Many international students have trouble adapting to the American lifestyle and culture when studying abroad in the States. Language issues are only one part of the whole picture; these global students can struggle with navigating transportation, finding housing, and even going to the post office. That’s why our Engram team collected some tips and tricks for surviving in the US as an international student.


Language Barrier and Survival Skills

The fastest way to learn “survival English” (the essential English one needs to know to be able to survive) is listening to what kind of expressions local Americans use in different situations. For example, if you are in line at a post office, you can listen to what expressions a local American uses at the counter to the clerk. Listening is one of the key methods of learning languages and is the basic instinct that young babies use to absorb new vocabulary and grammar. Some international students may think that practicing speaking is the most important part of learning English, but you need to listen in order to learn new expressions and phrases to use when you speak.

There is also the option of learning survival English from a native speaker friend. A bilingual friend who can speak both the international student’s mother tongue and English can be helpful, but an international student may be tempted to ask in their native tongue questions like “How do you say X in English?” The danger of this question is that the word or expression that the international student is asking about may not be a word or phrase that is even used in English. International student can be tempted to directly translate what they want to say to English which results in unnatural expressions and phrasing. Instead, asking “What should I say in this situation?” and describing the situation is a more appropriate question that will help you learn natural English.

Translation tools like Google Translate can also give you unnatural results so use them with caution. For example, an international student from Spain may want to know the English translation of “quedarse de piedra” which means “to stay like a stone,” a phrase used to describe a situation where a person is frozen from shock. If the Spanish student inputs it into Google Translate, the translation to English reads “stay stoned.” This may cause misunderstanding because in English, “stoned” may mean, especially in a college setting, “being under the influence of drugs.”

Some international students may be stubborn and insist on using and sticking to their way of speaking or writing even if an American friend teaches them a more natural expression. It is important as an English learner to stay open and remember that language is something that is not always logical.

Listen to how others order food and talk to store clerks, and then try it out yourself. You will improve much faster if you learn the expressions instead of relying on others to order food or take care of tasks for you. Also, try to absorb content like American shows and movies where you learn natural English expressions.


Food is essential to survival for any human being. Students in US colleges typically eat out, order delivery food, or cook at their dorm or apartment to settle their meals.

In the States, you are obligated to pay sales tax and leave a tip after you dine in at a restaurant. A tip can range from 10% to 25% of the total pre-tax cost of your meal, depending on how satisfied you are with the service. Some restaurants will charge a gratuity for large parties. If you receive your bill and see that your party was charged gratuity, there is no need to leave a separate tip because the gratuity charge itself is the tip. Although in some countries it may be more common to pay at the counter or pay before eating, in dine-in restaurants in the US, you typically ask the waiter or waitress for the check to your table after eating. On the bill, you will see the total cost which includes sales tax.

If you are eating out with American friends, it is a good idea to download and set up the app Venmo which is an app where you can send money to and from friends. Splitting the bill is common for American college students, and students can easily send money with Venmo to the person who initially takes care of the bill.

In terms of finding places to eat, Yelp is by far the top choice for Americans for restaurant review apps. You can find ratings and pictures for restaurants in your area easily via the app.

Another way of taking care of your meals is by ordering delivery. Popular food delivery apps include Postmates and UberEats.

The most classic way of getting your three meals is by grocery shopping at supermarkets and cooking at home. Note that some markets, such as Whole Foods, can be more expensive than others. Find a market that fits your budget, and you may be able to save some money at wholesale stores like Costco. Costco does, however, require a Costco membership. You can also shop online for groceries on places like Amazon Fresh.

On-campus dining halls and stores in US colleges can be overpriced, charging more than what you would typically be charged outside of the campus area. In some countries, food on campus is more affordable than outside food, so it may surprise international students when they find that even buying snacks from a store on campus can cost more than the normal price. Although college dining halls can take a toll on your wallet in the long run, some universities provide student discounts for students at stores around the campus. Depending on your school, you could get discounts at places like grocery stores, museums, clothing stores, electronic stores, aquariums, yoga studios, and hair salons.

Necessities and Subscriptions

You can typically find all the toiletries and necessities you need at grocery stores, in general stores like Walmart or Target, or online. Amazon offers a student discount for Amazon Prime by which you can also buy necessities.

As for academic subscriptions, Microsoft also offers a student discount for the Microsoft Office Suite. An alternative is the Google Suite which is free.

When it comes to entertainment, popular subscriptions include Netflix, Disney+, Spotify, and YouTube Premium. Currently, you can get a student discount on the latter two.

Getting a phone service plan is also a necessary subscription in this day and age. If you are not sure which provider to get as an international student, the top carriers in the US currently are Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Some providers have student plans that are more affordable, so it is a good idea to look into your options if you are on a budget.

If you like to work out, many college gyms are free or discounted for their students, so you can save money on a gym membership.

Many US colleges provide student health insurance that fully or partially covers medical fees and vaccinations. Students can go to the school’s student health center, which are typically more affordable than hospitals outside, when they feel ill or want a vaccination.

Driving in the US

Transportation in the States can be very different than that of the home country of an international student. In urban areas, people may have access to subways and buses, but that’s not always the cases for most college areas. Driving a car is one of the main ways of getting by in the US, but there is more to maintaining a car than meets the eye.

If you purchase a car in the US, you need to register for car insurance, and only the listed drivers on your insurance can legally drive the car. Many international students tend to not know this fact and allow friends drive their car illegally.

An important decision to make is deciding to drive whether to drive a car that runs on gas, electricity, a combination of gas and electricity, or diesel. Although diesel is cheaper than gasoline in some countries, diesel is the more expensive of the two in the US. The US government also plans on banning diesel vehicles altogether in the future, so keep that in mind when choosing your vehicle.

In some countries abroad, passengers sitting in the back of the car are not obligated to wear seat belts, but this is certainly not the case in the US. All passengers in the car are required to wear seat belt, and if a passenger happened to not wear one, the driver of the car will get a ticket and be fine. International students from countries where seat belts for the back seats is not mandatory may be shocked if they get pulled over for this violation. Make sure everyone in the vehicle is strapped in and safe before starting the car and going about your way.

Other traffic laws that can cause international students trouble regard running red lights, littering, and sticking hands out windows. In some countries, people run red lights when there are no cars in sight. Such an action in the US, however, is illegal and punishable by law. Littering out your car window is also illegal; this includes throwing out cigarette butts out your window. Sticking your hand or any other body part out a window is also illegal unless you are conveying traffic hand signals when your car’s built-in signals are not working. Also, some states require pets such as dogs to be strapped in, so be sure to optimize the safety of your pets as well.

Driving while under the influence of drugs is also illegal in the US. Be sure not to consume any drugs before going behind the wheel or you will get a DUI which will result in a fine, a rise in the cost of your car insurance, and potential jail time in some cases. You may have heard of the term DD from American student. The word stands for designated driver, and when college student are drinking out, they typically assign one person as the DD beforehand. The DD is responsible for not consuming any drugs and safely driving others home. It is a good idea to assign a DD before going out for the night in college.

Navigating the road and parking are also large aspects of driving. Google Maps is a popular choice in the US to get around. You can share your location with others in real-time to easily meet up. Many universities require their students to purchase parking passes to park on campus, and parking in urban areas is also usually not free of charge. Whether you are parking on the street or in a parking lot, be sure to look up the parking policies so you do not get parking tickets.

Public Transportation and Other Modes of Transportation

Other means of transportation besides cars for students in the US include subways and buses in urban areas, ride sharing services like Uber, campus shuttle buses, biking, skateboarding, and electric scooters.

Some universities sell student bus passes that can give you unlimited access to certain local buses or subways around the college area. Buses in the US, however, are not always on time unlike in other countries like Japan, so be sure to plan early. Be cautious of theft on public transportation as well because US buses and subways may not be as safe as your home country.

Ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft are popular among American college students. Although more costly than other modes of transportation, these services are convenient, especially for students who go out drinking.

For getting around large US college campuses, some universities provide free shuttle buses for students. Biking, skateboarding, and electric scooters are also other means of transportation that American students like to use, although it is rare to spot an international student using one of these micro-mobility devices. If you plan on riding any of these vehicles, however, be cautious of theft. Non-students will even come on campus to see if there are vulnerable bikes that are not locked. In some extreme cases, they will even take parts of a bike, such as the bike seat or wheels, from locked bikes.


Housing during one’s college life in the US is categorized into on-campus housing and off-campus housing. On-campus housing means dormitories on school grounds that students would usually pay for when they pay their tuition. Off-campus housing means housing outside the university which is typically apartments in the adjacent area. Many American students live on campus for the first and sometimes second year of college and go off-campus until graduation.

For on-campus housing, you just need to make sure to pay your tuition and dormitory fees on time and also consider purchasing a parking pass to park on campus if you own a car. With off-campus apartments, you will have to either have a high enough credit score or have a co-signer to rent an apartment. You will also have to pay a security deposit, most likely pay for a parking spot if you have a car, and figure out how you will commute to campus for classes. In some countries abroad, the tenant can get away with paying rent a couple days late without penalty, but in the US, the tenant will be fined a late fee for paying late. International students may be surprised by this late fee, something that they would not experience in their own countries. Students living off-campus also need to pay for their own utilities (electricity, water, and gas) and WiFi.

Culture Shock

International students may experience culture shock during their college life in the US. Drugs like marijuana and cocaine can be prevalent in states like California, while gun shots may be heard in Southern states. Stealing on campus, whether it is by fellow students or not, can also be more present in some US schools, so it is a good idea to not leave your laptop, phone, or wallet out unguarded in public places. Spiking is also something to watch out for; this is when a person slips drugs into another’s drink at clubs, bars, fraternity parties, raves, or music festivals. The US has countless great things to offer, but being aware and cautious of the negative aspects will keep you safe and sound during your college experience.

Mental Health

Living in another country and studying in a different language can be overwhelming for international students. Students can suffer from academic stress, homesickness, a lack of sense of belonging, insomnia, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and more. If you are facing any issues with mental health, many universities have psychiatrists who can help students cope with mental health problems.

Students with insomnia may try to use over-the-counter medication like NyQuil to help them fall asleep, but NyQuil is actually not for insomnia but for common cold symptoms like coughing. Others may resort to alcohol to fall asleep, but alcohol can be counterproductive because it reduces your quality of sleep. Excessive consumption of coffee and energy drinks like Monster to stay awake will also be detrimental to your health. Instead of filling yourself with over-the-counter drugs, consult a psychiatrist to discuss your issue and get prescription drugs if necessary.

Best of Luck to all International Students

Our team at Engram wishes the best of luck for international students studying in the US. If you want tips on how to academically succeed in colleges in the States, check out our article How to Study in the US as an International Student.

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