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College in the US vs the UK

interstride logo by Interstride
April 23, 2024

The US and the UK are two popular destinations for international students to receive a high-quality college education. However, there are distinct differences between the US and the UK that students should consider before deciding where to study for their undergraduate degree.

Key differences: College in the US vs the UK

While English is used in both the US and the UK, some terms have different meanings or common uses. Undergraduate school in the UK is often referred to as “uni” which is short for university. Undergraduate school in the US is usually called college even if you are actually attending a university.

Higher education institutions in the US vs UK 

In the US, a bachelor’s degree takes 4 years on average to complete while a UK bachelor’s degree takes 3 years on average. Another big difference is the amount of colleges to choose from. There are around 200 colleges in the UK and over 4,000 colleges in the US which means more options and more variety in the US. In the UK, the majority of universities are public whereas the US has a more even mix of public and private schools. Because there are more schools in the US, there are many different types of schools such as liberal arts colleges and women’s colleges. There are a few women’s colleges in the UK, but options are much more limited.

Considerations for applying to the US vs the UK

Let’s explore how to decide on the UK vs US for international students. There are various factors to consider from the application processes to post-grad career opportunities.

Admission requirements and application process 

In the US, many schools have unique applications and you apply directly through the institution. Approximately 25% of US colleges use the Common App which allows students to apply to multiple schools at once. However, each school will have its own application fees and deadlines, and most schools that use the Common App still have customized supplemental questions.

On the other hand, in the UK, students apply for all colleges with one application and one personal essay through the UCAS system. Application fees and deadlines are also standardized through UCAS with less customization per school than US college applications. Students are limited to applying to up to five colleges or courses of study in the UK while in the US students can apply to as many schools as they want. 

Admissions decisions

Most UK schools require you to pick a course of study when applying. Your application is reviewed by the admissions office and by an academic in the faculty of your chosen course. In the US, many students start college undecided and choose a major after their first or second year. The admissions decision for undergraduate applicants in the US is made solely by the admissions office.

Applicants in the US will get to choose if they prefer to apply early action or early decision at any of the hundreds of schools that offer these options. The UK only has one regular admission period for universities. Lastly, in the US, athletics and extracurricular activities are given more weight in admissions decisions than they are in the UK.


In the US, the undergraduate curriculum includes more general education courses than in the UK where all courses will be related to the chosen field of study. It’s also easier and more common in the US to change your major, add a second major, or add a minor than it is in the UK. Consider studying in the US if you want more freedom to explore various disciplines before choosing a major.

While teaching and assessment styles vary across schools in many ways, there are some general differences between colleges in the UK vs US. The UK has more lecture-style classes and more independent learning. Grades are based primarily on final exams. The US has a mix of lecture-style and discussion-style classes, and grades may be based on various assignments and participation in class.

Interstride tip! Do you want to be a lawyer or doctor? The total length of study for these degrees may be shorter in the UK than in the US. At US colleges, you must get an undergraduate degree first and fulfill specific requirements in order to apply for an advanced medical or law degree. In the UK, you can start studying in your chosen field from day 1 of undergraduate school in a Bachelor of Medicine or Bachelor of Law (LLB) program.


Cost is a crucial factor when choosing a US vs UK education. Because there is such a variety of different types of colleges in the US, tuition, fees, and room and board costs also vary significantly. Public colleges and universities in the US have lower tuition rates than private schools but keep in mind that international students in the US will most likely pay out-of-state tuition prices at public colleges. At private colleges in the US, all students pay the same tuition rates. However, at universities in the UK, international students have much higher tuition rates than domestic students – £22,200 per year on average compared to £9,250 per year.

Average tuition per year for a bachelor’s degree as an international student:

Depending on which specific schools you are interested in, a UK degree may be cheaper than a US degree. In most cases, you would only need to pay for three years of tuition in the UK versus four years in the US to receive a bachelor’s degree. That could save you a large amount of money and allow you to enter the workforce sooner. 

Interstride tip! In both the US and the UK, there is limited financial aid available for international students. For schools in the US, the Interstride Scholarships Finder is a free database specifically for international students to discover financial aid opportunities to fund their education.

Campus life and culture

Each college or university has its own unique culture. The US and the UK also have distinctly different and diverse cultures which affect the cultures of their universities. Your college experience in a rural town in the Midwest region of the US would be very different from attending a school in New York City. Same for studying in London versus a small town in Wales. 

There are different aspects of culture that may affect students’ college experiences:

  • Social activities
  • Sports
  • Transportation
  • Alcohol laws

Social life is an important part of the university experience whether you are in the UK or the US. You will find student organizations and clubs are common features of US colleges and UK universities. However, US schools tend to have more extracurricular activities overall while social activities in the UK focus more on academic activities like debating societies. Greek life (fraternities and sororities) is unique to the US while societies are popular at UK universities. For sports, American football is huge at many US colleges as well as basketball and baseball. Soccer, rugby, and cricket are popular in the UK, but in general, college sports are less of a priority in the UK than in the US. 

The UK has more extensive public transportation which gives international students more opportunities to explore off campus. Alcohol consumption is also prevalent in undergraduate schools in both the US and the UK. The difference is that the legal drinking age in the UK is 18 versus 21 in the US. Therefore, US college students are more likely to engage in illegal activities to acquire and consume alcohol.

Student housing

University housing in the UK is referred to as halls of residence while in the US it’s referred to as dorms, short for dormitories. Dorms are on-campus housing, and it’s common for college students in the US to share bedrooms in a dorm. While not a requirement at most schools, undergraduate students usually have the option to live on campus for all four years of college if they choose to. In the UK, uni students often have their own rooms but live in large shared flats. These are often off-campus but still owned by the school. Overall, in both the UK and the US, student housing provides ample opportunities for meeting new friends as an international student. 

Work opportunities while in school

International students may want to work during college to earn extra money or gain experience for their resume. In the UK, international students are permitted to work up to 20 hours per week in any job on or off campus. However, in the US, international students can only work on campus during their first year of study. After the first year, they can work off-campus in a job that is related to their major, but they must acquire work authorization through either the CPT or OPT programs. 

Post-grad career/work opportunities

Studying abroad for college is not cheap, so international students and their families want to make sure an international education is worth the cost. Both the US and the UK have internationally renowned schools and programs, so think about your long-term goals and where you want to live and work in the future. Some industries are more prevalent in certain countries or regions. For example, if you want to work in tech, you may want to attend a college on the West Coast of the US.

It’s also important to understand what career opportunities will open up after graduation when you earn your degree in another country. In the US, you can work for one year after graduation on OPT or up to three years if you majored in a STEM field. After that, if you want to remain in the US, many graduates apply for the H-1B visa lottery through their employers. This is a dual intent visa that allows visa holders to pursue long-term residency by applying for an employer-sponsored green card.

In the UK, international graduates can stay for up to two years through the Graduate Route program. After that, employer sponsorship is required, but there is no lottery, so you may have a higher chance of receiving a visa to remain in the UK more long-term after graduation. 

UK or US: Which is better for education for international undergraduate students?

Studying in another country is a big decision, as you will be leaving behind your home and family in exchange for a lot of unknowns. Ultimately, a college degree from either the UK or the US can be worth the financial and logistical challenges that come with studying abroad. A degree from either place has the potential to improve your career opportunities and quality of life. It’s all about which will align best with your budget, what you want to get out of your college experience, and your long-term academic, professional, and personal goals. 

On Interstride’s blog, you can find more resources on what college is like for international students, how to navigate the application process, and moving to a new country.