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International student life in USA: What to expect

International student life in USA

The United States of America, or simply the United States (or US), has long been an El Dorado for international students all over the world, thanks to the high standard of education from its reputed universities and the quality of life the country offers.

Although the cost of attendance at US universities is high, the total number of international students crossed one million a few years ago.

China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Canada remain the top sources of students for the US, who contribute around $45 billion to the country’s economy. Here’s a look at what “America” holds for these ambitious, adventurous students.


How USA is coping with COVID

  • Many universities have canceled campus tours and information sessions for prospective applicants
  • Admissions offices have also been closed but emails are open
  • Online programs in place to reach out to applicants
  • For current students, online classes have begun
  • Taking online classes not to affect visa status
  • Students living on campus allowed to stay on


International student life in USA



Safety first. How can you find which US cities and universities are the safest? The first step is to research campus safety even before you make your study plans.

Institutions are required by law to disclose campus crime statistics, and the information should be available on the school websites. Does the school have a security plan that it shares with students?

Colleges are concerned about students’ safety and most provide late-night escort services (no, not what you’re thinking of!) and designated places from where a student can call for help.

They have on-campus security personnel who are often first responders in an emergency, even before police arrive. You should save the emergency numbers on your phone, such as local/campus police, designated official, and housing warden.

The next step is to research the security in the city or town where the school is located. As soon as you can, try to familiarize yourself with the routes and transport to the city center.

US campuses are open to outsiders, and though they are generally safe, take the usual precautions.

At home, don’t open doors to strangers; always see who’s at the door through the peephole. Take care of your belongings, and keep your doors and windows locked.

How the education system works in USA

Before higher education, students attend 12 years of schooling from first to 12th grade. Children start first grade around age six and study for five or six years before going on to secondary education (middle school or junior high school). Then they study at a college/university, which is part of higher education.

To enter college, you need academic transcripts, showing your grade and grade point average (GPA). Courses are usually graded using percentages, which are converted into letter grades.

The school year is from August/September to May/June. Most schools use the semester, trimester, or quarter systems (two, three, and four terms; an optional fourth summer term may be part of a four-term system).

Among the top universities are Harvard University, Stanford University, MIT, University of California Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago, and Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Duke, and Northwestern universities, to name only a few.

College starts with a four-year undergraduate program at a community college or four-year college/university. In the first two years, you will study a wide variety of subjects to lay a foundation for future studies. Students at community colleges may transfer to four-year colleges after completing the first two years of study and earning an associate of arts degree.

Every degree program focuses on one subject, which is called your “major.” A journalism major graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. You may choose your major at the beginning of the third year of your degree program.

The US system is flexible and you can change your major, but this may involve additional costs. A student can transfer from one university to another and still complete a degree in reasonable time.

After graduation, you could join a master’s degree program, especially if you’re targeting higher positions in certain fields. For admission, you may require scores from specific tests such as the GRE or GMAT, LSAT (law school) or MCAT (medical school).

With a master’s degree, you could enroll for a PhD program, which may take three years or more. Some schools allow students to join a doctoral program with only a bachelor’s degree.

In the US, higher education is provided by state colleges/universities, private colleges/universities, community colleges, and institutes of technology (four-year programs in science and technology).

Community colleges grant associate degrees that allow students to transfer to a university (in the case of associate of arts and science) or that don’t allow transfer (applied science degrees). They also enable students to directly enter the workforce.

Learning environment

Classes can hold between a few students to several hundred. Classes are dynamic, and students are expected to make presentations, make known their viewpoints, and participate in debates.

Professors give students a list of readings for the week and assignments. Your grades depend on your classroom participation, midterm exam, research papers, short quizzes, and a final examination.

International students are pleasantly surprised by professors being addressed by their first names, informal/casual wear in class, reading, eating, and sleeping in large classrooms, students challenging professors, and teachers expecting independent work from students.

Each “course” is worth a certain number of credits or credit hours, usually three to five, that is, about the number of hours that a student spends in class for the course each week.

A full-time program comprises four or five courses per term, which is 12-15 credit hours. International students need to enroll in at least one full-time program each term.

Campus life

Good educational infrastructure such as classrooms, libraries, and labs are a given on most campuses but other amenities include cafes and pubs, event halls, shopping centers, gyms, and student unions, sororities, and fraternities.

Among the “most fun” campuses are reputed to be those of Pennsylvania State, Florida, Florida State, Iowa, Syracuse, and Ohio.

Those with the best student life include Universities of Southern California, California Los Angeles, Michigan Ann Arbor, Wisconsin, and Georgia. Many campuses are vast, and students walk or bike around the place. ‘

US campuses are liberal but vandalism along with plagiarism are big sins. You can’t drink or use drugs, and if you flout the rules, the campus police may arrest you, or you may face expulsion.

On weekends, you can go on a tour of your city through tour operators or with friends on private cars or bikes.

During vacations, you can set off for holiday to any of the natural spectacles, such as the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the Great Lakes. You can also visit centers of creativity and innovation of the fashion, music, and film industries.

After you arrive

You may be provided with temporary accommodation still such time you can find a long-term arrangement, for which you will have to contact the foreign student advisor/housing office.

Your list of tasks after you arrive in the US should include:



US weather is as diverse as the country’s culture and international students should know what to pack when they shift to their university city/town.

Websites such as and are good places to begin your research.

The country can be divided into four vast regions: the West (California, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona); the Midwest (Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Kansas); the South (Texas, Mississippi, Florida), and the Northeast (New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts).

Generally the sun shines on California, but it is cooler in the north of the region, and hot in the south, and desert-like as you head inland.

The Midwest states have a typical seasonal cycle with temperate springs, hot summers, and cold winters. In the South, the coastal towns are hurricane-prone, and much of the weather is hot and humid. The Northeast has extreme weathers, with torrid summers and bitterly cold winters.


Individualism and directness, the value of time, worth ethic, private space, personal hygiene, and informality are features of US culture. One way that people in the US express their individuality is by speaking out about their opinions.

They value their time and shows this by being punctual. The “work your heart out” ethic is widely prevalent among Americans, although millennials have also felt the need for a work-life balance.

Private space vs public space is a big thing for Americans, and they insist on keeping a distance between other people, such as when standing in a queue. The wide range of perfumes, deodorants, cologne, and air-fresheners, cleaning material and detergents on market shelves in the US is an indication of their sense of hygiene.

Americans address people well known to them by their first names, but they address professionals using their titles, such as “Dr. Smith.” They have no hesitation in making it known how they would like to be addressed.

Intonation can be difficult to tackle for you and for your American friends, and it is best to slow down when you talk to them.

It is not OK for you to call anyone between 9 pm and 9 am unless in an emergency. But you can send an email at any time, giving sufficient time for the receiver to answer.

When it comes to clothing, Americans tend to have a sense of what is appropriate, such as formal wear for formal events but informal wear in classrooms, such as jeans and T-shirt.

In aspects of academic culture, plagiarism/copying are forbidden and strict rules are in place. Collaboration is often considered cheating.

Xenophobia is a growing problem in the US, but it is not a major worry on campuses yet. International student advisors can clarify your doubts on this course.

Some aspects of American culture may seem strange: for example, large portions of food, nearly empty streets in many areas, “How are you?” spoken as a sort of greeting rather than a concerned enquiry, and self-confidence in all settings and all topics.

Food and cuisine

Countries have cuisines, but in the US, even colleges have their own specialty food. The Pennsylvania State University, for example, boasts an “ice creamery,” and the University of California Los Angeles offers its cookie and ice-cream sandwiches.

The US may be known as the capital of the fast food culture, but each state and city has its dish peppered with various cultural inputs. Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizzas and Philadelphia for its Philly cheese steak.

The cuisine of the East Coast and North East is influenced by the British colonial past and the use of seafood (New England has clam chowder in a break bowl and Baltimore the blue crab.

The food of the South, known as “soul food,” is rich in the flavors of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Creole, and Latin American cuisines. Louisiana has the gumbo and Texas the slow-cooked pulled pork.

The food of the Midwest, the bread basket of the country, is known for strong flavors and is lightly spiced. Vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat are its specialties, along with casseroles, pot roasts, and baked pasta.

The West is known for its food with fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and seafood. Further down the coast you have Tex-Mex cuisines, and some people strongly recommend “arroz con pollo,” a rice and chicken dish, and fresh “ceviche,” spiced raw fish cooked in lemon juice.

Among the dishes usually served at college dining halls are cereals, oatmeal, scrambled eggs and bacon, waffles, pancakes, toast, and bagels for breakfast; burgers, sliders, buffalo wings, grilled cheese, and macaroni for lunch; bacon cheeseburger, barbeque ribs, chicken noodle soup, chili, pizza, clam chowder, fried chicken, Rueben sandwich, and tacos for dinner; and candy, chips and salsa, corn dog, and trail mix for snacks.

Most international students may find American food greasier than food they are used to at home. Processed sugary/salty snacks are easy to find. To stay healthy, you can choose fresh fruits and vegetables, and to keep away homesickness, check out restaurants serving cuisine from your own country.

Vegetarians may find some difficulty, as the term “non-vegetarian” isn’t used in the US. When ordering, they could say “no meat” instead of “without meat” as it could be confused with “with meat.”

Pizzas that don’t contain meat can be ordered. There are a number of restaurants and fast-food joints that serve vegetarians, such as McDonald’s, Subway, and Pizza Hut. Some Mexican restaurants also serve veggie food.


The US is perhaps the most expensive destination for higher education. Students are reported to have to spend $99,417 over the course of a degree program. At the top-tier colleges, most of them private non-profits, tuition fees and living expenses are likely to be about $60,000 a year.

Public universities charge one tuition fee rate for in-state residents and another for out-of-state and international students. Private universities, on the other hand, charge one rate for all.

According to the College Board, tuition fees at state colleges came to $26,290 per year for international students (2018-19) and at private non-profit colleges $35,830, both four-year programs. Room and board came to $11,140 (to bring the total expenses to $37,430) at state colleges and $12,680 ($48,510) at private colleges.

Public-sector two-year colleges (community/technical colleges) charge only $3,660 (2018-19).

After completing two years at community colleges and earning an associate degree (considered the first half of a bachelor’s degree program), students can transfer to a university to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Along with other expenses, the total budget for an international student could be $17,930 a year (2018-19) at community colleges, $41,950 at four-year public colleges, and $52,000 at non-profit private four-year colleges.

But prestigious public colleges charge as much as private colleges: for example, at the University of Michigan, the fee for the 2018/19 fall/winter was $49,350, in addition to $11,534 for room and board and $3,500 for books and personal expenses, adding up to a total cost of $65,000-$70,000 a year.

Medicine and engineering programs are more expensive than arts and humanities. Graduate programs are significantly costlier, and MBA programs are the most expensive.

The annual graduate tuition fees at a few top-ranked universities were Princeton University: $44,000; Harvard $5,500-$33,000; University of Chicago: $13,500-$39,500; Yale: $22,000-$46,000; Columbia: $23,000-$59,000. But many universities offer master’s programs for lower fees.

Living expenses include communication and also personal expenses including groceries ($250 a year) besides laundry, clothes, and dining out. A student may have to keep aside $500 a year for travel, electricity, landline, etc. These are a considerable part of students’ expenses in the US and they need to maintain a budget.

For transport, you can use trains, buses, and subways ($45-$100 a month) and buses, rain, and air for longer distances.


Most universities provide on-campus dormitory accommodation, but prospective students have to apply early. In dormitories, three students typically share a room and use large bathrooms with toilets and shower.

The advantages are that students can stay close to campus and reduce expenses on commuting, they will readily have basic utilities such as landlines, and they can participate in social activities.

Private accommodation is available in apartments and homestays. You can rent single rooms or share a flat with other students. But you may have to take care of basic utilities and cook your own food.

The annual rents typically range from $3,000-$8,000 but they are much higher in other cities such as New York ($14,400). But it all depends on the city.

New friends and classified ads are good sources of information about accommodation available near the campus. Check out the locality yourself before committing yourself to a lease and ensure that it feels safe.

You may need a renter’s insurance as the landlord is not responsible for the safety of your belongings.

Part-time jobs

International students can work 20 hours a week during semesters and full time (40 hours a week) during vacations. Your earned income may be taxable.

The first step is to speak to your designated school official (DSO) for jobs available after having applied for it a month before classes begin. On-campus jobs include those at university libraries, bookstore, or cafeteria.

Off-campus are usually only available to international students who have completed at least one academic year in the US. For students who wish to gain experience, programs such as Optional Practical Training and Curricular Practical Training are in place. The DSO will tell you whether you’re eligible. Read CPT vs OPT.

A day in the life

(By a first-year liberal arts student at the Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee; paraphrased for conciseness):

I wake up at 8.30 after much prompting by my phone. I fill my mug from the coffee machine and rush out for classes that starts at 9 am (on some days at 10). I take yoghurt or smoothie taken at my midnight swipe at the canteen. I like finishing all my classes in one go without one-hour breaks between them.

I have not chosen my major, though I am leaning heavily towards public policy. This year I’m studying macroeconomics, general chemistry, Spanish, mass media, and politics.

When it’s time for lunch, I head for the café near the library and have coffee and grilled wraps. When I don’t have time to sit down, I pack protein shakes and granola bars to munch on short breaks between classes.

I take a break after lunch, watching Netflix in my room, going for a job or a walk into town.

In my freshman year, I used to involve myself in all activities I could. But, with studies getting serious, I have time only for a students’ newspaper, a sorority, and some charity work.

I have had to settle for a rhythm of eat, study, sleep, repeat. But from the university, I’m able to experience Nashville, a cultural hotspot.

As it is the spring semester, I’m sending applications for the summer internship, hopefully at a Congressional office on Capitol Hill or to write for a local magazine.

After dinner, my friends and I head to the library for a study session in separate cubicles. We leave at midnight when the library closes, walk over to the canteen to grab our breakfast swipe for the next day.

If we are feeling tired, we head back to our dorms to watch a movie or scroll through Facebook.

Finally, I come to my favorite part: getting some sleep. I need my six hours. Being rested is the best preparation for a great university experience.


Adaptation tips

  • Use campus/community resources
  • Prepare to participate in class, take the lead in class projects
  • Overcome the language/cultural barrier (dating, drinking, etc.) by making American friends
  • Also tell them about your own culture
  • Understand the concept of fraternities/sororities
  • Ask for help and advice from international students and professors
  • Learn to enjoy life in the US, balance studies and leisure

And for some related international student experiences, read:
International student life in Germany
International student life in France
International student life in Canada
International student life in Australia
International student life in the UK
International student life in Hong Kong
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42

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