The US has the world’s largest population of international students, and nearly 5% of all students enrolled in higher education in the US are international students. Choosing to study in the US is an exciting opportunity, but there is so much to plan and prepare for — how should you get started?
How to Survive in the USA as a Student
For most students, the first week after arriving at their US university is the most challenging time of their entire study in the USA experience. Not only will you be dealing with overcoming homesickness, but you also will be adapting to a new culture, language, and more. To make this journey a little easier for you, here are a few top tips for international students looking to find out how to survive in the USA as a student.
1. Make a Budget for Your Life in the US
Depending on where you are studying, you may have a high cost of living. Planning early can help you cover these costs — here are some studying abroad in America tips on how to make a budget as a college student.
Living costs can vary significantly across different US states. Usually, living in urban areas is more expensive than living in the suburbs or in smaller towns. Cost of living may vary depending on:
Housing on campus or renting apartments off campus
Meal plans, personal grocery shopping, or eating out
Traveling by public transport or by car
Entertainment, extracurriculars, and other personal spending habits
Having a part-time job
Websites like Numbeo can give you an idea of costs of living in states across the US. You can compare these costs with your expected budget to narrow down the possible locations where you may pursue your studies. Once you have an estimate of costs of living in your new home, you can determine other expenses, like tuition, fees, and rent, with an online student budget calculator.
Splitting your expenses into essentials and non-essentials is the easiest way to organize your budget. This table gives you a brief idea of what you should consider:
Tuition and fees
Haircuts and beauty products
Utilities (gas, electricity, water)
Mobile, telephone, wifi, TV
Entertainment (clubbing, dinners, takeout, alcohol, takeaways, taxi)
Visa application fee
Music and film subscription services (Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple TV, Spotify)
Books and academic supplies
Transport (buses, trains, fuel, car insurance, Uber)
Sports club membership fees and kit
Having a small emergency fund in your budget is also important to plan for in case of the unexpected.
2. Develop Your Language Skills
Language barriers do not need to be an obstacle when you move to the US. Many Shorelight programs have English-language programs to improve both your academic and speaking skills. You can also improve your English with online tutorials, podcasts, and even TV shows and movies.
Here are a few top tips for international students who want to learn English:
Learn English from US instructors, locals, or mentors — Many universities, including Shorelight universities, offer English-language classes to improve your speaking, grammar, and academic English skills.
Download a language app or English podcast — Use an English-language app like Duolingo or listen to English-language podcasts like the British Council’s LearnEnglish podcasts. Podcasts often have transcripts (e.g., a written version of the audio) that allows you to listen and read along at the same time.
Watch TV — TV sitcoms have more realistic usage of the English language and can help you improve your conversational skills, teach you about various cultural references, and give you a better understanding of different kinds of humor. Many streaming services offer subtitles, so you can also read and follow along as you watch.
Change your computer’s default language — This is arguably the easiest step to take. Learning to navigate technology in the language you wish to learn is a great way to keep that language fresh in your mind every day – and to learn new words that will soon become common in your daily life.
Vary your friend group — Making friends with American students is one of the best ways to improve your English, as you can improve through conversing with them regularly, learning from how they speak, and asking them questions.
Read a book you already know well — There are many best-selling books that have been translated to a variety of different languages. If you have read a specific book in your native language, try to find an English version of the same book. The familiarity of the story should help you understand the language even better.
Carry a dictionary with you — Pocket dictionaries can help with conversations or in class if you need to look up specific words.
3. Join a Society or Club
Universities offer a wide range of student-run organizations and societies you can join. Whether you are interested in sports, drama, music, debate, or another area of interest, you can find a student society or club full of other students with the same interests. Clubs and societies can also be a great way to adjust to the US and find friends.
Here are a few tips for international students in the US on why you should join a club or society:
Explore your interests — Clubs can help you explore your interests and learn new things outside the classroom. This can be a great break from your studies and makes you feel more comfortable on campus.
Discover new hobbies — Hobbies can reduce stress and create connections with people who share your interests. When you join a campus organization or club, you can try out new hobbies to find one that is fun and interesting for you.
Meet new people — Student organizations and campus clubs are made up of people who share similar interests. You might find a new friend at an international student organization meeting. Friends and connections can improve your college experience: Getting advice from other students can be one of the best ways to adjust to US culture.
Build your resume — When you first go looking for a job, you may not have a lot of experience in your industry. Involvement in clubs or organizations can show future employers you have important skills like teamwork, communication, organization, and leadership. You may even discover new opportunities through someone you meet!
Improve your English — Communicating with members of your club gives you constant opportunities to practice and improve your English on a regular basis.
4. Immerse Yourself in the Culture
Learning about and adjusting to American culture can be challenging for most international students. One of the most common challenges is dealing with culture shock, and you may miss home while you are still getting used to life in the US. This is completely normal: Many international students experience culture shock, and there are several ways you can prepare for your new cultural experiences.
Here are a few top tips for international students on how to immerse yourself in the local culture:
Research the social norms in the US — By familiarizing yourself with these norms before you start university, it can be easier to make friends and avoid cultural misunderstandings.
Have an open mindset and embrace diversity — The US is a melting pot of different cultures. With an open mind, you can meet people from all walks of life, learn from their diverse perspectives, and explore new ideas.
Visit restaurants and other local attractions — One of the best ways to adjust to US culture is by stepping out and exploring the many establishments around you. Try out new food, visit a park, participate in a new activity, and discover everything the US has to offer. As you become more familiar with where you live, you may start to feel more comfortable!
5. Build a Strong Network of Support
During your transition from your home country to the US, the admissions office or international student office at your university can be a great source of help for international students in USA. Taking part in orientation at the beginning your program is an ideal way to get accustomed to life in the US, while also making friends with other new students.
Other forms of support will come from your new friends, academic advisors, and/or counselors. Many schools have counselors and therapists, trained to work with students just like you, who are ready to discuss ways you can reduce stress of moving to a new country, adjusting to US classroom culture, and more.
Another great way to build your new support network and learn how to survive in USA as a student is by getting involved in the social aspects of campus life. Research the clubs and organizations on your school’s website and get involved – soon, you’ll feel at home and part of the school community.
6. Familiarize Yourself with Local Laws
As an international student, it is important to familiarize yourself with the laws of your city. Keep in mind, any kind of infraction with the law can affect your legal status in the US, so being aware in advance can avoid future problems.
When it comes to US law, you should be familiar with:
Following your visa conditions — Depending on your student visa category, there are several conditions that must be followed to maintain your status as an international student, such as academic requirements to stay in good standing, how many hours per week you may work, and more.
Knowing your rights — Non-immigrant visa holders (including F, J, H-1B, and O-1 visas) have certain constitutional rights in the US when confronted by local or federal authorities. Read about how to respond to immigration questions if you are stopped by government officials.
Complying with local regulations — Be aware of local laws, including speed limits when driving, when local parks close, and other regional considerations. If you have questions about what is allowed, reach out to your student advisors for specific guidance.
7. Make Several Copies of Your Passport and Important Documents
In case of loss or damage, it’s smart to have backup copies of all your documents that are easily accessible if needed, especially if requested by school and/or immigration officials. (Once you have obtained your visa, visit the US Customs and Border Protection website for more information about how you should prepare to enter the US and what to bring.)
You should have backup copies of the following documents in case of an emergency:
List of emergency contacts
8. Make Sure You Have Health Insurance Coverage While Abroad
Many US colleges and universities require you to have active health insurance coverage while you are enrolled, so consider researching which coverage is right for you in advance. Health insurance policies and costs can vary depending on where you plan to study, and some universities may also offer their own plans to students.
You can get student health insurance any time before or after arriving in the US; you can search online to compare different student health insurance options. Depending on the policy, your coverage can start as soon as the day after purchase. Before purchasing any health insurance policy, first look up your university’s requirements to make sure you are getting an approved form of coverage.
There are a few types of student health insurance you can choose from:
A. Mandatory group plan
Some universities have their own health insurance plans with predetermined coverage that international students must purchase. This is known as a mandatory group plan.
Here are a few key features in this plan:
The cost is automatically added to your tuition bill
They usually cost more than individual plans
They provide comprehensive coverage including
Pre-existing conditions without a waiting period
B. Mandatory Group with Option to Waive
Some schools offer a mandatory insurance plan with predetermined coverage, but students are allowed to opt out. This option is allowed only if your individual plan is equally comprehensive and adequate.
C. Optional Plan
With optional plans, the school won’t offer you a mandatory plan with predetermined coverage; instead, students are free to select whichever plan they like.
9. Make Sure You Understand the US Collegiate Grading System at Your University
As a student, you will need to keep up your grades, and the grading system in the US may be very different from what you are used to. While grading systems can differ slightly based on your university, the most commonly used system in the US is the letter grading system (e.g., A-F). The A-F American grading system is standardized in schools across the US, and is usually defined as follows:
Your grade and the score you achieve in your classes contribute toward your Grade Point Average (GPA), which is often used as a reflection of academic performance. Your GPA is calculated by dividing the total amount of grade points earned by the total number of credit hours taken.
10. Make Sure You Come Prepared with a Valid Visa for the Duration of Your Stay
After you are accepted at a US college or university, the school will send you an I-20 form, which is the application for an F-1 student visa. Remember to make an appointment for a visa interview and to pay the required fees.
Student visas can be issued up to 120 days before the date on your Form I-20. You must also remember to fill in the new non-immigrant visa application form, DS-160, which should be completed online.
When entering the US, make sure you arrive no more than 30 days before you begin classes. As soon as you arrive, contact your Designated School Official (DSO) and they can guide you toward your next steps while providing you with important tips for international students in the US. After you arrive on campus, contact your DSO again before the start date listed on your I-20 form. If you miss any deadlines or need to know more about how to successfully maintain your status, ask your academic advisor or DSO for assistance.
11. Save Some Money for Traveling Around the Us
Having a dedicated savings account for travel while you are studying in the USA can help you stick to your savings plan and reach your travel goals sooner. There are a few top tips for international students when it comes to saving up for travel. You can start by opening up a separate savings account and setting up a regularly scheduled deposit for the account. This means that your traveling savings account will always have a fixed amount transferred to it, allowing you to build it up over time, so you can use it when you need it.
The US has an endless variety of places to visit, sights to see, and activities to try out! By making sure you have a travel fund, you can make the most of your vacations and experience everything America has to offer.
12. Try New Foods, but Make Sure to Stay Healthy
With so many cultures in the US, you can try a wide variety of different cuisines, no matter in which state you live and study. Popular cuisines include Mexican, Japanese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Chinese, and so much more. There is something for everyone to try – you may even find your new favorite food!
While it is exciting to try new foods, it is important to remember to also eat healthy. Choose nutritious options at your dining hall and opt for plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. Balance all your meals with the required nutrients and remember to stay hydrated, especially in the summer.
13. Be Aware of All Housing Options Available to You
Choosing where you want to live in the US is important, as it impacts your living expenses and affects how easily you can travel to university and around the city you call home. Your housing options will depend on your university and surrounding region, and can range from shared dorms on campus to private apartments.
Many international students prefer the social atmosphere of shared housing because it helps them make friends and can be less costly compared to living alone. Living on campus can be a good option if you want to stay close to the student community and get to your classes faster. You can still access a variety of dining, entertainment, and fitness locations, and it may be more comfortable and familiar.
A shared apartment might suit you better if you want to live communally, while also having more independence and privacy. Depending on the apartment you choose, you may have your own bedroom while sharing the kitchen, bathroom, and living space with your housemates. This can also be a good option if you plan to explore your city as it may be more centrally located than your university campus.
If you want international student advice about housing, you can speak to your Shorelight advisor or reach out to your university’s International Student Office. They will give you resources to local rental listings and can also recommend leasing agents.
14. Seek Out Friendly Faces
It’s exciting to adapt to your new home in the US – but every so often, you may want to experience the familiar. Many universities have a wide variety of cultural student-run organizations and societies where you can connect with a community of people from your home region. Speak with the international student services at your university for support and guidance on how to get involved.
15. Make Sure You Know How to Get Your Textbooks Before Classes Start
You have two main options for obtaining your textbooks: purchasing or renting.
Purchasing your textbooks gives you the freedom to write notes and highlight content in the books as you need, and you do not have to worry about not having the book when you need it. There are many used bookstores and online markets that can help you find textbooks at a lower price. Once you are done with the textbook, you have the option of selling it to another student or to a secondhand store to earn a part of the cost back.
You can also choose to rent your book for a much lower cost compared to purchasing it, but you must return the book in good condition. Keep track of how long you need the book for your class and plan your rental period ahead of time.
16. Get to Know Your Campus
By getting familiar with your campus, you become more comfortable with your new environment in the US and adjust to the culture. Your first-year orientation is a great introduction to your new school, its systems and processes, professors, and more. Before you arrive, you can also take an initial look at videos and virtual tours on the university’s website – this may help you adjust easier once you arrive.
17. Speak Up for What You Believe In - Vote for Important University Matters When You Can
As an international student, your opinion and perspective matter, especially when it comes to university policies and procedures. US universities encourage students to get involved to make their campus communities as vibrant, equitable, and inclusive as possible. When given the option to voice your concerns or weigh in on important university decisions, be sure to speak up and cast your vote. It could make a difference!
Remember, you can always rely on your friends and advisors if you want to make your voice heard on something that is important to you personally. They can guide you to the right avenues you can use to voice your opinion and the right officials you need to speak to. You can also join campus clubs and/or local community organizations to get involved with the causes you care about.
18. If You Don’t Know Something, Just Ask!
As an international student, it is completely normal to be unsure about certain aspects of your life in the US. In these cases, don’t hesitate to ask questions to resolve your concerns. Always reach out to your university’s international student services, advisor, or DSO as they can provide you with firsthand information and help for international students in the USA – and can help you find answers.
Remember that you can also ask people around you! If you ever need help on or off campus, such as finding your way around, getting public transport times, or figuring out other daily life concerns, you can always ask someone nearby for more information.
19. Enjoy Your Time Abroad
The US is a huge country offering an incredibly diverse range of landscapes, cultures, and experiences. You could visit famous attractions like the Grand Canyon, travel to the East Coast to visit Boston and New York City, explore the most incredible national parks, soak up the sun in California, bump into celebrities in Los Angeles, and so much more. Relax at a park, go hiking with your friends, attend music festivals — the possibilities are endless!
International students aiming to grow as professionals can also access many opportunities. Discover jobs and internships at world-famous organizations such as Microsoft, Google, Tesla, NASA, and many more. You can learn from industry experts and engage in groundbreaking research as you develop practical skills you can leverage to pursue your dream job.
20. Reach Out to Your Shorelight Advisor
Shorelight advisors are highly experienced in helping international students like you adjust to life in the US, including providing advice, top tips for international students, and answering questions.
Your Shorelight advisor is also ready to support you throughout your time in the US. From F-1 visa assistance, campus transition programs, academic support, and more, your advisor can provide assistance from researching the right school, sending in your application, succeeding in class, and preparing for an amazing career.
With these top tips for international students in mind, you can get a head start on your journey in the US and thrive at your new university!
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