How International Students Can Pay For College

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International Students

College costs continue to rise in the U.S. In 2019, out-of-state students, including international students, paid an average of more than $26,000 per year in tuition and fees at four-year public universities — according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Private schools charged even more in tuition and fees, which averaged nearly $32,000 per year.


How can international students pay for college?


In 2019, more than a million international students enrolled at a U.S. college. Students from around the world study at colleges in New York, California, and other states. But paying for college poses a major barrier for many international students.


Our international student guide to paying for college helps prospective students identify financial aid opportunities. Keep reading to learn about attending a U.S. college, applying for scholarship and grant opportunities, as well as private private loans for international students.


Student Visas


International students studying in the U.S. must hold a student visa.


To receive a student visa, international students must attend an SEVP-certified school. SEVP stands for Student and Exchange Visitor Program. The Department of Homeland Security certifies schools that meet requirements for educating international students. Prospective international students can search SEVP-certified schools to identify approved schools.


Most international students hold an F-1 student visa. Designed for students attending an accredited U.S. college or university, the F-1 visa requires an acceptance offer from an approved school.


After gaining admission, an SEVP-certified school issues Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant Students” to the international student. Students apply for a visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate.


Applicants submit an online visa application and provide a photograph. Most F-1 visas require an interview. Applicants must bring a valid passport, their visa application, a printed photo, and Form I-20 to the interview. During the interview, a consular officer questions the applicant to make sure they meet the requirements for an F-1 visa.


New students receive their visa up to 120 days before the start date for their program. The F-1 visa allows students to enter the U.S. within 30 days of the start date. When entering the U.S., international students present their passport, visa, and Form I-20.


Students seeking vocational training need an M-1 visa, which lets students pursue vocational study in the U.S. Navigating the visa process takes time. Students can reach out to the International Student Office at their school for assistance while applying for a visa.


English Language Requirements


Each school maintains independent English language requirements for international students. Generally, students must meet proficiency requirements during the admissions process to enroll in a U.S. university.


Schools commonly use the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, to test English proficiency. Designed to measure academic English abilities, the test measures reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills. During the three-hour exam, test takers read passages, answer questions about a lecture, and type written responses to questions.


Test takers receive scores on each of the exam’s four sections, which range from 0-30, for a total score of 0-120.


International students report their TOEFL scores to schools. After 2019, every score report includes the student’s MyBest score, which lists the best score on each test section from any TOEFL exam taken within the past two years.


Some of the most competitive universities require TOEFL scores of over 100. Some schools waive the TOEFL requirement for students who meet a minimum score on the reading and writing sections of the SAT or ACT.


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Academic Requirements and Documentation


International students must meet academic standards and provide specific documentation to enroll at a U.S. college.


For example, most universities require transcripts during the application process. For transcripts in a language other than English, schools typically require applicants to provide a translation from the institution or a certified translation agency with the original document.


International applicants often provide SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. Students complete the international registration process to take one of these standardized exams.


In addition to academic documentation, schools generally require proof of English language proficiency. Many schools waive the proficiency requirement for students who meet certain requirements, such as meeting a minimum GPA in a college-level English course.


Finally, many schools require international applicants to provide financial documents or immigration records to their school. Each school maintains independent academic and documentation requirements. Research the application process for each potential school.


Health Insurance


International students need to pay for health insurance while earning their degree. Most Americans pay hundreds of dollars each month in premiums for health insurance, and some schools require students to have health insurance.


Health insurance requirements vary depending on the student’s visa. For example, visitors with a J-1 visa must hold health insurance that meets State Department requirements. While the F-1 visa does not include a government requirement to purchase insurance, many schools require students to enroll in a plan.


When researching health insurance plans, consider what the plan covers, the deductible and copay, and in-network providers. Plans provide different coverage for hospital visits, mental health services, and prescription drugs.


The deductible and copay add costs on top of the monthly premium for insurance. Students pay the deductible out-of-pocket before the insurance plan begins covering medical care. Most plans also include a flat fee for a doctor’s appointment called a copay.


Finally, health insurance typically only covers certain in-network providers. Insured patients who visit an out-of-network provider pay much higher fees.


Most U.S. health insurance plans do not cover vision or dental care. International students can take out separate policies to cover vision and dental.


Some U.S. colleges offer health insurance plans for students. These plans meet school requirements. International students can also sign up for health insurance through a private insurer or an Affordable Care Act plan.


International Student Financial Aid


International students benefit from several forms of financial aid, including grants, scholarships, and assistantships. Recipients use these forms of financial aid to pay for college. Unlike a loan, grants, scholarships, and assistantships do not require recipients to repay awards.


However, financial aid opportunities vary depending on school and degree level. In general, graduate students qualify for more funding opportunities than undergraduate students.


Research and teaching assistantships help fund international master’s and doctoral students studying in the U.S. Assistantships provide financial support for graduate students. Many carry teaching or research responsibilities, including grading undergraduate work or providing research assistance for a faculty member. Typically, an assistantship includes a tuition waiver, a stipend, and health insurance, but some assistantships only provide partial aid.


The organization NAFSA: Association of International Educators (NAFSA) promotes study abroad and international education opportunities. NAFSA also connects students with financial aid for study abroad programs and for students with non-immigrant visas.


Applying for Scholarships


Some scholarships only award funds to U.S. citizens or legal residents. However, international students qualify for many scholarship opportunities to help pay for college.


The eligibility requirements for scholarships vary. In general, applicants must attend an accredited U.S. college or university to receive scholarships. Many scholarships require a minimum GPA, a certain major, or award funds to only undergraduate or graduate students.


Many scholarships involve essay contests. Applicants submit an essay on a particular theme and the scholarship committee chooses the winning essay. Some scholarships also require unofficial transcripts.


Not all scholarships require an essay or set high GPA requirements. In fact, some scholarships require very little effort. Take the “Be Bold” scholarship, for example. Students enter to win a $10,000 scholarship by creating a profile showcasing their earnestness and determination. Similarly, the Niche scholarship awards $2,000 to students who win a random drawing.


The following tips may increase your chances of receiving funding to help pay for college:


Brush Up on Your English and Writing Skills


Just like language and writing skills help students in college, they also help students win scholarships. Solid English and writing skills make international students stand out in essay scholarship contests. Many scholarships also require a statement of purpose, cover letter, or other written material.


Many international students boost their English and writing skills in several ways, like reading English-language news sources daily, using an international student guide that focuses on language and writing, and practicing daily.


Apply for as Many Scholarships as Possible


There is no limit to the number of scholarship applications international students can submit. Spend time researching and applying for scholarships. Maintain a list of scholarship requirements, application materials, and deadlines to help manage the process.


Boost Your Leadership Skills and Extracurriculars


Scholarship committees consider multiple factors in awarding funds. While good academic performance helps applicants stand out, strong leadership skills and extracurricular activities boost your chances of receiving a scholarship.


Students often provide evidence of volunteer service, work experience, or leadership skills in their scholarship application. Completing a community project, taking on a leadership role in a school organization, or volunteering as a tutor increases a student’s chances of receiving a scholarship.


Looking for Grants


Many international students also pay for college with grants. A variety of organizations offer grants for international students, including the Fulbright Program for Foreign Students, foreign governments, and international organizations.


Many U.S. universities provide grants for international students. More than 600 colleges in the U.S. offer international student scholarships of $20,000 or more, while 250 provide full-ride scholarships.


Several organizations help International students learn about grant opportunities. The Institute of International Education (IIE) administers programs in 180 countries. IIE offers a database of grants, scholarships, and fellowships for international students.


Similarly, the Overseas Association of College Admissions Counseling helps international students navigate the process of applying for financial aid and attending college in the U.S.


Many grants carry financial requirements, such as a demonstration of financial need. For more information about grants, international students can contact their school’s financial aid office.


List of Grants

  • Fulbright Grants for Foreign Students

    The Fulbright Program for Foreign Students offers scholarships to 4,000 international students annually. The program supports international graduate students and young professionals who visit the U.S. to study and conduct research. The Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program also funds international students who teach in their native language at a college in the U.S.

    The eligibility requirements and application process for the Fulbright program vary depending on the country. The selection process also varies by country. Research the process in your home country to learn more.

  • Grants from Individual Colleges and Universities

    Both public and private schools offer financial aid for international students. However, the funding availability varies depending on the school and the student’s degree level. For instance, many programs fund assistantships or fellowships for graduate students but offer fewer financial aid opportunities for undergraduates.

    Many schools offer need-based or merit-based scholarships for international students who meet specific requirements. Research scholarship opportunities through your prospective college or university.

  • Grants from Your Native Country

    International students can research financial aid through their home country. Many foreign governments offer programs that grant money to citizens pursuing a college degree in the U.S. In addition, many foreign companies and organizations provide funding to international students.

  • Grants from International Organizations

    Several international organizations offer financial support for international students. Many prospective students find funding through international organizations listed in scholarship databases like the IIE database of grants, scholarships, and fellowships for international students. Eligibility requirements and selection processes vary depending on the organization.

    Many international students also research funding opportunities from organizations in their field of study. Many professional organizations, for example, offer scholarships and grants for students, including international students.

List of Scholarships

International students qualify for multiple scholarship opportunities, including specialized scholarships for international students and scholarships open to all students regardless of their U.S. citizenship. These scholarships can fund a portion of an undergraduate or graduate degree.

Private foundations, professional organizations, and businesses offer scholarships to help international students pay for college. Many schools also offer scholarships to admitted international learners.

This list introduces some scholarship opportunities available to international students. Many prospective students also look for scholarships to attend college in the U.S. offered by organizations within their home country.

AAUW International Fellowships

Who Can Apply: The American Association of University Women offers a fellowship program for international students earning a graduate degree in the U.S. The fellowship committee looks for academic achievement and a commitment to women and girls.

Amount: $18,000-$30,000

Forward Pathway Scholarship

Who Can Apply: International students from China who hold a minimum 3.0 GPA can apply for the scholarship. Eligible recipients include full-time undergraduate students attending an accredited school in the U.S.

Amount: $1,000

NextGen Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Offered by P.E.R.K. Consulting, the scholarship funds international students either living or attending school in the greater Washington D.C. area. Eligible applicants hold a minimum 3.0 GPA.

Amount: $1,000

Collegedunia Student Essay Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The scholarship funds international students attending an accredited college in the U.S. Applicants submit an essay on why they want to study in the U.S.

Amount: $1,000

DO Supply Inc. Academic Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The scholarship supports a full-time or part-time student enrolled in a U.S. college. Applicants submit an essay on a small business that has impacted their life or their plans to start a small business in the U.S.

Amount: $1,000

Paying with Your Own Money

Some international students pay for college with their own money or with financial support from their family. These students use college savings accounts and income to pay for their tuition, fees, and living expenses. For example, many students work while in school to help cover their tuition costs. However, student visa rules often limit employment opportunities.

Many students who choose to pay with their own money also apply for grants and scholarships to cover the cost of their degree.

Private Student Loans

In 2018, 65% of U.S. students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree took on student debt. On average, each student owed over $29,000 in debt.

Federal student debt makes up around 92% of all student loans. However, international students cannot apply for the federal financial aid program. As a result, international students typically rely on private loans to pay for college.

Banks, financial organizations, and schools all offer private student loans. Each lender sets different terms for taking out a loan.

Private student loans typically cost more than federal student loans, and they do not offer the same protections and benefits. Prioritize scholarships and grants and consider private loans last.

Before taking out private student loans, carefully research the following concepts to make the best choice:

Interest rates

When borrowers take out loans, they agree to pay interest on the principle or original loan amount. A higher interest rate often adds thousands to a loan. When researching interest rates, calculate how much of the monthly payment goes toward the principle versus paying off interest. Interest rates on private loans range from 1.20%-14.50%.


Applicants must meet credit score or financial requirements to take out private student loans. Students who do not meet these standards rely on a cosigner, often a parent or guardian, who agrees to repay the loan if the student cannot. A cosigner with a strong credit history often ensures a lower interest rate.


Typically, recipients begin repaying their private student loans as soon as they take out the loan. Some lenders offer a deferment until the student graduates or repayment plans that let the student pay interest during school. Many students repay the loan early by making additional payments.

Be Aware of Scams and Abuse

Reputable financial institutions help international students pay for college, but scammers often take advantage of students. Look for red flags like a high interest rate, a loan that provides more money than the student needs to pay for school, or a very high monthly payment.

Though securing the funding needed to attend school in the U.S. seems daunting at times, know that it is possible. By strategically using all the options available, you can find ways to make an American education more cost-effective.

Portrait of Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and earned tenure as a history professor at the University of Louisville. An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a freelance writer and consultant.

See articles by Genevieve

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