Guide for International Students Coming to a U.S. College

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 8/21/20

With their global reputation, U.S. colleges and universities have long been a beacon for international students who want a quality education and, often, to experience the American way of life.

In fact, the U.S. attracts more international students than any other country, with 5% of its enrolled students coming from abroad, amounting to more than 1 million college-level international students in a given year. 

For international students hoping to come here, negotiating the complexities of finding a desirable institution of higher learning, completing an application, getting a visa, and paying the rising costs can be challenging.

Adding to this complexity is the uncertainties and restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many colleges and universities are anticipating a second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall and looking to shorten their 2020 fall terms, attempting to get the student body home before Thanksgiving.

Some colleges may only be offering online courses, which are safe but take away the need for international students to travel to the country. Prospective students should check the situation at any school they are considering and any travel restrictions that might apply to them.

Choosing a U.S. College or University

When looking for a college or university in the U.S., international students can start by looking at home. The federal government has set up EducationUSA advising centers in many countries, offering three levels of service: reference, standard, and comprehensive.

In their research, international students can also use a tool like College Navigator, which the National Center for Education Statistics offers. It allows you to search for schools by location, type of institution, programs, majors, and other criteria. 

Next, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), run by the Department of Homeland Security, lets you see if a particular school is properly certified. Searches can be conducted by school name, location, education, or visa type.

When coming to study in the U.S. from a country where English is not the primary language, be aware that a certain level of English proficiency might be required for college admission. 

Your country may have English-learning opportunities, and there are many language-learning resources online, including USA Learns, which offers free video lessons and thousands of activities, including English speaking, listening, vocabulary, pronunciation, reading, writing, and grammar.

If you are already in the U.S. or want to supplement your English proficiency after starting school, every state, county, and city has resources and programs for learning the language. Many libraries also offer English classes and study materials. 

Applying to a U.S. College or University

The application process can be lengthy and complex — especially for the highly sought, competitive schools — so you should check the requirements of each institution you want to apply to and make sure you leave yourself enough time to complete the process.

Besides researching various higher education possibilities, you need to register and prepare for required entrance exams. Most U.S. colleges and universities require that you take one or more standardized admissions tests to gain entrance into their programs. You should plan to take these tests at least 18 months before coming to the U.S., and you may want to take them more than once to boost your scores.

If English isn’t your first language, you might be asked to take certain tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Duolingo English Test, and the Pearson Test of English (PTE).

Some standardized tests for graduate-level studies include:

  • DAT: A multiple-choice test used for admission to dental schools. 
  • GRE: A standardized test that measures readiness for graduate-level study.
  • GMAT: A standardized test for MBA applicants.
  • MCAT: A standardized, multiple-choice examination that is a prerequisite to the study of medicine.
  • LSAT: A test for law schools used as one assessment factor for admission.

If you have an existing degree or qualification you want to be recognized, be aware there is no single entity or authority in the U.S. that does this. 

The three authorities used for recognition include:

  • The admitting school or higher education institution
  • The hiring employer for people seeking work and who are presenting degrees or other qualifications earned abroad
  • State or territorial licensing boards for individuals seeking to practice-regulated professions in a U.S. jurisdiction 

Obtaining a Student Visa 

You can apply for a student visa when you’ve been accepted by a U.S. college or university that is certified by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP). You can apply for either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay or an immigrant visa for permanent residence.

Your course of study and the type of school you plan to attend determine whether you need an F visa or an M visa. F visas include universities, colleges, and other academic institutions, including language-training programs. An M visa covers vocational or other recognized nonacademic institutions other than language-training programs.

To prepare for your visa interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate, you should be prepared to:

  • Show proof of your acceptance to a SEVP-certified school.
  • Show that you have the financial ability to pay for school costs and living expenses.
  • Demonstrate that you are prepared for the academic program in which you plan to enroll.
  • Prove that your stay in the U.S. is temporary.
  • Reveal how you will use your education when you return home. 

Financing Your Education in the U.S. 

Because of the rising cost of U.S. higher education, international students may need to find ways to finance their time at college if they can’t do so with family money. International students are usually not eligible for U.S. federal aid, such as Direct Loans or PLUS Loans.

However, there are some exceptions to this. Criteria for qualifying as an eligible noncitizen include:

  • Coming from a U.S. territory, including American Samoa or Swains Island
  • Being a U.S. permanent resident with a green card
  • Having a specific legal arrival/departure record through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, including coming from Cuba or Haiti, having official refugee status, having been granted asylum, or being a parolee
  • Having a nonimmigrant status or a parent with it

If you qualify for a federal loan, this is a good choice because it usually comes with a fixed, low-interest rate. However, most international students do not meet these criteria, so they must look to private lenders to fund tuition, housing, school supplies, and other education-related expenses.

You may need a co-signer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for at least two years when you apply for a private loan on a student visa. (Non-U.S. citizens and residents cannot act as co-signers.)

When applying for a loan, pay close to attention to your interest rate — the amount of money a lender charges on top of the money you borrowed — because that affects how much your monthly payments will be.

While federal loans usually don’t require payment until after you graduate, some private loans may demand payments to start while you are in school. Most student loans have a repayment term of 10 years, although refinanced and consolidated loans could extend this to 25 or 30 years.

Getting an international loan can also be tricky. Many colleges require that students have proof of funds, showing they can pay for school before admission. But, in a Catch-22, international student loans often require proof of enrollment in an institution, along with a valid student visa, before they are approved.

Other means of financing could include:

  • Sources in your own country: Many foreign governments offer to fund nationals studying abroad.
  • The schools themselves: Most colleges and universities offer assistance to international students through their international admissions offices.
  • Scholarships and grants: Search for these with the U.S. government’s free online scholarship search tool.
  • Exchange programs: Exchange programs administered by the government, such as the Fulbright program, can assist qualified international students.

International students should also check:

Receiving a college education in America is a great opportunity for international students. To get the most out of the experience, it helps to have all the information you require for planning and paying for schooling. is a great source for up-to-date information on the college planning process so that you can make the right decisions with your educational investment.