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Housing options for international students in the US

interstride logo by Interstride
July 3, 2023

International students have to consider many things when planning to study in the United States. Finding suitable housing is at the top of the list. Some common challenges that you may face include not weighing the pros and cons of living on or off-campus, misunderstanding lease agreements, and failing to consider legal and financial constraints. This blog summarizes the different housing options in the U.S. for international students so you can make an informed decision moving forward.

On-Campus Housing

A big part of the American college experience focuses on the “campus experience” more so than other countries. Therefore a lot of options available to you as a student may be on-campus housing such as:

  • Dormitories: Frequently referred to as “dorms,” “residence halls,” or “res halls”, this is the most popular on-campus housing option. You will find single or double rooms in these dorms. Many first-year students are required to stay in dormitories.
  • Apartment or Suite Style Housing: These options usually include a common area, separate bedrooms, and typically a kitchen or kitchenette for small groups of students.
  • Theme or Special Interest Housing: Special interest housing are tailored to meet the needs of specific academic majors, lifestyle preferences, or even language immersion program students.
  • Graduate or Professional Student Housing: These options are specifically for graduate students and can include anything from dormitory to apartment style housing. In some colleges, graduate housing may be off-campus.
  • Cooperative Housing: “Co-op” housing typically involves rules for maintaining a shared living environment. Residents usually have shared responsibilities for housing upkeep.
  • International Student Housing: Some colleges and universities have buildings or floors dedicated to international students who choose to live on-campus. If there aren’t options for dedicated international student living spaces, some campuses might allow you to request to live with another international student.

While not all housing options above are available at every U.S. college or university, those are some of the most common options you’ll find on-campus. On-campus housing is generally the most popular option for college students and often mandatory for first-years and international students.

As you explore housing as international students, consider the following pros and cons to living on-campus:

  • Convenience: Living on campus is the most convenient housing option for traveling to class, using facilities on campus like the library and gym, or accessing the dining hall.
  • Support System: On campus housing provides a built in support system for students. Several colleges and universities have resident advisors and peer advisors who live in on-campus housing. Living on campus allows you to more easily connect with fellow on-campus residents.
  • Safety: Living on-campus is more often safer than living off-campus. As a college or university campus, there is 24/7 security available to students and many on-campus housing requires use of a student ID or security card to enter. As an international student unfamiliar with the area, this can be a safer housing option.
  • Cost: At many colleges and universities in the U.S., on-campus housing options can be more expensive compared to off-campus housing options. Oftentimes, meal plans and amenity fees can be included in the cost of on-campus housing. These costs can be rolled into tuition, as opposed to off-campus housing options that require out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Potential Conflict: You will likely be living with students you have never met before. It’s possible that your personalities, lifestyles, privacy needs, or study habits simply won’t alight. Many colleges and universities offer a personality quiz to try to pair compatible students together, but it is not guaranteed to be a perfect match.

Off-Campus Housing

Living on-campus is most often more convenient and immersive for international students than living off-campus. However, depending on the college or university, off-campus options might be a better or more affordable option. Some common off-campus housing options include:

  • Apartments: Living in an off-campus apartment may provide more amenities like a full kitchen, living room, private bathroom, and private bedroom. Apartments range from studios to multiple bedroom apartments.
  • Houses: Many college students choose to live in a house off campus. Off-campus houses are typically standalone houses with several bedrooms, a shared living space, and one or more kitchens.
  • Room Rentals: Room rentals, or “shared housing,” is when students choose to rent a single room from someone who owns an apartment or a house. This can be cost effective and cheaper than an apartment or house rental.
  • Sublets: This option involves renting part of a unit from someone who is already renting it. Often this happens when one person signs a year-long lease and they want to move out early. Another person is able to “sublet” that unit. This is a great option for students who need short-term housing during the summer breaks.

There are many off-campus housing options for college students in the U.S. It’s worth noting, however, that depending on your visa or the university’s requirements, different rules may apply for international students. As you explore off-campus housing options, here are some pros and cons as an international student:

  • Independence: Living in off-campus housing gives you more flexibility and the ability to live independently, if you choose. This can be great for international students who value privacy and want to have more autonomy over their living space.
  • Cost: Living off-campus can be cheaper than living on-campus. However, this depends heavily on the city you’re in.
  • Wider Range of Options: You can explore different locations, sizes, and types of off-campus housing that meet your needs as an international student.
  • Off Campus: Depending on where your housing is, you could be far from campus. This means that you may need to look into transportation and factor in the cost and time of commuting to campus.
  • Limited Social Circle: You may have less opportunities to organically meet people, form friendships, or create communities.
  • Safety and Security: Off-campus housing options are often without the security that comes with living on-campus. Do your research on the safety of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Financial Considerations

Living on-campus and off-campus can have different financial considerations. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Rent: While on-campus housing typically involves a predetermined cost that covers housing for a semester or academic year, living off-campus often involves paying monthly rent to a landlord or property management company. The cost of rent varies depending on location, amenities, and size of the property.
  2. Utilities: Living off-campus comes with the responsibilities for paying utilities such as electricity, water, gas, internet, and cable. These costs can add up and vary depending on usage. Most on-campus housing already includes utilities as part of the housing fee.
  3. Contracts and Deposits: Renting off-campus usually involves signing a lease agreement with specific terms and conditions, and sometimes requires a security deposit.
  4. Transportation: Living on-campus means being within walking distance or a short commute to campus. You may need to consider additional transportation expenses when you live off-campus. These expenses include gas, parking fees, or public transportation fares.
  5. Furnishing and Supplies: On-campus housing typically comes furnished with basic necessities such as a bed, desk, and chair. In contrast, off-campus housing may require you to furnish your own apartment or house, which can involve additional upfront costs to purchase furniture, appliances, and other household supplies.
  6. Meal Plans: Many on-campus housing options require students to purchase a meal plan. When living off-campus, you have more flexibility in choosing your meals and can potentially save money by cooking your own food.

It’s important to research and compare the costs of living on-campus and off-campus in your particular area and evaluate which option aligns better with your financial circumstances and preferences.

Legal & Cultural Considerations for Off-Campus Housing

International students considering off-campus housing should keep in mind several legal and cultural considerations. Here are some important points to consider:

  1. Rental Laws and Contracts: Research the rights and responsibilities of tenants, lease terms, and any legal protections in place for tenants. Some lease agreements require tenants to obtain renter’s insurance, which can protect you against potential damages or injuries at the property. Before signing a lease or rental agreement, carefully review and understand the terms and conditions. Seek legal advice if necessary.
  2. Tenant Rights and Discrimination Laws: Be aware of your rights as a tenant. Research the state and federal laws pertaining to housing discrimination. While these differ by state, they generally include the right to a safe and habitable living space, privacy, protection against discrimination and unfair treatment, and the return of a security deposit.
  3. Local Customs and Practices: Different cultures may have different expectations regarding noise levels, cleanliness, shared spaces, and social interactions.
  4. Community and Safety: Research the neighborhood and area where you plan to live. Factors to consider include safety, proximity to campus, access to alternative transportation, availability of amenities, and the overall community environment.

Common Housing Scams to Watch Out For

Unfortunately, there are bad people who will target international students through housing scams. Common housing scams include:

  • Fake Rental Listings: These can be difficult to spot, but if something seems “too good to be true,” it often is.
  • Wire Transfer Requests: You should never make payments before seeing a property, signing a legal lease agreement, or meeting and/or verifying the landlord. If someone asks you to wire money to hold an apartment before seeing it, think twice!
  • Overpayment Scams: Scammers might pretend to be landlords or property owners and send you a check or money order for a higher rent amount than you agreed upon. They’ll then ask you to cash it, and wire the excess amount. These checks are most often fake or from scammers looking to obtain your bank information.
  • Fake Housing Agents: These are fake agents who offer to find you housing options and require up-front payment for their services.
  • Sublet Scams: Most often with sublets, you will not have a legal right to the housing unit. Therefore, always make sure you have a written agreement in place and have verified the legitimacy of the person you are subletting from beforehand.
  • Bait-and-switch: This happens when the photos or advertisement you see for a rental property are not what you see when you arrive at the unit. It’s always important to visit a unit in person before signing a lease to avoid these scams.
  • Illegal Rental Units: This is when the unit you are looking to rent does not meet safety requirements or building code regulations. Some property owners may turn basements, garages, or other non-compliant spaces into bedrooms for rent. Be careful of these illegal rental units!

Always do your due diligence when looking for off-campus housing options to avoid scams. If you’re ever unsure, contact your local housing authority or international student services for advice and guidance.

Final Thoughts

Choosing to live on or off campus can be a tough decision. There are many things to consider such as safety, convenience, costs, and legal concerns. You should explore both on-campus and off-campus living options, and choose which housing option best fits your personal preferences and priorities, individual needs, and cultural practices. Careful thought and research will make your transition to life as an international student in the U.S. a much more enjoyable and fulfilling experience.