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Ten things all international students need to know about the United States

The US is a popular location for international students. Here are 10 things that all international students will benefit from knowing before beginning their studies there.

  • Student life
  • Study abroad
Grace McCabe's avatar

Grace McCabe

Content Writer, THE Student
May 6 2022
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Studying in the US is a dream for many international students and for good reason. Its home to some of the most prestigious universities in the world and allows students to take classes across a range of disciplines before picking their "major". 

But moving to another country can be daunting, so hopefully these 10 tips will help you to feel a little more prepared.  

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1. Applying to university 

One difference to remember is that university in the US is often called “college” or “school”. When students move on to postgraduate studies, they often then refer to their institution as “grad (graduate) school”. The terms later become more specific depending on what is being studied – law school or med (medical) school, for example.

In the US there is no universal application site; each university requires potential students to apply directly. This means that application requirements can vary. Most – but not all – universities require an SAT/ACT score. It is important to research every university to which you are interested in applying and confirm what their application requirements are.

There are some websites and apps that can make the process easier, such as the Common App, which enables you to apply to several universities in one place. Many universities accept applications through the app, including Harvard and Yale.

2. University structure 

The US higher education sector can be broken down into four categories: associate degrees (AA, AS, AAS), bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and PhD or doctoral degrees. Each level has different credit requirements to pass, and they vary in course length, with associate level starting at one year and doctoral level taking up to 10 years in some cases. 

In the United States, a credit system which allows students to choose a number of subjects throughout their time at college. At the end of each semester, students will receive credits based on how they have performed.  

Simply put, if you pass all your classes and coursework, you will receive all the credits. A standard full-time course will come to about 30 credits each year. To graduate, most universities require 120-130 total credits for a bachelor’s degree and 30-64 total credits for a master’s degree. You can find all the specific information regarding credits in your syllabus. 

3. Flexible courses 

The first two years of a US degree provide the opportunity for students to choose classes from a range of disciplines including arts, sciences and humanities. During this time they can explore several different topics and spend some time deciding on a “major” – or which subject to graduate in. Students are required to declare their major in their second or third year.  

This allows students to sample several subjects before choosing their final degree path, unlike in other countries which require students to select their subject before they begin their university studies. 

4. Understanding student finances 

It is important to know that university in the US can be expensive. Tuition fees can range from $5,000 to $50,000 depending on your chosen degree. This means a four-year bachelor’s degree could cost $200,000. Fees can vary for several reasons so it is best to check directly on your chosen university’s website for details. 

Many students benefit from financial aid or scholarships. This means that the advertised price tends to be higher than what you will end up spending. Financial aid can take the form of scholarships, grants and work-study schemes.

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5. Learning about student visas 

There are two versions of a student visa in the US. The F-1 visa is for students entering the country for academic reasons, and the M-1 visa is for vocational programmes. Most international students will be looking at the F-1 visa, which will allow them to attend higher education institutions.  

For your visa application you will need: 

- Completed DS-160
- Colour photograph of yourself (5x5 cm, taken within six months) 
- Passport (or other travel documentation)
- I-20 form (you will receive this from your university)
SEVIS receipt

The process for the F-1 visa can take up to five months and costs US$510. 

6. Accessing healthcare 

Health insurance is something all international students will need to think about before they begin studying in the US. It is different to travel insurance and some universities require that their students have healthcare cover before they begin their studies. 

Some universities offer a group health insurance plan. In this case, you can contact your college directly and join the plan through them. Check whether the cost is covered by the tuition fees or whether you are required to pay extra for this cover. If your university does not offer healthcare, you can visit comparison sites to compare the various levels of cover. 

7. Finding the right accommodation 

There are several options for student accommodation at US universities. The first is on-campus dormitories (dorms), close to campus facilities such as libraries, laboratories, shops and sports facilities.

Students who choose to live on campus will experience a sense of community and it is a terrific way for international students to make friends quickly. Dorms are often shared with other students and cost between $5,000 and $8,000 per year, including utility bills etc. 

If you prefer to live off-campus you can rent. The cost will depend on the city where you are based but you can ask your university for assistance finding student-friendly accommodation.

Additionally, international students could opt for a homestay – staying with a local family during their time in the country. This provides a family environment where you can join family meals and outings.

8. Navigating student life  

A distinctive aspect of student life in the US is Greek Life, or fraternities and sororities. Many of these “houses” will share details about their organisation during the first few weeks of term and give students the opportunity to “pledge” to them.

It is important to remember that although these groups offer a sense of comradeship and support, there is often a level of secrecy and scandal associated with them. Therefore, it is important to put your safety first and only join if you feel safe doing so.

The legal drinking age in the US is 21. As a result, universities will often host alcohol-free parties, music gigs and other events. 

9. How to work as an international student in the US 

International students with an F-1 visa are allowed to work up to 20 hours a week during their degree programmes and up to 40 hours during term holidays. All work must take place on campus. If you wish to work outside campus, you must have official authorisation and the eligibility requirements will be explained in your visa pack.  

Universities will often advertise jobs for students throughout the year, but it is best to check before the semester starts. This will help you apply for jobs ahead of the local students. You can contact your admissions office for more information about the university’s policy when it comes to student work opportunities on campus.

10. Exploring the US 

Travel in the US is different to other countries. With such a large landmass, you will find that a six-hour drive is a short trip.

Although the country has public transport, one of the most popular ways to get around the US is flying. Another is driving or taking a coach. There is no youth travel card but many travel companies do student discounts on coach trips and landmark tours. 

The US covers 3.8 million square metres and shares borders with Canada and Mexico. Many international students choose to study in highly populated states like California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts and Illinois. However, with about 5,000 universities, there is plenty of choice in any of the country’s 50 states.

You will find that each state has an individual identity when it comes to traditions, popular food, accents, and landscapes. When picking your final college, research the state and city where it is located to ensure it has everything you will need as an international student. 

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