Taking your English Proficiency Test
International students must demonstrate adequate skills in spoken and written English before they can be admitted to U.S.A. colleges and universities. English language proficiency is also required before a college or university will issue Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status (Form I-20), which is required before an international student can apply for an F-1 visa.
Most international students demonstrate English language proficiency by taking a test. Each college or university specifies which tests they accept and the minimum required test score for each test. The most popular English language tests include:
The TOEFL comes in two versions, Internet-based (iBT) and revised Paper-Delivered Test. 97% of students take the internet based version.
International students can also satisfy the English language test requirements by performing well on the English sections of a standard college admissions test, such as
Some colleges and universities may offer conditional admission to international students with lower scores. They will require the student to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes before they will be admitted as regular students.
The English language proficiency test requirement may be waived if the student comes from a country where English is the main language or the student graduated from a secondary school where classes are taught in English.
The best way to prepare for an English language proficiency test is to practice. Take a test prep class, use test prep books, and take practice tests. Try to use English in everyday conversational situations. Read a daily English-language newspaper, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Practice writing in English.
College Admissions in the United States
The college admission process for international students who want to pursue a postsecondary education at a U.S.A. college or university is similar to the process for U.S.A. students. But, international students must also demonstrate English language proficiency and ability to pay.
Admission to most U.S.A. colleges depends on more than just having good grades and test scores. U.S.A. colleges and universities consider other criteria as part of a holistic review of the application for admission. You are more than just a number to them. U.S.A. colleges and universities review the whole person, reading each applicant’s essays, recommendations, activities and achievements. Volunteer activities and community service are of particular interest, since they want to know how you will serve society after you graduate. They also want to appreciate your special talents and unique experiences.
This college admission checklist helps international students prepare for the U.S.A. college admission process.
English language proficiency tests.
Take the TOEFL, IELTS or other English language tests early enough so that you have the time to take them again if you didn’t score high enough. English language test scores are good for 2 years.
Most applications for admission to a U.S.A. college or university will include sections about personal information, extracurricular activities, volunteer activities, honors and awards, and disciplinary infractions, in addition to one or more essays. The essays must be written by the student in English.
Secondary school transcripts.
International students must ask their secondary school to send official secondary school transcripts directly to the college or university (if the transcript is in English), or to a credential evaluation service approved by the U.S.A. college or university. Credential evaluation services translate transcripts into the U.S.A. equivalents.
Letters of recommendation.
Most colleges require a letter of recommendation from the high school guidance counselor and at least one teacher.
Proof of ability to pay.
International students must demonstrate that they have sufficient financial resources to pay for college costs, including tuition and living expenses. An affidavit of support may be required from the student’s sponsor.
Most U.S.A. colleges and universities do not require interviews for international students, due to the logistical difficulties.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
There aren’t many scholarships for international students to study at U.S.A. colleges and universities.
However, the colleges and universities that participate in the AmericanScholarships.com web site have agreed to provide scholarships to international students who apply for admission through the web site, are accepted and enroll at the college or university. These scholarships function as a discount on tuition and fees.
There are also several private scholarships that are open to international students who will enroll at a U.S.A. college or university. Scholarships that are open to international students for undergraduate study include:
- Margaret McNamara Memorial Fund
- Organization of American States
- SelfScore Scholarship for International Students
- Soros Foundation
- United Nations
- World Health Organization (WHO)
International students should also look for scholarships offered by the government in their home country for international study.
Other sources of information about scholarships for international students include Funding for U.S. Study Online from IIE and Financial Guide for Higher Education in the Americas from OAS. EducationUSA from the U.S. Department of State provides a database of financial aid opportunities for international students.
There are not many student loan programs available to international students. International students are not eligible for U.S.A. federal student loans, such as the Federal Stafford Loan and the Federal PLUS Loan. Most private student loans are also not available to international students. A few private student loan programs are available to international students, but require a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident as cosigner.
Lenders that offer private student loans to international students with a U.S. citizen or permanent resident cosigner include:
- Ascent Student Loans
- Discover Student Loans
- iHELP Private Student Loans
- Sallie Mae
- SunTrust Private Student Loans
- Union Federal Private Student Loan
- Wells Fargo Private Student Loans
Lenders that offer private student loans to international students without a cosigner include:
International students may be eligible for a credit card through Self Score.
Obtaining a Student Visa
Applying for a student visa to study in the U.S.A. is a process involving several steps. International students must find the right colleges, prove that they have enough money to pay for college costs, demonstrate English language proficiency, get accepted by one or more colleges, accept the offer of admission from one of these colleges, obtain a Form I-20 from this college and apply for a visa.
This checklist summarizes the major steps involved in obtaining a student visa for international students to study in the U.S.A.
- Gather documentation that demonstrates sufficient funds to pay for all college costs for the entire stay in the U.S.A.
- Copies of tax returns
- Copies of several consecutive months of bank statements
- Certified bank letter
- Copies of pay stubs
- Documentation of scholarships won by the student
- Affidavit of Support (Form I-134)
- Take an English Language Proficiency Test (e.g., TOEFL, IELTS)
- Apply for admission to U.S.A. colleges and universities that are certified for the Student Exchange and Visitor Program (SEVP)
- Accept the offer of admission from one of the U.S. colleges and universities that has admitted the international student
- Register with Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS)
- Pay the I-901 SEVIS fee and print the confirmation fee at FMJfee.com
- Correct any errors on the receipt by sending email to FMJfee.firstname.lastname@example.org and print the corrected receipt at FMJfee.com
- Obtain a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (Form I-20) through SEVIS. This form must be signed by the international student and the Designated School Official (DSO)
- Get a recent two-inch by two-inch (51 mm x 51 mm) color photograph of the international student
- Upload the international student’s photograph as part of the visa application or bring it to the visa interview
- File the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160) and print the confirmation page
- Schedule an appointment for a visa interview at the closest U.S. embassy or consulate
- Bring the following to the visa interview
- I-901 SEVIS fee receipt
- Form I-20
- Confirmation page from Form DS-160
- Visa application processing fee or visa application processing fee receipt
- Affidavit of Support
- English language proficiency test scores
- Standardized test scores
Coming to the United States
Before you depart for the U.S.A., some advance preparation can save you money and avoid problems.
Travel to the U.S.A.
Planning for travel to the U.S.A. should begin several months before you board an airplane flight to the U.S.A. Obviously, buying air tickets early can save money.
But, you should also communicate with the international student advisor at your college when planning your trip. The international student advisor can tell you which international airports are closest to the college. They can recommend whether you should fly from the international airport to a regional airport closer to the college, or whether you should take a bus, train or other transportation to the college. Some colleges will meet international students at the airport and bring them to campus.
The international student advisor can tell you when you should arrive in the U.S.A. Some colleges provide an international student orientation a week or two before the general new student orientation. Plan on arriving in time for the international student orientation, since it provides an introduction to cultural differences and how things are done in the U.S.A., as well as an opportunity to meet your fellow international students. There will also be a required visa information session. But, don’t arrive too soon, as you cannot arrive more than 30 days before the start date on your I-20.
Gather Your Travel Documents
Before you travel, gather together all of your important travel documents, including:
- Form I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status)
- Passport and Nonimmigrant Visa
Also, bring a list of important contacts, such as the name and telephone number of the international student advisor.
If you are traveling with a spouse or child, bring copies of birth certificates and marriage certificates, including notarized translations.
Navigating Ports of Entry to the U.S.A.
A visa does not guarantee that you will be admitted to the U.S.A. At a port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) can deny you entry even with a valid visa. Visa holders can be denied admission for health reasons, criminal convictions, security matters and documentation problems, among other reasons. CBP officers often ask about the reason for your entry into the U.S.A.
If you are allowed entry into the U.S.A., the CBP officer will either mark your passport with an admission stamp or attach a paper Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record) to your passport. The admission stamp records the date of admission, the class of admission and the expiration date of the admission status. Arrival/departure information is recorded electronically for people traveling by air or sea.
After you arrive in the U.S.A., you will need to exchange your foreign currency into U.S. dollars. Most international airports have currency exchange booths in the terminal. However, the fees and exchange rates can be high, so you should exchange just what you need for the next few days, until you can visit a bank. Banks often provide better exchange rates.
Note that if you are bringing more than U.S. $10,000 into the U.S.A. in dollars or foreign currency, including traveler’s checks, you must declare it to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on form FinCEN 105 upon entry, or the money can be confiscated. It also isn’t safe to carry that much money. A better approach is to deposit or transfer the money into a bank that has a local office in the city where your college is located.
Many merchants will not accept large denomination bills, such as $100 bills. It is best to use $20 bills and smaller denominations.
Credit cards in the U.S.A. are gradually switching to the security chips that are common in Europe, but you may still need to swipe the credit card at a credit card terminal instead of having the chip read.
Credit cards that are accepted by most merchants in the U.S.A. include American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Discover. If you have one of these credit cards, tell the issuer that you will be traveling to the U.S.A. before you leave. Otherwise, the credit card may be blocked when you try to use it, as a security precaution.
After Arrival in the U.S.A.
You will need ground transportation to get from the airport to the college. Some colleges provide international students with free transportation to the college as part of their orientation programs. Otherwise, you will need to take a taxi, shuttle or public transportation from the airport.
Taxi stands can be found at most airports near the baggage claim area for domestic travel. After you exit customs, look for signs labeled “Ground Transportation.” You may have to take a free tram or a free bus from the international terminal to the domestic terminal at some airports. Taxis often provide flat rate fares from the airport to downtown.
Some airports provide convenient access to public transportation, such as buses, subways and trains. Public transportation systems can be complicated, so it is best to plan how you will reach your destination in advance. For example, you might need to take a bus to the subway station. Google Maps has integrated public transportation maps for the largest cities and metropolitan areas. Public transportation systems often provide trip planning tools on their web sites.
Uber and Lyft are an increasingly popular and less expensive alternative to taxis. These are apps that you install on your smartphone to arrange for transportation. Many airports have specific pickup locations for people using Uber and Lyft. You may have to go to a specific terminal location and door to meet the driver. These are often labeled as “Pre-Arranged Transportation.”
Car rental facilities can be found at most airports. Bring an international driver’s license with you if you plan on renting a car. However, it may be best to wait until you become more familiar with the U.S.A. before driving a car.
Depending on whether you will be living in a dormitory or off-campus, you may need temporary accommodations after arrival in the U.S.A. There are inns, motels and hotels in and near most cities. The cost can vary by location. Bed and breakfasts and hostels are less common, but may be less expensive. Airbnb is another option, where people rent out their homes for short periods of time.
Working in the United States
There are many opportunities for international students to work in the United States of America while on the F-1 student visa. The two main types of employment are on-campus and off-campus, each restricted by a different set of government and college rules. International students who have any questions about working on or off campus should talk with the college’s Designated School Official (DSO), which is usually the international student advisor.
Many colleges and universities offer international students on-campus jobs, such as working in the library and cafeteria. On-campus jobs do not require authorization from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) so long as the international student is enrolled as a full-time student in good academic standing, but international students should check with the Designated School Official before starting work to confirm that the job qualifies as on-campus employment.
On-campus jobs do not need to be related to the student's field of study.
On-campus jobs are limited to half-time (20 hours per week) during the academic year while classes are in session, but may be full-time during holidays, vacations and the summer break if you will continue your enrollment after the break.
USCIS rules allow on-campus jobs to begin as early as 30 days prior to the start of the program of study. This is in contrast with off-campus employment, such as CPT and OPT, where the student must have been enrolled for a full academic year (9 months) prior to applying for an off-campus job.
The employment must end with the program end date, unless the student is continuing his or her education at the next higher degree level at the same college
International students must have prior authorization from the Designated School Official and USCIS before they can work off campus. Failure to obtain authorization is a violation of the international student’s visa status.
There are four types of off-campus employment for international students on an F-1 visa:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT)
- Employment Because of Unforeseen Severe Economic Hardship
- Employment with Recognized International Organizations
Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
Curricular Practical Training (CPT) is off-campus employment that is an integral part of the college’s degree program or that is required by a course for which students receive academic credit. For example, some academic programs require work experience as part of the training for all students, not just international students. CPT can include work-study, paid and unpaid internships, cooperative education and practicums.
International students must obtain prior authorization from the Designated School Official before starting off-campus CPT employment. To be eligible for CPT, international students must have been enrolled for at least one academic year (9 months) prior to applying for CPT. An international student must be in good academic standing to qualify for off-campus employment.
CPT employment must be part-time (20 hours per week or less) during the academic year, when classes are in session. International students must maintain full-time enrollment during the academic year while participating in CPT. CPT jobs can be full-time during the summer vacation and other breaks. CPT employment is only available prior to completion of the degree program and may not delay completion of the student’s degree program.
CPT jobs must provide training in the student’s field of study.
International students must have a written job offer prior to applying for CPT. The CPT authorization will be limited to the specific employer. The CPT authorization will also specify the start and end dates of authorized employment and whether the student is approved for part-time or full-time.
If a student works for 12 or more full-time months of CPT, he or she will be ineligible for Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Optional Practical Training (OPT)
Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows international students to work off-campus during or shortly after their degree program. OPT employment must be related to the international student’s academic major. International students who completed 12 months or more of full-time CPT are ineligible for OPT.
To be eligible for OPT, an international student must have been enrolled for at least one academic year (9 months) prior to applying for OPT. The student must also apply for OPT at least 90 days before the program end date.
OPT is limited to 12 months, but an international student can qualify for an additional 12 months of OPT upon changing to a higher educational level. For example, an international student can get 12 months of OPT for a Bachelor’s degree program and another 12 months for a Master’s degree program.
Rules differ for pre-completion OPT and post-completion OPT. Pre-completion OPT employment is limited to part-time (20 hours or less per week) during the academic year and can be full-time during holidays, vacations and summer breaks. Post-completion OPT is required to be full-time and must be completed within 14 months of graduation.
Depending on the degree program and field of study, post-completion OPT can be extended for an additional 24 months while the international student applies for a H1B visa. To qualify for STEM OPT, the international student must have received a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree with an academic major in Actuarial Science, Computer Science, Engineering, Life Sciences, Mathematics, Physical Sciences and other designated STEM programs. The employer must participate in E-Verify. The international student and employer must complete Form I-983 (Training Plan for STEM OPT Students). The 24-month extension does not need to be completed within 14 months of graduation.
A second STEM OPT extension may be obtained if the student receives another degree at a higher educational level than the degree which was the basis for the first STEM OPT extension. There is a limit of two lifetime STEM OPT extensions.
International students may not be unemployed for an aggregate of more than 90 days during post-completion OPT (150 days for students granted a 24-month STEM OPT extension).
Unforeseen Severe Economic Hardship
International students who have experience unforeseen severe economic hardship may apply to USCIS for authorization for off-campus employment that is unrelated to the student’s program of study. This off-campus employment must be authorized by the Designated School Official and approved by USCIS on a case-by-case basis. If USCIS denies the international student’s application for off-campus employment, there is no appeal.
The international student must have been enrolled full-time for at least one academic year (9 months) prior to receiving off-campus employment, must be in good academic standing and must provide evidence of severe economic hardship based on unforeseen circumstances beyond the student’s control. Examples of unforeseen severe economic hardship include:
- loss of financial aid or on-campus employment for reasons other than the student’s fault
- significant fluctuations in exchange rates
- significant increases in tuition or living costs
- unexpected changes in financial circumstances of the student’s sponsor
- high unexpected expenses such as medical bills
The international student must make a good faith effort to find on-campus employment and must show that on-campus employment is insufficient or unavailable.
Employment during the academic year will still be limited to part-time (20 hours or less per week).
The off-campus employment will be authorized for up to a year in duration or until the program end date, whichever occurs earlier.
Employment with Recognized International Organizations
International students may obtain employment with a recognized international organization, such as the International Monetary Fund, NATO, Red Cross, United Nations (UN), World Health Organization, World Trade Organization and other organizations on the U.S. Department of State’s list of approved international organizations, which is based on the International Organizations Immunities Act [22 USC 288]. This off-campus employment must be authorized by the Designated School Official and approved by the USCIS. The international student must file Form I-765 to apply for authorization.
What Else Do You Need to Do?
International students must apply for a Social Security Number before working on campus or off campus.
To apply for a Social Security Number, first talk with the college’s Designated School Official. The Designated School Official will confirm that the student has active status in SEVIS. International students must also wait 10 days after arrival in the U.S. before applying for a Social Security Number. The international student must then visit a local Social Security Administration office to apply for a Social Security Number in person.
When an international student first starts working for an employer, the student and employer will be required to complete Form I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification). International students should review the form before starting employment because they will need to provide the employer with the documents listed on the form.