Money Story of an International Student in the US

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American money needs some more color!

You’ve always heard of these great schools in the US. Although education is publicly funded in your home country, you want to see the world and try your chances in the  uber-rich United States. If you’re successful, you will be covered in wreaths of glory whenever you return home 😉 . How does one make it in the United States? (aka, the story of my financial journey in the US told in the second person)

  1. You need to get accepted to an American university. For undergraduate admissions, there’s a weird balance – on one hand, schools like the extra revenue that international students bring in; and on the other hand, they want to limit the number of foreign students, to preserve the character of the school and because some of their funding is tied to residents only. (The percentage of international students at my alma mater was ~10%.)
  2. You need to find money to go to an American university. With the sky-high tuition, US schools are so expensive! Are they even worth it? All these online websites and personal finance blogs (ok, not really, I didn’t read personal finance blogs back as a high school student) advocate applying for scholarships. But most schools don’t have scholarships for international students unless you’re a Math Olympiad genius. There are a veeeery few exceptions for some liberal arts schools and Ivy League schools.
  3. Luckily, you got accepted! And you’re not paying too much, through some combination of financial aid and student loans from your home country. You show up on-campus and being a good millennial, realize you need a smartphone. You head to AT&T and find out that because you have no SSN and thus no credit history, you have to pay a $500 deposit for the phone. You also record “00000” as your zip code, which will forever cause you problems whenever you’re trying to verify your account information to a customer service rep 😛
  4. After your first semester, you look for a job to help fund your education. Since you’re international, your visa severely limits your search to on-campus jobs (also, no work-study). Through a friend, you find one! But you need to get paid. You head to the sketchy SSN office in Harlem and sit there for hours waiting to be called. You get assigned a number that will follow you around for the rest of your time in the States.
  5. Meanwhile, you’ve been steadily using your debit card but want to get a credit card. You’ve heard about something called “credit score” that seems to be something useful. You apply for several credit cards advertised specially for students, but nope, denied for all of them because in the eyes of the banks, you don’t have any credit history (catch-22!). You get a secured credit card instead by putting $300 down.
  6. You graduated, yay! Since the economy sucks (go 2010), you decide to go to grad school. You receive a small stipend from your advisor since you are studying a STEM field. But you can’t apply for any of those nice National Science Foundation scholarships because they’re restricted to US citizens only.
  7. You go to fill out your taxes, and realize you’ve been here for 5 years and thus become a resident alien for tax purposes. This means that you are taxed at slightly higher rates than before. But you’re still a non-resident for immigration purposes, boo. You still have to wait in the long-ass lines at JFK when entering the country, since you can’t use the automated machines.
  8. You want to pay back your student loan using some of the education fund that your parents invested for you back in your home country (similar to a 529 fund). But because of the unfriendly US tax code, you are charged taxes on its earnings as a foreign trust, basically removing the original tax advantages of the fund.
  9. You graduated grad school and found a job! You’ve finally made it! Happily settled, you start the legal immigration process for the US. 3 years and $10,000 in lawyer’s fees later (luckily paid by your employer), your application is still stuck in the quagmire known as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. You keep waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

Now, in all seriousness, I know some of the things I said here are trivial. For many international students, going to US for school is a dream that so many other factors have to come together for. Also, I grew up in a first-world country, and didn’t have to face additional barriers, like language, culture, money, and family support, that “true” international students have to face. I see my own PhD students (who are from China and Iran) facing the challenges above, and many more. But I wrote this post as a reminder of the little things that long-time residents of the US, like myself, take for granted.

Have you ever been a stranger in a foreign land? How did you handle “starting up” your banking/credit accounts?

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