"Alright," said Ford, "just stop panicking."
"Who said anything about panicking?" snapped Arthur. "This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I've settled down into the situation and found my bearings. Then I'll start panicking."
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The International Students and Scholars Office (ISSO) has detailed information for foreign students in the United States and they usually hold an orientation program for new international students, before Registration begins, in late August . This page does not attempt to be comprehensive. However, here are a few brief pointers:
When you arrive on campus, you must visit the ISSO with your passport, I-94 card and I-20 (for F-1 visa) or DS-2019 (for J-1 visa) and other paperwork in order to check those documents to confirm your status in the United States. This must be done no more that 30 days after the start date on your I-20 or DS-2019. You will also get your I-20 endorsed. A new endorsement is required each year (Canadian students may have to do this every 6 months). While this is a trivial formality and takes 30 seconds, you are not in legal status and might not be re-admitted into the US without a current endorsement in your I-20.
Get a social security number (SSN) if you do not have one. Usually, there is a booth set up during registration where you can fill in the required forms. If you miss that or prefer otherwise, you can go to their office in Ithaca Commons. Cornell will give you a temporary social security number when you register. Once you get your social security number, you have to go to Day Hall and update it in the records.
Billing Address: The Bursar's Office will send bills to the home address listed in your admission aplication unless otherwise informed by you. Change your billing address to your Ithaca mailing address after you arrive at the Busar's Office, 260 Day Hall, or by using Just the Facts in the Bear Access system. Addresses can also be changed using Cornell's uPortal online system.
Books: Textbooks cost anywhere from $30 to well over $100. If textbooks are cheaper at home, you might want to buy them there. Unfortunately, some professors change course textbooks from year to year. Some of the standard textbooks are Classical Electrodynamics by Jackson and Astrophysical Processes by Rybicki and Lightman.
Housing: If you want on-campus housing, you have to apply for it well in advance. You should have received an application form for this along with the package from grad school. On-campus housing rooms and apartments are fully furnished and relatively close to school. Off campus housing is usually much cheaper if you are willing to go through the hassles of finding an apartment and house-mates. You can find off-campus accommodations on Ithaca Craigslist or http://offcampus.campuslife.cornell.edu. Usually, people stay with their friends for about a week or so while they find housing. Many of the graduate students here will be willing to house you for the initial week, so feel free to e-mail them about this.
Health Matters: Bring copies of your medical records. They should be in English. State law in New York State requires proof that you have received vaccination against Measles, Mumps and Rubella. Cornell requires proof that you have received a tetanus booster within the last 10 years. International students (except for students from Canada) must be tested for tuberculosis within three weeks of arrival to Cornell. For more information check here.
Teaching Assistanship: If you got a Teaching Assistanship then may need to attend the ITAP Summer Program if you do not come from an English-speaking country. This program is offered through the Center for Teaching Excellence for all incoming international students who come from countries where English is not the first language. You need to arrive earlier (the program starts usually the first week of August) so keep that in mind when you are looking for housing.
Weather: If you come from a warm country, you're quite likely unprepared for Ithaca winters. While summer can be warm and and fall is beautiful, winters are usually snowy and cold: highs of 40°F (4°C) and lows of 0°F (-18°C) are not unheard of. You can buy a warm fleece or down jacket at one of the usual fall sales in town. Good boots, sweaters, gloves or mitts and a hat of some kind are also good ideas! See the ISSO pages for more information.
There are over 700 registered International Student Organizations at Cornell. Students from your country may be able to offer you help and relevant advice, and you can usually find them through the student organizations list.