If you’ve ever considered studying abroad in the U.S., you’ve likely wondered about everything you need to know. After all, visiting a new country is both exciting and daunting, even when it’s just a brief vacation. When you’re spending longer periods of time to study or attend university, there’s a lot of planning involved.
The best advice for successfully studying abroad in the U.S. can vary based on several factors. For instance, requirements for securing a U.S. visa can differ based on how long you’re staying or where you’re coming from. Fortunately, your university will help with most of these issues, once you’ve applied and been accepted to your chosen degree program.
Of course, there’s a lot to prepare for beyond initial visa requirements. This guide will help you plan for your educational program in the U.S., whatever its length and type.
1. Enhance Your Language Skills
Even though most international students have already learned English in their home countries, it is likely you’ll encounter conversational differences in the U.S.
To improve your language skills and immerse yourself in American English learning settings, consider taking an ESL language course. This can be a vital preparation for participating in discussions in classes.
Along with classes, any of the following smartphone apps can help refresh and maintain your English skills:
2. Find out about Exchange Programs
If you’re looking for short-term opportunities for U.S. studies, check to see if your university offers exchange programs. If accepted, you can travel to the U.S. and live with a host family to be fully immersed in every aspect of the culture. These are different from degree programs at U.S. universities and can be a great step towards future studies in the U.S. if that’s your goal.
If your college doesn’t offer such a program, check the U.S. Department of State’s website for additional exchange opportunities.
3. Seek Financial Aid
When international students come to the U.S. for higher education such as a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctoral degree, they’ll find that the tuition costs are high. American universities often charge international students more than American students, no matter if you’re at a community college, university, or other educational institution.
The majority of students studying abroad in the U.S. pay for their education with family or personal funds. About 20 percent get funding from the institution they’re attending, and a small percentage even receive money from governments and colleges back home.
If personal or family funds won’t cover the bill, consider the following funding sources:
- Student loans provided by your school
- Federal government programs
- International scholarships
- Scholarships for specific universities
- Local organizations in your community
4. Consider Visa and Tax Requirements
The process for getting a visa with the U.S. Department of State can be complex. This means you should do some in-depth research to understand the requirements you’ll face. For instance, Taiwanese students must go through an interview process before obtaining a visa. Take a look at the U.S. student visa page to understand the specific rules and requirements for people from different countries.
Not all opportunities for studying abroad in the USA come from universities. You may wish to study in America as part of a high school program, seminary, conservatory, or even a foreign language training program. In these situations, you may need a different type of visa. Most students will need a J visa—which is for exchange visitors—but a Category F, M, or B visa could also be necessary. Make sure you find the one that meets your specific needs.
There are also some cases when you’ll need to apply for an ITIN or social security number. This is often required for paying taxes on scholarships and similar financial assets. You can find great resources on the application process on most university websites.
5. Research American Cities and Universities
You likely put in a lot of research before choosing a school back home. This is something you should also do when choosing an American university. Consider the education system, cost of living, campus life, location, programs available, and tuition. If funding your education is a major concern, look for colleges that offer scholarships for international students.
When researching, don’t forget to check out the school rankings on websites like QS Top Universities, US News Best U.S. Universities, Niche, and more. At the same time, think about what type of school you wish to attend. For example, some people prefer research-focused schools while others may prefer to have more hands-on, practical experiences.
Your eventual decision should also take American cities into account. Some people prefer big cities while others prefer small towns. Each place has their own unique vibe, and you’ll have vastly different experiences depending on where you go. Make your final decision based on personal preferences.
6. Prepare Your Finances
Research money exchange options before you leave. It’s great to bring some cash with you before you leave your home country. You can also change your home currencies to US dollars at the airport. However, the services in airports often charge a massive fee. ATMs can be cheaper and just as convenient.
You should also call your bank to let them know you might use your card overseas.
If you’re studying abroad in the U.S. for at least a semester, consider opening a U.S. bank account. This will simplify your financial life and help avoid costs related to international transfers, ATM fees, exchange rates, and more.
If you are thinking of transferring money to your friends or family back home, a money transfer app like Remitly makes it easy.
7. Plan for Your Dietary Needs
Most American universities have dining options right on campus. Spend some time researching what’s available at your college before departing. This allows you to plan out how much time you need between classes to grab a quick bite to eat.
If you have specific dietary needs, this research is invaluable. University web pages devoted to dining options are rarely in-depth, so don’t be afraid to reach out to your school directly to learn if there are gluten-free, vegetarian, halal, and other offerings to meet your needs.
8. Prepare for a Tipping Culture
Many American workers rely on tips for their income. Americans tip when they eat at certain restaurants, take a taxi, get a massage, go to the bar, or have their luggage brought to their rooms.
A tip of 15% to 20% is custom in many situations, but look online for amounts specific to each task.
9. Obtain Health Insurance
Getting travel health insurance is important before visiting any country. When studying abroad in the U.S., though, it’s essential. Healthcare in America is very expensive, and if you don’t get insurance before visiting, you could end up owing thousands of dollars if an emergency arises.
Fortunately, many universities offer their own discounted health plans for students. In fact, some require students to purchase their plans if they don’t have comparable coverage.
For example, the University of Washington requires international students to have insurance.
If you’re able to secure insurance that meets the school’s requirements at a more affordable cost, contact the college and request a waiver. While you definitely need a healthcare plan to avoid potentially massive debt in America, you don’t have to break the bank purchasing it.
As a lawfully present immigrant, you can also find options with the Affordable Care Act. Learn more at the National Immigration Law Center.
10. Learn about Common Holidays
Every country has their own holidays, and in America, there are days of observance that don’t really meet the traditional definition of “holiday.” It doesn’t hurt to review a complete guide on holidays in America to get more immersed in the culture.
Take a look at the holidays when most campuses are closed. These days provide great opportunities to get out and enjoy everything the country has to offer while studying abroad in America:
- New Year’s Day (Jan. 1)
- Memorial Day (last Monday in May)
- Independence Day (July 4)
- Labor Day (first Monday in September)
- Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday in November)
- Christmas (December 25)
There are also some holidays that are widely but not universally observed in the U.S. Check your school’s specific policies for holidays during the academic year such as:
- Martin Luther King Jr. Day
- Presidents’ Day
- Columbus (Indigenous Peoples) Day
- Veterans Day
11. Explore Your Local Area
There are many amazing places to visit in America, but don’t just focus on popular destinations like Los Angeles or New York. Take some time to research the area you’re living in. You can find amazing things.
If you’re attending Augusta University in Georgia—for instance—nothing special may immediately jump into your mind. With a little research, though, you’d find everything from nearby lakes and presidential homes to historic museums and international golf events.
If you can’t find something that appeals to you, remember that most cities have farmer’s markets, antique stores, parks, and historical sites.
12. Prepare for Transportation Realities
If you plan on doing anything while in America—or even commuting to school—you need to prepare for the realities of transportation. While many larger cities offer public transit—ranging from rail systems to bus lines—smaller areas may not have these options. You’ll want to research the area you’ll live in before departing.
One great way to avoid issues is by getting your driver’s license. Review the Department of Homeland Security’s Guide on Getting a License as an International Student to learn more. Requirements may vary based on where you’re staying in America.
Fortunately for some students—such as those from Taiwan and Japan—America will accept valid driver’s licenses from their home countries and some can even transfer to the U.S. driver’s licenses. If driving yourself around doesn’t sound exciting, try out services like Uber or Lyft.
13. Invest Time Finding a Place to Live
Everyone who travels to study abroad in the U.S. needs a place to stay. And even if you only plan on sleeping there, it’s still important to invest significant time doing research. This might be your home the entire time you’re in America, so it deserves more than a passing glance.
International college students have a variety of options on where to stay. The following are some of the most common:
- Renting their own apartment
- Renting a room in someone’s home
- Renting with roommates
- Living on campus
Many colleges—such as the University of South Carolina and the University of Maryland—also offer resources for off-campus living. Contact your school to see if they offer these services.
14. Prepare for Reverse Culture Shock
Studying abroad can cause a bit of culture shock. If you’re in the country for a month or more, though, you can expect reverse culture shock when you return home. Like the changes you first experienced in America, adjusting to life back in your home country can take some time.
If you need it, take it slowly for yourself before becoming fully immersed back in your own country. Adjusting to life at home can be a process.
Enjoy Studying Abroad in the USA!
There are countless things to enjoy while studying abroad, and in the U.S., you’ll find an abundance of cultural experiences that can be life-changing. By preparing yourself prior to departure, you’ll decrease the risk of unexpected problems while you’re away.
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