The United States has the most universities and colleges of any nation, and it's home to half of the top higher-education institutes in the world.1 Aside from providing a world-class education, universities in the US are known to be generally more inclusive and flexible, and they offer great networking opportunities.
If you're heading to the US as an international student, here's a guide to help you plan for your studies abroad.*
1. Check your passport
Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months after your studies end. If you think it'll expire while you're in the US, renew it before you leave home to avoid any hassles.
If you renew your passport while in the US, you'll still need to carry your old one when you travel, because it will have your valid visa that proves your status. If you're at all in doubt of the requirements around passports and visas, visit the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.
2. Apply to study in the US, and then for a visa
Except for Canadians and citizens of Bermuda, foreigners going to school in the US will need an F-1 or M-1 student visa. But first, you need to be accepted by a US college that's certified by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).
The F-1 visa is issued for longer-term studies and allows you to remain in the US as long as you're a full-time student. Both visas can be issued up to 3 months in advance, but students may only enter the country 30 days before the start of their studies. To be eligible for a US student visa, you must be enrolled full time, prove your English proficiency, and show that you have enough funds to support yourself.
In addition, you'll need to attend an interview where you'll be asked about your plans for study and stay in the US. The US government provides tips on how to prepare for the student visa interview and what documents to provide. As visa requirements can change, visit the SEVP website for up-to-date information.
3. Sort out accommodation
If you're attending a US college, you can choose between on-campus accommodation (dorms) or off-campus accommodation (private homes and homestays).
Many international students prefer student housing, at least to start with. It's an easy way to make friends, and you can't beat the proximity to your classes and the dining hall. If you're living off-campus, be prepared to pay a deposit up front, and expect that your utilities, like gas and water, will be extra. You will most likely be locked into a 12-month contract, too.
Your university's website is a good place to start when looking for student accommodation.
4. Set up your banking
You'll probably use a checking account to do most of your daily banking, including paying your bills. If you're receiving financial aid, it will most likely come as a check or be directly deposited into your account.
It can be difficult, however, for non-US residents to open a bank account, especially online: while some banks have different requirements, you'll probably be asked for proof of ID and your source of income; your address; and your Social Security Number (or Taxpayer Identification Number).
Opening an international bank account before you go abroad will be the easiest way to manage your money. With HSBC, your account details and debit and credit cards (subject to local regulations) will be ready before you leave home. If you have multiple worldwide accounts, you can manage them with one secure log on with Global View.
You can pre-book an appointment with HSBC online or pop into your nearest branch to find out more.
5. Create a budget
Your university and the visa office will need proof that you can cover your living expenses while you're studying. This will actually be a condition for getting your visa approved.
Aside from your visa, tuition fees, flights and accommodation, there will be other costs to consider, such as your Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP), which most private universities require.
Calculate your income and your expenses and balance this amount. You should ideally be spending less than you're making. And as things don't always go according to plan, set some aside for emergencies (and for your holidays – even students need a break).
6. Start saving
Now you know how much money you'd like to have for moving, you can set a savings goal. Is it realistic to reach this amount before you leave? If it seems like a stretch, look at any areas where you could cut back to make it more achievable.
Take a look at your financial habits. Are they costing you more than you think? Brew your own coffee, cook at home, skip the salon manicures and take public transport (or ride a bike). Common bank fees that can be avoided (or reduced) include using non-affiliated ATMs; making late credit card payments; relying on your overdraft; taking out credit card cash advances; transferring global funds; and letting your balance slip below the minimum requirement (if that's a requirement of your account).
Want to know what an international education costs and how people are saving for it? HSBC's study The Value of Education: The price of success looks into global education trends and provides practical tips for preparing for an overseas education.
7. Get a health check
You may need to have vaccinations or health checks before you enter the US. The National Travel Health Network and Center and the World Health Organization recommend that visitors be vaccinated against rabies and tetanus.
Your school may have its own requirements. Many universities require all new students to prove they've been vaccinated or are immune to certain infectious diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), pertussis and meningitis, and to be screened for tuberculosis.
See the full requirements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When travelling, make sure you're able to access any medication you might need and don't forget to pack extra in your carry-on bag, in case your checked baggage is delayed. If you're unsure about anything, chat to your doctor about your options, and consult your school's website for their immunisation and health insurance policies.
8. Think about travel insurance
There's no universal healthcare in the US so it's crucial that you're adequately covered. And because the healthcare is top-notch, the insurance will probably be pricey, too.
Your school may have it's own requirements regarding healthcare and might even have school-sponsored SHIP. Some SHIP policies might only cover you within a certain distance from your school so it's best to check. A good travel insurance will cover you both on-campus and off, and will give you options about which doctors you see.
Travel insurance may be able to cover you for the duration of your studies, or just the first few weeks. This may be helpful if your luggage is lost or if there are travel delays that cost you money.
9. Check that your phone is unlocked
If your phone is unlocked you'll be able to use any SIM card while studying in the US. If you forget and need to buy a phone? Unlike in Canada, where phone carriers cannot sell any new phone locked, and in the UK, where they're proposing a locked phone ban, most new phones in the US will still come locked to prevent you from switching companies.
If you buy a used phone, make sure it's unlocked or you risk being stuck with a particular carrier. Even then, there's no guarantee that your unlocked phone will work if you try to use a different carrier's SIM card. If you want to know how to unlock your phone (if you buy one while you're in the US), know that every phone company has its own rules.
Just make sure your own phone is unlocked to avoid the unnecessary hassles.
10. Double-check all documentation
It's a good idea to scan and save your documents, including copies of your credit cards and travel documents, but carry the hard copies with you.
Make sure you travel with a valid passport and visa; proof of enrollment and funds; the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) form; the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (Form I-20); contact information for your school; and prescriptions, if any. You may also be given a social media check, so be prepared to share those details (but never your password!) with border control.
F-1 visa holders don't need to book a return ticket home but having one could make the questioning at border control go a lot smoother.
If you're ever unsure, check the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website or with your university.
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