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October 16, 2023

As an international student, pursuing a higher education in the US, while exciting, can come with a high price tag. On average, studying full-time in the US can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $300,000. As you research the cost of schools and potential funding opportunities, you may come across the phrase “federal financial aid.”  This refers to financial assistance provided by the US government to domestic students through the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). International students aren’t eligible for Federal financial aid.

However, as an international student, there are other options for financial assistance that you can apply for. International students can apply for institutional aid, financial assistance directly from the college or university, through the CSS Profile (College Scholarship Service Profile), or the ISFAA (International Student Financial Aid Application).

The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and ISFAA are all forms to collect and deliver a student’s financial information to a college or university. Depending on the school or university, one or more of these forms will be required for you to complete. From these forms, institutions will determine how much financial aid you are eligible for.

What is the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is a form that domestic students will complete to receive federal financial aid. While international students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, some schools may ask you to complete the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for private, or institutional aid. Similarly to the CSS Profile and the ISFAA, the FAFSA will ask for a student’s family financial information to determine their need for financial assistance.

The FAFSA will also require a student’s social security number. As an international student, you will not have a social security number. If your school requires the FAFSA, you will have to print out the FAFSA form and mail it to your school’s financial aid office.

What is the CSS profile?

The CSS Profile is an online tool created by the College Board, the company who also produces the PSAT and SAT. Both undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of citizenship status, can complete the CSS Profile, if their school requires it. Schools will use the CSS Profile to determine a student’s need for financial assistance.

Unlike federal financial aid, the CSS Profile is for financial assistance directly from colleges and universities. As an international student, completing the CSS profile is an important avenue to access grants and scholarships you might be eligible for.

Read more about what’s included in the CSS Profile, and how to apply here.

What is the ISFAA?

The ISFAA is a paper application used by some schools in the US, to evaluate the financial need of international students. Unlike the CSS Profile and the FAFSA, the ISFAA is solely for the use of international students.

Similarly to the CSS Profile, the ISFAA qualifies international students for financial assistance directly from colleges and universities. There is no fee to complete the ISFAA, and if your school requires the ISFAA application, international students will download the form directly from the school website, fill it out, and mail it to the institution’s financial aid office.

To learn about how to apply through the ISFAA, and the documents you should prepare, read more here.

Comparing the CSS vs. ISFAA vs. FAFSA

Are international students eligible?YESYESNO*
Source of financial assistance?InstitutionalInstitutionalFederal
Apply online or paper mail-in?OnlineDepends on schoolOnline
Accepted at all schools?Depends on schoolDepends on schoolYES
Cost?$25 for the initial application; $16 for each additional institution school.FreeFree

*While international students are not eligible to receive Federal financial aid from the FAFSA, some schools may still ask international students to complete it to determine their eligibility for private aid.

Final thoughts

As an international student, there can be many costs associated with receiving a higher education in the US. Therefore, it’s important to explore all avenues of financial assistance that are available to you. Depending on the requirements of your school, the CSS Profile and ISFAA are two financial assistance tools that you are eligible to complete.

Keep in mind that even though you are eligible to complete the CSS Profile and the ISFAA, not all schools will require or accept them, and there is no guarantee you will receive financial assistance as a result.