First-Year Tips for International Students at U.S. Colleges

Being a first-year international student at a U.S. college or university can be a little scary and at times overwhelming — there’s so much to do and remember. But a little prep can go a long way in setting an international student up for success their freshman year.

Misha Bilokur from Ukraine says the mistakes he made during his freshman year as a physics major at Princeton University in New Jersey ended up making him a more independent and resourceful international student.

His first miscalculation? He didn’t arrange for bedding. He advises ordering bedding to be mailed to your college housing or packing it in your suitcase. “It will at least save you from having to sleep on a bare mattress.”

Here are more first-year tips for international students at a U.S. colleges and universities.

Immediately Book Flights

Some colleges offer orientation a few days earlier just for international students to get settled in and connect with the international student office.

“Early orientations also sometimes include a light tour of the area surrounding the college to help new students familiarize themselves with their new surroundings,” says Gina Wilner, a college planning consultant at Advantage College Planning.

Orientation is designed to help new students connect socially, learn how to navigate their new home — such as finding classrooms, the health center and computer labs — and ease their transition to U.S. college life, experts say.

“As soon as your college sends out messaging with dates for orientation, be sure to book your travel,” Wilner says.

Connect With Other Students Before Arrival

Universities often organize social media events to connect new students with other incoming and enrolled students in each class before orientation.

“It can feel a bit awkward or ‘cringey’ to put yourself out there by creating a Facebook or Instagram post about yourself, but just remember that everyone else is feeling the same way,” Wilner says.

These can be great opportunities to meet a prospective roommate and begin finding connections and familiar faces before move-in, she says.

Olivier Nizeyimana, executive director at IGN Educational Consultants, says students should also plan to attend mixers during orientation week to meet other students and grow their social circles.

“Mixers are great icebreakers and a great way of meeting new people whom you might never have an opportunity to meet in the classroom setting,” Nizeyimana says.

Arrive a Little Earlier

Sarah Lopolito, associate dean and director of the Office of Global Engagement at Clark University in Massachusetts, advises arriving at least a day or two early before orientation, if possible.

[READ: Don’t Make These 8 Mistakes as a College Freshman.]

Students can “get acclimated to being in a new time zone in a new country,” she says, and “accomplish a few items like setting up a bank account and a cell phone before orientation even starts.”

Or find your dorm room.

Aryadeep Ray, a data science major at Clark from India, says his first day on campus was filled with excitement, confusion and the wrong dorm room.

“Thought I found Narnia! Lesson learned — maps are friends,” Ray says.

Set up a U.S. Phone Plan

Lopolito recommends students research different phones, companies, and phone plans before they depart for the U.S. Carriers and coverage may vary by city and state, so get as much region-specific information as you can.

“I encourage international students to set up a phone plan as soon as they arrive in the U.S.,” Lopolito says. “Students are typically able to purchase and activate SIM cards at many U.S. international airports, or during campus orientation.”

She says Clark University provides SIM cards free of charge to arriving students and also hosts cell phone companies at its international student check-in.

Be aware that some cell phone contracts require a deposit if you don’t have a social security number, which may make purchasing a pre-paid service a better option while you’re settling in. Some international smartphones are locked in the U.S., so you may ultimately need to buy a new phone.

Call Home Upon Arrival

Students may be excited to start their new life, but family need to know you arrived safely. Lopolito says students who forget to contact their parents or college after arriving could “lead to a frantic call to university police and other offices as parents try to track down their children.”

Contacting family when landing is important, she says, since there will be Wi-Fi at the airport and an internet connection may not yet be set up at your new residence.

“Checking in over those first few days will help put their nerves at ease and hopefully help you feel connected during this time of transition as well,” Wilner says.

Handle Financial Issues

Experts say it’s wise to travel with some cash and have that money changed to U.S. dollars. In addition to getting money changed, Bilokur recommends getting a credit card.

“If your wallet gets stolen, your money will be perfectly safe, as most credit card owners are not liable for fraudulent charges. It also quietly builds your credit score if you’re paying back on time,” Bilokur says.

Students typically can get information about setting up a bank account during orientation and should do some financial planning. This means having a plan to cover all of their expenses, Lopolito says, such as tuition, housing, food, transportation, clothing and entertainment.

“International student visas do not allow for off-campus work in most situations, so students may not be able to earn their own money while abroad at school,” she says.

Manage Jet Lag

Jet lag is to be expected as students arrive, but experts suggest planning accordingly. “If possible, plan your arrival to allow some time to adjust to a new time zone,” Lopolito says.

Students can reduce the effects of jet lag by eating at regular meal times and drinking enough water, she says.

Experts also advise taking in some sun or daylight to reset your body clock.

[20 U.S. Colleges That Offer the Most Financial Aid to International Students]

Be Ready for Course Registration

Classes can fill up fast, and missing course registration may cause a student to lose out on a needed or desired class.

Students should plan to take a variety of classes in different majors their first year, says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy website. “You never know if the right subject or professor may inspire you in a new major or career path, or at least toward a newer focus.”

Elena Perez from Costa Rica, who graduated in 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Clark, did that during her freshman year and highly recommends it.

“Explore before committing to any major,” she says. “Take advantage of the liberal arts aspect of the university.”

Comparison Shop for Textbooks

“College textbooks in the U.S. can be expensive!” Wilner says. “College bookstores offer a few different options for obtaining the required materials for each course.”

Students can buy new or used books, rent books, buy online or borrow from the school library.

“Students can shop around for the best price,” Lopolito says. “Just be sure to check the ISBN to avoid purchasing the incorrect edition.”

Make Friends With a Variety of People

While international student freshmen may gravitate toward their own communities, it’s important to branch out and meet a variety of students.

U.S. campuses are known for their diversity, and students from other countries offer new perspectives, Lopolito says, adding that upperclassmen “can offer first-year students great advice and insights on navigating school.”

Wilner recommends connecting with native U.S. students, who can provide broader exposure to U.S. culture “and help to expand your perspective.”

[7 Mental Health Tips for International Students]

Seek Assistance from the International Student Office

For any questions students forgot to ask at orientation, they should seek out their school’s international student office rather than rely on their peers, especially about visa status, Lopolito says.

“Students should always check with a school official for questions about employment, full-time course load and travel.”

Join Clubs and Attend Social Events

Attending a sports event can help students “experience the school spirit, meet alums and feel a sense of pride of belonging to your institution,” Nizeyimana says. He notes that some schools offer free tickets for sporting events.

Students can also join campus organizations, ranging from cultural to academic to professional.

Colombia native Mateo Pardo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance and a minor in computer science from New York University in 2024, says he met a lot of people his freshman year, which helped him develop his closest friendships.

“The best way to have active social lives is to be open, especially at the beginning,” Pardo says. “Be open to new people and experiences.”

More from U.S. News

What U.S. College Waitlists Mean for International Students

3 Ways International Students Can Maximize Campus Life

The Complete Guide to the TOEFL

First-Year Tips for International Students at U.S. Colleges originally appeared on

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up