avoid scams and has some other good tips and links. Unfortunately, due to the high demand, scams are very frequent, but if you are careful and use common sense you will be alright. Generally, you should know that people tend to share a bedroom and live in a so-called double (or triple if you want to save even more); this will be your cheapest option.  Options for university housing are limited and above market-place.

You should start looking for a place to live as soon as you can.Try to find a place 2-3 months before you move. Some students have also rented an AirBnB for their first week and found a place on the spot. But it’s generally recommended to get settled in right away and don’t add any extra stress to getting started in a new city.

Some options to check out for accommodation:

For searching for a room on the private market, here are some options to look at.

●      Housing Search Facebook Group

●      Graduate Student Housing Facebook Group


●      Housing and Accommodations (VSPA Office)- List of housing resources compiled by the VSPA Office for Postdocs, Visiting Scholars, and VIsiting Student Researchers

●      UC Berkeley Cal Rentals Provides a wide selection of rental listings, counseling and written information on finding housing, and setting up telephone and utility (gas/electricity) services.

●      BIO Housing Listings

For any student interested in living off campus, the Graduate Assembly has developed: The GA’s Housing Guide: Best Practices for Finding Housing

Visa/residence information

The first thing you should take care of when getting accepted to Berkeley is to arrange your visa. You’ll mostly likely be studying on a J-1 visa and enter as a visiting student researcher.  Depending on whether you are a European / non-European citizen, this can take time and may include different steps along the way. Don’t worry, all Mundusians have worked through this before.

You will be assisted by Berkeley’s HR team, who will reach out to you and inform you about necessary forms to fill out and steps to take. After receiving and submitting the forms and having made any required payments, you will need to make an appointment at the US embassy in your home country. Again, Berkeley’s HR team will guide you along the way. Your procedure will vary depending on your country of origin. Some useful visa information is provided by Berkeley’s International Office.

Again, we want you to feel prepared for your study in Berkeley. Obtaining your visa comes with additional costs. You can find a price break-down below:

-        University Service Annual Fee: $1000

-        Fed Ex Fee – Mailing of DS-2019 (necessary form for visa): $40

-        New J-1 Scholar Processing Fee for the Berkeley International Office: $500

-        I-901 SEVIS Fee Assistance: $220

-        Excluded: any costs to get to the embassy for your appointment; shipping your passport with your visa back home

Health Insurance & Medical Services

As mentioned before, you are required to have insurance during your stay in Berkeley. Whether you have an existing travel insurance, you prefer getting an international travel insurance with your local provider or want an American health insurance, your insurance must meet certain requirements. If you decide to get insurance that is not provided through the University, you need to request a waiver.

Working in Berkeley

Many Americans work next to their study, not least to cover their often extensive study loans. As an international student, it is more difficult to find work, not least due to your visa restrictions. You will have to apply for your Social Security Number and take a good look at taxes. That’s why Mundusians generally don’t work in the U.S. while studying in Berkeley.

It’s recommended to continue freelance projects in your home country or another country you were based in before.

Here's everything you need to know in one image!

Had the best time in Berkeley… and now what?

After completing your second semester in Berkeley, you will continue your studies in your specialisation city. You may find it hard to adjust back to the European lifestyle, but your Mundus family awaits you and together you will embark on your next big adventure: specialising in the topic you want to focus your journalistic work on.

We recommend you to start preparing for your next move while you are still in the US. Ask Mundusians for help that will be in the same city. It might be nice to arrange housing together, reach out to Mundus alumni and get excited about what awaits you next.

Tags: Berkeley, City Guide, living, studying, working