Life Skills 101: Tips for International Students (from International Students)

Do you ever wish you had some tips for living in the United States prior to arriving or at the very start of your stay here? Personally, some tips from another international student would have saved me so much trouble and embarrassment!

That’s why this post was created– to help you in your early days as you navigate life in the U.S., where a lot is new and sometimes scary. Get ready; there’s quite a bit to learn! 

Food 🍲

Maybe you haven’t adapted to American food yet. Thankfully, the United States is a melting pot of people, which provides diversity in its culinary options. So don’t worry, there are plenty of alternatives if you’re not in the mood for American cuisine. If you prefer to cook, on the other hand, try looking for local international grocery stores which hold the ingredients you need for your dishes!

Safety 🦺

  • The weather in the United States can be extreme, depending on where you are and when; therefore, it’s wise to check the daily forecast for protection, in case of bad weather.
  • Find out about your university’s security contacts, such as campus safety, facility emergency, student-related issues, etc. And remember to call the national 911 emergency number if you’re ever in danger.
  • Neighborhoods and different areas in the cities of America vary in safety. Be aware of your surroundings and the stats in the areas around you before you go walking alone or at night. You might be walking through a safe neighborhood, cross the street, and come into an area that’s less safe. If you find yourself in such a situation, get back to a safe place soon.
  • Don’t give your Social Security Number or passport to strangers.
  • Don’t ride with strangers unless they’re connected with an organization that you trust (IFI has an application process for volunteers that they must pass before being approved).
  • Watch your credit cards and be sure to keep them with you. Don’t let an attendant take your card to another room, don’t insert it into ATMs that appear to have been tampered with, and don’t do any online banking while using a public wifi network.

Health 🩺

  • The United States doesn’t have universal health insurance and medical costs can be expensive. That’s why it’s important you have health insurance, which pays part of the cost of health care for you and for your family (if you came with your family). Here are some factors to consider when choosing your health insurance:
    • The extent of coverage (is it good only in one state or the entire country?)
    • Coverage percentage (the rest is your responsibility)
    • The types of doctors and hospitals that the insurance covers
    • The convenience of transport to the places where the insurance provides coverage
    • Cost
  • If you’re sick and cannot wait for an appointment, consider going to urgent care first because it’s less expensive than going to the emergency room. However, if your condition is serious and you need quick and more specific attention, go directly to the emergency room. Also, remember to check your insurance network providers before going to the hospital.

Clothing 👕

  • Be prepared for winter if you’ll be living in a cold state. Invest in good quality winter clothes that’ll keep you warm and dry, such as puffy coats, thermal innerwear, snow boots, ski gloves, etc. I recommend getting those things sooner than later, especially when there’s less demand and better deals.

Mobility 🚌

  • Over the years, the U.S. became a car country; therefore, Americans have been directed towards personal means of transportation. According to the US Census Bureau, only 8.5% of households don’t own a vehicle. With the exception of bigger cities, public transportation isn’t as common or convenient. In this case:
    • Try to live in a place where the necessary resources (university campus, grocery stores, restaurants, libraries, pharmacies, hospitals) are accessible
    • Use alternative means of transport, such as bicycles, scooters, Uber or Lyft, or taxis
  • If you travel across multiple states, keep an eye on the laws in each state. What may be permitted in one state may be totally prohibited in another state.

Correspondence 📬

  • Americans use the postal service frequently and it’s common for important letters, bills, and checks to arrive in the mail. Therefore, you’ll want to check your mailbox at least once a week.

Finances 💵

  • You must have an American bank account to receive your salary. Here are some tips for opening a bank account:
    • Schedule an appointment at the bank agency of your choice.
    • Prepare the documents you must bring (commonly passport, visa, I-20, and student ID).
    • Generally, people open a debit card that’s connected to their checking account. But you can set up a savings account to save money as well.
  • If you travel to another country and intend to use your US card, please notify your bank agency prior to departure. This will prevent you from getting your card blocked due to suspicious activity.
  • Tipping is a common procedure in the United States, especially at restaurants and for professionals like hairdressers who depend on tipping to supplement their salaries. Be prepared to tip approximately 15-20% of the service price.
  • If you’re living and earning money in the U.S., you may be required to file a tax return by April 15 of each year. Therefore, find out how to do this in advance so that you’ll have time to fill out the forms with tranquility.

Driving 🚘

  • It’s possible to drive in the United States with a foreign driver’s license, as long as it’s issued in English and for only three months. Therefore, if you intend to stay in the United States for a longer period of time, you should get an American driver’s license. What’s nice is that the American driver’s license is considered an identification document and can be an alternative to avoid carrying your passport.
  • Follow the rules while driving.
  • If a police car pulls up behind you with flashing lights, you must pull over. When the officer comes up to your car, keep your hands out of your pockets (preferably on the steering wheel). Answer truthfully and do not try to bribe a policeman (you could be in trouble for breaking the law).
  • If you have a car, auto insurance is required in America. Look up an insurance agent online to buy a policy. You will need to pay regular premiums on your insurance, but if you get in an accident, you won’t have to cover the whole cost of the damage!
  • Be sure not to lend your car to friends unless you have comprehensive coverage. You don’t want to be financially responsible if they get in an accident.

Communication 💬

  • It’s necessary to have a cell phone plan to make calls in the U.S. There are many phone companies and plans to choose from, so do your research to find one that’ll best fit your needs. It may be wise to buy an unlocked phone with no plans tied to it so that you can switch your sim card out when you’re in the US and when you return home.
  • Be proactive in learning English. Adapting to the new language in the first few months can be a challenge. If you’re struggling with learning it, look for courses (there are many good and even free ones) and American friends who can help you improve your English. IFI offers English Conversation Partners for free, as well! Just sign up on the link Application for English Conversation Partner. Lastly, don’t be intimidated by struggling with the language, but look for ways to overcome this barrier. Remember, practice makes perfect.
  • Americans are used to direct communication. In a conversation, they want to know exactly what the other person means. So don’t be afraid to speak your mind; this will help create efficient communication.
  • Make sure you have reliable news and sort through the bias. Look for trustworthy sources and do your research before believing in any news.

Time ⏱️

  •  Americans take commitments and punctuality seriously, so:
    • If you have a commitment, make sure to be on time.
    • If you can’t be at the appointment on time, let people know that you can’t attend.
    • Always try to be punctual. If you’re consistently late, you may be seen as irresponsible or undependable.

Extra Tips ➕

  • Consult an American you trust for advice on housing, doctors, mechanics, stores, etc. They usually know the most reliable and reasonably priced locations.
  • Be aware of experiencing culture shock. Usually, the arrival in the United States is full of excitement because everything is new and different. But as time passes, people realize the cultural differences and begin to resist American culture. This is completely normal. Moving to another country is a huge change, as people leave their land, family and customs, and enter into an unfamiliar reality. This period is the most difficult, but it passes and adaptation is possible in the U.S.

Final Thoughts 💭

Were these tips helpful? I hope so!

Let us know about your unique experiences as you’ve transitioned into the United States. Or if you have suggestions for life skills, let us know, as well! Leave us your comments; I’m sure you have something to contribute. 

Thank you and see you in the next post!

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