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Guide for International Students to Studying in the U.S.A.
Every year, more and more students from around the world decide to study in the U.S. There are many reasons for this, with impressive academic programs, obtaining a global education, and even experiencing campus life being amongst them. These reasons and more currently make the U.S. the country with the largest number of international students worldwide. In fact, in 2019, 5.5% of college students in the U.S. were international students.
For those of you who wish to be amongst these students, we’ve created a comprehensive guide on studying in the U.S. as an international student. So, let’s get started!
Jump ahead to:
- Who is considered an international student?
- Common admission requirements for international students
- Applying to universities in the US: A step-by-step outline
- Financial aid options
- Dealing with homesickness
- Final tips
- Figure out your school’s COVID protocols
- Frequently asked questions
Who is considered an international student?
First things first, it’s best you figure out whether you’re considered an international student or not. While many of you may already be certain of this, others’ circumstances may make them a little more unsure. Interestingly, individual universities have slightly different answers as to what makes someone an international student. Generally, however, international students:
- Are non-immigrant visitors who come to the U.S. temporarily to enroll in classes
- Do not have U.S. citizenship or legal permanent residence status (a “green card”)
- Are in the U.S. on a non-immigrant status visa (without a valid green card)
- Apply for a visa for entry into the U.S.
We hope this helps. We want to also note that American citizens who reside in and attend secondary schools in foreign countries are typically not considered international students.
If you wish to find out exactly what your school considers an international student, we encourage you to contact your university’s center or office for international students for further information. Alternatively, you can probably find the information online with a quick google search of “who is considered an international student at [university name]?”
Before you get to that, though, you have to figure out what school you’ll be attending! Let’s get into how you can do that.
Common admission requirements for international students
Applying to U.S. colleges as an international student is not too different from applying to one as a domestic student – the application components are largely the same. One major difference is that you may be required to submit your results from an English language test.
Normally, to apply to U.S. colleges as an international student, you’ll need to submit:
- Secondary school transcripts
- Letters of recommendation (depends on school)
- School-specific application or supplement essays
- A resume or activities list (alternatively, these can typically be entered directly on your college application)
- Standardized test scores (depends on school, as more and more schools are becoming test-optional)
- TOEFL or IELTS scores
- Both exams require you to have a passport
While this will do it for most colleges, some may have additional requirements for international students. So, depending on where you’re applying there may be more (or less) application components to submit than the ones listed above. Make sure to check the websites of the colleges you’re applying to for more details, and submit all the necessary components listed on your application site (e.g. the Common App application).
Now that we’ve gone over the typical standards colleges use to assess international applicants, let’s get to what you’ve been waiting for – how to apply to colleges in the U.S.!
Applying to universities in the U.S.: A step-by-step outline
Although applying to U.S. universities as an international student is certainly a similar process to applying as a domestic student, there are also slight differences. On the bright side, these are few in number and not too time-consuming.
So, there’s no need to worry since it’s definitely doable (and we’re here to help)! All it takes is a little extra preparation and thinking ahead to successfully submit everything on time. Keep on reading to find out about the steps you should take when applying to U.S. colleges to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Alternatively, if you’re looking to transfer to a university in the U.S., we recommend following the application steps and timeline in “How to transfer colleges: A step-by-step guide”.
Questions to consider
Before you start your college search, you should have an idea of what you’re looking for. Basic things to consider include location, major, and on-campus facilities. However, that’s just the beginning of it, especially if you’re an international student. To make things easy on you, we have a fuller list of questions to help you dig deeper. The following questions will help figure out whether a college meets your criteria or not:
- Is my major available?
- Can I afford it (what’s the cost of attendance)?
- Do I like the location? Think about weather/climate, are there interesting activities or helpful facilities available, is it a big or small city?
- What are the on-campus facilities (dorms, gyms, dining halls, on-site services) like?
- Are there enough student activities? Do they (at least some of them) seem interesting?
- Are there interesting student clubs?
- Are cultural clubs available? Or international student organizations?
- Do they offer the support I need? (e.g. academic help, help in transitioning to a new culture, etc.)
- Do I feel comfortable on campus?
Now that you’ve read through the questions, it’s time for another one: when should you start thinking about these very questions? Good question! Ideally, as early as possible. This means during high school, so your answers hopefully won’t be too different by the time you’re researching colleges. Just make sure to consider them at some point before you start looking for colleges.
At the latest, on the other hand, you should start thinking about these questions during your junior year, or the summer after your junior year of high school. Knocking these questions out of the way early and having an idea of what you want will make it easier to create a list of possible colleges down the road. This is especially true as you’ll be busy with other assignments, and writing your college essays!
See also: When to apply for scholarships
Choosing where to study
We’ll only briefly cover this, but the U.S. is a very large, diverse place. Americans come from all cultures and regions of the world. Thus, each region comes with its own quirks, demographics, and lifestyles. So, when thinking about where you’d like to study in the U.S., we’d also encourage you to keep location in mind. Try to do a little research on the schools and locations you’re interested in studying in, and make sure that it has something you’re looking for. Whether you want to experience something entirely new, or something that slightly resembles your home, there’s bound to be a place here for you.
With that said, let’s get into the first step of applying to universities in the U.S.: researching colleges.
1. Research colleges
Let’s get down to business! As per expert recommendation, we highly recommend that you start researching and making a potential list of colleges during your junior year of high school. This is because applying to colleges often takes longer than students anticipate. Divvying up time to write essays (and supplemental essays), request letters of recommendation, and take standardized exams takes time. So, better safe than sorry!
We definitely recommend starting the college research process early in junior year (or earlier) if you’re planning on applying to any colleges through early action (EA) or early decision (ED). As the names imply, applying through EA or ED requires students to submit their applications earlier than students applying through regular decision (RD). The majority of Early Action and Early Decision deadlines fall in November. Regular Decision deadlines, however, typically fall in January.
Before we get to submitting anything though, there’s a few more steps we should take. For example, when should you visit campuses?
P.S.: If you want a little refresher on EA (early action) vs. ED (early decision) vs. RD (regular decision), or want to know more about college deadlines this school year, check out our article on college application deadlines.
2. Visit campuses (optional)
Time for the fun part! If you have the chance, we highly recommend visiting some of the campuses of the schools you’re planning on applying to. This will help you visualize whether or not you could really see yourself at that school. A campus visit is also a great opportunity to ask questions directly to school advisors or staff.
However, we know that visiting campuses can be expensive, and is not feasible for everybody. This may be especially true for international students, as it would require flying in from another country. If you’re unable to visit campuses in-person, though, there’s no need to worry! Many schools have tours posted online by the schools themselves or from students who go there. Feel free to check those out instead. If you can’t find them on your college website, we recommend searching on YouTube.
As for when you should tour colleges, either the spring of your junior year or the summer after your junior year may be ideal. By this time, you’ve hopefully done some research on the universities you’re interested in and will have useful questions prepared. If you’re not quite sure what to ask on a college tour, we recommend reading our article on the top questions to ask on a college campus visit.
Further, if you visit in-person, we recommend checking out their center or office for international students. Here, you’ll be able to ask important questions about services or other resources available to international students. If you can’t visit in person, consider emailing the international students office with relevant questions. Their answers should give you an idea of whether or not they provide sufficient support to international students.
Ultimately, whether you tour colleges in-person or online, take note of how each campus makes you feel. Do you see yourself studying, living, and making friends there? Or, do you not?
By the end of your college tour or visit (or after some thought), you should ideally know whether or not to keep it on your list.
3. Narrow down your list
After having chosen some initial colleges and maybe even visiting a few of them, it’s time to narrow down your list of universities and get ready to apply.
When considering whether or not to apply to a university, the most important question to consider is, if it were the only school that accepted you, would you be happy to go there? Try to be honest when answering this question. If the answer is still “no,” then cross it off your list. By the time you’ve applied and answered this question for every single school on your list, you should ideally have between 6 and 10 colleges left. We recommend that the schools left on your list be a balanced mixture. This includes safety schools (easier to get into considering your stats), target schools (match your stats), and reach schools (harder to get into considering your stats). To learn more about what safety, match, and reach schools are, check out our article on everything you should know about safety, reach, and match schools.
4. Take the required standardized tests
Once you’ve finally decided what universities you’d like to apply to, it’s time to ace those standardized tests! Whether you’re planning on taking the SAT, ACT, GRE, or even the MCAT, the earlier you take your exams the better. If you’re in high school, this means taking your ACT or SAT in either your junior year or early in your senior year of high school. For those of you applying to grad or post-undergraduate schools, on the other hand, this may simply mean taking your exams at least six (or so) months in advance of your application deadline(s). This way, if you aren’t satisfied with the score you receive, you’ll have plenty of time to prepare and retest.
However, before you take that first test, we recommend feeling totally prepared (don’t rush into it). To do this, try to take a practice exam (or a few!). Once you receive a score that is near your ideal or “goal” score, it may be time to take your first real test and see how you do.
All in all, just make sure you’re feeling prepared and confident before you go in to take your exam. Make sure you’re comfortable with the test content as well as the exam procedures, and be sure to get some rest and eat a nutritious breakfast before your exam!
Here are the links where international students can sign up for the following exams:
- SAT: SAT International testing
- ACT: The ACT test: Non-US students
- GRE: GRE general test registration
- MCAT: Register for the MCAT exam
- LSAT: Register for the LSAT
- GMAT: Register for the GMAT exam
5. Take an English language test if needed
After you’ve completed (and hopefully aced!) your standardized exams, you may be required to take an English language test. These are often required to ensure that international students will be able to follow along with the course lessons and work typical of U.S. universities. While the TOEFL and IELTS are the two most common English language tests, the TOEFL is more commonly used in the U.S.
The vast majority of universities require international students to take one of these English language exams unless they come from other English-speaking countries like Canada or the United Kingdom. If you are required to take an English language exam, we highly recommend preparing early and making sure you’re ready to perform your best. To help you out with that, here are some helpful preparation resources:
- Prepare for the TOEFL iBT test
- 17 great TOEFL exam resources
- IELTS test preparation materials
- 16 helpful IELTS exam resources
- Free Duolingo English lessons
P.S. If you’re curious about what constitutes a “good” TOEFL score, be sure to check out “What is a good TOEFL score?”
6. Request a credential evaluation (sometimes required)
Next up is to get your credentials evaluated (if your university requires it)! If you’re not quite sure what this means, don’t worry. We’re here to explain.
Essentially, credential evaluations are used to assess how academic credentials earned outside the U.S. compare to those earned in the U.S. Thus, admissions counselors often require international students to undergo credential evaluations in order to determine if their degrees or other credentials earned abroad meet a university’s enrollment standards.
While credential evaluations are not needed at all universities, we would highly recommend checking whether your prospective universities require them or not. If they do, also consider checking if each institution has a preferred credential evaluation service or organization. Credential evaluations are typically conducted by third-party organizations who will analyze your academic and professional transcripts in addition to degrees and certificates earned in your home country.
As the prices vary depending on what third-party organization you use, we’d definitely recommend looking into a few service providers before you finally settle on one. “Approved credential evaluation agencies” provides a great introduction to some of the many credential evaluation service providers available. While there are no official government body monitoring credential evaluation providers, most are affiliated with certified boards or associations. Among these certified organizations include the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) and the Association of International Credential Evaluators (AICE).
7. Prepare necessary application materials, and apply!
Now’s the time to compile all the documents and forms you needed for your prospective colleges, and send them out (or submit them online, whichever works). Check out your school’s website, as many schools offer valuable information to international students about what they need to submit.
Besides submitting transcripts, colleges may ask international applicants to:
- Write application essays
- Ask for recommendation letters
- Submit standardized scores
- Submit English language test scores
- Get their credentials evaluated
- Interview (sometimes, not always)
- Requesting applicant interviews is more common at certain universities than others
We also want to stress something: remember your deadlines! A great way to do so is by making an online spreadsheet where you can list each of your colleges and their deadlines. Also include relevant information you want to take note of, such as scholarship or financial aid deadlines.
Once you’ve submitted your applications, it’s time to relax a little and await good news! However, once you’re accepted, there’s one “last” step you need to take first. Let’s get into it.
P.S.: If you’re looking for more information on college applications (and their fees), these articles may be of help:
- Rocking scholarship and college admissions applications
- How much do college applications cost?
- How to get a college application fee waiver
8. Obtain your student visa
By now, you’ve hopefully received a few acceptance letters and have decided upon a school to attend. That’s great! There’s just one last step you have to take before flying out to school in the fall (or spring): obtaining your student visa. While there are three different types of visas available to international students (the F-1, J-1, and M-1), you will most likely need the F-1 visa. The F-1 visa is meant for those who will temporarily be staying in the U.S. while studying at a school, college, seminary, or conservatory. Keep in mind: this is not a permanent residency visa.
With that said, though, here are the requirements to obtain a F-1 visa:
- Apply and gain acceptance to study at a SEVP (Student and Exchange Visitor Program)-approved school
- These can include private or public K-12 schools, seminaries, universities, conservatories, and even language programs
- Be enrolled full-time at your institution
- Be proficient in English or be enrolled in English-learning courses
- Have proof of sufficient financial means to support yourself while studying in the U.S.
- Show intent that you plan to return to your home country after finishing your course of study, as the F-1 visa is only a temporary visa
- Live outside the U.S. when you apply
To learn more about student visas, we recommend checking out this helpful “student visa” guide from the U.S. Department of State itself! Then, when you’re ready to apply, you can do so on the U.S. Department of State website.
Financial Aid Options
Unfortunately, most international or foreign students are not eligible for federal student aid. On the bright side, however, you may be eligible for institutional aid! To find out whether you are, we would recommend checking with your university’s financial aid office regarding eligibility requirements. Further, if financial aid is a very important factor in your college search, experts have recommended straying away from colleges that do not offer institutional aid to international students.
With that being said, scholarships are also always an option for international students! Luckily for you, we’ve done the research and have compiled a list of the “Best scholarships for international students.” These may be offered by a variety of sources, including universities themselves, your home country’s government, and private organizations too.
Alternatively, you may be eligible for private loans if you have a green card holder co-sign off on them. If you do end up pursuing these, we would highly recommend looking into your options to make sure you find the best rates and terms for you.
Last, but certainly not least, you may also consider getting a job while you study. However, bear in mind that the rules surrounding this are strict. During the first year of one’s F-1 visa, you may not work off-campus, but are eligible for specific types of on-campus employment. After the first year, however, you are eligible for one of three types of off-campus employment:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) OPT
While these are not the only options international students have for funding their studies, they are a few of the most common ones. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, we highly recommend creating a stable plan for financing your studies ahead of time.
P.S. If you have any other questions about receiving financial aid as an international student, take a look at these articles:
Dealing with homesickness as an international student
Going abroad can be a great opportunity. You get to meet new people, learn new things, try different foods, and even expand your worldview. However, being so far from home can sometimes lead to feelings of isolation and homesickness. While it’s certainly normal for these feelings to arise, we urge you not to dwell in them. In fact, there are many ways to prevent (or lessen) them!
Here are our tips for enjoying your stay abroad all the while avoiding feelings of isolation and/or homesickness:
- Stay connected with your loved ones back home by regularly communicating with them
- Socialize with other international students from your home country, at your university. This will not only help you find support and advice, but also allow you to make friends with those who will best understand what you’re going through
- Join school clubs or organizations that seem interesting to you! These will help you connect and make friends with those who share similar interests, all the while partaking in activities you find fun
- Make sure to eat well, exercise, and get adequate sleep. Being physically tired or drained may also lead to feeling emotionally drained
- Utilize the support resources offered by your university, especially those aimed towards international students
- These may include the international students’ office, counseling services, social or recreational clubs, professors or mentors, and more!
We sincerely hope these are able to help you avoid those feelings of homesickness and enjoy your time abroad! You have a wonderful opportunity ahead of you and we’re sure that you’ll make the most of it.
Studying as an international student: Some final tips
We’re almost ready to send you off! First, though, we want to go over a couple things you should remember to prepare before you go abroad. Without further ado, here they are:
- Health insurance: Make sure you’ve obtained health insurance to cover you during your time in the United States. One’s university will usually help them with this, but you may also seek health insurance from private organizations, if you wish.
- Phone plan: Calling your loved ones back home may be a little pricey. So, we highly recommend looking into various phone plans to find one that will work best for you.
- A way to obtain money whilst in the United States: Be sure that you have a way to receive money in your bank account while in the United States.
- Copies of important documents: Bring copies of all your important documents with you when traveling to the United States, especially if some of them cannot be obtained outside your home country.
- Appropriate clothes for the weather: Before you hop on that plane, be sure to research the weather and climate where your university is located. According to your findings, bring clothes that best fit the climate and will keep you comfortable. Remember: be sure to do research on every season of the region you’re in! Climate and weather can greatly vary depending on your location and season.
- A willingness to try new things, and a sense of adventure! The U.S. is a large, diverse place, with lots of unique experiences to try. Be willing to adventure and explore, and you’ll have a great time!
See also: First year of college: How to prepare
Figure out your school’s COVID-19 protocols
And, last, but certainly not least, it’s important to know your school’s COVID-19 protocols during these times (or during any pandemic). COVID-19 had a drastic impact on the 2020-2021 school year, and if students and staff alike are not careful, it could potentially do the same to future school years. Further, non-U.S. citizens or residents may have additional requirements placed upon them before entering the country. There are currently no travel restrictions placed on any country (yay!). However, those flying to the U.S. from another country typically need (1) proof of vaccination and (2) a negative pre-flight COVID-19 test. To view more information on COVID-19 travel restrictions to the U.S., check out COVID-19 restrictions on U.S. visas and entry.
University-specific COVID-19 travel restrictions
University COVID-19 restrictions and requirements are typically unique to each school. Thus, we highly recommend checking your university’s COVID-19 policies weeks (or even months) before you plan on traveling to the U.S. This way, you should be able to avoid any issues and arrive at your new school in no time. If you’re not quite sure how to check such policies, a quick google search of “[your university name] international student COVID-19 policies” should help you find your answer. Alternatively, consider checking your school email! It’s more than likely your university has or will send out a schoolwide email about COVID-19 travel policies before school starts.
Ultimately, try your best to stay safe and adhere to your school’s COVID-19 policies, whether they include donning a mask, getting weekly COVID-19 tests, getting vaccinated, or anything along these lines. It may not sound fun, but it’s how we can prevent the situation from getting any worse (and from going back to online instruction).
If, however, there is no more pandemic going on by the time you read this, that’s great! Feel free to ignore this last piece of information (but the rest are still important).
And with that, we’re done! We know that attending college abroad may sound a little intimidating with all these things you have to prepare for, but that’s just because it’s such a big change in a student’s life. In reality, though, it should be a fun time. You’ll not only learn new things, but also have exposure to new ideas and meet people from all types of places and backgrounds.
So, have fun, good luck, and bon voyage! We’re happy to have you here!
Frequently asked questions for international students
What is the difference between foreign exchange students and international students?
Great question! The label “international student” generally refers to students who do not hold citizenship in the country they study in. Besides this, they largely function the same as domestic (or non-international) students at their schools. The term is also used more often at U.S. universities rather than elementary or secondary schools. While international students may learn about the culture of the foreign country they’re studying in, their main purpose is to obtain an education. There is typically little involvement from the university or institution when it comes to international students.
On the other hand, the term “foreign exchange students” typically refers to non-citizens who study in the U.S. (or any country foreign to them) during high school for a short or temporary period of time. After this period, they will return to their home country to finish their education. These “exchanges” are often meant to be cultural exchanges for the students involved, allowing them to learn about the culture of the foreign country they’re studying in. For these reasons, the schools and institutions in “foreign exchanges” are normally very involved during the student’s time abroad.
Can you study (in the U.S.) on a green card?
Definitely! In fact, having a green card actually makes it quite a bit easier to study in the U.S. compared to using a student visa. Those with green cards may even save up to 80% on their tuition. To learn more about studying in the U.S. with a green card, be sure to check out “Studying in the U.S.A.”
Do international students pay more?
It depends. Unfortunately, international students typically do pay more than domestic students if they choose to attend public universities. This is because they are usually not eligible for federal student aid. However, they are eligible for financial aid from universities themselves. Thus, if international students choose to attend private universities, they typically pay around the same as domestic students. If you’re an international student looking for ways to help pay off your student debt, be sure to check out “Best scholarships for international students”!
What universities (in the U.S.) have the most international students?
Although you may be an international student looking to study in the U.S., it certainly can be nice to have the option of befriending those from your home country. Doing so may prevent feelings of homesickness, as you can have someone who understands your experiences and background. So, what universities have the most international students? Great question.
New York University, Northeastern University, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California have some of the highest percentage of international students within the U.S. If you’re curious about what other schools also have many international students, check out “Universities hosting the most international students in the United States.” If you wish to find out what schools have the most international students from your home country, a quick google search of “U.S. universities with the most students from [your home country]” should do just the trick!
Can I stay in the U.S. after my studies?
Yes! You just have to do a little planning beforehand. The F-1 visa states that international students may only stay in the U.S. up to 60 days after their graduation. However, one can certainly extend their time in the U.S. by doing one of the following:
- Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- STEM OPT extension
- Obtain a H-1B visa (non-immigrant visa)
- Obtain a green card
- Receive employer sponsorship
- Receive parent or child sponsorship (considering that they are a U.S. citizen)
- Marry a U.S. citizen
- Seek asylum
- Military service
To learn more about these options in detail, be sure to check out “Ways an international student can extend their stay in the U.S.A. after graduation.”
Can I work more than 20 hours on a student visa?
Students on an F-1 visa are limited to working up to 20 hours per week during the school term. However, such students may work full-time during school breaks (when school is not in session). To learn more about employment as an international student, check out this helpful employment FAQ.
If you have any additional questions that we have not yet answered, be sure to check out these “Study in the states” frequently asked questions!