Getting a visa and preparing to study at a US university

So, you've applied and got accepted at a US college - what's next for successful study in the USA? Check out our pre-departure webinar below to learn how to make the most of your experience in the US and learn more about the process of getting a visa to study in the USA.

Our pre-departure guide is full of information for you to know before you go! This guide provides insight into:  

Visa and travel

The best resource for the visa application process is the US Embassy in the United Kingdom website. Watch our student visas webinar below, produced in collaboration with the Consular Section at the Embassy.  

The most important thing is to follow all visa and immigration advice from your university. There are certain restrictions on the dates you can enter the USA, and there are documents you will need. In general, you will require the following: 

  • Passport with your visa 
  • I-20 or DS-2019 form 
  • Evidence of financial assistance (if not on I-20/DS-2019) 
  • I-94 form (given to you at the airport in the US) 

You should arrive in advance of any orientation programmes. Although you are allowed to enter the USA 30 days before your official start date, you must notify the designated school official of: 

  • When you arrive in the USA When you arrive on campus, this should be an official meeting to confirm your attendance and visa status

If you are planning on arriving in the USA before your official start date, make sure you have sufficient funds and accommodation is organised. You will be required to tell US customs where you are staying in the US. Unless the university have confirmed it's okay, try not to arrive on campus in the evening or on a Saturday, Sunday or federal holiday. University offices are likely to be closed. 

Once in the US, your university will have an office that supports international students with visas. As your university will be your sponsor, they will be keen to make sure you understand what you can, and can’t do, on a student visa. They can be great campus connections to check with to ensure you stay in visa status.  

Remember, if you are travelling outside of the US and plan to re-enter on your student visa, you will need to ensure you have your passport with your visa and your I-20 with you. 

Practical Information

Going to the US for an extended period of time requires preparation, but this will pay off once you have established your daily routine. As EducationUSA advisers we recommend sorting some tasks in advance:  


Once you have a confirmed your start date, you can look into booking your flight. We recommend booking a flexible ticket as it will give you the ability to change your departure date in case any issues arise.  

If you're on a short-term programme or you know you're coming home on a specific date for the holidays, it's probably better to book a return flight. If you're staying for the entire year or longer, sometimes it can be more affordable to book a one-way flight and then book your homeward flight later in the year. Please conduct thorough research for your flight plans and discuss them with your institution's international student adviser. 

The following resources may be of use: 

Remember to factor in transport from the airport to the university.  

Health insurance 

Unlike in the UK, healthcare in the USA is private and can be very expensive. All students in the USA are required to take out healthcare insurance for the duration of their studies. There are thousands of insurance providers, but many international students find it cheaper and more convenient to purchase insurance through their universities. You should speak to your international student advisor to discuss your needs and the plans on offer. Please make sure you read and understand your insurance plan and what is covered under the plan. Things such as doctor’s visits or prescriptions are not free in the US, even if you’re insured, and generally require a co-pay payment to be made, which will vary by plan. 


If you’re planning to open a bank account when you’re in the US, you’ll want to wait until you’re on campus so that you can get a sense of which banks are nearby. Your international student advisor might be able to provide advice and you may even have the opportunity to open a bank account as part of your international student orientation. If you’re planning to use your UK current accounts or credit cards while in the US, then you’ll want to check with your provider to see whether you’ll be charged any fees for using your cards abroad.  


There are certain tax requirements of students and scholars in the US. Depending on your income and funding status, you may be required to file a tax return, even if you are not employed in the USA. For full details, please refer to your international student adviser and the Internal Revenue Service.


Do not exceed the work limits of your visa when seeking employment in the USA. F-1 and J-1 visa holders are not allowed to undertake paid or unpaid work off campus, but can work on campus up to: 

  • 20 hours a week during term time 
  • 40 hours a week during holidays 

To find on-campus jobs, check first with your careers office and the jobs section of your university website. On-campus work does not mean you have to be employed by the university. 

To be certain your visa status is not jeopardised, you should maintain regular contact with your designated school visa officer if you gain or change employment. 


It's time to focus on the reason why you're going to the USA: to experience American higher education. You've chosen this new experience because it's something different than what's on offer in the UK. There are a few important differences to note before you go. 

In the classroom 

Teaching in the US will vary from the UK. Regular coursework and exams throughout the term and classroom participation are common and make a large impact on your final result. Make sure you understand what’s expected from you in each class and contact or visit your professors during their office hours if you have any questions or concerns.  


Academic work in the US is graded A-F. The numeric scale associated to these grades (4-0) is used to calculate the grade point average (GPA) of your entire qualification. Some universities publish the ranking of every student in a particular class, to encourage competition. 


The US academic calendar is slightly different to the UK. Universities can operate whichever term dates they choose, but the academic year typically begins in mid-August/early September and ends mid-May/early June. Some institutions and programmes may also offer a summer term. In addition to the summer break, students will typically have a two week winter break at Christmas and one week spring break in March.  

Student in University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill t-shirt

‘In the US style of education you can explore more and you don’t have to be so sure on what you want to do with your career or even your degree, which I found really appealing because I was having a hard time picking a course that I wanted to study. I think the main thing that drew me to school in the US was the general education requirements and the ability to explore a bit with my undergraduate degree.’

Joseph from Llandyrnog, Wales – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2025

Living arrangements

The prospect of living at an American university can be incredibly exciting, yet also daunting. Many American films have popularised the idea of dorm life, but what can you really expect? 

There are a few types of accommodation while at university in the US, which can be sorted into on-campus and off-campus housing. 


Almost all US universities provide their students with the option to live in dormitories on campus. Sharing a room is the university standard in the USA. You are often issued a questionnaire by the university to match students according to interests and living habits. En-suite rooms are very rare in US university accommodation. University dormitories can be made up of:  

  • Co-ed residence halls: male and female rooms in the same building, but always with same-sex roommates 
  • Single-sex residence halls: an all-male or all-female environment, either an entire residence halls or separate floors 
  • Themed housing: some universities have themed housing, which might be dedicated to international students, students interested in community service, athletes or students studying a language 
  • University apartments: some universities have on-campus apartments that offer the feel of living off-campus but have the convenience of living on-campus (apartments are always in high demand; priority is generally given to upper-level undergraduate, graduate and married students, but some universities also give priority to those whose hometowns or place of origin are farthest from the school, such as international students) 

Dorm life can be daunting for international students, but there is typically a Resident Assistant (RA) on call. RAs are upperclassmen (non-first years) employed by the university to oversee the dorm. They arrange social events and also enforce university policy.  

RAs should be your first port of call if you have any issues with your living situation, and can also act as mentors for your student experience in general. Check with your institution to see what living options they offer to international students.  

Aerial view of Mount Holyoke College campus

Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women’s college in the US, is a highly selective, research liberal arts institution located in Massachusetts. The dorms at MHC serve milk and cookies as part of a rotating lineup of treats on school nights, providing students with the opportunity to take a nightly break to snack with friends. (Photo by Ryan Donnell for Mount Holyoke College)


If you cannot find accommodation in university dormitories on-campus, or would prefer to live in an apartment or house, you may have to look for housing off campus. 

Off-campus accommodation includes apartments, houses, privately-operated dorms and rooms in a private home. If you choose to live off-campus, your university's housing office can offer advice. 

Some universities require first year and study abroad students to live on campus. Remember that it might be cheaper to live in university accommodation in a city, or it might be cheaper to live off campus in rural areas.

Campus life

While academics will take up a large portion of your time, US universities are known for their vibrant campus life. US universities operate under the belief that learning is not confined to the four walls of the classroom and seek to find ways to educate and help you develop as a whole person. They offer various on-campus welcome activities for new students at the start of the year and extra-curricular activities throughout the academic year.  


As an international student, you might not be sure where to begin when you arrive at your university. This is where an orientation programme can help you get your bearings and give you a better sense of what your new day-to-day life will be like at your university in the US. US universities will offer international students orientation programmes before classes start, which will typically include:  

  • Campus tour  
  • Tour of residential areas 
  • Introduction to library and technology resources 
  • Familiarisation with on-campus resources 
  • Meeting with an academic advisor  
  • Meet-and-greet with current students 
  • Getting a university ID card 
  • Information on opening a bank account 
  • Seminars on health and safety 
  • Some universities may offer tours of the local area depending on how large the town/city is where you are studying 
  • School practices and policies  

Student support  

Take a look at what support services your university offers to students. Do you have a disability that will require support once you’re in the US? Will your family be joining you? Are there any particular networks related to your personal identify that you’d like to be part of? Make sure you research the kind of support your university offers and how and where you can access it. 

International student services 

Almost all universities have an international student services organisation whose purpose is to make your transition to the US as easy as possible while celebrating your individual background and culture. 

The international student office will be your best resource before you arrive in the US and throughout your time at university. Do not hesitate to send them an email or stop in the office if you have any enquiries. They can offer advice on: 

  • Visa and immigration 
  • University administration 
  • Cultural differences 

They might also organise: 

  • Orientation 
  • Social events 
  • Host family schemes 
  • Holiday gatherings and trips 
  • International weeks 
  • Cultural celebrations  

Clubs and societies 

Most universities will have clubs for you to join based on varying interests and passions. University websites will post the list of clubs available along with the individual clubs’ websites. Take a look to see what’s available for undergraduate and international students on your universities website.

Most universities will have hundreds of clubs for you to join based on varying interests and passions. Typical clubs and societies that exist on almost all university campuses include organisations for: 

  • Volunteering 
  • Cultural and religious groups 
  • Dancing and performing arts  
  • Academic interests 
  • Political affiliations 
  • Professional goals 
  • Sports 
  • Student government 
  • Fraternities and sororities 

Many universities also encourage you to form new clubs if one does not already exist to match your specific interest. 

Some of your most memorable university moments could be attending sporting events, especially at universities with a long tradition of excellence at varsity sports. Many universities allow current students to attend varsity games for free, or offer very affordable season tickets. 


Most first year students living in on-campus dorms will be using a meal plan or meal points to purchase food from dining halls around campus. Meal plans can be unlimited, a set number of meals per week, a set number of meals per semester, or pay-as-you-go. Usually you pay when you enter the dining hall by swiping your student ID card. 

Meal plans can usually be purchased by students living off campus who want to eat in between classes. For students living off campus, dining halls also accept cash if you are not on a meal plan. 


The legal age for drinking in the USA is 21. 

It’s very important to check whether or not your university is ‘dry’. If you’re on a dry campus, you can still be cautioned or arrested for consuming alcohol, or having an open container of alcohol, even if you’re over 21. 

When you enter a bar or try to purchase alcohol in a store or restaurant, you will be asked to produce photo identification to prove that you are above the legal drinking age. Being arrested for underage drinking can jeopardise your visa status and can result in deportation.

US culture

By studying in the US, you have the opportunity to live and study in a place with such diverse regional cultures that one coast can feel like the polar opposite from the other. 

This section will prepare you for the culture shock you will most likely experience while in the US and how to handle it, as well as give you some general cultural differences between the US and UK, including religion and politics. 

Culture shock 

The key to dealing with culture shock is to remember that this is a natural process that accompanies being in a new country for an extended period of time. The most important thing is to give yourself time to adjust to your new surroundings, remain positive and not become discouraged. 

The UK Council for International Student Affairs has diagram to explain the different stages of culture shock. Here are a few ways to find support and channel your homesickness into something positive: 

  • Meet with other international students who are probably going through the same thing 
  • Talk with your international student adviser 
  • Talk with your Resident Adviser 
  • Join a club or society you're passionate about 
  • Visit and familiarise yourself with nearby places of interest 
  • Represent your country at a study abroad fair 

You might even experience reverse culture shock when you return to the UK. There are a few ways you can counter this: 

  • Keep a journal of your time abroad and compare your experiences to those in the UK 
  • Stay informed of the news at home 
  • Keep in contact with people from home, with regular video calls 
  • When you return, remember not to overload friends and family with your stories and "when I was in the US..." - instead, engage with local international groups or other people who have had similar experiences 

Cultural differences 

While you may not think it at first, there are numerous cultural differences between the US and the UK that you will likely encounter: 

  • Tipping: tip 15-20% at restaurants, 5-10% for taxis, 10% for hairdressers, $1-2 per drink  - not tipping is considered the worst of faux pas 
  • Personal lives: Americans are very open people and like to share a lot about themselves 
  • Humour: sarcasm, satire and surrealism are not common forms of expression (The Inbetweeners might take some explaining) 
  • Local mindsets: due to the county's size, news and culture are focused more locally than globally 
  • Values: punctuality, individual responsibility, a high work ethic, and proud patriotism are all valued in the USA far more than the UK - self-deprecation is rare in the US, and laughing at yourself or your country is viewed with suspicion 


The USA was founded on the principle of religious freedom and is therefore religiously diverse. While the UK has more non-believers than any particular denomination, religious faith is fairly common and widespread across the US. 

In most of the country, your beliefs will be respected no matter what they are, and opportunities will be provided for you to engage with your faith or lack thereof. 

Certain parts of the US, in rural areas and especially the South outside of major cities, may to be less religiously diverse. Protestantism is predominant, and religion may be an essential part of the lifestyle. These areas are usually more conservative. Students from these areas may talk openly about their beliefs and can be shocked if you do not share them. 


Don't be afraid to express your political beliefs on campus but remember to be polite.Americans can be self-critical but will take offence if they think you are insulting the political concept of the USA. 

You will notice that Americans become particularly politically minded and patriotic during a presidential election. If you happen to be in America during an election year, ask your American friends to explain the two-party system. 

Presidential candidates often tour certain universities to speak to students during the campaign. Consider yourself very lucky if you get a seat at one of these events.