Guide to College for International Students

As an international student attending college in the U.S., you probably have a lot of questions. What is college life like in America? Can international students apply for financial aid? Are there international student scholarships you should be applying for? What about international student insurance? How will you navigate the complex American healthcare system? And what steps can you take to improve your chances of success in your courses and your degree program? Read our Guide to College for International Students, a comprehensive look at attending college in the U.S.—from applying for your student visa and getting international student scholarships to navigating campus culture and the classroom experience.

Guide to College for International Students

International students attending college in the United States face unique challenges. Attending college is hard enough without having to learn a new culture, master a new language, or navigate bureaucratic administrative offices. As an international student, you’ll not only be working to succeed as a student, but you’ll be adjusting to a whole new setting and lifestyle. It’s important that you prepare for both of these realities so that you can excel in school and adjust to life as a student in America.

The following guide offers helpful advice on applying for a student visa, getting financial aid, earning scholarships, adjusting to American culture, and much more…

How to Get a Student Visa

Before you can study at a U.S. college or university, you’ll need to receive permission. This permission is granted through a student visa. This unique classification of visa (which includes F1 Visas for students attending academic institutions and M1 Visas for students attending vocational schools) provides permission, protection, and legal status to international students who are enrolled in U.S. colleges or universities. You’ll need to enroll in college, visit the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country, submit an application, and pay various fees. Read on to find out how you can get a student visa…

Apply to a SEVP-Approved U.S. University

Now that You’re Enrolled in an American College…

  • All of the information collected for your college application will enter into a system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which gives you, your college, immigration authorities, and the consulate or embassy in your home country the ability to verify your status as studying in the U.S. lawfully.
  • You will be required to pay a SEVIS I-901 fee.
  • Once your fee is paid, you’ll receive Form I-20, which grants you permission to sit for an interview for a student visa with your consulate or embassy.
  • If you have a spouse or children who will also be living with you in the U.S., they will be required to obtain this form (though there is no fee connected), and will also need to complete the full student visa process.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time

  • U.S. student visas are granted using “biometric” data—physical information such as fingerprints—that can be used to identify you. It takes time to collect and assess this data, so you’ll need sufficient lead time to complete this process.
  • Contact the U.S. consulate or embassy where you’ll be submitting your application to find out how long it usually takes to process an application.
  • You will also have to schedule and attend an appointment with the U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country. Wait times and procedural steps can vary from one country to another. Leave plenty of time to schedule your interview, especially if you’ll be required to travel. You can find out about wait times at the U.S. State Department website.
  • Also be aware that visas may not be provided more than 120 days in advance of your intended arrival, which means you’ll be working within a specific window.
  • You may have to navigate additional security measures and background checks before being granted a visa to study in the U.S. Your consulate or embassy can tell you more about these additional measures.
  • If approved, you’ll typically receive your visa within 30 days of application. You can visit the Bureau of Consular Affairs to see the actual wait time at your particular consulate or embassy.

Get Your Paperwork Done

Important Student Visa Facts

  • Once a visa is granted, you’ll receive an Arrival/Departure record (I-94). The I-94 is a very important document that indicates your approved Duration of Stay. Though this document may sometimes specify arrival and departure dates, most students will instead receive a Duration of Status (D/S) designation. This designation grants permission to stay in the U.S. for as long as you are enrolled as a college student.
  • You will need to present your I-94 every time you leave or return to the country.
  • Your visa’s expiration date applies to your right to apply for a visa. This is the period during which you have permission to enter the U.S. If you leave the country at any time, an expired visa will prevent you from reentering. Always check the expiration on your student visa if you’re planning a visit home or otherwise temporarily leaving the U.S.
  • If your student visa does expire, you would need to apply for a new visa before making any travel plans.

How to Use Your Student Visa

  • The student visa allows you to arrive within 30 days of your school’s start date. If you plan to come earlier, you will need a visitor’s visa first. However, if you take this approach, you will still need to go through the student visa application process, and pay the application fee, to change your visa classification.
  • Whenever you arrive in the U.S., make sure you have all of your documentation, and that everything is up to date. This includes your visa, copies of your I-20, and your passport.
  • It’s a good idea to ensure that your passport is valid until at least 6 months after your studies are complete.
  • You’ll also likely need to keep proof of financial support and residence close at hand. Immigration or customs officials may ask to see these documents at any time, especially when you are traveling off-campus or between states.
  • You’ll also fill out the Customs Declaration form (CF-6059) upon your arrival, which will ask you to declare specific items that you’re bringing into the country. The form itself will outline the types of items that require declaration.
  • Keep photocopies of all important documents in a safe place in the event that anything is misplaced.

Learn About American University Culture

Once you’ve got your visa, paperwork and documentation in order, you’re ready to start college. Be prepared for an adjustment period. Every country has its own campus culture and the U.S. is no different. From etiquette and study habits to the way students socialize and party, American campus life has its own unique rhythm and energy. And every campus has its own unique identity too. Learn everything you can about this culture so that you’re prepared for some new and unfamiliar experiences. Your ability to adjust to American campus culture will have a big impact on your experience as an international student in the U.S. Follow these tips for some idea of what to expect…

Observe Study Habits

  • Many features of higher education in the U.S. are unique to this country. Because of this, study habits in the U.S. may differ from study habits in your home country. Get a sense of how others review material, complete assignments, and prepare for exams.
  • Ask your friends, classmates, or roommates what works best for them. Find out what study habits tend to pay off with good results.
  • Join a study group. The best way to learn common and proven study habits is to see how others do it. This is also a great way to get support and helpful tips from your peers.
  • If you’re struggling to create a study routine, speak to your academic advisor for assistance.
  • Tutoring may even help you master some positive study habits.

Socialize

  • Learn about American culture by socially interacting with your classmates. Ask questions whenever something seems strange or unfamiliar to you. Your friends will be your window into American culture.
  • Accept invites. Go to parties, join your roommates for coffee, and go on adventures with your friends. Get a firsthand look at campus life.
  • Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Introduce yourself, initiate conversations, and do your best to be outgoing. Not only will your new friends help you adjust to the culture, but having good company will make this adjustment more enjoyable and enriching.
  • You may be experiencing something new, but there’s no reason you have to do it alone. Make sure that you open yourself up to new relationships and experiences. One of the best things you can do to enhance your college experience is to build a strong network of friends, study buddies, and educators.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

  • It’s likely that some cultural behaviors will seem unfamiliar and possibly even weird. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask a friend, classmate, or professor.

Financial Aid for International Students

There are financial aid opportunities for international students, but these opportunities are far more limited than opportunities for U.S. citizens. These opportunities can also vary from one school to the next. Your involvement in certain programs—such as the United World College Scholars, for instance—may qualify you for specialized financial aid. However, financial aid is generally more challenging to access for international students. And applying for this aid may come with added complexity. Be aware of your opportunities and limitations as you determine how to pay for your International study—

Forget About the FAFSA

  • You’ve likely read a lot about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Unfortunately, international students are not eligible for federal student loans or need-based grants available to U.S. citizens.
  • You will not need to fill out a FAFSA. Skip this step.
  • Instead, reach out to your school to find out if they have any aid programs geared toward international students. Your college or university may provide need-based grants to international students who meet certain conditions.

International Student Scholarships

While international students are not eligible for traditional financial aid through the U.S. Department of Education, it may be possible to earn scholarships that are either college-specific or earmarked for international students. Get help paying for your international study by exploring various avenues for scholarships or gift aid…

Reach out to Your School

  • Start your scholarship search by reaching out to the financial aid office at your college or university.
  • While you may not be eligible for federal financial aid, your school may be able to provide you with a need-based grant.
  • If you have an excellent academic background, you may be able to apply for a merit-based scholarship through your college.

Research Scholarships from Your Home Country

  • Your home country may offer its own scholarships for students considering studying abroad. Contact your country’s education ministry to find out if any gift aid is available to students planning to study abroad.
  • Research charities, foundations, and even corporations in your home country to see who might be offering scholarships, specifically those for students who wish to study abroad.

Research Scholarships For Which You May Qualify

  • Your best chance of getting a scholarship is to base your search on your own personal criteria, including your area of your study, employment history, religious affiliation, extra-curricular interests, and more.
  • Mainstream online scholarship search portals like The College Board and Fastweb offer a wide range of scholarships, including many for which international students may qualify.
  • A number of scholarship websites list, and link to, scholarships which are meant for international students studying in the U.S., including sites such as International Students and Buddy4Study (which is specifically for students from India).

For more on scholarships, check out our Guide to Scholarships for College and Graduate School.

Research Student Support Resources Before You Arrive

Before you show up to a new campus in an unfamiliar country, learn everything you can about the support resources available to you upon arrival. Look into campus support services, especially those geared toward international students. Find out about support organizations dedicated to students from your country, and see if there are student groups who share your background. These resources can help to ease your transition and provide you with both practical and emotional support as you adjust…

Contact Student Services

  • Student Services—sometimes also called Student Affairs—is a college department made up of many different services. Your office of Student Services is there to help. Take advantage of this help whenever you need it!
  • Personnel at Student Services are available to provide information and assistance as you navigate practical and bureaucratic aspects of your college education. This can include issues related to housing, transportation, athletics, healthcare, and more.
  • Student Affairs can also direct you to specialized support resources and opportunities, especially those that serve the unique needs of international students.
  • Reach out before you arrive on campus to ask questions and be placed in touch with support personnel.

Look for International Student Support At Your School

  • In addition to student services, there is usually a department that addresses issues relating to student exchange.
  • Find out what kind of support resources and personnel are available to international students.
  • Resources may include cultural support, educational assistance, English language learning support, and more.
  • You may also be able to join a student association comprised of others who share your cultural background.

Join Student-Run Organizations

  • Get involved with campus life and join school clubs. This is a great way to meet people and, consequently, build a meaningful personal support network.
  • Joining student-run organizations can give you an outlet to be a campus leader, and to positively shape experiences for other international students, or students in general.

For more about critical support personnel and resources, check out our Guide to Surviving College.

Set Up Important Accounts

There are some basic services you’ll likely require or benefit from as a student in the U.S. You’ll need proper cell phone services as well as financial services like a bank account and credit card. You’ll also likely find that healthcare coverage and access are highly complex and difficult to navigate in the U.S. Take steps to ensure you have all the proper essential services to survive life as an international student in America…

Get a U.S. Cell Phone Plan

  • Set up an account with a major U.S. service carrier like Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile. Having a local phone number will make it easier for you to make contacts and connections in the U.S.
  • Choose a service plan that makes sense for your intended level of use. If you plan to call home a lot, or you’ll be using your cell service to access your courses, make sure you have sufficient data included in your plan. You don’t want to get hit with a lot of charges for going over your allotted talk time or data.

Get Health Insurance

  • Health insurance is mandatory for all international students attending colleges in the U.S. You will not be able to register for classes without showing proof of your health coverage.
  • Health insurance is complicated and costly in the United States. Even American citizens often struggle to afford, understand, and navigate the healthcare system. These challenges are even greater for international students.
  • Many universities include health insurance plans that you may be able to enroll in as part of your tuition and fees package. Be aware that this plan may or may not be the best available option to you.
  • Some schools do not offer plans and will require you to shop for your own insurance.
  • International students are allowed to shop for health insurance on the open market regardless of whether or not their college offers access to a coverage plan.
  • There are a number of student health coverage plans specifically designed for international students. For information and a free quote from one of these plans, take a look at these International Student Medical Insurance plans.

Study the Language

If English is not your first language, focus on improving your language skills. More effective use of English will improve both your educational and social experiences. Use your academic responsibilities and your personal time to absorb, practice and master the English language…

Demonstrate English Proficiency

  • All international students from non-English speaking countries must prove English proficiency before attending school in the U.S. This requires satisfactory completion and score submission from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International Language Testing System (IELTS).
  • Your application for college will not be considered without submission of these scores, which means you’ve likely already completed this step before proceeding with college enrollment and visa application.
  • Test scores expire two years after completion.

Socialize With Your Classmates

  • The best way to master English is to use it as much as possible in real-life situations. Spend time with your friends and classmates. Everyday conversation will dramatically improve your use of the language.
  • American English uses many expressions, slang terms, and informalities that may not translate literally to non-native speakers. If something seems confusing, ask a classmate what it means.

Seek Additional English Support From Educators

  • Make sure your professors understand that you are using English as a second language, and that this may impact the quality of your work on certain assignments, especially those which require writing.
  • If you’re struggling to use the English language in classroom discussions or writing assignments, tell your professors. They will likely be able to point you toward resources like tutoring or English Language Learning courses.
  • For help using English in your writing work, visit your college’s writing lab. Most schools provide access to a writing lab where you can receive feedback, instruction, and additional support from English professors or graduate students.

Consume American Media

  • Another great way to learn the language is to listen to American music as well as watching English-language TVs and movies.
  • Turn on the “closed captioning” function when you watch television. Reading the words on screen while hearing them spoken can help improve your comprehension.
  • Any time you hear an unfamiliar term or phrase, Google it!

Think Safety First

American college campuses are generally safe spaces, but there are some health and safety risks that are higher for American college students. It’s important that you understand these risks, and know how to reduce your own chances of being a victim. Unfamiliarity with American campus culture and the related risks can make you more vulnerable. Take these steps to lower your risk…

Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

  • STEP is free, and it allows you to register your trip to the U.S. through the embassy or consulate in your home country.
  • After registering, you’ll receive important safety updates and information about heightened travel risks.
  • Registration will allow family and friends to locate and reach you in the event of an emergency or natural disaster.
  • Registering your information with STEP can be a valuable way of backing up your documentation in the event that something is lost or stolen.

Know the Law

  • American immigration laws are sometimes strict depending on the region in which you attend college. Though you are in the United State legally, you should always be prepared for a possible encounter with immigration officials.
  • Familiarize yourself with immigration laws in the United States so that you know what to expect, and how to protect yourself.
  • Protecting yourself includes always keeping your documentation up to date, carrying important documents like your passport, student visa, and I-94 with you at all times, especially when traveling off-campus, and keeping safe photocopies of everything in case anything is lost or stolen.
  • As a guest in the United States, you should also familiarize yourself with legal advocacy groups who work to support immigrants and visiting students. Organizations like the Immigration Advocates Network and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) can be valuable if your legal status in this country is questioned for any reason.

Recognize Hazards Unique to American Campus Life

  • American campuses are generally safe, but there are some risks that are higher for college students. Be aware of these risks and take steps to protect yourself.
  • Drugs and alcohol are highly present on some American campuses. Make friends, but don’t be negatively influenced by others. Avoid excessive or self-destructive behavior.
  • Get to know the risks associated with your region. For instance, attending school in an urban setting may raise the risk of property theft or street crime. Gun violence is also prevalent in many parts of the United States. Understand the biggest safety issues in the region where you’ll be studying, and take steps to protect yourself.
  • Recognize campus risks such as sexual assault, hazing, and bullying. Each of these hazards has a statistical presence on American campuses. Learn how to protect yourself. Check out related advocacy groups if you need to learn more:

Ask Questions and Seek Help When You Need It

You are not alone. Your professors and advisors are there to help, and your friends and classmates can be a valuable source of insight, support, and companionship. Take advantage of the rich network of people around you. Ask questions and seek assistance if you’re struggling, whether you’re having difficulty in class, struggling to adjust to the culture, or dealing with mental health challenges. As part of a college campus, you have access to valuable resources and great minds. Use this access to improve your outcomes and your experience in college…

Consult Student Services

  • Your college enrollment comes with support resources. As a student, you’re paying for these services so make sure you use them when you need them!
  • Visit Student Services with any questions or concerns. A wide range of departments may be included under the student services umbrella. If you have issues with housing, scheduling, financial aid and more, student services will likely be your first stop.

Join International Student Organizations

  • These organizations advocate for campus issues impacting international students.
  • Getting involved with one of these organizations can provide you with a valuable support network as you navigate bureaucratic challenges, adjust to American campus culture, or face unexpected emergencies.
  • By participating in a student organization, you can also become a part of the on-campus effort to improve experiences and opportunities for other international students.
  • Joining an international student organization is also a great way to make friends.

Know Where to Turn of Help With Your Studies

  • If you need additional assistance in your studies, start by visiting your professor during office hours.
  • If you are still struggling, or you’re not sure you’re on the right degree path, schedule a visit with your academic advisor. Your advisor can help you build and execute an educational plan that makes sense for you.
  • You may also be able to get additional assistance by signing up for tutoring or visiting the writing lab on your campus.
  • Join study groups where you can work directly with your friends and classmates.

Know Where to Find Mental Health Support

  • Studying and attending school in an unfamiliar country is exciting, but it can also be stressful and lonely. Your college provides mental health support services that can help you navigate these feelings.
  • Don’t be afraid to use these resources. Reach out for help before stress, burnout, or depression can derail your college experience.
  • Remember that you’re not alone. There are countless international student organizations, advocacy groups, and mental health support groups that want to see you succeed.

For more critical support services, check out our Guide to Surviving College.