How to Pursue Vocational Study in the USA: A Guide for International Students

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By Sakina Taher
Last updated on July 9, 2024

Going to a trade school in the USA prepares international students for a variety of promising careers. Vocational and technical education curriculum equips students with high-level technical capabilities for dynamic work environments. Here is everything you need to know about vocational study in America!

In this photo, two female international students in vocational study construct an engineering project at a table, a protective visor is laid on top of an open book. What are vocational courses? A vocational course means trade-focused studies, including engineering, carpentry, and computer science.

Vocational training programs build practical skills, provide hands-on training, and apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems. With vocational training, you can develop industry skills that allow you to jump right into your profession! If you are an international student interested in attending a trade school in the USA, this guide to vocational training in America goes over what you need to know.

What Is Vocational Training?

Vocational training in America is designed to provide the technical knowledge and skills required for specific careers (e.g., pharmacy technician, carpenter, chef, medical assistant, and many more). Vocational schools in the USA for international students combine classroom learning with hands-on training to provide a complete understanding of theory and real-world applications that qualify students to carry out the duties of their chosen profession. Upon completing the specific requirements of your international vocational training program, you may earn a certification, diploma, or associate’s degree. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the demand for professionals in vocational fields is increasing due to the high level of technical capabilities they bring to employers. International vocational training career opportunities include roles in nursing and health care, agriculture, design, hospitality, automotive repair, and more. 

Vocational and technical education in the USA provides a well-rounded education that equips you with:

  • Skill development – Coordinated with the most current requirements of the labor market, program curriculum provides skills training required to perform well at your future job.

  • Employability – Vocational training colleges in the USA also build your practical knowledge required to understand and apply research and theoretical studies to your day-to-day role.

  • Professional networks – Your professors and administrators, along with your peers, create a learning environment that builds connections across industries.

Whether you’re interested in the culinary arts, health care, or another field, you can explore the many vocational training options available through vocational schools in the USA for international students.

Shorelight’s Academic Services support international students with dedicated counselor assistance, online study options, foundational courses, and more. Improve your academic performance with flexible study options based on your needs.
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What Non-Degree Vocational Options Do I Have for Studying Abroad in the US?

According to an Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC) study, 63% of students would consider options other than four-year college, including non-degree vocational study, as they offer a quick, affordable, and skill-based pathway toward career progression. If you are interested in professional training for a specific role, like a carpenter or dental assistant, vocational schools in the USA for international students offer various non-degree international vocational training opportunities you can leverage to improve your career prospects in the US or around the globe. 

Vocational study differs from a standard four-year degree program — it is an alternative learning path offered at trade schools and technical institutes, as well as at colleges and universities. Depending on the program and its specific skill set, entry requirements, program length, class timings, and awarding credentials will vary. Let’s take a look at some non-degree vocational options to consider.

Programs Without a Credential

Some universities and institutes offer foundational courses, knowledge building programs, and international trainings in the USA that do not award credentials once completed. However, students who complete these programs will gain introductory knowledge on a particular field of study. 

These programs are worthwhile if you wish to explore a subject that interests you, gain a general understanding of the coursework before fully diving into a more comprehensive program, or build your professional portfolio.

Summer Coursework

Vocational schools in the USA for international students offer various summer programs to build valuable qualifications and practical knowledge, all boosting a student’s employability. Typically, summer programs can be anywhere between two to 12 weeks long, and are designed to equip students with a specific set of skills within a short period of time.

Summer courses are offered in a wide variety of subjects, including:

  • English language 

  • Fine arts

  • Graphic design

  • Leadership

  • Photography

A Certificate Program 

If you want to develop a strong professional skillset in a particular field, but do not have the time to apply for a full degree, consider applying for a certificate program. Certificate courses in the USA for international students can be useful for when you are just starting your career, want to acquire supplementary skills for an existing program you are studying for, or hope to boost your skills after completing your degree program.

There may be certificate courses for international students with entry requirements, while others may be online courses providing advanced training in your chosen field. Here are some certificate programs for international students in the USA.

  • Home health aid

  • Information Technology (IT) 

  • Social media marketing  

Training to Build Professional Skills

There are many short-term international vocational training programs offered by technical schools in the USA for international students, designed specifically to build professional and practical skills needed in specific career roles. These courses, once completed, can improve your career prospects in terms of technical knowledge and communication skills.

English language proficiency courses are the most widely offered type of training to build professional skills. English for Specific Purpose (ESP) programs focus on building competent language skills to support career prospects in industries such as accounting, engineering, IT, and even teaching. Professional skill training is also offered in a variety of other areas, including IT, law, project management, and engineering.

Real-Work Opportunities

Many vocational schools in the USA for international students offer work opportunities in the form of professional internships. Internships are an ideal setting for you to work in the US and learn on-the-job skills. Other internship benefits include:

  • Hands-on experience in your area of interest

  • Networking opportunities to make connections with industry professionals

  • Understanding whether your chosen profession is a good fit

  • Identifying any skill gaps you may need to improve

Applying for the right internship involves looking for openings in advance — begin researching internship possibilities at least six to nine months before you hope to start and identify if you meet the requirements. Remember to check if your visa status permits you to apply for these opportunities. (You can always speak to your student advisor for guidance.) 

Vocational and technical education in the USA is available through multiple institutions, programs, and certifications. Look for opportunities that suit your goals best and also add value to your skills as a professional. Shorelight advisors can always guide you through career development programs to help you navigate the process of choosing the right vocational training options for your goals.

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Where Can I Find These Vocational Options in the US?

There are many vocational schools in the USA for international students to pursue vocational and technical education in the USA. Tech-prep institutes, as well as post-secondary institutions such as community colleges, universities, and specialized vocational schools offer a wide range of vocational options for you to explore. The length of each program and their entry requirements may vary depending on the American vocational college where you hope to enroll.

Community Colleges

Community colleges are higher education institutions typically providing two-year programs with transferable credits to a four-year college or university. Community colleges were among the first vocational training institutions in the USA; over time, they have branched out to providing other programs and knowledge-building courses. Now, with expanded program offerings, vocational training courses offer well-rounded professional training in many industries. You can choose to obtain vocational training either simultaneously with another program, or opt for a stand-alone program.

Vocational training programs at community colleges offer training in fields such as:

  • Auto mechanics

  • Carpentry

  • Culinary arts 

  • Health care

  • Travel and tourism


Universities typically offer four-year programs. Some universities provide vocational training certificate courses for international students, diplomas, and/or associate degree programs to choose from. If you are already enrolled in a degree course, a vocational program may be an intensive training experience. However, some universities allow students to participate in vocational courses alone, with a separate application procedure.

Here are some common vocational course areas at US universities:

  • Automotive service technology

  • English language

  • Hospitality

  • Nursing 

  • Physical therapy 

Vocational Colleges

A US vocational college, also known as a trade school in the USA, gives students the option to enroll in a two-year vocational study program, which focuses on job-specific training, preparing you to enter the workforce with international training in the USA.

A multitude of private and state vocational schools in the USA for international students are available for you to gain international vocational training. Each college may specialize in training for particular industries. Consider making your choice based on what interests you most and adds value to your career goals. Here are some examples of fields to consider:

  • Arts

  • Early childhood education

  • Electronic systems

  • Health sciences


When you think about vocational training, the in-class experience may be first to come to mind, but you can also access more flexible options. While many vocational career paths require in-person training at a vocational center, you may find that online trade schools in the USA offer a cost-effective and time-saving alternative. Many online vocational training colleges in the USA also require you to complete fieldwork to earn your qualification!

With online vocational training you can:

  • Complete coursework at your own pace

  • Learn anywhere

  • Save time and money

When deciding which online program to choose, look for accredited online programs that meet industry standards and provide a challenging and rewarding curriculum to keep you motivated. To make the most of your program and to evaluate overall quality, check faculty qualifications, employer partnerships, and if the facilities provided by the online program meet your needs.

Having a clear understanding of American vocational colleges can make your decision-making process easier. You can identify cheap diploma courses in the USA for international students, class schedules, documentation needed for your application process, and most importantly, the specific type of visa required to pursue your vocational training!

What Visa Do I Need to Do Vocational or Technical Training in the US?

Studying in the US requires a specific visa type based on the purpose and timeline of your program. The M-1 visa is a vocational student visa allowing international students to opt for study at a full-time vocational and technical education in the USA. This visa cannot be used to study traditional academic courses, such as enrollment in full-time degree programs, and you may have to confirm your eligibility to work while pursuing your vocational training in America.

Here are some requirements you may need to consider when applying for M-1 visa courses in the USA.

M-1 Visa Requirements

To begin your visa application process, you are required to first apply to and be accepted by a US institution of higher education certified by the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP). Once accepted at an SEVP-certified school, you will be registered for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and receive an I-20 form — this is a certificate of eligibility issued by the accredited institution you have applied to and is needed for your M-1 visa application process.

You can apply for your vocational student visa at your respective country’s US Embassy and may require the following for your application:

  • A valid passport (may need to be valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay in the United States)

  • DS-160 confirmation form

  • A US visa photograph

  • Proof of fee payments

  • Original I-20 form

  • Proof of any other educational qualifications

  • Proof of financial stability

  • Standardized test scores

M-1 Visa Paperwork

Organizing your paperwork can help you to successfully take M-1 visa courses in the USA. Be sure to gather the following documents:

  • I-20 form

  • DS-160 form online

  • Visa application fee receipt

  • SEVIS fee receipt

If you require any further clarifications on the documentation you may need, you can always contact a Shorelight advisor for any M-1 visa assistance to make your application process easier.

M-1 Visa Fees

To obtain your vocational student visa, you are required to pay the following fees:

  • SEVIS I-901 fee – $350

  • Visa application fee – $185

It is important to keep your fee payment receipts, as they are needed for your visa application process. You may also be charged additional fees, depending on your home country, program, and other factors. 

Applying to vocational schools in the USA for international students is a common way to study in the US, and having a clear understanding of M-1 visa information can make the application process easier for you. The requirements and documents may vary depending on your vocational school, chosen program, and country, so consider speaking to your student advisor to go over any clarifications you may need. 

What Are the Pros and Cons to Choosing Vocational Training Over a Degree Program in the US?

With growing demand for practical-skill jobs, vocational study offers an attractive alternative to traditional postsecondary degrees.

Certificate courses in the USA for international students, which may not be four-year degree programs, also offer high-earning potential and strong vocational career prospects: construction management, electrical maintenance, and dental hygiene can earn between $60,000 to $100,000 entry-level salaries (Indeed). 

Let’s take a look at some pros and cons of vocational training education compared to degree programs. 


Students who go through vocational training colleges in the USA can gain a wide range of skills specifically related to their field at a lower cost compared to traditional degree programs. Vocational training programs have lower tuition fees than four-year degree programs. Through vocational programs, you are able to graduate from specialized programs and enter your career path faster, which can also help you pay back the costs of your education!


Vocational training programs are sometimes a non-degree educational path and may or may not offer a certification or credential like an academic degree. While some employers may require certifications and credentials in order to be hired, others may place more importance on your technical skills and professional experiences. Some of the biggest brands in the world, such as Apple, Google, and Hilton, consider vocational qualifications as valuable as formal degrees.

Program Length

Vocational program lengths vary from eight months to two years. This provides economic benefits, as a shorter program length means lower tuition fees compared to a four-year academic program. You can complete your education faster, enter the job market, and progress toward your career path!

Job Prospects

Degree programs are usually four-year academic courses covering a vast range of skills in a multitude of areas. These skills can be applied to different types of jobs in related fields, encouraging you to identify which ones are of most interest to you. Note, however, that vocational study programs may only address specific skills needed for a single role. While this can limit your job prospects, there are also many American vocational colleges in the US offering flexible programs where you can develop versatile skills that are applicable to multiple industries.

Career Path

There are a variety of lucrative careers available if you wish to apply for vocational degree programs. Depending on the role, you can access diverse career prospects that offer long-term success, both in terms of salary and projected industry growth, including:

Commercial pilot

Median Salary (Annual)


Industry growth (2022-2032)


Dental hygienist

Median Salary (Annual)


Industry growth (2022-2032)


Makeup artist

Median Salary (Annual)


Industry growth (2022-2032)


Radiation therapists

Median Salary (Annual)


Industry growth (2022-2032)


Transportation, storage, and distribution managers

Median Salary (Annual)


Industry growth (2022-2032)


Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Identify which programs work best for you by considering your career goals and plans for the future. Plan out your career pathway in advance, as this can help you make decisions about training programs you can pursue to achieve your goals. Remember that support is available through your university advisors and Shorelight counselors, and they can direct you to additional research and resources that can make it easier to narrow down your vocational training options.

Need Help Learning More About Vocational Training in the US?

Vocational training and technical programs prepare students for future career success by providing a blend of technical and conceptual knowledge alongside hands-on experience in specific fields of study. Alternative paths like certificate programs, trade schools in the USA, and technical training programs can provide firsthand experience where you develop the skills you need to progress in your career. 

To support your vocational career, you can always reach out to a Shorelight advisor. They can provide career advice, take you through the process of obtaining Optional Practical Training (OPT) if you wish to work in the US, or have the system of US higher education explained for a better understanding of all your study in the USA options. Your Shorelight advisor will be there to support you from day one, all the way to your graduation!

Speak with a Shorelight advisor today to start planning your next steps toward studying in the US >