The US Travel Docs Every International Student Needs

advice for students
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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on August 11, 2023

Make sure you are prepared before you leave for the United States.

An international student in an airport looking at flight schedules

Before you leave home to attend university in the United States, it is a good idea to double-check that all of your US travel docs are in order. US borders have officially reopened for immigrants and international students, but make sure you follow all health and safety protocols, including being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and carry proof of your vaccination status. Prepare for your trip to the US by reviewing our checklist of travel docs, general travel requirements, and special health restrictions related to the pandemic before leaving home. 

What Should International Students Pack in their Carry-On Bags? 

As an international student about to embark on your first trip to your new university in the United States, remember to pack all your essential travel- and school-related documents in your carry-on bag. Do not pack these away in your checked luggage. You will need many of these documents at customs, and you will also need them when you arrive at your university. Keep them accessible and safe. 

It is also a good idea to pack some essentials in your carry-on bag, like a change of clothes and basic toiletries. (Make sure you follow the toiletries guidelines listed below.) Be sure to include some cash in US dollars and an electrical adapter to charge your phone in US outlets, as your luggage could get lost or delayed. 

Keep These Docs in Your Possession as You Travel to the US

Here is a checklist of the documents you will need as an international traveler and a student entering your first year at a new university. Keep these organized and in a safe, accessible place, and never leave them unattended as you fly between airports or use other modes of transportation. 

  • Passport: This one should be a no-brainer: be sure your passport is current and valid, and remember to keep it in a safe place on your person. 

  • Visa: If you are a student studying in an academic or English-language program at a US university, you have an F-1 visa or visa stamp in your passport book. 

  • I-20 form: Your Designated School Official (DSO) sent your I-20 to you upon acceptance into university. Make sure to bundle your I-20 with your other important travel documents. 

  • Letter of Acceptance: When you pass through customs or speak with an immigration official, you may be asked to show your letter of acceptance from your university. 

  • SEVIS I-901 fee receipt: Once your DSO sends your I-20, you can use the information to pay your I-901 Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee. Keep the receipt as proof of payment with your other US travel docs. 

  • Customs letter and G-28 document included in your acceptance packet: Keep any customs paperwork or G-28 requirements that came in your acceptance packet with you at all times. 

In addition, you will need to pack the original versions of the following documents, not photocopies or pictures: 

  • Academic transcripts: Make sure your transcripts are in sealed envelopes that have been certified. 

  • Academic certificates: These certificates document your previous educational performances and your acceptance into a US-based university. 

  • English proficiency test scores: You may not need these to get through customs, but you may need to show them to your advisor at your new university in the US. 

  • Bank statement: You may be asked to show how you intend to fund your educational experience in the United States. 

What Travel Restrictions Do Students Need to Know About? 

Now that we have gone over what you must bring, it is also important to know what not to bring! As you pack, you want to make sure you are not carrying anything that is not allowed. International air travel has precise rules regarding what you can and cannot bring with you. There are two sets of rules to be mindful of: what you are allowed to bring on a plane or other mode of transportation and what you are allowed to bring into the USA. 

What Travel Restrictions Do Students Have to Observe? 

Most students will be flying to the United States. We will concentrate on air travel, but if you are traveling to the US from some other form of public transportation such as a boat or car, be sure to research any additional rules you may have to follow. 

What Can Students Bring on the Plane? 

When flying, you have to consider what you can bring on an airplane, pack in your stowed luggage, and pack in your carry-on bag. Certain items, like medical devices and electronic cigarettes, must be brought in your carry-on luggage. Items such as sporting equipment or a corkscrew are required to be packed in your stowed luggage.

Federal law allows travelers to include up to 3.4 ounces of shampoo, lotion, or similar liquid in their carry-on bags. You must pack anything over 3.4 ounces (100.55 ml) in your checked luggage. If you have questions about specific items, refer to your airline’s website, or search the Transportation Security Authority (TSA) database for packing instructions

Which Items Are Not Allowed Through Customs? 

Suppose you are coming to live in the United States for a year or more. You may be inclined to bring some items from home that you wouldn’t regularly pack for an international trip. However, before you pack fruit that you are sure to miss while studying abroad, check to see if it is allowed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

Most importantly, check if you plan on bringing anything that falls into the following four categories, as they have the highest level of CBP restrictions: 

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Plants and cut flowers

  • Meat and animal products

  • Live animals

Most other items are determined on a case-by-case basis or are illegal, such as illicit drugs or firearms. Currently, there are no specific travel restrictions for students from countries such as India, China, Brazil, or Vietnam, but it is a good idea to check the U.S. Department of State website periodically to stay up to date on any travel advisories you need to know about before you leave. 

How Much Money Can Students Bring into the United States? 

It is much easier to access cash digitally than it used to be, but it is still a good idea to bring $250–$500 on your person or in your carry-on in case of emergencies. If you intend to carry large amounts of cash with you (e.g., more than $10,000), you must report the money to CBP. 

Customs has a helpful website available for reporting the international transportation of currency

Which COVID-19 Related Restrictions Do Students Need to Know About? 

As of November 2021, the Department of Homeland Security and the US Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) require that non-US citizens must show proof of vaccination to fly to the United States. In addition to making sure your vaccinations are in order, the best advice for international students and other travelers to the United States is to monitor changes closely as your flight to the US gets closer. 

Homeland Security’s Study in the States blog is a good resource for F-1 student visa travel announcements and changes. We also recommend you check your local US embassy website to see if there are any notifications specific to your region or country.

And finally, stay in close contact with your university. Each school in the US has online resources to help students better understand their specific COVID-19 policies and precautions. Wentworth Institute of Technology, for instance, has a dedicated page for COVID-19 news and resources. At the University of Illinois Springfield health safety resource website, you can learn about the school’s COVID testing, vaccine, and quarantine policy

Check Twice, and You’ll Be Fine

Sometimes it feels like there are a million things to remember before a big international trip and a million things that could go wrong. But you have made it through the application and visa processes, booked your flight, and figured out how to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study in a different country. You can handle the last step. 

Make a checklist and have all the proper documents you need on your person, or in your carry-on bags. Check travel advisories at home and in the US. Make sure you follow the mask, vaccine, and other up-to-date requirements in airports and travel hubs. With some forethought and patience, you will enjoy a smooth trip to the United States. 

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