This may be your first time stepping beyond your home turf and travelling abroad. Or perhaps this is one of your many trips to the States. Whichever the case, the USA has plenty of quirks an international student may find unfamiliar - and we’re not just talking about which side of the road people drive on. As an international student priming up to stay in the USA for a considerable period of time, it helps to know what to expect when you arrive. From helping you settle down easier to coping with homesickness, knowing what you’re getting into calms the very human fear and nerves you experience when facing something unknown. So, let’s get right into - what can you expect when it comes to international student life in the USA?
The Life of an International Student in the USA
1. You Get to Discover What You Want to Study as Part of Your Degree
One of the most attractive things about getting a US degree is how flexible the higher education system is. You may already know exactly what you want to study and specialise in. On the flip side, you might have no clue what you see yourself doing five years down the line. Whichever the case, the US education system lets you sample multiple disciplines before you decide on your field of specialisation! Typically, you can spend a year or two of your undergraduate degree building up your general education, while taking electives that pique your interest or supplement your target specialisation. You don’t have to declare your major - what you want to specialise in - right away! This gives students valuable time to experiment with a more advanced level of learning in a diverse range of fields. You might discover your passion for a subject you never imagined you’d love so much!
It may seem wild that you don’t need to have a fixed idea of what you want to study when you start university. But the US education system gives you the priceless opportunity to dabble in a bunch of different things first-hand to truly find your calling. So, when you’re studying in the USA, take advantage of this opportunity!
2. You’re the Main Character in Your Learning
One thing you’ll notice right away when you get to college is how much independent learning you’re going to do. You’ll spend less time in the classroom than you did in high school, but you’ll be spending more time on homework, assignments, and independent learning. One of the reasons for this is that the modules you sign up for will run for one semester instead of one academic year. Your professors are going to cover a lot more material in a single class, and it’s up to you to make sure you’re on top of all your readings and keeping pace with the program.
In high school, you had parent-teacher conferences and more opportunities to get one-to-one feedback or help from your teacher. There were adults in your life making sure you were staying on track. In college, professors often expect you to take the initiative in seeking help if you need it. After all, you might be sitting in a lecture hall full of a hundred other students. If you’re struggling or confused, you need to approach your professor to let them know. Emailing your professor or visiting them during office hours is very common in college and something you need to do of your own volition.
Universities often have academic support centres, writing centres, and more - all there to help students like you take charge of your education. So, don’t hesitate - take the plunge when you need to, to make good on this opportunity!
3. Costs of Living in the US for Students
A concern regarding international student life in the USA we can’t overlook is your living expenses. Housing makes up a significant portion of your yearly spending, but there is no clear-cut estimate for how much this will be. Just looking at a world map will give you an idea of how large a country the USA is - the third-largest in the world, in fact. And just as the geography, climate, lifestyle, and culture vary across the states, so do living costs.
For starters, we recommend narrowing your research down by location. Depending on the state, the city, and even the school you attend, your costs can vary a lot. Schools often helpfully provide a cost of attendance page on their websites where you can check standard living expenses in USA - as well as average tuition and fees!
We also recommend looking up reliable cost of living calculators to get a more accurate idea of your cost of living. What your monthly bills come up to depends on your lifestyle, choices, and preferences! For example, you might not be eating out all the time but may want to go shopping more often. You might not want to travel too frequently, but do go to the movies weekly. All these things, along with your choices in housing, meals, transport, etc., add up to make your yearly living costs look different from other students.
4. Finding Your Home Away From Home as an International Student
Outside the classroom, another location you’re going to spend a lot of time in is your home away from home. Finding the right housing option is a vital stage of the higher education journey, especially for international students. Some of your local friends may be driving to campus from their family homes. But you’re new to this country and far away from your own home. Settling down right can make a huge difference to the life of an international student in the USA.
Generally, your housing options fall under the broad categories of on- and off-campus housing. In some cases, your university might mandate that you stay on-campus throughout your degree. Colleges do this because they believe students will get the most complete university experience and excel academically if they’re staying on-site. Other universities may make it compulsory for freshmen to stay on-campus, and after that first year, you can move off-campus. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons - as well as the common features - of each option.
The biggest perk of on-campus housing for international students is your proximity to everything from the get-go. Since you may be totally unfamiliar with this new place and your surroundings, an on-campus residence is an anchor point for you to work your way up from. You will be close to your classes here as well as close to on-campus support for anything you need. Plus, on-campus housing usually covers your bills for utilities and the internet, so you don’t have to worry about paying monthly bills shortly after moving in.
Different schools have different styles and systems for housing. In general, you will find either apartment-style or traditional housing options. In an apartment-style living situation, you will share a flat with a handful of other students. Each of you will have your own bedroom, with shared bathrooms and a shared living area. A typical living area is a space where you can cook, eat, and hang out with your flatmates!
The more traditional style of housing, on the other hand, is a dorm room you share with another student, with an en-suite or common bathroom. Usually, there will be other facilities, like a shared kitchen, down the hall.
Now, the prospect of having a roommate might be exciting for you, if you were worried about feeling lonely in this new place. Alternately, having to share your space with someone might have you freaking out. Because housing officials understand both sides of this spectrum, they will generally assign or help you select a roommate by asking you to fill out some questionnaires. You will answer questions about your living preferences, whether you prefer to be tidy, whether you’re okay with noise, and so on. This helps them match you with a compatible roommate!
For students who do have the option of moving out, off-campus housing may appeal to you because of the lower costs. Where you pay a lump sum covering your room, utilities, and meal plans for on-campus housing, off-campus residences give you more control over your spending. This means you will stay on top of your monthly bills, do your groceries, and cook your own meals. Since you’ll be living away from campus, you may also have to juggle transport timetables to make sure you get to class (and back home) on time. Nonetheless, many students prefer renting off-campus and enjoy the sense of independence from being able to look after themselves. Not only do you pick up valuable life skills, but you also have the chance to keep your living expenses down!
Ultimately, whether your rent is considerably lower than on-campus options depends on what type of off-campus housing you choose. Renting a private apartment is the most expensive option, whereas renting a flat with a friend or a few friends is considerably cheaper. Rent can vary depending on your location, too - typically, the closer you are to a city centre, the higher the rent. Many students prefer to split the bill for an apartment close to campus to manage their finances. It boils down to your priorities and preferences, in the end!
5. Meal Plans or Planning Your Meals?
Some student dorms and apartments do come with kitchen space. However, since universities can’t outfit kitchens for every student staying on-campus, school meal plans are often the popular alternative. But first things first, what is a meal plan?
Essentially, your meal plan is sort of like a deposit you make at the start of the semester for all the meals you’ll be eating in your college’s dining hall. Swiping your card in the dining hall deducts the amount for your meals from this prepaid deposit.
Some schools require first-year students, especially on-campus residents, to sign up for a meal plan. Depending on the school, there may be multiple plans to choose from, and you can change them up to your preference at any time. As a first-year international student, having a meal plan can be a relief. You will already have a ton on your plate, not counting groceries and meal prep. As time goes on and you grow better at managing international student life in the USA, you can adjust your meal plan to manage some of your meals yourself.
If you have any dietary restrictions or requirements, it’s a good idea to look into what your college’s meal plans entail before choosing one. You can also contact your college’s nutritionist for advice! Some schools offer more range and diversity in their meal options than others. Plus, you’ll want to look into things like what happens if you don’t use up your deposit before the end of the semester. Researching what’s available early on helps you transition into US student life more easily!
6. Getting Around as an International Student in the USA
If you’re used to going everywhere by car or on foot, the transport networks in the US might seem daunting at first glance. Luckily, most of the modes you’ll use to get around are efficient and easy to understand.
Some campuses are just so huge it’s not uncommon for schools to offer shuttle services to ferry students around! Shuttle services also run regularly to help students get to off-campus stops in shopping districts, train or subway stations, and other helpful pit-stops. Some schools have separate pages on their websites or dedicated apps for their shuttle services! Check these out for up-to-date timetables and stops, as well as other handy features like tracking your ride in real-time.
Some campuses are also very bicycle-friendly, and it’s a pretty common sight to see students peddling from Point A to Point B. So common, in fact, that as of February 2021, the League of American Bicyclists certified 212 schools as Bicycle Friendly Universities! Bicycling is a cost-effective, healthy, and environmentally-friendly mode of transport. It’s great not just for getting around your school but also around town! If your campus is one of the BFUs, why not take it up yourself?
Trains, Subways & Buses
Hollywood is pervasive enough that we’re pretty sure you’re familiar with movie or TV show scenes in a subway car or bus. Train networks, subway systems, and bus routes are just as pervasive throughout the States. Now, public transport systems don’t always have the best rep in the USA. But that rep isn’t uniform, and in some of the busiest parts of the USA, your local train, bus, or subway network is a part of the lifestyle. After all, are you really a New Yorker if you don’t know your way around the New York City Subway?
Alongside heavy rail networks, many cities also have light rail systems, including streetcars and trolley systems you can use to get around! Bus networks include thousands of stops across the country, including intercity buses, commuter buses, and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems. There’s no shortage of options when it comes to going around town, going from city to city, or choosing between modes of transport.
Below are just some of the options available if you’re studying in any of the following cities!
And to make it even better - we’re attaching some of the transit pass options for each. Purchasing these passes lets you travel around at discounted prices, so they’re absolutely a perk we recommend taking advantage of!
|City||Heavy Rail Rapid Transit Systems||Light Rail||Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Systems||Transit Pass Options|
|Los Angeles||Metro Rail||Metro Rail (Light Rail)||
||College/Vocational Tap Card|
|New York||New York City Subway||
|San Francisco||Bay Area Rapid Transit||Muni Metro||
|Philadelphia||SEPTA||SEPTA Light Rail||Ardmore Busway||SEPTA Key Card TransPass|
|Boston||MBTA Subway||MBTA Lightrail||MBTA||
|Washington DC||Washington Metro||DC Streetcar||
||MetroRail and MetroBus Unlimited Passes|
|Baltimore||Baltimore Metro SubwayLink||Baltimore Light Rail||
|Atlanta||MARTA Rail||Atlanta Streetcar||
|San Diego||San Diego Trolley||MTS Rapid||
This is nowhere near a complete list - there are tens of thousands of towns and cities across the USA after all.
Getting to know the intercity and local modes of transport at your destination helps you get your bearings early on when you arrive! You’ll need to get around town to run errands and explore your new surroundings properly. And hopping onto a bus or the train is part of the experience. Look into your local transit passes, the best routes that combine quality and cost-effectiveness, and convenient modes of transport for where you need to go, and you’ll be zooming around in no time.
7. Working as a Student in the USA
Looking at accommodation options, transport, and overall costs of living, you might be wondering if there’s some way to manage your expenses. Specifically, you might be wondering if you can work as a student while in the USA. The answer to that question - subject to a few caveats - is yes, you can!
As an F-1 student visa holder, you can only work on-campus during your first year. While this might not seem as exciting as exploring your opportunities off-campus, the range of job types you could find on university grounds might surprise you. From working as a barista or cashier in your school’s coffee shop to being a library assistant or administrative officer, there are a lot of options to explore.
CPT and OPT
Once you finish your first year, you may be eligible to work off-campus too. There are two routes available for international students to work in the USA - Curricular Practical Training (CPT) and Optional Practical Training (OPT). Both the CPT and OPT share the condition that your training has to be within your field of specialisation. So, for example, if you’re studying business administration, you won’t be able to work in a field or role unrelated to business administration.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is a component of your course curriculum. This means that a condition for completing your degree is completing CPT. Meanwhile, OPT is, as the O in the name suggests, optional. You may be eligible to work both during and after your program (through Pre- or Post-Completion OPT, respectively).
Working while you study can make international student life in the USA a richer experience. It can also help you offset some of your costs and have more wiggle room with your finances. Nonetheless, because specific terms and conditions apply to international students wishing to work in the States, do carefully look through what you can and can’t do. You may face penalties - including deportation - if you violate these conditions.
8. Connect Beyond Classrooms Through Student Organisations
The daily routine of an American student doesn’t merely involve shuttling back and forth between classes. US student life is ripe with opportunity to be a part of something beyond the classroom. Student organisations are an excellent way of getting to know people outside your classes, building meaningful and professional connections, getting enriching life and learning experiences, and more!
Imagine the extracurricular activities you are familiar with from high school but on a much larger, grander scale. For example, are you perhaps passionate about dancing? Well, your school might have a ton of options for you to join a community built around all kinds of dancing, from classical to contemporary and everything in between! Are you feeling a little homesick? Thanks to the multicultural communities common at many US colleges, you’ll likely find societies specific to your country, culture, ethnicity, and religion to help you ground yourself.
Whether your choice of organisation helps you experiment with an interest or hobby, build up your professional skills and talents, or find a comfort zone to decompress from academic pressures, these communities can greatly enhance international student life in the USA. To give you an idea of the sheer scale of options you have to choose from, consider that the University of South Florida has over 700 student organisations! And if despite this variety you still don’t find what you’re looking for - well, you have the option to start your own organisation too.
It’s impossible to summarise the experiences you will enjoy in the USA as an international student. The classes you take, the city you live in, the friends you make, the adventures you go on, all come together to create a unique journey just for you. Hopefully, we covered enough of the basics of international student life in the USA to give you a solid running start. For many people, studying in the US is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - so, do make the most of it!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is the USA good for students?
The USA is home to the largest number of top universities in the world. A whopping 350 schools feature on QS’ World University Rankings 2021! This, alongside the fact that the US consistently sees the highest volume of international students every year, says quite a bit about the USA’s appeal as a student destination.
Going beyond the numbers, there is a lot the US education system has going for it. The undergraduate education system is flexible, for example, letting you build up your general education foundations in the first one or two years of your bachelor’s degree. During this time, you can try out a bunch of different courses in different disciplines to find the specialisation that clicks for you. This gives you time to truly discover what you want to study before declaring your major after freshman or sophomore year!
Classroom and learning cultures in US colleges also prioritise nurturing independent learners and thinkers. Innovative learning methods and experts in their field come together to guide career-ready students!
How many hours do students study in the USA?
This can be tough to narrow down, especially as students have different paces at which they learn and the varying course loads they take on for their degrees. According to one estimate, for each college credit, you spend an hour in class and between two to three hours on homework every week.
Is the USA expensive for students?
“Expensive” is subjective and depends on your income, budget, and so on. Compared to studying in your home country, you can expect studying in the USA to be more expensive. International or out-of-state students generally pay more than domestic or in-state students in tuition and fees. Your cost of living may be higher too since you will have to consider your housing, meals, transport, and so on compared to if you were studying from home. This doesn’t mean studying in the USA is unrealistically expensive, though. Schools often offset some of their tuition fees with financial aid. And depending on your lifestyle and choices, you can manage your cost of living too. Find out more about the cost of living and studying in the USA here.
How is life in the USA for international students?
“New” and “different” may not be too far off the mark when describing international student life in the USA. But ultimately, what your international student experience looks like depends on you! There are incredible opportunities to explore in the US, from stellar education to student jobs, networking, travelling, cuisine, languages, cultures, and so, so much more. Customise the best experience for yourself by mapping out your own American dream!