International students make up a significant chunk of the students who attend college in the United States but they face many hurdles to do so. As an international student, in addition to getting the right visa, culture shock, and being separated from your family by a significant distance, you must also navigate paying for college.
As you know, figuring out how to fund a college education can be stressful, so this guide is designed to help you, a foreign student, easily navigate the financial aid process. We will explore different avenues for finding financial aid and offer a comprehensive list of scholarships that are specially for international students.
College Costs for International Students
In addition to the usual costs of college (tuition, fees, room and board, books, etc.) that students have to worry about, international students also have a myriad of other expenses to add into their calculations:
- Travel to and from the US
- Healthcare and insurance costs
- Visa and other customs and immigration-associated costs
- Extra exam fees (e.g. TOEFL exam is often required for non-native English speakers)
The next few sections will help you more fully understand the costs associated with going to college in the US.
The biggest ticket item for attending college in the US is the cost of tuition, which can average between $17,797 and $46,014 per year, depending on the school you attend. However, these statistics usually focus on in-state tuition rather than the out-of-state tuition that international students usually pay. While every school sets its own in-state and out-of-state tuition, the average difference between those two numbers is almost $9,000. That means you are likely to pay more in tuition compared to a student who has residency in the state where the college is located.
Additionally, while some colleges charge tuition per term based on whether students are full-time or part-time, others will charge by the course. Make sure you research how the schools you are interested in calculate tuition when you are considering which to apply for!
Average Cost of Living in University Towns
Many colleges require first-year college students to live on campus, but some colleges may have housing shortages or students may want to experience living on their own. Either way, housing is another significant cost.
It can be difficult and stressful to research living costs in specific cities, especially when you may not be familiar with the makeup of the US, so we put together a list of popular college towns and the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in each:
- Douglas, Georgia (South Georgia State College): $338/month
- Tifton, Georgia (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College): $432/month
- Ada, Oklahoma (East Central University): $465/month
- Morehead, Kentucky (Morehead State University): $429/month
- Cocoa, Florida (Eastern Florida State University): $487/month
- Hays, Kansas (Fort Hays State University): $444/month
- Durant, Oklahoma (Southeastern Oklahoma State University): $505/month
- Maryville, Missouri (Northwest Missouri State University): $444/month
- Fort Smith, Arkansas (University of Arkansas—Fort Smith): $470/month
- Murray, Kentucky (Murray State University): $531/month
- Garden City, New York (Adelphi University): $3,106/month
- Malibu, California (Pepperdine University): $2,106/month
- Santa Clara, California (Santa Clara University): $2,006/month
- Los Altos Hills, California (Foothill College): $2,114/month
- Hoboken, New Jersey (Stevens Institute of Technology): $1,928/month
- University Park, Illinois (Governors State University): $690/month
- Orange, California (Chapman University): $1,407/month
- Washington, DC (American University, Georgetown University): $1,435/month
Remember, sometimes you can even rent out a single bedroom in an apartment where you share kitchen and living room space with other college students. Those will often be the least expensive options but living with roommates poses its own challenges. Additionally, off-campus housing usually comes with the added expenses of utilities and groceries, so be sure to factor that into your costs as well.
Help from Family
Just like US students, international students often turn to their families to help fund their education. While help from family can be a great way to fund your education and help reduce your overall debt upon graduation, your family might not have the resources to help you out, and that is 100% okay.
However, it is a hard reality that between 60-80% of international students do rely on their families as their primary source of funding to attend college in the US. That can come with strings attached (i.e. your family dictating your major), but you shouldn’t be afraid to have difficult conversations with their family about your education choices, even if your family is your primary funding source. It is always okay to advocate for yourself and your interests when your education is on the line.
Loans for International Students
While federal loans are often not available to international students (with a few exceptions we will discuss in our section on the FAFSA), private loans for international students are available. Private loans differ from federal loans and scholarships in a couple of key ways:
- Any kind of private loan will need to be paid back (unlike a grant or a scholarship).
- Private loans accrue interest, which also needs to be paid back.
- Private loans usually require that you make interest payments while you are in school (unlike federal loans).
Most private loans available to international students will require a cosigner. Cosigners guarantee your loans, and they are also responsible for paying back the loan if you are unable to for any reason. If you are an international student, your cosigner may be required to be a US citizen who is creditworthy. Your cosigner could be a spouse, a relative, or a close friend. Not everyone will be in a position at first to have a US citizen cosigner. If that sounds like your situation, you may be able to find no cosigner loans, but these are rare.
There is an option for interest-free loans for some international students. The Organization of American States offers loans to students from Latin American and Caribbean countries at no interest. These loans are through the Rowe Fund program.
If you are going to take out private loans to help fund your education in the US, it is important to take out loans from reputable institutions. Banks and credit unions are some of the most reputable.
Many college students work while they are in school, either to pay for college itself or to pay for living expenses. International students face more challenges than US citizens in terms of working while going to school, and for some students, this is simply not going to be possible.
However, depending on your country of origin, your visa type, and the program (level and field) in which you are enrolled, you may be able to work while going to school in the US. International students are not permitted to participate in federal work-study programs, however.
The first hurdle is immigration regulations that relate to your visa. The most common type of international student status, F1, does allow for visa holders to work part-time, on-campus. Part-time is defined as fewer than 20 hours per week.
Under an F1 visa, you may not work off-campus during your first year of study. However, after the completion of the first year of study, you may work off-campus in three different capacities.
Curricular Practical Training (CPT): CPT includes internships or employment in your field of study. For example, if you are majoring in education, you would be allowed to work as a teacher aide in a local school district. CPT employment is usually part-time and is undertaken while you are enrolled in school.
Optional Practical Training (OPT): OPT is similar to CPT, except that OPT is generally full-time work in your field of study that you undertake after you have graduated from your program. Rarely do students engage in OPT while they are still in school, but usually only if they do not qualify for CPT.
STEM Optional Practical Training Extension: The STEM OPT extension allows students who studied in STEM fields to extend their OPT training for up to 24 months.
Students who have J1 status may also work under similar conditions and rules as F1 visa holders. However, you need to gain permission from the sponsor of your exchange visitor program to pursue employment.
Unlike F1 and J1 visa holders, those with an M1 visa may not work while going to school. The US government website has information on student visas that can help you fully understand the different work regulations for student visa holders.
Canadian students do not need visas to study and work in the US, but they do need an I-20 form (provided by the school) and to register with SEVIS. Canadian students who want to work while in school in the US should look at the guidelines for studying in the US on the Consulates and Embassy website.
Teaching and Research Assistantships
While it is more common for international graduate students to hold teaching and research assistantships as part of their programs, some undergraduate international students (particularly upper-year students) may have the opportunity to take on these positions. Teaching and research assistantships generally help pay for tuition and often come with a bi-weekly stipend as well. However, these stipends and payments (or tuition waivers, depending on the school) are generally not sufficient to live on, so you should plan for additional financial aid.
FAFSA and Federal Aid for International Students
As a general rule, international students are not eligible for federal financial loans or federal work-study programs. However, it is still important to understand federal financial aid because many schools still require or strongly encourage international students to fill out the FAFSA.
The FAFSA tells schools whether or not you, as an international student, fit into any of the specific circumstances that would allow you to receive federal or state financial aid. Even if you do not think you qualify for federal aid, it is important to apply anyway. You never know what you might be eligible for.
International students should also make sure to research federal financial aid options in their home countries as well. Some countries offer scholarships, grants, or loans to students who want to study in the US. However, some of these options for financial aid may come with specific requirements (e.g. returning to and working in your home country upon graduation) so be sure to do adequate research.
Tips for Submitting your FAFSA without a Social Security Number
US students and citizens typically submit their FAFSA online. However, in order to do that, you must have a social security number (SSN), something that foreign students don’t have.
In this case, the best way to submit your FAFSA application is by mail. You can print your completed application, and it will tell you where to send it. Be sure to mail in your application extra early, as some funding is first-come, first-serve.
The International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA)
In addition to the FAFSA, some schools may require additional financial aid forms. One of the most common is the International Student Financial Aid Application (ISFAA) that allows international students to be considered for financial aid awards. The ISFAA is need-based, not merit-based.
However, this aid is dependent on the type of visa you hold and what year of study you are in. F1 visa students in their first year of study are not eligible (although they may fill out this form in subsequent years of study), nor are J1 students.
If you aren’t sure whether you should fill out the ISFAA, check with your school.
Scholarships and Grants
Scholarships are an integral part of every college student’s funding plan. Finding scholarships can be difficult, and finding scholarships for international students can be even more difficult.
We have a guide to scholarships that you can peruse in addition to this guide. We also have a scholarship guide for LGBTQ students, a scholarship guide for students of color, and a scholarship guide for women. While some of the scholarships discussed in our other guides might be for US citizens only, there are some that are open to a broader category of students as well.
The best strategy for finding aid for college is looking everywhere you can.
Finding Scholarships Online
The internet is full of helpful databases and websites that allow students to find scholarships relatively quickly and easily. However, it is important to use critical thinking and media analysis skills when hunting for scholarships to avoid dishonest and predatory organizations. For resources on avoiding fraudulent scholarships, check out the scholarship scam page on the US Department of Education website.
Here are some legit websites that can help you find scholarships and general info about studying in the US:
- The International Education Financial Aid (IEFA) website not only has a quick search option for scholarships for international students, but it also has resources for finding and comparing private loans.
- Mobility International USA helps international students with disabilities finance their college educations in the US through scholarships, loans, and exchange programs.
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) maintains a variety of databases and resources to help international students make the best educational choices for themselves and fund those choices appropriately.
In addition to broad research on the internet, you can research specific organizations that may offer scholarships to students who want to study in the US. Many of these organizations focus on students who share their values, interests, and/or field of study. However, if you want to apply for a scholarship or fellowship from one of these programs, make sure to research them thoroughly and early; sometimes they require you to be in your home country when you apply.
The best organizations to check for scholarship opportunities include:
- The Fulbright Commission, which supports scholars in lifelong learning and international education and offers a variety of scholarships and exchange programs.
- The United Nations, which offers a variety of scholarships to international students.
- AMIDEAST that provides advising to Middle Eastern and North African students, scholarships, testing services, and English lessons to students who want to prepare to study in the US.
- Open Society Foundations, which has scholarships and funding opportunities for students who share the values of the foundation and will advocate for social change.
- The World Health Organization (WHO) that offers fellowship programs to help students interested in health fields get a broader education that will eventually lead to better health outcomes globally.
US colleges and universities frequently offer their students some form of financial aid. While that aid is often more limited for international students, it is always worth researching what your prospective school is willing to offer.
However, institutional aid is not equal for undergraduate and graduate students. Generally speaking, graduate students will have an easier time getting institutional funding because teaching and research assistantships are so often a standard part of a graduate admission package.
Fourth-year undergraduate students may rarely secure teaching or research assistantships in extraordinary circumstances, but typically, undergraduate international students have three options for financial aid from their institution:
Application-Based Aid Application-based aid usually includes things like the FAFSA, ISFAA, and other need-based scholarships your school may offer to students who are applying to study at the undergraduate level. Not every school offers need-based aid to international students at the application stage, so being in communication with your school’s financial aid office is always a good idea.
Admission-Based Aid Admission-based aid is based on your admission package. Schools will occasionally offer students scholarships or grants based on predetermined criteria, and if a student meets those criteria, their offer of admission will come with a scholarship offer as well. Unfortunately, students usually have very little control over this kind of aid (although it is possible to research your institution to see what scholarships are available).
Merit-Based Aid Merit-based scholarships differ from institution to institution, but they are awarded to students based on exceptional skills, talents, or abilities. These scholarships may be based on TOEFL scores, academic record, or artistic/musical/athletic ability. Not all merit-based scholarships will be open to international students, so make sure to research the eligibility criteria of any merit-based institutional scholarship you are thinking about applying for.
Scholarships for International Students
Now that we’ve covered the numerous ways you can fund your education, let’s jump into some specific scholarships that are available to international students. Each scholarship is listed with eligibility requirements, deadlines, the amount of the awards, and a link to the award page.
The Activism Campaign for the Promotion of Gender Equality
This competition is designed to support equality, leadership, and opportunities for women and girls in the world. The competition itself is to create either static artwork, animation, or a short video (no more than 60 seconds) that captures one of the UN Women's key messages.
- Eligibility: This competition is open to individuals globally who are at least 18 years old.
- Deadline: Art submissions are generally due in March.
- Award Amount: Selected winners will receive $500 and will have their work used by UN Women in social media, marketing, and PR campaigns.
The Margaret McNamara Education Grants
Margaret McNamara Education Grants come from a nonprofit, public charity in honor of Medal of Honor recipient Margaret McNamara, wife of the World Bank’s fifth president. This award is meant to support women attending US, Canada, South Africa, or Latin American universities.
- Eligibility: You must self-identify as a woman, be at least 25 years old, and be enrolled at an accredited academic institution when you submit the application. Additionally, you must not hold US or Canadian citizenship, permanent residency, a green card, or landed immigrant status. The award is open to students at any level of education.
- Deadline: Applications are accepted yearly, generally between September and January.
- Award Amount: The amount of the grant varies based on the availability of funds and rates of exchange. However, in the past grants of between $7,000 and $15,000 have been awarded.
The PEO International Peace Scholarship
PEO is dedicated to making a difference in the lives of women around the world, and their International Peace Scholarship is part of that goal.
- Eligibility: You must be working toward a graduate degree in an accredited college or university in the US or Canada. US and Canadian citizens/permanent residents are not eligible. ABD doctoral candidates are not eligible as first-time applicants.
- Deadline: Applications are accepted between September and December every year.
- Award Amount: Award amounts can vary based on individual needs. However, the maximum amount awarded to any student is $12,500.
The Society of Exploration Geophysicists Foundation Scholarship Program
Administered by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG), these merit-based scholarships support international students who are interested in geoscience and geophysics.
- Eligibility: You may apply if you are a high school senior or undergraduate student with above-average grades and you plan to work toward a career in applied geophysics.
- Deadline: The application window for SEG scholarships is November to March on a yearly basis.
- Award Amount: Scholarships range from $500 to $10,000, with an average award amount of $2,600.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) International Fellowship Program
The AAUW offers a number of International Fellowships for female scholars at the graduate level. Successful applicants will be focused on women and girls in all facets of society.
- Eligibility: To apply, you must not have previously won an award, must not be a US citizen, permanent resident, or dual citizen, and must not identify as male. You must hold a bachelor’s degree, be an AAUW member, and intend to return to your home country to work after graduation.
- Deadline: The application, recommendations, and supporting documents are typically due in November.
- Award Amount: Applicants pursuing a master’s degree or their first professional degree are awarded $18,000. Doctoral awards are $20,000 and postdoctoral awards are $30,000.
The Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Program
The Crown Prince’s International Scholarship Program is administered on behalf of Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain. Its mission is to provide Bahraini students with the funding to study internationally.
- Eligibility: You must hold Bahraini citizenship, be enrolled in Grade 11/Year 12, and have a cumulative GPA of 97% or higher.
- Deadline: The online application usually must be completed and submitted in March.
- Award Amount: The amount awarded varies.
The Zonta International Jane M. Klausman Women in Business Scholarship
- Eligibility: Women of any age can apply, but you must be enrolled between year two of an undergraduate business program and the final year of a master’s business program at the time of application.
- Deadline: Deadlines vary between chapters of Zonta International, so research your local chapter. Districts must receive applications from clubs by August every year.
- Award Amount: Each year, Zonta awards thirty-two scholarships valued at $2,000 and six international scholarships valued at $8,000.
University of Kansas International Affairs Scholarships
KU offers a range of scholarships for international undergraduate first year and transfer students. All scholarships are renewable each year and range from $3,000/year to a full tuition waiver valued at $100,000+ ($25,000+/year).
- Eligibility: To be eligible for a scholarship, students must be admitted to KU as a new student, be seeking a degree at KU, and meet the GPA requirements for the scholarship. All admitted first year students with a 3.25 or higher GPA receive a $3,000-$9,000 per year renewable scholarship.
- Deadline: The application deadline is May 1 for fall semesters and December 1 for spring semesters.
- Award Amount: The award amount of these scholarships ranges from $3,000/year to a full tuition waiver valued at $100,000+ ($25,000+/year). These scholarships are renewable each year.
Northeastern University Scholarships
These institutional, merit-based scholarships are awarded to students by Northeastern University. The merit scholarships are awarded based on academic merit, and they include the Dean’s, Connections, and International Scholarships.
- Eligibility: To be eligible for one of these scholarships, you must be in the top 10-15% of the applicant pool of fall Northeastern University freshman applicants.
- Deadline: These merit-based scholarships are only available to students who apply for undergraduate admission by the January deadline.
- Award Amount: The award amount of these scholarships ranges from $10,000 to $28,000 for the first year. These scholarships can also be awarded in subsequent years, and those awards are valued between $5,000 and $14,000.
The Thomas Buergenthal Scholarship
Awarded by the George Washington University Law School, the Thomas Buergenthal Scholarship is based on academic merit and financial need.
- Eligibility: To earn this award, you must be a student applying to the Master of Laws (LLM) degree program at George Washington University Law School.
- Deadline: All applicants are automatically considered for the scholarship, and there is no separate application form.
- Award Amount: The amount varies depending on financial need but can potentially completely cover tuition costs.
The Global Wildcat Award
Offered by the University of Arizona, the Global Wildcat Award is open to freshmen and transfer students.
- Eligibility: You must be an international undergraduate student who has exceptional academic records and test scores and can verify your lawful presence in Arizona. This award can be renewed based on your GPA and academic progress.
- Deadline: To be considered for this award, you must submit a completed application for undergraduate admission by the November deadline.
- Award Amount: Depending on your academic merit, the scholarship award can be between $1,000 and $10,000 per year.
Awarded to international undergraduate students by the University of Miami, the Premier Scholarships are a series of academic merit-based awards.
- Eligibility: For all their Premier Scholarships, the University of Miami considers first-year students who are academically advanced and applying for undergraduate admission.
- Deadline: You can submit your admissions application by the November or January deadline to be considered for these scholarships.
- Award Amount: Depending on the circumstances of the individual award applicant, the award values range from $16,000 to the full cost of tuition.
The Woodbridge N. Ferris Scholarships
Awarded by Ferris State University, the Woodbridge N. Ferris Scholarships include the Founder’s, President’s, Provost’s, Dean’s, Ferris Gold, and Ferris Crimson Scholarships—all of which are awarded based on academic and language merit.
- Eligibility: The main eligibility criteria are GPA, standardized test scores, and language exam scores (IELTS, TOEFL, or Duolingo). Each of the Woodbridge N. Ferris Scholarships has its own specific minimum requirements, so be sure to research them to see which award your scores qualify you for.
- Deadline: The deadline for these scholarships is the same as the undergraduate admissions deadline.
- Award Amount: Each award is valued at a different amount, but they range from $1,500 to $10,000 per year.
Finduddannelse.dk Sustainability Scholarship
Offered by the Danish platform finduddannelse.dk, the Sustainability Scholarship focuses on lifelong learning and sustainability and aims to support international students as they embark on a graduate education, including at US institutions.
- Eligibility: You must be applying to an in-person master’s program that is related to sustainability (for example, in the field of urban sustainability), hold a relevant study visa, and meet the language requirements for your program. You must also hold a valid undergraduate degree.
- Deadline: The application period typically ends in April.
- Award Amount: This award is valued at €5,000.
MPOWER Women in STEM Scholarship
MPOWER’s Women in STEM Scholarship is designed to help female DACA and international students fulfill their dreams of studying a STEM field at a US or Canadian higher education institution.
- Eligibility: To be eligible for this award at a US institution, you must either have a valid study visa, be protected under DACA, or be a US permanent resident. Additionally, you must be at least 18, female, and be accepted to or enrolled in a STEM program at one of MPOWER’s partner universities.
- Deadline: The deadline to apply for this scholarship is generally in July.
- Award Amount: The Women in STEM Scholarship awards a $3,000 grand prize in addition to two honorable mention prizes, valued at $1,000 and $500.
The Millennium Fellowship
The Millennium Fellowship is a program that is offered by the United Nations. It focuses on leadership, social change, and activism in a global context.
- Eligibility: This scholarship is open to undergraduate students around the world.
- Deadline: Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis. However, the general deadline is usually around March/April.
- Award Amount: This award is not a set amount of funding but includes the opportunity to be a part of a cohort of scholars who meet eight times a year.
The Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program's Tunisia Undergraduate Scholarship Program (Tunisia UGRAD)
Tunisia UGRAD provides year-long programs of study in the US for Tunisian students. Participation in the program allows you not only to experience US culture but also to develop soft skills that will be useful when you enter the job market. You will also be involved in community service and internships.