One of your first tasks after arriving in the USA will be to find a place to live. This section provides you with a few tips to make your search a successful one.

Temporary Accommodations

When you first arrive on campus you will need a place to live while you look for permanent accommodations. Many schools will provide temporary housing for international students who arrive before the semester begins. Ask the foreign student advisor or housing office for information about temporary housing.

Another option if you know a student at the school is to ask them to let you stay with them for a few days. New graduate students, for example, can often find someone in their department with room for a temporary guest. You may have to sleep on a couch, but at least you’ll have a roof over your head. You’ll also be able to ask questions of someone who is familiar with the area.

Most major cities have a Council for International Visitors or similar organization to help incoming international visitors. They can often arrange for you to stay with a local family for a few days, but such arrangements must be made in advance. They also are a good source of information for international students and may provide hospitality and social events. Look for them in the telephone book, or ask at the Traveler’s Aid desk when you arrive. Every major airport, bus station, and train station has a Traveler’s Aid desk.

Many cities also have a youth hostel. Hostels are a good place to stay for a few days while you look for a permanent place to live. They provide dormitory style accommodations, sometimes with bunk beds in large rooms. There’s usually a curfew, and lock-out hours during the day. The cost runs from $5 to $25 a night. You will be able to stay at the youth hostel at low cost if you are a member of the International Youth Hostel Federation. The USA branch is called Hostelling International – American Youth Hostels (HI-AYH). A one year membership is $25 ($10 if you are under age 18). For more information, call 1-202-783-6161, fax 1-202-783-6171, or send email to hiayhserv@hiayh.org. Your travel agent should be able to help you become a member. A good source of information about hostels is the Internet Guide to Hosteling. Another source of information is the Traveloco Hostelling site.

Finally, you can always stay in a hotel or motel. This is the most expensive option, and you will need to make a reservation with a credit card to guarantee a room. Parking is expensive at hotels, and there is often a large surcharge on long distance telephone calls placed from your room.

Permanent Accommodations

The available options include renting an apartment, renting a house, or buying a house. Most international students cannot afford to buy a house, so we will not discuss this option further.

Most university students in the USA live on or near campus. Students who live off-campus generally find a place less than a mile or two away. Not only is this convenient for getting to and from campus, but much of the social life occurs on campus. The USA educational experience is not confined to the classroom, and you will find yourself learning as much from your fellow students as from the faculty.

If the school offers on-campus accommodations for international students, you should seriously consider living on-campus, at least for the first year. Since this is probably your first trip to the USA and your first time living alone, on-campus housing will help cushion the transition to life in the USA. Later, when you are more familiar with the neighborhood, you can consider moving off-campus.

Renting a house is usually a viable option only if you will be sharing it with several roommates. You will certainly get more for your money if you rent a house. But most communities have limits on the number of unrelated people who can live together, with most cities having a limit ranging from 3 to 5. These laws are intended to prevent overcrowding for health and safety reasons. In any event, the process for renting a house is similar to renting an apartment.

The cost of renting an apartment varies considerably depending on the part of the country and the local supply and demand. A one bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh might cost $400 a month while the same apartment in Boston or San Jose will cost $1,200 or more. The school’s housing office or financial aid office can provide you with an estimate of the annual cost of renting an off-campus apartment.

Finding an Apartment

Some schools provide on-campus housing for international students. Most, however, don’t. If your college provides on-campus housing for international students, we strongly recommend taking advantage of it, even though the rent may be higher than an off-campus apartment. This will give you time to become familiar with the neighborhood before committing to a lease.

Most schools have an off-campus housing office to help students find an apartment. The housing office will have listings of available apartments and information about the neighborhoods near campus. They may provide a bulletin board for students looking for roommates and run social events to help you find a compatible roommate. They will probably have pamphlets with information about popular restaurants, shopping areas, parks and recreation, and public transportation.

The public library will also have information about local neighborhoods. Ask for this information at the reference desk.

You should do a few things before you begin your search for an apartment:

  • Ask the housing office and current students which neighborhoods are safe and which should be avoided.
  • Decide whether you want to cut costs by sharing an apartment with a roommate or two.
  • Get a detailed street map for the neighborhoods you are considering. You should be able to buy a map in the college bookstore. Rand McNally maps tend to be very good. You will want to get a copy of the Rand McNally Road Atlas if you will be doing any cross-country driving. Another good source for maps is the AAA (American Automobile Association). AAA maps and guidebooks are free to members, one of many reasons to join the auto club even if you don’t drive a car.
  • Spend a few hours walking around the neighborhood to familiarize yourself with the area. Note the location of grocery stores and restaurants, since your most frequent trips will be to school and to buy food. Also note the location of bus stops and other public transportation. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to walk a mile and 5 minutes by bike.

When looking for an apartment, ask friends and fellow students if they know of a good apartment. Sometimes they will know someone who is moving out of a good apartment or may be moving themselves. Such desirable apartments are rarely advertised because they are rented very quickly.

The school may have a bulletin board with apartment listings. The bulletin board may be on a wall near the housing office, or in digital form on the campus computer network. It will include listings from local landlords as well as students looking for someone to sublet or take over their lease.

The local newspaper will also have apartment listings. Buy a copy of the Sunday newspaper. It will have more apartment listings than a mid-week issue of the newspaper. You may be able to buy the Sunday newspaper as early as Saturday afternoon. There may also be a free weekly advertising circular that lists apartments. You can usually find such apartment listings at grocery stores, newsstands, and real estate offices.

The last resort is to contact a real estate agent. You’re often better off going through the classified advertisements yourself. Under no circumstances pay for a list of available places, since such lists are often out of date.

You will probably need to look at only 3 or 4 apartments before you find one that you like and which matches your budget. But if you don’t find a good apartment quickly, persevere.

The best time to start looking for an apartment is the first Sunday in August.

In the US, house numbers tend to be even on one side of the street and odd on the other. Other than that, there is usually no rhyme or reason to the addressing scheme.

Understanding Apartment Listings

Apartments for rent are often described using cryptic language and abbreviations. You will need to learn to decode apartment listings in order to find a place that meets your needs.

Rental costs depend primarily on the size, condition, and location of the apartment, and whether utilities are included. Larger apartments and apartments which are closer to the school or shopping will cost more.

The first distinguishing characteristic is the size of the apartment. The different sizes are defined as follows:

  • Sleeping Room. A sleeping room is a single room, usually furnished, located in a private home, with a shared bedroom and kitchen. This is the least expensive option, but provides little privacy.
  • Efficiency. An efficiency is a single room with a private bathroom. The room will include a small alcove that serves as a kitchen and should provide a stove, refrigerator, sink, and cabinet space.
  • Studio. A studio is somewhat larger than an efficiency, and has a separate kitchen and eating area.
  • One, Two, or Three Bedroom. Regular apartments include a separate kitchen, bathroom, living room and/or dining room, and the number of bedrooms advertised.

Students from Asian countries, especially Japan, may find apartments in the USA to be a bit too spacious. So if the first two apartments you visit are too big, look at the next smaller type of apartment.

The next important consideration is what is included in the rent and what isn’t.

  • Utilities. If the advertisement says that utilities are included, that usually means electricity, heat/gas, and water/sewage, but not telephone or cable TV. If the advertisement doesn’t specify any utilities, assume that you will be responsible for paying for them. Heat will cost you an extra $500 to $1,000 a year in the snow belt and electricity a similar amount. If heat is included, this sometimes means that the landlord controls the temperature, not you. Water and sewage fees are usually paid by the landlord, except if you are renting a house.
  • Furnished or Unfurnished. A furnished apartment will include a bed, chest of drawers or dresser, a couch or sofa, and a dining room table and chairs. A furnished apartment will also include a stove and refrigerator. An unfurnished apartment will include a stove and refrigerator but nothing else. A furnished apartment will cost you an extra $50 a month. You are probably better off renting an unfurnished apartment and buying used furniture. Graduating students often sell their furniture to incoming students. Most apartments are rented unfurnished.
  • Parking. If you intend to own a car, an apartment that includes a garage or off-street parking is better than one that doesn’t. It is sometimes difficult to find a parking space on the street, especially if many students with cars live nearby.

You should also ask whether there are any laundry facilities. In apartment buildings there is usually a coin operated washer and dryer, but not always.

Common abbreviations include: incl (included), elec (electricity), 1 1/2 baths (one full bathroom and one with just a toilet and sink), a/c (air conditioning), w/w (wall to wall carpeting), h/w (hardwood floors), dw (dishwasher), furn (furnished), cpt (carpeted), gar (garage for a car), yard (includes a backyard), eff (efficiency), immed (available immediately), fp or frplc (includes a wood-burning or gas fireplace). A security building has a locked front door in addition to locks for each apartment.

Expect the rent to increase by about 5% per year.


A lease is a written contract between the tenant (you) and a landlord which allows you to use a dwelling for a designated period of time in exchange for monthly rent payments. The lease outlines the restrictions on the use of the dwelling and the responsibilities of tenant and landlord. A lease is a legal document and should be read carefully before signing.

The lease should specify at least the following:

  • The amount of the monthly rent and when it should be paid. The lease might mention how the rent will increase in subsequent years.
  • Whether utilities are included in the rent, and if so which ones. Heat and electricity are the most important.
  • The time period covered by the lease, usually one year.
  • Restrictions on the number of unrelated people who may occupy the dwelling.
  • The amount of the security deposit, which must be paid in addition to the first month’s rent when you sign the lease. The security deposit can be as much as twice the monthly rent. If you have a pet, there may be a separate security deposit for the pet if the landlord allows pets. The deposit will be refunded at the end of the lease if the apartment is left in good and clean condition. If not, the landlord will use the security deposit to cover the cost of cleaning and repairing the apartment. Accordingly, if there are any problems with the apartment they should be noted on the lease, so that you will not be held responsible for them when you move out of the apartment.
  • Restrictions on pets, children, and noise. Many landlords do not permit pets because of the potential for damage and noise. The lease may also contain a provision prohibiting noise from musical instruments, stereo systems, loud parties, and other sources.
  • Landlord responsibilities, such as repairs to heating and plumbing facilities and fire or water damage that wasn’t caused by the tenant.
  • A clause about terminating the lease. This clause will describe the penalties to the tenant for breaking the lease. Such penalties can range from forfeiting the security deposit to being responsible for the remaining rent.
  • A clause about subletting. This clause will either allow or forbid the tenant from subletting the apartment to another person during the term of the lease. It is best to have a lease that permits subletting. If you decide to move to a different apartment before the end of your lease, subletting allows you to rent the apartment to someone else. Otherwise you will be responsible for the rent for the remainder of the lease.
  • A clause about eviction proceedings. This clause describes the rights of tenant and landlord should the landlord want to force the tenant out of the property during the term of the lease. The most common reasons for an eviction include failure to pay the rent when due or causing significant damage to the property.

If the lease includes a wear and tear clause, this allows the landlord to charge you for repainting the apartment at the end of the lease.

Read the lease carefully before signing. If you don’t understand part of the lease, ask the landlord or a friend to explain it to you. Don’t be afraid to cross of provisions with which you disagree just because it is a printed form. Both you and the landlord must initial any changes to the printed lease. If the landlord promises to make certain repairs or there are pre-existing problems with the property, attach a list to the lease and have the landlord sign it. The list should include all problems, including leaking faucets, clogged drains, stains on the walls and rugs, peeling paint, cracks and holes in the walls and ceiling, non-functional kitchen appliances, and anything else you notice.

Most states have laws which do not permit you to sign away your rights, so clauses which have you waive the provisions of specific laws are usually void. Clauses which talk about money, dates when things happen, restrictions on the use of the property, and other clauses mentioned above, however, tend to be binding. If you have any questions about any clause, ask before you sign, not after.

When you pay for the rent and security deposit, get a receipt. Get a separate receipt for the rent and security deposit. It is best to pay the rent by check, and to use a separate check for the security deposit. You will need this at the end of the lease in order to recover your security deposit. To get your security deposit returned when you move out, return the key to the landlord and provide a forwarding address. We recommend sending this by certified mail, return receipt requested, so that you have proof the key and forwarding address were received by the landlord. The landlord then has 30 days to return your deposit or send you a list of the repairs, their actual cost, and any money left in the security deposit.

Although the landlord is obligated to return the security deposit to you if you leave the property in undamaged condition at the end of the lease, some landlords will try to take advantage of international students. After all, if you are moving back to your home country, you are less likely to protest if the landlord refuses to refund your security deposit. The best defense against this practice is to ask your fellow students which landlords have a reputation for such practices.

Be sure to write down the name, address, and telephone number of the landlord, as well as the handyman responsible for maintaining the property. You will need this information to turn on the utilities and telephone service.

Moving In


If the rent does not include utilities, you will have to get the utilities turned on when you move in. The landlord can provide you with the name and telephone numbers of the gas, electric, and telephone companies that service your apartment. They may be able to schedule service over the phone, or they may require you to visit their offices. If you don’t have a good credit history, they may require you to pay a security deposit. The security deposit will be refunded (with interest) after one year if your bills are paid promptly.

The gas and electric companies typically provide two payment options. The first requires you to pay the full amount due each month. The other lets you pay an estimated budget amount each month, with any difference being reconciled at the end of the year. Some people find this more convenient, since gas and electricity bills can otherwise vary considerably during the summer and winter months.

Most utilities have programs which allow you to have the monthly bill automatically deducted from your bank account. You still receive a copy of the bill, but save the cost of a stamp to mail in the payment.

Telephone Service

When you arrange for telephone service, you will have to choose a long distance carrier. The major carriers are AT&T, MCI, and Sprint. You can change the carrier later. After your service is installed, call each of the carriers and ask about their discount calling plans. You will need to be persistent in asking for the discount plan that offers you the greatest savings based on your calling patterns. Remember to mention that you will be making international calls.

The telephone company will ask you how you wish to be listed in the local telephone directory. We recommend asking them to list your full last name but only the initial of your first name. You can also ask to have your number unlisted, but there will be an extra charge for this service.

The telephone company will also offer you a variety of optional services, such as Call Waiting and Caller ID. These services cost extra money and are not necessary. They will also offer a calling card, which you can use to bill calls to your phone number from any phone. The card is free, but calls billed to the card are charged higher rates. They may also offer a credit card with calling card features. Such credit cards often apply a small rebate of your purchases on the card as a credit on your telephone bill.

If your family back home has access to email, that is the least expensive method of keeping in touch. Otherwise we recommend getting a fax machine, since international telephone charges can be fairly expensive. It is still cheaper to call from the USA to a foreign country than vice versa, but the charges do add up. A basic plain paper fax machine will cost between $100 and $200.

You will also need to get a telephone. You can get inexpensive telephones from discount stores, department stores, pharmacies, and the ubiquitous Radio Shack store. A basic telephone will cost between $15 and $45. Be sure to get one that provides touch tone service.

You may wish to get a telephone answering machine, to record messages from callers when you are not home. Inexpensive answering machines can be purchased for under $50. When recording your greeting, do not provide your name or address. Instead, just say: “You have reached . We are unable to answer your call at this time. Please leave your name, number, and a brief message at the tone.”

Soon after you arrange for telephone service, you will receive free copies of the local telephone directories. The telephone directories are known according to the color of their pages. The White Pages list the telephone numbers of residents, organized alphabetically by name. The Blue Pages, often part of the white pages, contain a list of government telephone numbers. If you need the telephone number for the local immigration office, look in the blue pages. The Yellow Pages contain listings and advertisements for businesses organized both alphabetically and by type of business, product, or service.

The white pages provide instructions for making local, long distance, and international calls. Local telephone numbers have seven digits. To make a long distance call you need to dial 1, the three digit area code, and the seven digit telephone number. To call an international telephone number, dial 011, the country code, the city code, and the telephone number. Omit any leading zeros from the country code. You can find a list of country and city codes in the white pages.

Toll free numbers are like long distance numbers, but with an area code of 800, 888, or 877. Telephone numbers with an area code of 700 or 900 are for pay services and usually involve substantial per minute charges. We recommend asking the telephone company to block access to 700 and 900 numbers on your phone lines.

If you need someone’s telephone number but do not have a telephone book, you can call Directory Assistance for the number. They will ask for the name and city of the listing, and tell you the telephone number. They will charge you for each time you use this service. To reach local directory assistance, dial 555-1212 or 411. To reach long distance directory assistance, dial 1, the area code, and 555-1212. To find the toll free number for a major company, call 1-800-555-1212; there is no charge for this call. There are also several free searchable directories on the world wide web, such as 555-1212.comBigBookSwitchboardWhoWhereWorldPagesYahoo People Search, and Zip2.

Payphones charge 25¢ to 35¢ for a one-minute local call. Charges for long distance calls are much higher. Most payphones accept credit cards, either directly or by dialing a toll free number. For example, dial 1-800-CALL-ATT to charge a telephone call using AT&T long distance to your credit card. You may also purchase prepaid phone cards from many businesses, such as grocery stores and gas stations.

To make a collect call (reverse the charges), dial 0 followed by the area code and telephone number. Tell the operator that you are making a collect call. You can also make collect calls by calling 1-800-CALL-ATT (1-800-225-5288) or 1-800-COLLECT (1-800-265-5328).

Telexes can be sent by Western Union. Call 1-800-325-6000 for the nearest location. You can also use Western Union to send money, but the fees are very high. Call 1-800-225-5227 for more information.

Internet Service

Your school may provide dialup numbers that let you access the campus computer network and the Internet from home using a computer with a modem. Otherwise, the telephone company or any of a large number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can provide unlimited Internet access at modem speeds for fees of about $20 a month. Internet service allows you to browse the web and to send and receive email. If your friends and family back home has access to email, sending email can be one of the most cost effective methods of communicating.

Higher speed Internet access is becoming available in many major USA cities. There are two main methods of providing high speed access, one using the telephone wiring (ADSL) and one using cable television wiring (cable modems). Both provide high bandwidth incoming and somewhat lower bandwidth outgoing by using the wiring’s underexploited transmission capacity. The incoming bandwidth is at least twenty times faster than modem speeds. Of the two, ADSL is a bit more secure and will ultimately provide higher bandwidth.

Renter’s Insurance

Many students obtain renter’s insurance to insure their possessions against fire or theft. The landlord is not responsible for your belongings if they are destroyed in a fire or stolen. Most renter’s insurance policies also protect you if someone is injured while in your apartment or if you cause significant damage to the apartment. You can obtain a renter’s insurance policy by calling an insurance company listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory. The cost will be between $100 and $300 a year. Ask for replacement value coverage, so that the insurance covers the cost of replacing the item, not just its depreciated value.

Home Safety and Security

If your apartment doesn’t have a smoke detector, buy one and install it. If you have gas heat, you may want to buy a carbon monoxide detector as well.

Change the locks after moving in, since you don’t know who may have kept a copy of the old keys. You will need to give a copy of the key to the landlord. Jimmy-proof deadbolt locks are best, since they make your apartment less attractive to thieves.

Install window stops or locks on all the windows, especially if your apartment is located on the first floor.

You will get a 5% discount on your renter’s insurance if your apartment has a smoke detector and deadbolt locks.