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THE USA: Student Finances - Must read

How much does it cost to study in the USA?

An important factor for any international student is how much it costs to live and study in the USA. We can help with our complete guide to costs.

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The idea of studying in the USA is an exciting one; after all, who wouldn’t want the opportunity to learn in a world-class education system? The one area that worries many potential students, is the cost. Don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place to understand the finances you’ll need.


In this article, we explore the cost of living in the USA so you can budget easily for your time abroad.


What costs can I expect?


If it’s your first time living away from home, it’s quite normal to wonder what costs you should be budgeting for. And of course, many costs can be reduced if you choose a cheaper lifestyle.


However, there will always be the unavoidable things you’ll need to account for, like:

  • accommodation
  • food and everyday essentials
  • travel and transport
  • entertainment
  • connectivity (internet, mobile phone etc)
  • hidden costs (things that are unique to you, for example, course supplies or visa fees)


Tuition fees


Tuition fees are certainly something you’ll need to budget for, but we won’t go into much detail on these here. Instead, read our article on tuition fees in the USA for a more detailed overview.


Generally, you should expect to pay the following per year:


  • USD 16,000 to USD 50,000 a year at the undergraduate level
  • USD 20,000 to USD 55,000 a year at the postgraduate level


The difference in cost between regions


America is a huge country and just like anywhere, you’ll find certain regions are more expensive than others to live in. Additionally, like most places, rural areas and smaller towns will be cheaper than cities.


You’ll probably already be aware of the living costs for cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City. But did you know that typically southern states offer cheaper living with the added bonus of a warm climate?


If you live inland rather than in the more populated coastal areas, you could be looking at a significantly cheaper way of life.


Of course, even within a city, prices will vary depending on location, so don’t be too disappointed before you’ve done some proper research on your location. Remember, this article should serve as just a general guide.




Life as a student in the USA is very heavily focused on campus. In fact, living on-campus, particularly as an undergraduate, is considered a key part of the university culture and although you can choose to live off-campus, you’d be in the minority.


University residence


You may already know about American university living from TV and films. Just like in the movies, dorm rooms in the USA are typically shared with another student, though sometimes you may be able to apply for a single room.


Some campuses also offer “living communities”, e.g. fraternities and sororities, where a number of students live together in large houses.


Because on-campus living is so integral to the American university experience, you’ll often find that the more prestigious universities, such as those in the Ivy League, charge more than other private or public universities.


On-campus residence usually comes with a nine-month term (for the academic year) rather than the normal 52-week lease you’d expect in many private rentals.


You’ll usually find that rent for on-campus accommodation covers your room, utilities (gas, electricity and water) and often even a subsidised meal plan. In general, you can expect to pay a monthly rent of somewhere between USD 2,450 to USD 2,775.


And remember, if you have a scholarship for your studies, check if it includes accommodation. Some of them do and this would put you at a huge financial advantage.


Private rentals


Although it’s unusual to rent off-campus in the US, it’s not unheard of, especially for postgraduate students. And unusually, compared to many other places in the world, it is often cheaper to do so.


If you choose to share a house or apartment with other students, you will cut more costs than if you live alone. Some students even choose to share their room in private rentals as they would on campus, saving even more money.


Depending on where in the country you live and how many people you share with, you’ll likely be paying rent of USD 450 to USD 600 a month. However, if you choose to rent an apartment alone in a big city, you’ll be looking at a much higher amount – in some cases more than USD 3,000


Remember, renting off-campus will mean you need to pay your own utility bills. In the USA, water bills are usually paid by the landlord. For gas and electricity, a 2-people household in a 915-square-foot flat will pay an average of USD 221 per month.


Most universities will be happy to offer advice on off-campus accommodation to students, so why not check with your international student office?




If your accommodation isn’t catered, you’ll need to shop and cook for yourself. This isn’t always easy to do on a budget, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.


Apart from making your own meals, dining out is a fantastic way to socialise and experience local culture. Don't forget to factor in the cost of eating out in addition to your grocery expenses.


The cost of food in the US varies substantially with towns, cities and states. Large cities tend to be more expensive than small towns and suburban areas.


You need an average of USD 210 to cover your monthly food expenses, but you will have to adjust your budget based on your actual location.


If you are relatively frugal, a budget of USD 150 should be enough to cover your food expenses each month in Arlington, Texas, including the cost of dining out once a week. 


However, if you choose to study in New York City, you will need to budget around USD 230 for groceries and dining out weekly.




Living on-campus, you may find your need for public transport to be minimal. But generally, to get around in the USA, you’ll find the subway and buses the cheapest, most convenient mode of transport.


A single trip on the bus or subway in the States costs an average of USD 2.50, ranging from USD 1.38 to USD 4. 


Most cities offer travel card options to make it cheaper to take regular journeys. Some have pay-as-you-go style cards (which deduct credit from the overall balance) which allow you to string short journeys together as part of one trip. For example, a short bus ride is immediately followed by a journey on the subway.


Of course, cabs are also an option, but these are expensive, and rarely the best option for students.


As a student you may be entitled to some travel discounts, so definitely check out what you’re entitled to in your city. For example, in New York, a Student MetroCard will get you much cheaper travel.




Part of the university experience is enjoying time with friends and perhaps picking up some new hobbies or skills. Although you can easily spend as much as you like on entertainment, if you do a little bit of research in advance you’ll find plenty of places that offer student discounts too.


If you’re looking for free entertainment, there’s plenty around. Some parks are well-known for offering regular free exercise classes, for example. And while not all museums and galleries are free in the USA, you’ll find some that are.


Others (like New York’s Museum of Modern Art) offer specific times for free entry. Or, if you’re in a location where it’s possible, definitely check out one (or more!) of America’s spectacular national parks.  


Some average costs for entertainment include:

  • pint of beer: USD 6
  • cinema ticket: USD 12.50
  • Three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant*: USD 75


*When eating out you’ll also need to budget for tipping your waiter – around 15-20% is customary. And remember, the legal drinking age in the US is 21 – higher in than in many countries.




Keeping in touch with family and friends is especially important for international students living far from home. So you’ll definitely want to budget for internet and phone expenses.


Living on-campus, your internet will probably be covered in the cost of your rent. Off-campus, however, the average household pays around USD 70.30 a month. Of course, this will be divided between you and your housemates, so your bill will be much less.


For a SIM-only plan with calls and 10 GB data to make contacting home easy, you’ll be paying an average of USD 43 a month.


Miscellaneous and hidden costs


You’ll always want to have room in your budget for unexpected costs, but there are also certain additional expenses you can expect from time to time. For example clothes, bed linen or certain household items (if you live in a private rental).


There’ll also be costs associated with your course. You should be able to access most of your reading materials online or in the university library but you’ll still need to be able to afford textbooks, stationery and course equipment.


Something else to consider is all the costs associated with your arrival and general wellbeing: student visas and medical insurance aren’t cheap. Read our article about the US student visa application process to learn more.


Try not to get too stressed over the endless details of your budget. Once you have a broad picture, things will start to make more sense.


If you’re worried about being able to afford things, most visas allow you to get a part-time job on-campus which should help ease your finances.


Disclaimer: All figures in this article are indicative only and correct at the time of writing. Since the economy can be subject to rapid, unexpected changes at any time, we always recommend you do your own research before booking any travel.

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