The USA has the world’s largest international student population, with nearly 600,000 students choosing to broaden their education and life experience in the United States. Nearly 4% of all students enrolled in higher-level education are international students, and the numbers are growing. From the mid-1950’s, when international student enrollment was only just reaching 35,000, international education in the USA has come a long way.
The USA “Way of Life”
If you are planning to live, learn and grow in the United States, you already possess a well-known American characteristic—a sense of adventure! As an international student, you will experience many new and exciting things. In this section, we hope to prepare you for some of the adventures involved in living in the United States.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to discuss exactly what “Living in the U.S.” means to everyone. American culture has been enriched by the values and belief systems of virtually every part of the world. From an international student’s perspective, that diversity is very valuable. If you choose to live in a completely different environment, you may be challenged with new situations every day; but if you decide to live in a part of the U.S. that resembles your home country in some ways, you may find comfort in those similarities.
Learning more about yourself is perhaps the most important part of your decision to travel to the U.S. Once you know what you want to achieve, then you can identify the right place to study and live and grow in the States.
You are about to embark on totally NEW experience. “New” means “recently discovered, recognized, or learned about; different from the former; being in a position or place for the first time.” You probably expect that things will not be the same in the United States as they are in your home country; but are you prepared to deal with those differences?
New challenges always accompany new experiences. You may occasionally feel confused, unsure and uncomfortable in the United States. People may have different values and new ways of doing things that seem strange to you. You may feel that everything has changed, including your immediate support system of family and friends.
All of these things may contribute to “culture shock.” To minimize the shock, you will probably want to keep in touch with family and friends back home—but it is important to also identify new sources of support. People that you meet through your school’s international student office may also be a likely source of support. You could also contact relatives or friends who live in the United States to ask for their advice.
During the transition from your home country to the U.S., new support will most likely come from the admissions office or international student office at the U.S. campus you choose to attend. Most offices coordinate orientation sessions for new students within the first few days of your arrival, to help you get acquainted with your new surroundings.You may also want to maintain a few habits here in the States. Perhaps you could continue to practice your own faith on a regular basis, with a group of like-minded individuals. Or maybe you enjoy jogging, playing chess, or cheering for your favorite sports team. While the activity will most likely be somewhat “Americanized,” it may offer comfort to do some of the things that you enjoy in your back in your home country.
Other forms of support will come from new friends, an academic advisor or psychological counseling centers. In the U.S., many schools have therapists who have been trained to work with people just like you to discuss the types of new challenges you face.
Most importantly, be prepared to open yourself to new experiences; be prepared to learn, not only in the classroom, but in your interactions with new people everyday.
As you may know, one of the hallmarks of U.S. culture is independence. Here is some advice about written by non-U.S. students just like you! In order to make friends, you must take the initiative to meet people. Because of the American value of independence, Americans will not always be looking out for you, or making sure that you are getting acquainted with other people. They assume you are taking care of yourself unless you tell them differently. If you don’t ask for help, Americans will assume you don’t need anything. So remember—ask for help when you need it!
Another point of advice: In some cultures, it’s polite to refuse two or three times if someone offers something to you. But in the U.S., it is polite to answer “Yes, please” if you would like what is being offered. Many interesting situations have come up when a non-U.S. student who was hungry or thirsty refused the offer of food or drink, thinking this was polite behavior. But when no second or third offer was made, there was no chance to say yes.
Contrary to the stereotype of independence and individuality, most Americans are conformists and gain their identity by belonging to groups. You may notice that many students join groups in order to both get acquainted with others and in order to satisfy a need to belong. You may be surprised at how many students look alike on your campus, with similar hairstyles and clothing.
Americans are sometimes difficult to figure out, so keep an open mind and get to know them as individuals.
A Few U.S. Holidays and Customs
One fun way to learn about a culture is to participate in its traditions. Here are a few holidays that Americans celebrate throughout the country:
1 January: New Year’s Day. Welcome the new year with parties starting the night before (New Year’s Eve on 31 December).
3rd Monday in January: Martin Luther King,Jr. Day. Commemorate the birthday of the African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
14 February: Valentine’s Day. Celebrate love and romance by exchanging tokens of love (usually cards, candy or gifts).
3rd Monday of February: President’s Day. Honor past American presidents like George Washington (the nation’s first leader) and Abraham Lincoln (Civil War hero who helped abolish slavery).
17 March: Saint Patrick’s Day. Celebrate the patron saint of Ireland with parades and parties decorated in Irish green.
1 April: April Fool’s Day. Play a clever (but harmless) trick or tell a joke to someone with a good sense of humor.
Last Monday of May: Memorial Day. Remember the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
4 July: Independence Day. View public displays of fireworks as Americans mark the date when thirteen U.S. states declared their independence from England in 1776.
1st Monday in September: Labor Day. Honor the contributions and efforts of hard workers throughout the country.
2nd Monday in October: Columbus Day. Pay tribute to Christopher Columbus, who is traditionally thought of as the discoverer of the Americas in 1492.
Last Thursday in November: Thanksgiving Day. Feast on a traditional meal that commemorates the dinner shared by the Pilgrims (first settlers of the thirteen colonies) and the Native Americans.
25 December: Christmas Day. Celebrate the birth of Christ, leader of the Christian faith, by exchanging gifts with family and friends.
Your interaction with other people—your social life—is an integral part of your stay in the United States. To make the most of it, get ready to introduce yourself in a positive way to fellow students, professors, and other people both on- and off-campus.
One of your first introductions to social life on a U.S. campus will most likely be “The International Student Orientation Program,” traditionally coordinated by the Admissions Office or the Office of International Programs. Orientation varies greatly from school to school, though the objectives are similar: to introduce the new non-U.S. students to each other, and to prepare you for campus life. Many times, topics include immigration, academic advisors, computer and library resources, telephone services, public safety, medical services, and banking and transportation options. (Be sure to see Study/ Living: Money Matters for more details about money management during your stay.) During orientation, students often learn of upcoming activities such as trips to local points of attraction.
College and university campuses are abound with activities designed to foster friendships. Many schools designate a “Student Activities Center” (also called a student union) where you may learn of different activities and programs, such as student government, the newspaper staff, outdoors club, chorus, dance, and a number of athletic teams. Explore which ones may suit you best!
“Know yourself and your home country,” Cameron Diaz Jones advised prospective international students in the U.S. A native of Jamaica, Cameron is studying economics and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He is in his third year of a four-year undergraduate program, and intends to pursue a Masters of Business Administration before working in urban economic development in the Caribbean or South America.
“I’ve made some great American friends on and off-campus, as well as friends from all over the world; they have taught me a lot. For example, last December, some American friends invited me out into the woods to help cut down their Christmas tree — I had never done anything like that before!”
When I meet new people, they’re always interested to know what it’s really like in Jamaica. That has made me think about my own country, so I could share more information with them. If I never left home, I would not need to consider these things. So in many ways, a U.S. education means much more than sitting in a classroom and studying for a degree.”
Developing Deeper Friendships
After your initial interaction with new people in the States, you may want to get to know a few of them better. Ironically, many international students have found that they—not their American hosts—must be more assertive if a friendship is to develop. Here is some more advice about the American social life, written by non-U.S. students just like you:
When you first arrive on campus, you may notice how friendly everyone is. People you don’t know will smile and say “Hi” and “How are you” and “How’s it going.” But these statements are not really true questions; people will most often keep on walking, not waiting for your answer. You may get the idea they are superficial or perhaps even rude.
Americans, however, feel that this kind of greeting and behavior is considered very friendly; they feel they are being outgoing and welcoming. These greetings are a social custom which has little to do with friendship. The person may become your friend eventually, but it is important not to misunderstand the nature of your verbal exchange.
Similarly, people may ask your name and country where you were born; they may seem interested for a few minutes, but then go and speak to someone else. This may seem to contradict their initial friendliness, although it is not meant to do so.
You may find it easy to have many “acquaintances” on campus: people seem to all live together, eat together and study together. However, true friendship will take time to build. You will realize, maybe for the first time, how much time it took to develop the friendships you have at home. Then you will appreciate the time and energy it takes to establish close friendships, both at home and abroad.
Different Ways of Communicating
One of the newest forms of communication is also one of the most popular on many U.S. campuses. Through your interaction with admissions offices in the States, you may already understand that practically everyone uses e-mail frequently.
E-mail and the Internet have made it much easier (and sometimes less expensive) to exchange all types of information. Once you arrive in the States, you will find that computers and Internet connections are very accessible on most campuses. As a matter of fact, e-mail plays an important role in the social lives of many Americans — as they send and receive messages regularly with friends and family.
However, try to resist the urge to spend too many hours in front of the computer; keep in mind that your visit to the U.S. may not last forever, so go out and socialize with others to get a full American experience. Make sure you are open to new experiences!
Socialization is one of the most important aspects of your international experience. According to the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, socialization is most strongly enforced by the school, the family, and peer groups. It is essential for the development of individuals who can participate and function within their societies, as well as for ensuring that a society’s cultural features will be carried on through new generations. Socialization continues throughout an individual’s lifetime, and your experience in studying abroad will challenge you to develop your “people skills” even further.
There are a number of options when it comes to deciding where you will live when you are living and studying in the United States.
Once you are enrolled in a U.S. school, the Admissions Department or International Student Office will most likely send you a “pre-departure orientation” packet. Options for where to live are generally included in this information.
Some American schools offer accommodations for international students on-campus, or near the school’s classrooms, libraries and other facilities. “Dormitories” are buildings with many rooms for sleeping and living, often with two or three people (of the same gender) per room. Dormitory residents typically share large bathrooms which include showers and toilets. Many first-year students prefer to live in on-campus dormitories because they are convenient to both academic and social activities. Another advantage is that it is not likely that you will not need a car to commute to campus.
On-campus accommodations also offer close proximity to the cafeteria and other eating establishments. U.S. colleges and universities offer very flexible meal-plan programs, where you can choose to pay in advance for breakfast, lunch and dinner. On most campuses, you may also deposit a certain amount of money at the beginning of the semester for food that you may buy from designated places. Each item’s cost is deducted from the balance in your account throughout the semester. Again, your pre-departure orientation packet will probably detail your eating options.
Moving into a dormitory setting is relatively simple: utilities such as electricity and telephone connections will most likely be ready to use. Each U.S. college or university has its individual policy on paying for long-distance telephone charges; learn those policies soon after you arrive on campus.
Some U.S. schools do not provide on-campus accommodations for international students. However, an off-campus housing office will assist you in finding an appropriate place to live. Often, the office coordinates activities to help students find a compatible roommate to share expenses; they also provide information about the local neighborhoods, including popular restaurants, shopping areas, parks and recreation, and public transportation.
Ask new friends and other students if they have any suggestions for a good apartment. Check classified advertisements in the local newspaper (Sundays usually have more apartment listings than other days of the week). If all else fails, contact a real estate agent for assistance – though beware of unspecified fees for the service.
Before committing to a lease, or an agreement to rent an apartment, spend some time in the area to decide if it feels safe and convenient to places like school buildings and grocery stores. Read the lease carefully before signing. You will learn, for example, that the landlord is not responsible for your possessions if they are stolen or destroyed, so you may consider purchasing “renter’s insurance.” If you do not understand any part of the lease agreement, ask the landlord, a friend, or someone from the international student office to explain it to you.
Once you do find off-campus housing, be aware that your rent may well not include utilities. You will need to request that the companies turn on the electricity and telephone service when you arrive. The landlord can provide you with the appropriate contact information.
You have a choice of long-distance carriers for your telephone service. Be sure to ask the customer service representatives about special discount calling plans, particularly for international connections. The representative is usually eager to offer you a variety of extra services, most of which are not necessary. Soon after you register for telephone service, you should receive a free telephone directory. Within the directory, you will find the white pages (listing local residents alphabetically by name), the blue pages (government listings), and the yellow pages (business listings and advertisements).
Many U.S. households have telephone answering machines, which record messages from callers when no one answers the phone. You may purchase an answering machine for about $25. Another option is to request that the telephone company provide an electronic answering service, for which they charge a small monthly fee. Please visit <link to Int’l Student phone card center> for more information on inexpensive phone cards that will allow you to keep in touch with loved ones back in your home country.
In most cases, the least expensive way to keep in touch with far-away friends and family is via e-mail. Again, each U.S. school has its own policies and procedures for accessing the Internet. If you choose to access your own e-mail off-campus, you can expect to pay about $20 per month to an Internet Service Provider.
Whether you are living on or off campus, in a city or suburb, you have many transportation options for getting around in your new country:
A bicycle can be a great way to get around your campus and your local area. Whether your campus is based in the middle of a city or in the suburbs, a bike is relatively inexpensive, and it’s a good way to get some exercise. Whenever riding your bike, always take care to observe the law of the road, and always wear a helmet. It is now a law in some states that helmets must be worn. As with any personal property, take care to lock you bike up when you are not using it. Most college campuses provide a bike rack for that purpose outside of many buildings on campus. A good lock does not usually cost very much, and it’s a small price to pay for the security of your bike.
If you are living in a city, the bus system will likely be pretty extensive, as with most of the public transportation systems in large urban areas. However, if you live in the suburbs, buses will not run as often and you may have to find alternative methods to get around. On longer routes, Greyhound runs an extensive bus system across the USA which is an inexpensive way to travel, but it can take a long time to get from one place to another.
Trains and Subways
Subways will be found in most major cities in the USA, such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, and they are a cheap way to travel around. Trains, on the other hand, are good for traveling the USA. They are slightly more expensive than traveling by bus, but it is much quicker.
Taxis can be extremely expensive for students, and are good for longer journeys that are either too far for walking or by bicycle, or there is no bus or subway system where you want to go. Always remember to check your driver has a valid ID card which should be displayed (if not ask to see it) and make sure the meter is running. Never enter a taxi where the driver has asked for a set fee!
Like most issues, safety in the United States is difficult to define because the United States covers such a large territory. While the U.S. is generally a very safe place to live, it is still a good idea to educate yourself and take steps to reduce the potential for problems. By doing so, you will also feel more confident and comfortable.
Developing a sense of “street smarts” takes time, and comes through experience. You should familiarize yourself with well-lit paths and sidewalks on campus. The school’s security office may offer an escort service, where designated people walk with you from one place to another on campus, particularly at night. Pay close attention to your surroundings. Trust your instincts. If a situation appears scary to you, try to avoid it.
At “home” (an apartment, private residence or dormitory room), keep your doors locked, and your large windows closed. Get to know your neighbors, so you can “watch out” for each other.
As always, you should use common sense when it comes to safety
As you may have already discovered, paying for a quality education in the United States can be very expensive. But with proper preparation, you may minimize the costs of this extraordinary opportunity; visit our Financing page to learn more about paying for tuition. In this section, we explore money matters that you may encounter on a daily basis during your adventure in the United States.
As with any country, it is not advisable to carry large amounts of cash around with you. There are other options such as credit cards, traveler’s checks or bank cards (also called debit cards), which are all valid forms with which to pay for things in the United States.
Traveler’s checks are one of the safest and easiest ways to transport money because you may have them replaced if they get lost or stolen. If you choose to carry traveler’s checks with you from your home country to the States, be sure they are denominated in U.S. funds. Most businesses—except taxi drivers and public transportation personnel—
will accept U.S.-denominated traveler’s checks during regular business hours, typically between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is wise to bring about $100 in U.S. cash with you, so you will be able to manage upon your arrival in the States.
United States currency is based on a decimal system, with one dollar ($1 or $1.00) equal to one hundred cents. Coin currency is used for amounts less than one dollar; the most common coins and their equivalencies follow:
- penny equals one cent or 0.01 dollars
- nickel equals five cents or 0.05 dollars
- dime equals ten cents or 0.10 dollars
- quarter equals twenty-five cents or 0.25 dollars
It may take a few days to get used to the new currency. You will learn, for example, that $1 is a reasonable price for a can of cola out of a vending machine; two dollars for the same item is expensive. Five dollars for a pizza is inexpensive, while twelve dollars is expensive.
Paper currency, all printed in green and white, is most often circulated in the amounts of $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 or $100. The slang term for a dollar bill is a “buck”, so $50 may be referred to as “fifty bucks.”
Most banks and some major airports and hotels will exchange foreign paper currency for a service fee; very few, however, exchange foreign coinage. Pay attention to drastic fluctuations in the exchange rates between your home country’s currency and U.S. currency. If your home currency is decreasing in value, you may wish to conduct all transactions (like student loans) in U.S. currency.
Within the first few days of your arrival, you may want to open a checking account with a bank on or near campus. You may directly deposit traveler’s checks for free in most cases, or arrange for a wire transfer from your home bank for a fee of about $35. Typically, you may make an unlimited number of additional deposits or withdrawals thereafter. Be sure to always have sufficient funds in your account to cover all outstanding checks; if you “overdraw,” the bank may impose expensive fees. Also be aware that there is usually a waiting period of a few days before you may withdraw the money you deposit, as a way for the bank to protect itself from fraud.
You will most likely need some form of identification to open a checking account. The bank representative may ask you for your Social Security Number. If you do not have one, fill out an IRS Form W-8, which the bank can supply.
Most banks offer a number of different types of checking accounts. One might bear interest if you maintain a minimum balance; another might provide a limited number of free checks. Learn about all options before deciding which type of account is best for you.
Many college students appreciate the convenience of a MAC (Money Access Card) or ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) card. The card allows account holders to make deposits, withdrawals and other transactions at any time—24 hours a day—through machines located throughout campus and shopping districts. If you have an ATM card from a bank in your home country, ask whether the U.S. bank will honor it; some Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) cross national borders, while others do not. As a safety precaution, most ATMs limit the daily withdrawal amount to $300. If you happen to lose your ATM or MAC card, report it immediately to your local bank office.
Writing a check is simple. The dollar amount is written twice: once using numerals ($67.32 for example) and once using words (sixty-seven dollars and 32/100). Draw one horizontal line through any unused space after the words, to prevent someone from adding extra digits.
Once a month, the bank typically mails the account holder a statement of all transactions. It is important to make sure that their records match your records to ensure that no errors were made by them or by you. If you have a question about your account, contact your local bank office.
Generally, retail stores accept checks only if they are drawn on an in-state bank. Be prepared to show some form of photo identification, such as a driver’s license, student I.D., or passport (though you may not want to carry such an important document with you all the time).
Credit and Debit Cards
One payment option accepted nationwide is the credit card. As a matter of fact, you may find it difficult to make certain purchases without a credit card. You need one to place an order by phone, to rent a car, or buy airline tickets in most instances. A credit card is also a good idea if you want to maintain good financial records, as your monthly statement will serve as a reminder of how you are spending money.
A credit card may turn into a very expensive payment option if you are not able to pay the balance on the account within the specified grace period—typically between 20 and 30 days. Be careful to read all of the details of the credit card offer before committing to it; some companies offer a special low introductory interest rate (perhaps 2.9%), but then increase it dramatically (to about 18.9%) after that introductory period. Also know the structure of the credit card company’s annual fees, such as how much and when they charge it to your card. As always, learn all you can so that you can make an informed decision.
Some companies are reluctant to issue credit cards to international students, as they do not have an established credit history in the United States. If you already have a major credit card from your home country (like Eurocard, Access, Chargex, Barclaycard, Carte Bleue, American Express, Visa or MasterCard), bring it with you; after the U.S. bank reviews your credit limit on the foreign card, they may be more likely to offer you a credit card. Banks with which you have accounts are also more likely to accept your request for a credit card.
Debit Cards (also referred to as “bank cards”) are another option. When you open an account, you will most likely get a bank card which you can use to withdraw money from an ATM. You can also use it like a credit card to make purchases. Unlike credit cards, the money is instantly taken from your account, so if the money is not there it will be rejected.
For students new to the USA, the debit card is a great way to pay for things until you can establish credit.