Known as 'the land of opportunity' the USA is the number one destination for international students and is regarded as one of the finest education providers in the world. If you're looking to study abroad, consider heading across the pond

USA at a glance

  • The country is the world's most popular study destination for international students
  • The USA has one of the largest education systems globally
  • Four of the country's institutions make up the top ten universities in the world, according to QS World University Rankings 2024
  • Popular student cities include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Washington DC
  • Studying in the USA is expensive but funding is available.

According to Statista, there were 948,519 international students studying in America in the 2021/22 academic year - 10,000 of those were from the UK. The USA is globally renowned for its standard of education and degrees earned in the country have an excellent international reputation, so it's not hard to see why almost a million foreign students choose to study in America.

You'll have the pick of thousands of institutions and degrees, as well as the opportunity to broaden your cultural horizons by experiencing American campus life. You can also give your CV a boost by getting involved in the huge variety of clubs and organisations on offer, including sports.

We all know that the USA has 50 states but did you know that it also spans six time zones? Just like the country, it's fair to say that your study options are vast and in your spare time there'll be lots to explore. If you'd like to study in America but have your sights set on a less obvious destination, then consider:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Austin, Texas
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Seattle, Washington.

American universities

The country has one of the largest education systems in the world with an estimated 4,000 institutions.

While English is the main language in the USA, you'll have to get used to the differing academic terminology. Universities are generally known as colleges, of which there are two main types:

  • Public colleges - large, state-funded institutions that have lower tuition fees but more students. International students pay higher fees.
  • Private colleges - smaller universities funded by private donations, tuition fees and grants. The opposite of public colleges, they have higher fees but fewer students. Overseas students pay the same fees as state residents.

Eight institutions make up the American Ivy League, a group of prestigious colleges:

  • Brown University (Rhode Island)
  • Columbia University (New York)
  • Cornell University (New York)
  • Dartmouth College (New Hampshire)
  • Harvard University (Massachusetts)
  • University of Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania)
  • Princeton University (New Jersey)
  • Yale University (Connecticut).

Four of the top ten universities in the world are USA institutions according to the QS World University Rankings 2024. These include:

  • 1st - Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • 4th - Harvard University
  • 5th - Stanford University
  • 10th - University of California, Berkeley (UCB).

The University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University rank 11th, 12th and 13th respectively.

The academic calendar in the USA is split into two semesters; fall (autumn) runs from mid-August to December, and spring runs from January to May.

Degree courses in the USA

There are two types of undergraduate degree on offer in the USA:

  • Associate degrees - take two years to complete and are usually studied at technical, community or junior colleges. Students can study for an associate qualification in a range of subjects and then transfer to a Bachelors programme to complete an additional two years of study to gain a full Bachelors degree.
  • Bachelors degrees - take four years to complete. They differ from UK undergraduate degrees in that students study a variety of subjects before deciding on which to focus on in the final two years, known as a 'major'. Students may also gain a 'minor' qualification by completing classes in an additional subject alongside their 'major'.

For entry onto a Bachelors degree you'll need at least five GCSE passes and two A-levels. To ensure that your chosen university recognises your qualifications you'll need to contact the admissions office.

Be aware that some subjects, such as medicine and law are not available at undergraduate level in the USA. You can study pre-med and pre-law courses but these are preparatory qualifications. To qualify and practice as a doctor or lawyer you'll need to study these subjects at graduate level.

You can search for US undergraduate degrees by field of study and location at International Student School Search.

Masters degrees

Known as 'graduate degrees' in the USA, around 1,000 colleges offer programmes in a variety of subjects.

There are two types of graduate degree, most courses take two or three years to complete although one-year options are available in some instances:

  • Academic/research - academic graduate degrees generally lead to a career in academia or research.
  • Professional - these are designed to prepare students for particular professions.

The most common types of Masters are Masters of Arts (M.A) and Masters of Science (M.S). Study at this level is self-directed and culminates in the submission of a thesis.

Unlike in the UK, there are no pure research graduate programmes on offer. Instead, students learn through a combination of taught and research components. Students are also assessed on a more regular basis in the USA. Instead of undertaking a small number of large assessments you'll face more frequent, smaller assessments.

However, applying for an American Masters degree follows a similar process to the UK. You will need a minimum of a 2:2 undergraduate degree from a recognised institution. It is worth remembering that there is no official conversion rate between UK A-level/degree results and US grades. Most institutions will have their own policy so it's vital to get in touch before you apply.

You can search for US Masters degrees by field of study and location at International Student School Search.


A Doctoral degree is the highest qualification a student can achieve in the USA. They typically take four to six years to complete.

To be awarded with a PhD you'll need to pass comprehensive examinations and produce original research, usually in the form of a dissertation.

Commonly studied subjects include anthropology, biology, education, engineering, psychology and sociology.

Student exchanges

UK students and graduates can apply for a range of exchange opportunities with the Fulbright Commission. You can complete an undergraduate exchange programme, attend a US institution to pursue a postgraduate degree or lecture and conduct research in the USA.

Many UK universities are partnered with a US counterpart. For example, the University of Nottingham has exchange partnerships with the University of Arizona, Oregon State University and the University of South Florida. While Kings College London has partnerships with the University of California, University of Chicago, Georgetown University and the University of Pennsylvania, to name a few.

A number of UK institutions are also members of the International Student Exchange Program (ISEP). For example, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is an ISEP member and has partners in the USA and other countries.

Contact your institution's international or exchanges and placements office to find out if you could spend time studying in America.

Course fees

Make no mistake, studying in the USA is expensive, so any decision to study here should not be taken lightly.

Per year, undergraduate tuition fees can range from $5,000 to $50,000 - around £3,820 and £38,204 respectively, per year (don't forget that Bachelors courses typically last four years in the USA). You'll then need to take into account living costs. At top tier universities it's estimated that fees and living costs combined cost undergraduate students around $60,000 (£45,845) per year, however it's possible to study in America and pay lower fees.

Public universities cost less than private institutions and fees vary depending on what and where you study. Public universities charge two sets of fees: a lower rate applies to in-state students, while a higher rate is charged for all out-of-state students (this applies to international students too).

Private institutions don't differentiate between out-of-state and domestic students and charge the same rate for all, although fees are higher than at public universities.

Fees for graduate programmes vary widely depending on your chosen subject and institution. For example, course fees and living costs at a top ranked institution could cost as much as $70,000 (£53,486) but financial help is available depending on your circumstances. To find out exactly how much your postgraduate course costs, contact your university.

While tuition fees are pricey the annual cost of living is generally much lower than in other countries such as the UK. If you're looking to cut costs as much as possible it might be helpful to know that the Midwest region generally has lower living costs than places in the East and Northeast of the country.

Funding to study in the USA

The vast majority of students studying at American universities receive financial aid of some kind and each year international students receive a significant amount of financial support.

Funding for overseas students does exist and generally differs between institutions. Some provide scholarships covering the entire cost of study, while others contribute towards the overall cost. Common sources of funding include:

  • Needs-based financial aid - if your family income falls below a certain amount then many institutions can assist with tuition fees and accommodation.
  • Merit scholarships - for those with outstanding talent or excellent grades in a specific subject.
  • Sports scholarships - for talented sportsmen and women. You need the required grades as well as sporting excellence.

The Fulbright Commission offer a number of postgraduate scholarships to UK students looking to pursue a postgraduate degree each year, known as 'Fulbright Awards'. Awards vary from the 'All Disciplines Award', which can be applied to any Masters or Doctoral degree at any accredited US university, to specific awards such as those focused on journalism or medicine. There's also the Fulbright Opportunity Fund, which aims to increase the participation of underrepresented groups. To find out more, see Fulbright Postgraduate Scholarships to the USA.

A number of institutions also set aside a significant sum to assist international undergraduates. To find out what help you can receive, check with your chosen institution.

Student visas

Any foreign national looking to enter the USA will need a visa.

The F-1 non-immigrant visa is the most common type for those wishing to study in the USA at an accredited college or university. You'll need to have been accepted and approved on your course before applying for one. You will then register with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) and there is a $350 (£267) fee for this.

You will also need to make an appointment for a visa interview with the US embassy in your country. You'll need to bring the following:

  • your passport
  • your visa application form
  • financial documents.

The earlier you start this process the better - F-1 visas can be issued 120 days before your course start date. However, you won't be allowed to enter the US more than 30 days before your course start date.

US visa requirements can be complicated so for a complete guide visit the US Department of State - Student Visas.

Due to the changeable nature of immigration laws, nationals of predominantly Muslim countries will need to keep a close eye on any rules or restrictions that may affect them entering the USA.

How to apply

It can take longer to apply to a US institution due to the various stages you must negotiate. It's advised that you apply 12 to 18 months in advance. There's no limit on the number of universities you can apply to, but the Fulbright Commission recommends that you apply to no more than six institutions. This will allow you enough time to focus on each application while giving you an increased chance of success.

There is no central organisation that facilitates applications to American universities. To study in the USA, all students must apply directly to their chosen institution and sit a multiple choice admission exam. Most universities require students to sit SAT or ACT exams. They can be taken in test centres around the UK and cost roughly £50 each. Kaplan provides free SAT practice tools as well as SAT and ACT test preparation courses.

Additionally, you'll need to provide:

  • an application form
  • a personal statement
  • transcripts of academic records
  • two or three recommendation letters
  • admission exam scores.

For graduate programmes you may have to provide a research statement and CV and also attend an interview.

All students must pay an application fee to each university, usually $50 to $100 (£38.15 and £76.30 respectively).

Application deadlines for postgraduate study vary but most fall between November and February.

Language requirements

Courses in the USA are taught in English. If English is not your first language then you will be required to sit an English language proficiency test. The TOEFL and IELTS tests are widely accepted.

Comparison to UK qualifications

As mentioned, there is no direct comparison of UK and USA grades and qualifications. The good news is that qualifications gained at American institutions are widely respected and recognised around the globe.

Check with your chosen university to be sure that your degree is recognised in your home country.

Find out more

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