If you’re seriously considering studying abroad, then you already know that it won’t come cheap. This is likely something you and your family have been saving up for a long time. After all, it’s not just the tuition fees for your programs that you need to consider. You also have to account for things like rent, groceries, meals, transport. Then there are your visa fees and travel costs. And of course, you’re not going to fly off to another country and deprive yourself of the sights and sounds to experience there, right? So, if you’re bound for the States, what should you expect when it comes to living costs in the USA for international students?
How Much Does it Cost to Live and Study in the USA?
This may sound like an unhelpful answer, but how much living expenses in the USA for international students tally up to can vary quite a bit. But don’t fret - we’re going to look into the types of expenses you can expect while studying in the USA right here. Hopefully, this will give you a good grasp of what to look out for when doing your research and planning your stay!
Your Tuition Fees When Studying in the USA
This is a big one, if not the big one - the actual cost of studying in the USA as an international student. By virtue of not being an American citizen, your tuition fees are automatically higher than those of domestic students. This will be the case across SEVP-certified universities which have the authorisation to accept international student enrolments. So, when you’re doing your research and trying to find universities within your budget, make sure you’re looking at the international student or out-of-state fees, not domestic ones or in-state ones.
Tuition fees can also vary quite a bit across the board depending on:
- The university
- Your study level
- The program you’re enrolling in
i. How Fees Vary Across Universities
While each university will have its own tuition and fees structures, private universities generally cost more than public universities. The prestigious, private non-profits can have average yearly tuition fees over two times higher than tuition fees at state colleges. This makes sense when you consider that state universities receive government funding to offset a considerable portion of their costs. So if the cost of a private non-profit university feels out of your wallet’s league, there are plenty of excellent public universities to consider too. State universities typically have two sets of tuition rates - for in-state students and out-of-state students. And as you can probably guess, in-state students pay a subsidised tuition fee whereas out-of-state students (including yourself) pay more.
ii. Comparison of Estimated Annual Tuition in Private Non-Profit and State Universities Across US Cities
|Private non-profit university
|Estimated Annual Undergraduate Fees (International)
|Estimated Annual Undergraduate Fees (International)
|University of Southern California
|California State University
|New York University
|University of San Francisco
|City College of San Francisco
|University of Pennsylvania
|University of Chicago
|University of Illinois at Chicago
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
|University of Massachusetts Boston
*Accurate at time of writing
The difference between estimated undergraduate fees of private and public universities speaks for itself. Overall, private non-profit universities can cost several times higher than state universities. The same is true for graduate fees. In general, a typical master’s degree would cost less overall than an undergraduate degree, since the programs are shorter in length, but a master’s at a private non-profit would typically cost more than at a state university.
But before you slam your laptop shut or toss your phone away in disappointment, let us assure you that some of these prestigious but pricey universities may not be out of your reach. Lots of students enrolling at US universities end up paying less than the sticker price - the overall tuition and fees you’ll find on the university website - depending on multiple factors.
iii. Managing Your Tuition & Fees
Financial aid is a big contributor to the net price you pay in tuition, rather than the sticker price. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is, according to QS World University Rankings 2022, the best university in the world. And while its estimated tuition fees lean toward the higher end, around 85% of undergraduate students get some form of financial aid! On average, MIT estimates that its undergraduate aid recipients pay roughly USD 17,986 a year, rather than over USD 55,500. We’ll discuss financial aid options in more detail a bit later in this article, so hang tight!
Graduating from a top-tier private non-profit university is a possibility even if you enrol in a more inexpensive university at first! Community colleges, a unique feature of higher education in the USA, are two-year colleges where undergraduate students can complete part of their degree. In other words, you finish community college with an associate bachelor’s degree, and can transfer these credits to another university where you can finish the rest of your four-year undergraduate program! This is a great opportunity for students to manage some of the costs of getting higher education in the USA. Community colleges tend to be considerably more affordable, so you won’t have to pay the full sticker price of your end-goal university.
iv. Variability Across Programs and Study Levels
We want to remind you again that the tuition fees above are estimates of the overall fees for undergraduate students at these universities. The fees can vary quite a bit across different programs in the same university and your study level too. How much you expect to pay in annual tuition will depend on what you want to study and at which level, as well as which university.
For example, a graduate program in International Studies at the University of San Francisco is estimated at USD 31,100 annually, whereas an LLM rounds up to USD 50,890. Annual tuition for undergraduate students at USF, meanwhile, is an estimated USD 54,980. There are also additional fees to consider, depending on the university, program, campus, and whether or not you’re an in- or out-of-state applicant.
In general, you can expect graduate programs to cost less overall than undergraduate programs, since they’re shorter and more intensive. To get a better idea of how much you would pay in tuition and fees, the best place to start is the program page for your chosen university. You will find the latest breakdowns of the most recent tuition structures along with any additional fee requirements on your university’s website!
v. Proof of Your Financial Ability to Study in the USA
To get the Form I-20 from your Designated Student Officer (DSO), you need to prove that you are financially capable of supporting your studies at the university you apply to. Without fulfilling this condition, you won’t be able to secure Form I-20, which is a crucial component of your F-1 student visa and your entire study abroad journey. Your chosen schools may accept one or more of the following as valid proof of financial ability:
- Bank statements of your family members’ bank accounts
- Proof of financial support from a sponsor
- Financial aid letters
- Scholarship letters
- Validation from an employer declaring your yearly salary
How Living Expenses Vary Depending on Where You’re Staying
Now, every time you’ve glimpsed at a world map, you’ve likely seen that very recognisable shape of North America. You already know that the USA, simply put, is massive - so massive that this single country has six different time zones. The general climate, terrain, geography, culture, and quirks vary a lot across this gigantic nation, the third-largest in the world.
This variation, as you may expect, carries over into the cost of living. How much you can expect to spend monthly on rent, groceries, transport, and personal expenses depends in large part on where you’re staying. According to QS Best Student Cities 2022, these are the 13 best student cities ranked most to least affordable:
- San Diego
- Washington DC
- San Francisco
- New York
- Los Angeles
The Mercer Cost of Living City Ranking 2021 also lists New York and Los Angeles among the 20 most expensive cities in the world to live in. But again, these numbers and figures are estimates - what living costs in the USA for international students look like would depend on the international student. Are you living in New York or Dallas? Uptown or downtown? Close to the city centre or nearer the suburbs? For example, the cost of living in Florida for students will vary depending on where in Florida you’re staying.
Are you staying on- or off-campus and what type of housing are you choosing? Will you be signing up for meal plans on campus or are you going to be doing your own groceries? What type of lifestyle are you hoping to lead in the USA? All of this can impact what your monthly bills look like.
Here’s a breakdown of the types of living expenses and costs you can expect studying at an institution in QS’ Best Student Cities in the USA:
|Books & Supplies
|Rent & Meals
|Transport & Personal Expenses
|University of California (California)
|USD 14,300 - USD 17,800
|USD 2,200 - USD 2,800
|Columbia University (New York)
|Stanford University (San Francisco)
|University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)
|USD 14,502 - 17,304
|University of Chicago (Chicago)
|Boston University (Boston)
|George Washington University (Washington D.C.)
|Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore)
|USD 13,406 - USD 16,800
|University of Miami (Miami)
|USD 15,880 - USD 20,060
|University of Houston Downtown (Houston)
|Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta)
|University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh)
|USD 600 - USD 900
|USD 600 - USD 1,000
|University of San Diego (San Diego)
|USD 828 - USD 1,792
|USD 2,979 - USD 7,023
Again, just like tuition fees, how much the average monthly cost of living in the USA rounds up to depends on which university you’re attending. Luckily, universities outline the cost of attendance for their institution on their websites. It’s a great idea to look into the cost of attending the universities you’re considering specifically to get an idea of how much you'll be spending on:
- On- and off-campus accommodation
- Meal plans
- Personal expenses
- Utilities - gas, internet, electricity, rubbish disposal, water, heating
- Health insurance
- Mobile plan
Student Accommodation & Associated Costs
A lot of the above living expenses tie directly to your choice of housing. For example, on-campus housing usually covers the costs of your utilities in the overall payment. On-campus residents also typically get to sign up for meal plans, which cover a set number of meals every semester. The specifics of meal plans, including the price and the benefits you enjoy by signing up, will vary from school to school. For international students, staying on-campus is a great way of getting used to a new place without having to worry about paying separate bills and doing your own groceries. In some cases, some schools make staying on-campus mandatory for their students.
On the other hand, staying off-campus gives you better control over your finances. You know you’ll be paying for exactly how much you consume, be it for utilities or your monthly groceries. While this may be a hassle some students don’t feel prepared for, others prefer to manage their own housing and meals.
Staying away from campus might also mean you’ll be spending more on transport every day. And then there’s the question of your lifestyle as an international student in the USA. How often and where you eat out, go shopping, travel, engage in social activities, all determine what your monthly expenses look like. While the costs of attendance you’ll find on university websites are estimates, you can get a more specific idea through cost of living calculators for a more personalised breakdown of your expected expenses.
How to Manage Living Costs in the USA for International Students
You may be feeling a little dizzy seeing all these dollar signs flying around but remember, there’s a reason the United States consistently hosts the largest international student population. While tuition and living expenses may at first glance seem pretty high, US universities, as well as external organisations, have options in place to help make your dream US degree more attainable. Let’s look at some of the options you should consider as a prospective international student!
Scholarships & Financial Aid
As an international student, you won’t be eligible for the federal financial aid the US government offers students. However, that does not mean you can’t apply for scholarships at all. Plenty of US universities offer international students scholarships - you just need to be sure you’re doing your research and covering all your bases. You may qualify for merit- or need-based scholarships when applying to the USA.
Merit- and Need-Based Scholarships
Merit-based scholarships apply to students who display exceptional academic, extracurricular, leadership, athletic, artistic, and other abilities. Need-based scholarships, on the other hand, are set up for students who need additional assistance, generally financial, to attend college. When looking into scholarship options, we advise researching whether your chosen university is need-blind or need-aware when it comes to aid.
A need-blind university will not take your socioeconomic status into account when considering your application. And as you can guess, a need-aware university does weigh your socioeconomic status into the decision-making process for your application. Yale University, for example, is need-blind - the university will admit undergraduate students regardless of the student’s citizenship or background, and provide financial aid to help the student complete their program. On the other hand, Tufts University is need-aware - the university will consider your socioeconomic background, but the important thing to remember is that that’s not the only factor it will be considering. You can still be in the running to get need- or merit-based financial aid from a need-aware school.
If you’re considering applying for financial aid to study in the USA, the first thing to remember is that you won’t be the only one applying. Merit-based scholarships especially tend to be pretty competitive. Being thorough with your research, noting down the key requirements for each scholarship, figuring out whether you want to try for early decision or early application, sitting for the SATs or ACTs - all of this can help you stand a better chance in receiving financial aid.
Universities aren’t the only sources of financial aid for international students! So don’t limit your options by overlooking potential scholarship opportunities offered outside your chosen university. For example, under the Fulbright Foreign Student Program, you may be eligible for graduate-level, research-based study in the USA. You may also be eligible to apply for scholarships awarded by your home country’s organisations! For example, Malaysian students may be able to apply for undergraduate- and graduate-level scholarships from public organisations like the Bank Negara or the Malaysian Ministry of Education as well as from private corporations like Shell Malaysia and UEM Group.
The same advice applies here as does when applying for university scholarships. You need to research thoroughly, make sure you check off all requirements and apply early. Major scholarships tend to see more applicants than there are awards, so your best chance of receiving one is to stay ahead of the competition.
Scholarships aren’t the only funding option available for students either. Completing college after taking out student loans is very common in the USA. International students can also look into loan options in their home countries to help them fund their education. In Malaysia, for example, the JPA Scholarship is technically more of a loan than a scholarship. If you complete your undergraduate studies and enter civil service, you receive a complete fee waiver. In other words, the loan is a non-repayable, fully-funded scholarship. If you start working for a Government-Linked Company (GLC), the loan repayment is set at 25%, whereas working for a private company sets your loan repayment at 50%. In any other circumstance, you have to pay back the complete loan!
If you’re considering financial loans, we highly urge you to be fully aware of your rights, repayment schedules, and all the terms and conditions for the loan options you’re looking into. Consider seeking funding from trusted banks and sit down with your parents and financial advisers to pinpoint a system that lets you graduate without breaking the bank, as well as pay back your loans through a reasonable and realistic timeline.
You won’t be the first one to baulk at some of the sticker prices you might be coming across when looking into tuition in the USA. But with the right research and planning, you can get studying and living costs in the USA for international students down to a reasonable, manageable level! Whether you’re studying at a private non-profit school or a state college, going to community college first and later transferring your credits, where in the US you’re planning to stay, your lifestyle choices, etc. all impact what your bills look like at the end of the year. Put scholarships and other funding options into the mix, and your living costs will rarely be the same as another student’s!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can international students live in the USA?
Once you have your valid student visa, you can live in the USA for the duration of your study program.
How much will it cost me to live and study in the USA?
The answer to this question is going to be different for each student. Your tuition fees can vary depending on whether you are studying:
- At a private non-profit or a public school
- In a community college
- At undergraduate or graduate level
Tuition fees also vary depending on your program of choice - there can be considerable variability in fees for programs within the same university!
Your living costs can vary depending on:
- Which city you’re living in
- Which part of the city you’re staying in (close to the city centre, farther out in the suburbs, etc.)
- Whether you’re staying on- or off-campus
- Your lifestyle
and much more.
A good place to begin when budgeting for your chosen universities is to check out their cost of attendance pages on their websites! You will usually see estimated annual fees as well as other expenses such as what you may be paying for housing, meals, utilities, mobile plans, transport, books, and supplies.