Studying in the United States as an international student

Introduction to studying in the United States

The United States of America (also called the United States, the US, or simply just America) is the third largest country in the world, and shares a border with Canada to the north and Mexico to the south.

There are more than a million foreign students enrolled in their higher education institutions, which makes the US the first choice destination for international students.

It is made up of 50 states with the capital city being Washington, D.C. (also known as the District of Columbia) which liesbetween the states of Maryland and Virginia.

The currency and economy of America

The currency of the United States is the US Dollar. It has the largest economy in world (China ties with it in some areas)  and is also highly technologically advanced. The gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 was around $17.9 trillion USD.

American companies are usually ahead of others in terms of of technological advances, especially in the fields of IT, medicine, aerospace, and the military.

What's the weather like in the US?

Because the US is such a vast country, the climate can change considerably from state to state:

  • Hawaii and Florida have tropical warm weather with temperates around 32ºc
  • California has pleasant temperates all year round which rarely go below 16ºc
  • Alaska's climate is pretty much as cold as the arctic — freezing.

What type of people live in the US?

Most of the 326,000 million people living in the US are immigrants and of which:

  • Whites make up 70% of the population
  • 17% are Hispanic / Latino
  • Black or African Americans make up 13%
  • 4% are from Asia and native Americans make up 1%

You'll probably hear a lot of Spanish being spoken as it is the most common language after English.

What's the American culture like?

America has lots of very seperate cultures, especially in ethnic lines such as Caucasians, African American, and Hispanic or Latinos. But people have the freedom to belong to any religion they want and are free to express themselves without fear of government punishments.

Having such freedoms means that a person's interests and career may have more importance to them than their family — relative to in other countries.

The biggest sports in the US are American football (similar sport to rugby), baseball, and basketball.  Sport is also played at university level, with some of their games getting regular crowds of 75,000.

Cost of living in the USA

The cost of living, and living conditions, in the USA can vary a lot depending on your location and lifestyle, but they are similar to what you'd find in any wealthy developed nation.

Food and household items are usually affordable and consumer appliances are easy to get hold of. It costs around $2,300 per month for an average adult living in the US to sustain themselves (excluding tuition fees). The cost of living is much higher in the big cities compared to small towns, with student accomodation being particularly expensive in US cities.

The US education system

The US government has relatively little say over how education is managed in the country and it doesn't have control over degrees, curriculums, or teaching standards. This is unlike most other countries where this role is taken care of by an official agency such as the Ministry of Education.

US higher educational institutions fall into one of two categories:

  1. public (state supported)
  2. private

Attending a public or private university has no bearing on the quality of education you'll receive, but the private ones tend to be the most competitive. Both types will have their own entry requirements and you must apply seperately to each one.

If you have a high school diploma (or equivalent if you are an international student), you have the following study options depending on your grades and, of course, goals.

PET (Professional Education and Training) / CTE (Career and Technical Education) / VET (Vocational Education and Training)

These schools are for students who know what kind of career they want after finishing the course, and for those who's career ambition relies on having specialist training.

Diplomas, certificates, and associate degrees can take from 6 months to 4 years to complete. Some PET institutes offer degrees that can be used as an entry qualification on to a university degree. Not all PETs are accredited, and they may not be eligible for your chosen university to accept study credits earned from a particular PET school. If you have plans to progress to a university after, then please consider the accreditation status of a PET schools before applying.

Community colleges / Junior colleges

These are public institutions that attract students from different backgrounds and who have different life goals. Students may just be out of high school, they may only want to study for a couple of years, or they could be in employment and want to update their skills or make a career pivot. Students may also transfer their credits to attend a university — something that more than 50% do.

The courses offered by a community college are usually two-year degrees or diplomas or certificates, but an increasing number also offer four-year degrees as well. The courses offered at community colleges are often more varied than at a PET school.

Colleges and universities in USA

Although the word "college" and "university" have the same meaning in the US, it isn't always so. A university can be seen as a more research-intensive organisation compared to a college, and some universities themselves are broken down into various "colleges", with each representing a particular faculty or department.

Undergraduate degrees

It normally takes 4 years to complete a bachelor's degree in the USA. Each year has a word associated with it to easily identify your academic progress:

  • Year 1 = Freshman
  • Year 2 = Sophomore
  • Year 3 = Junior
  • Year 4 = Senior

The types of bachelor’s degrees offered are generally:

  1. BA (Bachelor of Arts)
  2. BS (Bachelor of Science)
  3. BE (Bachelor of Engineering)

You can choose a subject to “major” in at a certain point during your degree.  This is basically a set of courses within a degree that most interests you e.g. Major in Business Management within a BS programme.

You can pursue either a BA in Business Management or a BS in Business Management. The difference is that BA's are more focussed on the soft topics (humanities and sociology) whereas the BS courses are science and maths focussed.

Once you have earned your bachelor's degree, you could continue on to a postgraduate course or enter employment.

Postgraduate master’s degrees

If you hold a bachelor’s degree, and have the required qualifications/experience, you can enrol on a master's degree can progress to a master's degree. These can take up to 3 years to complete and may also include a research project at the final stage. You may or may not have to write a dissertation lasting around 3-4 months.

More than 1,000 universities in the US offer master’s degrees; some are offered at universities that also offer undergraduate degrees and some are offered at graduate-only universities.

There are many types and titles of master’s, but perhaps the most well known are the:

  • Master of Arts (MA)
  • Master of Science (MS)
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)

Postgraduate doctoral research degrees

More than 35,000 doctorate degrees are awarded in the US every year by more than 500 institutions. Like master’s degrees, doctoral degrees can be academic or professional in nature. To receive their degrees, students need to pass an examination and complete an original piece of research and submit a dissertation.

Doctoral degrees may require a master’s degree for admission, and take from 5–8 years to complete. Some are offered at universities that also offer undergraduate degrees and some are offered at graduate-only universities.

Some points about higher education in USA

  1. Just because an institution uses the word "national" in their name does not mean they are supported by the governement.
  2. While many students enrol on a 2-year degree at a community college and then transfer to a 4-year program at university, you can also get an equivalent 4-year bachelor's degree at a community college.
  3. The US government does not assure quality or accreditation of their institutions. This is down to voluntary organisations and use a system known as "peer review" which sets standards that must be met.
  4. You'll generally find that shorter degrees have lower entry requirements, with some having no requirements at all. However, there are more strict enquiry requirements for subjects such as medicine and other healthcare fields, as well as sciences, technology and engineering.

How to choose the right US university

The first step to choosing an American university is to begin with what you want in terms of your study subject, experience, and outcome.

1. Study subject

You should choose your subject by thinking about:

  • what you're interested in and have a natural inclination to
  • what your career goal is

Once you have decided what you would like to study, you should also consider the following important points:

  • The student to staff ratio and the male to female ratio on your course
  • Opportunities for research
  • Honours or scholars programs
  • Study abroad and exchange programs
  • Whether internships count towards credits

2. Study experience

You should think about what area and type of campus you would like to attend univeristy in. You might prefer to be in a major city over a small town, and you may prefer a small, intimate campus instead of one that is sprawled across several sites. Accomodation is also going to be important and you should find out what type of housing is available for international students.

Most American universities will have websites and social media profiles that are full of photos, videos, and 'testimonials'. These can be helpful, but bear in mind that they may not reflect reality. Sometimes testimonials are fake and photos will only show the best portion of the campus and facilities while leaving out the rest.  Ideally you should visit the university on an ordinary day before deciding, but if this isn't possible try searching for images and videos from actual students attending the institution.

3. Study outcome

It's a good idea to choose a college or university that has been accredited by a body recognised by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or in the US Department of Education's Database of Accredited Programs and Institutions.

You should also choose an institution that has a high graduation rate, where students gained the qualifications they wanted, and where graduates have been successful in their fields of study.

You could find out about the reputation of the college or university from world rankings. Also, it may be worth finding out what connections they have with companies and organisations in your area of interest, including internships and placements.

Please read this important discussion about the pitfalls of using educational ranking systems.

Before you apply to an American university

Not all international students will go to the US with a combination of:

  • plenty of money for studies
  • be highly fluent in the English-langauge
  • have an oustanding previous academic record

If you have all of the above then your path is going to be nice and easy: choose a desired university and enroll on the course you want.

But in reality, your background may be completely different. Here are two such scenarios:

  1. You might have no appropriate entry qualifications, a low level of English proficiency, but plenty of funds for tuition fees. In this case you might enrol on a bridging program or start in a community college before transfering on to a degree program at a university.
  2. You might have already have university level qualifications, highly proficient in English, but not much money to cover fees. You choose to enrol at a community college then a transfer to a 4-year degree program at university to make your study program more affordable.

It is important that you match yourself to appropriate study pathways which will ensure your student experience is optimised in the US and that you'll come out of it getting what you want and need.

Types of US student visas

All international students, except those from Canada or Bermuda, must have a student visa to study in the United States. You must also meet certain criteria in order to get the visa before leaving for the US. The criteria is mainly about how you will finance and support yourself throughout your programme of study and you must also show that you have strong ties to your home country (basically you need to give good reasons for not wanting to stay in the US forever!). You have have a look at the U.S. Department of State's website for more information on student visas.

What you have chosen to study and the kind of institution you plan to attend (e.g. college/university) will determine what type of visa you need.

Here are the types of visa that you may require:

F-1: student visa

If you are an international students who will be enrolling on a full-time study course in an accredited educational program that has been designated by DHS (Department of Homeland Security), then you'll need an F-1 visa.

Part-time study is only permitted with the approval of the DSO (Designated School Official) in accordance with regulations.

Employment restrictions:

  1. You can be employed on the campus of your institution for a maximum of 20 hours per week while classes are taking place. During term breaks, you can work on-campus full-time if you are eligible and intending to enroll on to the following term of study.
  2. You can work in a position that is directly related to your field of study by getting 'practical training authorisation'. There are two types of practical training:
    • Curricular Practical Training: this is where your employment forms part of your study (e.g. a placement) and happens before you graduate. You still need approval of the DSO and on form I-20.
    • Optional Practical Training: this is where you take up employment after you graduate does not usually last more than 1 year (e.g. an internship). Extensions for up to 2 years are available for science, technology, engineering, and maths graduates working for an e-Verify employer.

F-2: dependent of an F-1 student

You'll require an F-2 visa if you are staying in the US as a dependent of an F-1 student.

Spouses of F-1 visa students are not allowed to enter into full-time study, but children can if they are attending school between kindergarten to year 12 (around 16-years-old).

As an F-2 visa holder you can study part-time but you can't get a paid job.

M-1: vocational student visa

For students enrolling on a vocational program in the US, you'll need an M-1 visa. Like the F-1 visa, you must be enrolling on a full-time course of study, but part-time may be allowed if it's authorised by a Designated School Official.

You can be employed for professional training after you have completed your course for up to 6 months. The employment must be related to your subject area and be recommended by the DSO through form I-20.

M-2: dependent of M-1 student

You'll require an M-2 visa if you are staying in the US as a dependent of an M-1 student.

Spouses of M-1 visa students are not allowed to enter into full-time study, but children can if they are attending school between kindergarten to year 12 (around 16-years-old).

As an M-2 visa holder you may study part-time but you can't get a paid job.

J-1 exchange student visa

You'll require a J-1 visa if you an international exchange visitor studying at an academic institution with the support of a program sponsor as well as the US Information Agency.

This is visa is for those on a full-time enrollment, but you have the option of reducing your course load below full time if it's authorised by a Responsible Officer (RO) or Alternate Responsible Officer (ARO) of the program sponsor..

You can be employed on the campus of your institution for a maximum of 20 hours per week, and full-time during term breaks, if you have authorisation from the officer of your designated program. . You can work off campus under limited circumstances, again with approval from an RO or ARO.

As a J-1 visa holders you will be eligible for up to 18 months of Practical Academic Training or up to 3 years for post-doctoral training).

J-1 exchange student intern visa

Someone holding a J-1 exchange student intern visa will be a foreign student who is enrolled and completing a degree at an institution outside the United States, whose internship in the US will "fulfill the educational objectives for his or her current degree program at his or her home institution".

As a J-1 exchange student intern visa holder, you can participate in study not related to your main subject. You may also be in paid employment as long is it in accordance with the terms of your internship which will be stated in your Form DS-7002.

J-1 exchange visitor: Professor, Researcher, Specialist, Trainee, Physician, Intern

J-1 exchange visitors researchers, professors, scholars, specialists, trainees, interns, or physicians visiting the Untied States through a program that has been sponsored and designated by the Department of State. Under this visa you can also participate in study not related to your main subject.

J-2 Dependent of a J-1 Exchange Visitor

If you are a dependent (spouse or unmarried child under the age of 21) of a J-1 exchange visitor staying in the US, then you'll need a J-2 visa. You can take up full or part-time study during your stay.

J-2 dependents can apply to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for permission to work. With an Employment Authorisation Document (EAD) issued by the USCIS, you can work for any employer.

How to Apply

  • The first step to getting a US student visa is to apply to an Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP)-approved university or college. Here is a link to find out if they are SEVP-approved.
  • Once you've receive notification that your application has been accepted by your chosen institution, you will automatically be entered into the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). There is a one-time fee for each course of study in which you enroll on, called the SEVIS I-901 Fee.
  • The university or college will provide you with a Form I-20 (if you require an F or M visa) to present at your visa interview with the US consular officer once you have proved you have the finances to pay for your course of study.
  • If you need a J Visa (J-1 or J-2) you will be given a Form DS-2019 for your visa interview. Your chosen institution – usually via the International Departmet/Office  – should explain to you what supporting documentation and evidence you'll need to provide to secure the visa.
  • If your spouse and/or children are planning to accompany you to the US while you are studying, then each of your family members needs to get a seperate Form I-20 each (or the DS-2019 if they need a J visa). Thankfully they will not have to pay the SEVIS fee.

To learn more about SEVIS and the SEVIS fee (including when it doesn't have to be paid) you can check out this link: Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).

What is form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility)?

Form I-20 is a document issued by an approved US academic institution certifying that

  1. a student has been admitted to a full-time study program and
  2. that the student has demonstrated sufficient financial resources to stay in the U.S.

The I-20 is titled the "Certificate of Eligibility" because with it you become "eligible" to apply for an F-1 (or M-1) student visa at a American embassy or consulate abroad.

What is form DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status)?

The DS-2019 or "Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor (J-1) Status" is a document that allows an exchange visitor to get an interview at an American embassy or consulate in order to obtain a J visa to enter the United States.

Students and Multiple I-20s/DS-2019s

If you are thinking about applying to more than one institution or exchange program then you will end up with multiple I-20s or DS-2019s. This means you will have multiples entries in the  in which case they would have multiple records and IDs in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). If you have already paid the SEVID fee on one SEVIS ID, then it can be applied to another one issued to you so you don't have to pay the fee more than once.

Denied US visas and the 12-month re-application timeframe

Sometimes you may have paid the SEVIS fee while trying to get a visa, but the visa ends up being denied. In these cases, you can re-apply for the visa, without having to repay the SEVIS fee, as long as you do so within 12 months following the initial decision of visa denial.

US Visa interviews

The steps required to apply for a US student visa can be different depending on which American consulate or embassy you use. It is recommended that you request an appointment with the consulate who will then send you confirmation of the appointment.  Print it out and take it with you to the appointment so that you can be interviewed.

In some countries the consulate will charge a on-refundable visa application fee (around $160 USD) before the interview. You can complete an online visa application and take it to your interview rather than doing it in person.

The US Department of State lists the following as documentation to prepare to bring to the visa interview:

  • Your passport must be valid for at least six months past your total length of stay in the United States (unless exempt by a country-specific agreements). If more than one person is included in your passport, each person who needs a visa must submit a separate application.
  • Your nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 confirmation page.
  • The application fee payment receipt – if you are required to pay before your interview.
  • Photo: You will upload your photo while completing the online Form DS-160. If the photo upload fails, you must bring one printed photo in the format explained in the Photograph Requirements. Please note 2017 update: Spectacles are no longer allowed in passport photos.

Although tour F-1 or M-1 student visa may be issued up to 120 days before your official study start date, you can not enter the United States using the visa more than 30 days before you start your studies.