1. Do your research before picking classes.
Before you choose your classes, make sure to always consult with your advisor to see which courses and electives work best to complete your major/minor. However, keep in mind that the goal of any international student is not always to graduate early or even on time. Picking a few fun, unrelated courses or even graduate classes will extend your graduation date and give you additional time on your visa.
2. Make sure you ask residential life about your housing assignment early and do your research
At some universities, international students are put in less-than-ideal housing seeing as they usually don’t know as much about housing and what the campus offers. In some cases, they get stuck with the remaining housing spots in unpopular locations. Remember that you can almost always request a transfer!
As an international student, you’ll also want to live on campus for your first few semesters, specifically if you don’t know many people or have a car for getting around. Living in an off campus apartment will isolate you from campus social life and make it difficult to meet people.
3. Always carry your (real) ID
The legal drinking age in the US is 21, and most places are very strict about enforcing the law. If you are not 21, do NOT use a fake ID or a fake passport. Stick to parties outside the dorms and clubs that are 18+.
If you are 21, always remember to carry your ID and passport with you. Where you may not have gotten carded getting a drink at the beach in Barcelona or sitting at a bar in a Paris restaurant, there’s a 99% chance you will get carded in the US, no matter where or who you are.
4. Get set up
As soon as you get to the US, jump on any opportunities to set up living your life normally; open a bank account, get a cell phone plan, purchase a computer, etc… Setting up these networks is painful, but tackling them as soon as you arrive will help you to avoid paying extra fees. Having a social security card also makes doing all of these things easier, however it’s not always a requirement.
5. Get an on campus job for a semester
Not many people will tell you about this, but it is the single most important piece of advice I wish I knew when I arrived in the US. An F-1 visa holder is not allowed to work off campus at a store or a restaurant, but you are allowed to get a job on campus. You can be a language tutor, library assistant, RA; the list goes on.
Other than just extra beer money, having a job on campus will give you the opportunity to request a social security card. Having a social security card will make your life a thousand times easier in the US: getting your driver’s license, buying a car, opening a bank account, getting a cell phone plan, installing cable, getting a credit card, and much more. Having a credit card will also allow you to start building credit in the US, which will become very valuable if you ever decide to move to the US permanently.
6. Don’t pay full price for anything.
Students in the US are usually entitled to student discounts for online and in-store purchases. Check out websites like Studentrate.com to make sure you save as much money as you can and take full advantage of your student status.
7. Get your driver’s license
Even if you don’t need or buy a car right away, having a driver’s license is key in the US. The process is fairly easy – just check with your state’s DMV laws first. Usually, all you need to do is download the written test from the DMV/RMV website (of the state you live in). Once you pass the written test, you will get a temporary permit and be allowed to drive with licensed friends or adults. Depending on the state, the permit will be a requirement for a certain period of time, and then you can schedule driving school classes or your driver’s test (if you already know how to drive). Keep in mind that the test is usually easier than in some other countries (except for those used to driving on the left side).
Why get your license? First, because you will be able to go out to bars and clubs without carrying your passport with you at all times (and having multiple heart attacks when you think your passport is lost). Second, because in case of an emergency, being able to drive may turn out extremely useful. Finally, because the US is full of road trip opportunities and having the ability to hop in the driver’s seat will make it much easier to explore the country.
8. Meet new people and open up to the American culture
College is the perfect time to get out of your comfort zone and meet all different kinds of people. As you get to campus, you will soon realize that the international crowd usually doesn’t really hang out with US students. Internationals often live together, prefer downtown clubs to frat parties, and don’t usually get involved in the school’s sporting events. Make sure you meet both international and US students!
Find your country’s student association or join a club to build a group of friends familiar with your own culture. They will support you when you get homesick, celebrate traditional holidays with you and understand your love for stilettos and crowded night clubs. But get involved in American traditions as well! Consider rushing Greek life, learn the rules of football, cheer for your home team at sporting events, become a master at beer pong, etc… Being a student on a college campus is an incredible opportunity, not to mention the most fun experience you will ever have. Don’t try too hard to re-create the life you left back home in a new city and embrace the differences!
9. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not
When hanging out with Americans, there will be many times people will reference things that you don’t know. As silly as this may sound, it’s okay not to know what Twinkies are, who Steven Colbert is, what a touchdown means. Your friends will look astonished, and surely tease you for it, but they will love teaching you more about their culture. In return, be open about your culture and teach your friends about the things they may not know. Translating funny words, cooking your favorite recipes from home and inviting your friends to celebrate holidays are great ways to build connections between the two cultures.
10. Get as many internships as you can during your college years
This is especially true if you plan on looking for a job after you graduate. US Immigration laws allow international students to have unpaid internships during the school year and the summer providing you fill out all the paperwork and get the proper authorization. Internships are a great way to build your resume and gain invaluable work experience that will prove very useful to compete for a job after graduation. Whether you plan on looking for a job in the US, or returning to your home country, having some solid US work experience will be your biggest advantage after college.