Being an international student in a foreign country is hard. Trust me, I know. When you travel to a new country, especially as a teenager or young adult, you have almost no guidance. Sometimes, you might not be mature or strong enough to deal with the emotional trauma of being away from family, and navigating the adult world yourself. I arrived in the United States when I had just become a legal adult and I did not have any family here. Granted, my sister’s in-laws (My sister’s husband’s siblings) were here, and my mum’s cousin, about 6 times removed (or even more) was here. These were not my real family, as they owed me nothing and I was literally on my own.
I was in college, but I was not taught the basic things to do/apply for once you become legal. I had to navigate, make mistakes and learn from other people’s mistakes too. Although these tips are for everyone, I think they are more valuable to international students because they almost always have no back up. There is no family to fall back to if ‘shit hits the fan.’ These are some of the things every legal foreign student should do once they get to the United States.
- Get a credit card: Before I dive in, let me say that a credit card is not free money! Getting a credit card should be for building your credit, especially for future plans. This is because to acquire most things of importance in the United States, a credit check is run. I had a friend who would say credit cards were the devil and she was never getting one. In all the years I knew her, she did not have a credit card. But, she was a citizen, she had family and she had backup. As an international student, you do not have these options. A credit score is needed if you want to finance a car, get a mortgage or even get an apartment. Lenders view your profile to know if you are a high risk borrower. It is important to educate yourself when you get a credit card, so as not to become financially ruined. You have to pay your debt online, and monitor your account. You can read my story about how I got a bad credit score even while I had been paying off debt.
- Open a High Yield Savings Account: There are different high yield savings to choose from, but I use Marcus by Goldman Sachs which gives me a 1% APY. A high yield account gives you a certain percentage of your savings in that account per month. For instance, if you have $10,000 in your high yield account, for the first month you get $10 (if the high yield is 1% back). The next month, you get 1% of $10,010 in that account and so on. The way I think about it is this — since my money will be in the bank, why not have a high yield that will give me some returns back (no matter how small), instead of having my money just lie in the bank.
- Get an brokerage account: As a foreign student, you most probably don’t have 401k, Roth IRA and other retirement plans (You can get this when you start working full time). However, it is imperative to have an investment/ brokerage account. This could be a mutual, index fund or ETF. It could be NFTs, Crypto or real estate. Whatever your interests are, having an investment account is important. This is because it takes advantage of time and compounding interests. As you invest frequently, after some years (maybe a decade) you would make a lot of money
- Learn Budgeting: Budgeting is another thing to know and master as a foreigner. This is because, unlike it is in most African and Asian countries, the United States is not community driven, but highly individualistic. There is a saying in my country that it takes a village to train a child, and in most cases this is true. However, in the United States it is an ‘every man for himself culture.’ As a result, it is important to make sure that you always have your own. Budgeting will help you pay your bills on time, pay your debt and still have some savings left. There are budgeting apps like Mint and YNAB you could use to track your expenses. When you budget consistently, it helps you save needed money in the long run.
As an international student, what are some things you did within a year of arriving in the United States? Which of these tips have you found helpful? Let me know in the comments.
Are you interested in studying in the United States, or are you an incoming freshman in a US college? Do you love stories on financial growth or fiction? Be sure to check out my Instagram, YouTube and website where I document my experiences.