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Going to college in the United States as an international student

From Harvard to NYU, choosing to study in the US is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to continue your studies while immersed in the American way of life.

As a foreign student, packing your bags, moving to the US and enrolling in a college or university can be an intimidating unknown.

The good news is that you’re not alone in this experience. Each year, more than 800,000 students choose to leave their home countries and broaden their education in the States. And it’s no surprise that the US is well equipped to help international students find their feet.

If you’re considering studying in the US, you have options to help you reach your goals.


Before you book a flight, you’ll need to think about how you’re going to finance your education. Because how you’ll fund your studies plays a big role in whether you can study in the US.

Keep in mind that your visa may not allow you to work in the US, and some colleges, universities and US Consulates require you to provide proof of funding for your entire study period.

Even though the US offers a variety of programs that allow international students to study in the country, you’ll have more limited scholarship options than available to the general student population.

This means that you’ll also want to research alternative sources of funding, such as:

  • Contact your home country’s educational authorities to see whether it offers funding specifically for students looking to study in the US.
  • Research the International Admissions Office for the school you’re interested in. You may qualify for grants, loans or work-study programs.

Scholarships for international students

Here are a few options to consider when looking for a scholarship.

  • WaterGadget Scholarship Program. Available to students ages 18 and older who are already enrolled in a college or university, this scholarship is a one-time amount paid toward your tuition.
  • ThinkSwiss Research Scholarship. Managed by the Office of Science, Technology, and Higher Education at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC, this scholarship promotes research opportunities in Switzerland for those studying in the US.
  • NextGen Scholarship. Created for international students and noncitizens, this scholarship is for students who choose to study in Washington DC, Maryland or Virginia. One annual award is given to a qualified high school senior or student at a two- or four-year college.

Before accepting a scholarship, learn exactly what your scholarship entails. Some pay only toward tuition, while others cover expenses that include accommodation, books and transportation.

Student loans

College and university tuition can be expensive, especially for international students who come from countries with weak currencies. Without a student loan, many international students wouldn’t be able to study in the US.

You can apply for a student loan in the US as a noncitizen or nonresident. However, to apply for a student loan, you need a credit history in the US.

Like most students, you probably won’t have a credit history. The good news is that lenders do not require you to personally have a good credit history — instead, you can have a cosigner who does.

Your cosigner will legally sign paperwork to help you obtain a loan. Because cosigners are jointly and legally responsible for repayment of the loan, they must be a US citizen or permanent resident.

Apply for a bank account before you arrive in the US

Whether you’re moving to the US for a semester or for four years, setting up a bank account is an important step in relocating. You’ll want to open a bank account before you leave your home country. Otherwise, you’ll have no credit history in the US.

Barclays, HSBC, Citibank, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse have a presence in the US. If you have an account with one of these global banks, they can set you up with a bank account before you fly over.

If you don’t have an account with a global bank, consider an international bank account that uses US dollars instead of your local currency. These type of accounts will be through a bank in your home country, so local rules will apply.

How to pay back student loan debt from another country

Alternatively, you could open an account directly with a US bank. Consider these three:

  • Chase. The largest bank in the US, Chase has more than 15,000 ATMs and over 5,000 branches across the nation, as well as free online and mobile banking. It offers a tailored account for students that is free for up to five years. To qualify, you must provide proof that you’re a student between the ages of 17 and 24.
  • Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo’s student accounts starts at $5 a month for students ages 17 to 24. You’ll receive a Visa debit card, free online bill payments and free online and mobile banking.
  • Bank of America. At $12 a month, B of A’s basic account is perfect for those planning to work or study in the US. You’ll receive a Visa debit card with this account.

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Applying for a visa

Before applying for a student visa, you’ll need to research the admission policy for the college or university you intend to attend.

Keep the following factors in mind:

  • Academic eligibility. Each college and university has different academic eligibility criteria. When applying to the school of your choice, know the school’s exact requirements.
  • Financial stability. With or without a scholarship, you’ll need to provide proof that you can support yourself without having to work in the US.
  • Health insurance. You’ll also need to show proof of health insurance that covers all medical expenses during your stay in the US.

Student visas and working in the US

International students can apply for one of three types of visas.

F-1 visa

The F-1 visa is issued for academic studies and is the most common form of visa for international students in the US. You can apply for an F-1 visa using the Form I-20—Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.

To be eligible for an F-1 visa, you must be a full-time student expected to complete your studies by the expiration date on the Form I-20. You must also meet the following strict criteria:

  • Foreign residence. You have a foreign residence and the intent to return to your country of residence on completion of your studies.
  • Sponsoring institution. You are studying only at the academic institution through which your visa is granted.
  • Financial support. You have sufficient financial support.
  • Ties to your home country. You have strong ties to your home country, which could include a job offer on completion of your studies, a house or car, a bank account or a family.

Working on an F-1 visa

An F1 visa allows for part-time, on-campus employment — which means you must work fewer than 20 hours a week. Students on this visa can also work on optional practical training for one year after completion of their studies. This training is practical training that complements your education.

J-1 visa

The J-1 visa is issued to students who need practical training that is not available in their home country and is necessary to complete their academic program. Each program available under the J-1 visa has specific requirements and regulations that can include becoming an au pair or camp counselor, working in a physician program, or teaching and interning.

To apply for a J-1 visa, you’ll need to contact a designated sponsor.

Working on a J-1 visa

So long as your designated sponsor allows you to, the J-1 visa allows for part-time, on-campus employment of fewer than 20 hours a week.

M-1 visa

The M-1 visa is issued to students who are attending accredited nonacademic or vocational schools. Because you can’t work while on an M-1 visa, you must have evidence of sufficient funds that are available immediately to pay all tuition and living costs for your entire stay in the US.

Working on an M-1 visa

M-1 visa holders are not permitted to work during the course of their studies. If you’re enrolling in academic study or English language classes, you may be able to apply for an F-1 visa.

Student Health Insurance

Unlike many other countries, the US does not provide socialized health care or medicine. America boasts one of the best healthcare systems in the world, but it is very expensive.

As an international student, you have two options:

  • On-campus health care. Most college and university campuses offer some type of general medical care. Services vary from basic first aid to multidoctor primary care centers offering x-rays, lab tests and prescriptions. Costs are typically inexpensive and accessible to all enrolled students.
  • Off-campus health care. Costs are higher for off-campus care, but you can choose which medical practitioners you see. Private doctors often treat non-emergency patients by appointment during office hours.

Tuition fees and other expenses

Furthering your education can be expensive, especially in the US. Add up the numbers to ensure you have enough money to pay for:

  • Tuition and fees. This is what you’ll pay for taking classes at your college or university, including parking and technology fees.
  • Room and board. Most schools offer a variety of dorm rooms and meal plans to students that live on campus.
  • Books and other educational supplies.
  • Personal expenses. These can include anything from laundry and cell phone bills to bus passes.

Average 2016–2017 fees for US universities and colleges

What follows are estimated costs for US universities and colleges.

Total fees for community college — $17,000

Tuition and other fees — $3,520

Room and board — $8,060

Total fees for in-state students at a four-year public college — $24,610

Tuition and other fees — $9,650

Room and board — $10,440

Total fees for out-of-state students at a four-year public college — $39,890

Tuition and other fees — $24,930

Room and board — $10,440

Total fees for a private nonprofit four-year college — $49,320

Tuition and other fees — $24,930

Room and board — $10,440

What types of schools does the US offer?

In the US, you’ll have a choice of three types of schools.

  • Public colleges are funded by state governments and typically offer lower tuition rates than a private school.
  • Private colleges rely on tuition, fees and private funding and often offer financial aid packages for accepted students.
  • For-profit colleges offer degree programs that prepare students for specific careers. They are more expensive and offer credits that may not transfer to other schools.

Among these types of schools are two- and four-year schools:

  • Two-year colleges offer programs that lead to certificates or associate degrees. They include community colleges, technical colleges and vocational schools.
  • Four-year universities offer programs that lead to bachelor’s degrees. Some also offer postgraduate programs that lead to master’s degrees.

When researching schools, you may also come across single-sex colleges, religious colleges and schools with special missions, like colleges and universities with a focus on educating African-American students.

What type of degrees can I pursue in the US?

In general, US colleges and universities offer six degree levels.

  • Associate degree. This undergraduate degree is awarded on completion of a two-year course of study by field:
      • Associate of Arts (AA) for the humanities and social sciences.
      • Associate of Science (AS) for scientific, technical and professional studies.
  • Bachelor’s degree. This undergraduate degree is awarded on completion of a four- or five-year course of study by field:
      • Bachelor of Arts (BA) for the humanities and social sciences.
      • Bachelor of Science (BS) for the scientific and technical fields.
  • Master’s degree. This postgraduate degree is awarded for research or professional studies by field:
      • Master of Arts (MA) for the humanities and social sciences.
      • Master of Science (MS) for a field of study (like engineering and physics).
      • Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Philosophy (MPhil) and similar degrees.
  • Specialist degree. This post–master’s degree typically focuses on subjects specific to K–12 education and includes Specialist of Education (EdS or SpEd) and Specialist in Psychology (PsyS).
  • Medical degree. Also called a “first professional degree,” this degree is awarded after completing eight or more years toward a professional practice. It includes the Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine (DC or DCM), Doctor of Medicine (MD) and Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD).
  • Doctorate. Doctorates are awarded for completing and successfully defending independent research in the form of a dissertation. They include Doctor of Education (EdD) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

What are the steps to applying for study in the US?

The application process alone can be overwhelming. Overall, you’ll need to:
1. Know what you want to study. Once you know what you want to study, you can research specific colleges and universities offering programs that satisfy your needs.
2. Explore how you’ll pay for your education. Aside from paying up front, you’ll need to figure out how you’ll be funding for your education. Unfortunately, international students do not qualify for US government loans, grants or general scholarship assistance.
3. Start the application process. Once you’ve narrowed down a list of schools in the US, you’ll need to begin the process of applying. Colleges and universities in the US have their own admission requirements and often include third-party standardized tests.
4. Get a visa. Once you’ve received a letter of acceptance certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), you can apply for a student visa.
5. Prepare for departure. You’ll want to learn a little about life in the US, including navigating immigration, driving as a foreigner, working while studying and taxes.
Studying in America can be a dream come true for those looking to further their education. While it can be expensive, your education in the US can be a possibility with the assistance of scholarship programs, student loans and visa policies.

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