International Students’ Guide to Studying in the U.S.

by Evan Thompson

Updated April 14, 2023 • 6 min read is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

In response to the uncertainty about COVID-19's impact on colleges, we answer international students' questions around fall semester.

With borders closed, college classes virtual, and infection rates still high, international students planning to attend U.S. schools are asking themselves: What do I do?

More than a million international students enroll in colleges and universities in the United States every year. They make up 5.5% of the country's higher education population and contribute nearly $41 billion to the economy.

But the number of international students is expected to drop during the 2020-2021 academic year, according to a survey by the Institute of International Education (IIE). Travel restrictions, visa delays, and limited commercial flight options are among the many obstacles facing international students.

While the future is still unclear, we're here to answer the most pressing questions international students in the U.S.A. may be asking.

Can International Students Study in the U.S. if Classes Are Online?

On July 14, the Trump administration dropped its policy that would prevent international students who take virtual-only classes from staying in the U.S. Sources told CNN that the White House rescinded the proposal after politicians, colleges, and universities widely condemned it.

However, U.S. immigration officials issued new guidance on July 24, saying new international students are not allowed to study entirely online in the U.S. New students may enroll in hybrid programs that mix in-person and online courses. The new rule does not apply to international students who were already enrolled in U.S. universities before fall of 2020.

The guidance, announced by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, also states that students will not be at risk of deportation if their institutions switch from an in-person or hybrid format to an online-only mode during the term due to the pandemic.

Will In-Person Colleges Be Open in Fall?

Most colleges and universities have not decided whether or not to open for in-person instruction in the fall. Health officials believe there could be spikes of coronavirus cases if students and faculty return to campus too soon.

Resuming in-person classes depends on several factors: the availability of testing, how well institutions can limit social contact, protective equipment, and the ability to track people who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Some universities in states such as Texas, Georgia, and Alabama have tentative plans to return to campus in the fall. Others have committed to a mostly virtual fall semester, while many more have not yet made any firm decisions but are feeling the pressure to reopen.

Will International Students Be Allowed to Enter the U.S.?

Travel obstacles may present a challenge for getting into the United States. The U.S. State Department has suspended routine visa services worldwide, while there are restrictions for non-essential flights in many countries.

Presidential proclamations have currently suspended entry into the U.S. from Brazil, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the European Schengen area, Iran, Brazil, and China.

If you already hold one of these visas, you can legally enter the country, but getting a visa with services suspended will be a challenge.

Will Time Zones Affect Online Classes?

Some colleges have committed to online courses for the fall, but virtual classes could be challenging for international students who live in different time zones. Some universities have warned students that they may not be able to participate, depending on class format and where they live.

Online classes either happen in real time (synchronous learning) or on a flexible schedule determined individually by students (asynchronous learning). William Brustein, vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, said synchronous classes could be a widespread problem for many international students.

"If you live in East Asia, you're talking about a 13-hour time change from the East Coast," he said.

Do International Students Still Have to Take the SAT or ACT?

The SAT and ACT are standardized tests that gauge college readiness. Most colleges and universities require international students to take at least one of the exams for admission.

But the College Board — a nonprofit organization that oversees the SAT — recently announced it wouldn't offer at-home testing due to technological difficulties. The ACT is still planning to offer testing in the fall, either in schools or online.

So, what does this mean for international students? It's hard to say.

Some schools, such as Cornell University and Harvard College, have dropped SAT or ACT requirements because of the coronavirus. Others, including the University of California system, have announced test-optional policies.

Test-optional means students won't need to submit standardized test scores on their applications. Instead, the emphasis will shift to other parts of an applicant's profile.

Many U.S. colleges and universities also require international students to submit scores from English proficiency tests. In the wake of COVID-19, numerous countries have suspended standardized testing for English proficiency tests, such as the TOEFL and IELTS. However, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has expanded the availability of at-home testing worldwide, with the exception of mainland China and Iran.

Many universities are reportedly working one on one with students and showing flexibility with application deadlines, required application materials, enrollment deadlines, and English proficiency testing.

What Financial Aid is Available for International Students?

International students are ineligible for federal student aid in the U.S., but there are other options for financial aid for international students.

International students can ask student advisors to nominate them for aid from the Institute of International Education. IIE has committed $1 million to its emergency student fund. Students who are studying for their associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degrees are eligible to receive up to $2,500.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, Believe in Students' COVID-19 Student Emergency Aid Initiative will distribute $1.1 million to institutions and students affected by the pandemic. Students should also contact their colleges and organizations in their own countries for aid, or consider private relief funds.

Can International Students Get Scholarships?

International student scholarships are available, but students will need to be resourceful and explore every possible opportunity.

International Student has a comprehensive database of grants, scholarships, loan programs, and other information for students around the world. Fastweb is another great resource, offering access to 1.5 million scholarships.

Scholarship competitions are another way to receive funding. They typically award funds to specific groups of people.

The Aga Khan Foundation International Scholarship, for example, gives scholarships to graduate students from select developing countries who don't have other sources of funding. Similarly, the PEO International Peace Scholarship Fund provides scholarships for women from other countries who are earning a graduate degree in the United States. Others include:

What's Happening With Student Housing?

Colleges and universities told students to leave campus housing after the coronavirus spread throughout the United States in spring. Many international students had to return to their home countries, find new off-campus accommodations, or petition to remain in residence halls.

Carnegie Mellon University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Illinois, and others offer summer housing for students who are unable to return home due to travel restrictions, financial risk, or living with a graduate family. Many of these schools are still offering summer accommodations, but with a variety of new guidelines and restrictions, so be sure to research your particular school.

If colleges do open campus in the fall, the format for dorm housing may have to change from the traditional roommate model. For instance, Claremont McKenna College in California plans to have students live in single rooms or small group dorms.

Can International Students Work in the U.S.?

International students can work in the U.S. while studying, though there are restrictions. The coronavirus may further limit the number of job opportunities.

International students must have an F-1 and M-1 visa to work on campus and in specified training programs, according to Study in the U.S.A, but they are not allowed to work off-campus during their first academic year.

Graduates students' employment chances may also be affected by the Trump administration. In May, the administration announced plans to potentially suspend a program that gives international students 1-2 years of job training in the U.S. after their education. Optional Practical Training, or OPT, is an incentive for international students because it provides some cushion between school and employment.

The Trump administration argues that suspending the program will help American graduates land jobs in a reeling economy. Critics, however, contend that restrictions on the program could negatively affect the American labor market and reduce revenue for colleges that recruit international students.

Brustein believes it would be a mistake to suspend it. "I think it's just wishful thinking that these international students who get these OPT positions are taking jobs away from Americans," he said. "That's not the case at all."

Final Word

The coronavirus has led to many obstacles for international students. Much depends on the public health outlook and when it will be safe for you to travel. In the meantime, there are resources available that could help between now and then.

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