International Students’ Guide to Studying in the USA

portrait of Kasia Kovacs
by Kasia Kovacs
Published on December 10, 2021

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Each year, over 700,000 international students pack their suitcases and travel to the United States to study at an American college or university.

Many come to the U.S. for a high standard of education. In fact, in the Times Higher Education 2022 rankings, nine of the top 12 universities in the world were based in the U.S. But people come for other reasons too: to experience American culture, practice English, and look for economic and career opportunities.

If you want to study in the U.S., you should consider many factors, including location, cost, and which school fits your academic goals. Tuition expenses can especially come as a shock, with many students paying tens of thousands of dollars a year.

This guide breaks down everything you need to know about studying in the U.S. as an international student — including how to handle high tuition rates. Keep reading to learn more.

Why Study in the USA?

Students choose to attend college or university in the United States for a variety of reasons. To begin with, many colleges offer opportunities to international students eager to work hard and learn. Plus, several of the top-ranked higher education institutions call the U.S. home.

Colleges have strengths in specific departments as well, offering research projects for students who want to make a mark in their field. International learners also find economic and career opportunities once they graduate.

Additionally, the U.S. comes with cultural and geographic diversity. If you prefer a quieter campus close to nature, you can find schools in the mountains, by the beach, or with flourishing gardens. If you look forward to a lively campus, you can attend a public state university; if you want the diversity and fast pace of city life, you don't have to look further than New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

How Do I Choose a College in the USA?

Looking for and choosing a college in a foreign country can seem overwhelming —without an understanding of the educational system, it's hard to know where to start your search. The list below offers a detailed step-by-step guide on how to choose a college or university in the United States.

Identify Your Interests

Identifying your passions and interests can help you choose an area of study. This can help you discover institutions that offer programs in your potential major. Colleges and universities also run specific departments that shine. You can narrow down your search by identifying the colleges that offer the best-ranked departments in your field.

Research Your Options

The higher education system in the U.S. consists of a range of institutions. You can attend a private or public college; one with a few hundred students or a university that enrolls tens of thousands of pupils; a community college or a traditional four-year institution.

To cut through the noise, you can find several resources to help you. Search engines and comprehensive guides can narrow down your search to institutions. Plus, college rankings can help you identify colleges with the strongest programs in your field.

If you find some potential colleges, look for more in-depth information on their websites. Contact college advisors to ask any questions. In addition, when researching colleges, looking at data points like student retention, graduation rates, and percentage of international students can give you some insight into student satisfaction.

Determine Your Ideal Location

The United States is a massive country, over twice the size of the European Union. With 50 states and numerous landscapes, climates, and cities, you can have an entirely different experience from other international students in the USA. A student's college years in New York City, for instance, seem a world away from a student's experience in the wide-open spaces of Montana.

With that in mind, think about where you want to live. Consider factors like climate, the size of campus or the town where it's located, the cost of living, and cultural and community offerings.

Evaluate Your Eligibility

Colleges may implement specific eligibility requirements for international students. You may need to pass an English skills test, for instance. International students are required to show proof of financial resources in order to apply for an F-1, J-1, or M-1 visa, so check with your school to determine the actual amount required. Check with your prospective schools to make sure you meet their eligibility requirements.

Consider Cost

Tuition costs at colleges and universities can range considerably, with some students paying up to tens of thousand dollars per year. On top of that, additional expenses add up to make up the true program cost. That could include student fees, textbook costs, and the cost of living and accommodations.

Before you apply, make sure you can afford these costs. You can also look for scholarship or financial aid opportunities to help cover the expenses.

Review Support Services

Attending college in a foreign country without any help can seem confusing. That's why you should look for student support services that can help you make sense of this new experience. Look for colleges with academic advisors, college mentors, career services, internship opportunities, and, of course, international student services.

How Do I Apply to College in the USA?

Chances are, the college application process looks different in the U.S. than it does in your home country. As an international student, you will apply to colleges with many of the same steps that Americans do. That involves filling out an application, submitting your secondary school transcripts, and passing standardized tests.

However, you may need to fulfill additional steps. That could include passing a language evaluation and submitting a photocopy of your passport. Schools also require international students to show proof of finances or income. This helps you demonstrate that you can afford tuition and the cost of living. Check with your prospective schools for their specific requirements.

Application

You can typically fill out the application form online. Over 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, but some colleges require students to fill out an application specific to their school. The application asks for your basic information, like your academic background —think of it as a way to introduce yourself to the school.

Official Transcripts

Colleges and universities require applicants to submit their official transcripts from their secondary school and any previous college education. You may need to contact an administrator at your school to send these transcripts directly to your prospective college. Talk to an admission counselor at your prospective college to make sure your grades translate to the American system.

Test Scores

Colleges and universities usually require the ACT or SAT standardized tests, which evaluate students' knowledge in science, math, reading, and writing. As an international student, you must also pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to evaluate your English language skills.

Letters of Recommendation

Higher education institutions in the U.S. often require prospective students to submit letters of recommendation from previous teachers. These letters should emphasize your capabilities as a learner. Remember to give your letter writers plenty of notice — at least a month — before the deadline.

Essays

College courses require students to write essays as homework assignments and for exams. That's why many universities and colleges ask candidates to write application essays to demonstrate their writing skills. If you know a native English speaker, ask them to look over and proofread your essays before you submit them.

Valid Passport

Without a valid passport, even a perfect application to an American college doesn't matter much. Check your current passport to make sure it hasn't expired. Or you can apply for a new one; just make sure you receive it before the application deadline.

Financial Assistance for International Students

One of the challenges many international students face when coming to the U.S. involves paying for the cost of tuition. That's especially true since only American citizens or residents qualify for some scholarships and federal loans.

However, many financial aid opportunities exist for foreign students to help them with tuition expenses. You may be able to find international student scholarships specifically for international students. Remember to check for scholarships, grants, and loans from your home country as well.

Scholarships

Scholarships are financial awards that students do not need to repay. Some scholarships are small and only cover the cost of books, while others can cover half or even all of your tuition. Scholarships are often merit-based and require candidates to apply. Applicants usually need to show they are in good academic standing, and they sometimes need to submit an application essay, too.

Grants

Similar to scholarships, students also do not need to repay grants. Although international students do not qualify for U.S. federal grants, they may apply for grants from philanthropic institutions, companies, universities, or other organizations. Grants are sometimes tied to a project, with an obligation for students to complete research or another academic achievement.

Loans

Many students take out loans to help them cover the cost of tuition when they enroll in college. However, students need to repay these loans later on. Federal loans with low-interest rates are only available to American students. However, foreign students can still take out loans from private lenders.

Fellowships

Fellowships often provide a large financial award for international students in the U.S.; in fact, sometimes they pay for all of the tuition with a stipend for living expenses. Fellowships are often competitive, and they are usually tied to a specific area of study. Sometimes fellowships include the expectation that students complete a major research project as well.

Applying for a Student Visa

In order to legally stay in the U.S. for the duration of your studies, you must possess a student visa. You can apply for a visa through an online form. The application process also involves an interview at the American embassy or consulate in the city nearest to where you live.

The U.S. offers three types of visas for students, including the F-1, J-1, and M-1 visas. Read the list below to learn which one is best for you.

F-1

An F-1 visa is the most common type of permit for students in the U.S. An F-1 visa allows international students to come to the U.S. for academic study. This visa also applies to students who come to the U.S. for seminary, conservatory, or a foreign language program.

Students who obtain the F-1 visa should keep up the minimum course load and maintain full-time student status. Students can also work on campus in a part-time capacity. Additionally, F-1 students can complete optional practical training for one year after they finish their academic program (or three years for students with STEM degrees).

J-1

Learners can apply for the J-1 visa if they want to attend school as a short-term exchange student or carry out practical training that is unavailable in their home country. This practical training could consist of an internship or traineeship, and it relates to the student's field of study. The work could also include camp counseling, teaching, research, physician practice, or au pair work. Usually, educational or nonprofit institutions sponsor these programs.

M-1

Individuals who wish to enroll in a non-academic or vocational program must apply for the M-1 visa. These students must enroll full-time in order to maintain their visa; that means taking on at least 12 credit hours each term.

M-1 visa holders cannot work while they study. Therefore, if you are an M-1 visa holder, you must prove that you have the funds to pay for all tuition and cost of living expenses throughout your stay in the U.S.

Additional Resources for International Students

Frequently Asked Questions About Studying in the USA

Does the USA accept international students?

Yes. In fact, over one million international students attended American colleges and universities to study or engage in Optional Practical Training during the 2019-2020 academic year. Learners attend U.S. institutions for many reasons, including high academic standards, cultural exchange, and economic opportunities. If you wish to study in the U.S., you must first apply for a student visa and pass the TOEFL evaluation of your English language skills.

What are the best U.S. colleges for international students?

According to Forbes, the best U.S. colleges for international students are Princeton University, Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Columbia University. Forbes considered factors like colleges with high graduation rates for international students and schools that don't penalize foreign students who need financial aid.

How much does it cost to study in the USA?

The International Education Financial Aid website estimates that international students could pay $32,000-$60,000 per year to study in the U.S. However, many learners can reduce their tuition costs by applying for financial aid opportunities like scholarships and loans.

What is the cheapest way to study in the USA?

Find schools with low tuition expenses. Public schools typically come with lower tuition rates than private institutions, though private schools often offer more scholarship opportunities. You can also choose to enroll in a college in a state with a low cost of living, like Mississippi, Kansas, or Oklahoma. The F-1 visa allows international students to work part-time on campus while studying in America, which can help them pay for their tuition and living expenses. You can also apply for scholarships and loans for international students.

Is it hard to study in the USA?

Studying in the U.S. can seem challenging, especially for students who learned English as a second language. American universities are often noted for their high academic standards. As an international student, you must dedicate time to your studies to succeed at American schools. Take advantage of resources provided by your school such as tutoring, writing support, and faculty office hours to help you transition to the American education system.

Learn how to navigate the U.S. college system as an international student, and figure out what to pack for your first year. Many colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccination this fall, but global vaccine access continues to vary. Where does this leave international students? Forty-three percent of colleges report an increase in international applications over last year, a surge motivated by pent-up demand and shifting immigration policies.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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