5 Things I Wish I Knew as an International Student in the U.S.

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Going to college can be a difficult transition for all students, but those coming from abroad face a host of additional challenges. While many of these challenges are cultural, the financial ones can be equally as difficult to handle.

The number of international students attending college or university in the U.S. experienced a record increase in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education. Despite this growth — and the $31 billion foreign students add to the U.S. economy — banking and other financial institutions have yet to respond to this growing population and their needs. All international students who come to the U.S. to study have to navigate the complicated, confusing, and stressful process of managing their money as a foreigner. It’s not easy, and there are a number of important lessons every student should know before coming to the States for college.

1. Unexpected costs are inevitable
Higher education in the U.S. is already exorbitantly expensive, but it can be even more expensive for international students. Many schools, even public universities, charge additional fees for international students to cover costs, such as special programming or government-mandated international student tracking. These fees can range from $50 all the way up to hundreds of extra dollars a semester.

In addition, many international students are unaware that they will have to pay for their own health insurance to attend a U.S. school, especially if they come from a country with socialized medicine. And like higher education, health insurance in the U.S. is pricey.

These are just a few of the reasons why there can be a huge difference between the “sticker price” of attending a U.S. college and the actual price. This gap can be quite a shock, and a serious stressor, to international students who are not prepared. And while American students can offset some of these costs with financial aid, most international students are not eligible for loans.

2. Budgets are your friend
Many international students receive money from their parents in a lump sum that is meant to last the entire semester. For young adults who are not used to handling their own finances—and who are adjusting to a new place with a new cost of living, not to mention unexpected expenses—you may find you’ve run through all your money, with months left in the semester to go.

This is why learning how to create and stick to a budget is so essential for international students. Take the time to figure out how much you can spend a month, how much of that goes to various fees, bills and necessary costs, and then how much that leaves left for non-essentials. It may take a while to get used to following a budget, but believe me, smart spending is a far better alternative to a bank account with $0 and/or asking your parents for more.

3. It may not be easy to find work
Many college students in the U.S. work during school to help pay tuition, cover living expenses, and/or to earn extra recreational cash. However unlike U.S. citizens, international students with F-1 visas are limited in where and how much they can work. Many work-study jobs are not available to foreign students, and even if you do manage to secure an on-campus position, you can only work for 20 hours a week while school is in session.

There are other off-campus work opportunities, but these are also governed by strict regulations and require jumping through bureaucratic hoops. For example, students can seek Optional Practical Training (OPT) positions, but they must be “directly related” to a student’s major and you cannot apply for it until you receive your Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS and have been enrolled for at least a year.

4. Choosing the right bank
One of the first things international students need to take care of when they arrive in the U.S. is opening up a bank account. A U.S. checking account makes life significantly easier, so the sooner you open it, the better. Carrying around large amounts of cash is a liability. When choosing a bank, there area number of factors to consider, such as which banks have ATMs and branches located on/near campus, as well as international transaction fees.

Since it is not easy to categorize international students, it’s a good idea to go into a bank branch and open an account in person. Schools often have relationships with banks and/or help shuttle students to the bank to take care of things like this. To open a bank account, make sure you bring documentation showing your home and campus address and contact information; a valid passport; an I-94 card; I-20, DS-2019 or I-797 approval notice; any secondary form of identification, such as a Student ID; and enrollment verification letter from your school.

5. Get a credit card
Many international students underestimate the importance of having a U.S. credit card. Without a U.S.-issued Social Security Number, getting a credit card has traditionally involved significant obstacles for international students. However some banks and SelfScore now offer credit cards to international students without requiring an SSN or prior credit history. And getting a credit card right away will reap significant benefits over the next four years.

For example, without a credit card, you either can’t rent or will get charged more for renting cars and booking hotels. In addition, most landlords want to see a credit history and good credit score before they are willing to rent to you, so if you ever plan to live off campus, building credit is key. Credit is also a great way to ensure you regularly pay your monthly bills, since you can always pay your balance without worrying about overdrafting your account.

Furthermore, having a credit card provides independence. You can pay for textbooks, a nice dinner, or a trip with friends without waiting for cash. This can be particularly significant for international students, since money from home can take a while to come through. And credit cards are safer. Debits cards are tied to your cash assets, so in the event it is compromised, you may not be able to recover that money, while credit cards are easier to disconnect.

Attending college or university in the U.S. is an exciting adventure and a valuable opportunity, but the upsides also come with challenges. Keeping up with school and dealing with culture shock are tough enough, don’t add financial stress onto all the things you have to worry about.