University of Illinois System

International Students

From completing applications to packing your clothes and belongings, you have done a lot to prepare to study in the US. However, there’s one major item that is sometimes overlooked: finances. Proving that you can pay for tuition and living expenses in the US doesn’t always prepare you for the financial decisions and potential challenges that can occur when you get here. 

Budget your money

Understanding Expenses

Before you can create a budget or spending plan, you may need to do some additional research to estimate your costs prior to arriving in the United States.  Some common costs to account for in your financial plan or budget includes:

  • Tuition & Fees
  • Room & Board (Rent, Utilities & Food)
  • Books & Supplies
  • Travel
  • Emergencies
  • Recreation & Fun

Know Your Tuition

You should be able to find out your tuition and fee rates by visiting the registrar's office website for your University:

Each University and academic program will have different costs associated with it. The calculators provided through the registrars can help you estimate the cost of your degree, however, it's important to remember that the course load you take as well as the types of classes you enroll in determines the amount that actually gets charged to your student account. You can learn more about understanding your student account and international payment options through our parent department, University Bursar.

Cost of Living

Depending on which campus you are planning on attending and what lifestyle choices you make, living expenses can vary significantly from student to student.  Your lifestyle choices really dictate how much your living expenses will be, and it’s important, particularly if you’re borrowing to pay for school, that you live like a student while you’re a student so you don’t have to live like a student when you graduate. Below is a table showing the cost of living differences for a variety of items between Chicago, Springfield, and Champaign-Urbana communities in Illinois. 

Estimates from &
  Urbana-Champaign Chicago Springfield
Salary $43, 014.62 $52,283.46 $40,000
Apt. Rent $611.11 $1,235.67 $707.76
Basic Utilities $171.67 $114.56 $144.82
Gasoline $2.24 $2.70 $2.25
Hamburger $4.19 $3.89 $4.27
Milk (1 gal) $2.44 $2.79 $2.76
Apples (1 lb) $2.00 $1.99 $2.43


There are many cost of living calculators available online to compare costs by location.

Unexpected Expenses for Some International Students

Many international students come to the US and are surprised by the expenses they encounter. We’ve listed a few of them here. For instance:

  • Health Care & Insurance - You may not have to pay for healthcare in your country, but you would have to pay for health care and/or insurance in the US.
  • Phone Bills - Depending on your cell phone service, you may be charged for receiving phone calls & texts
  • Taxes - Sales tax is not often included in the listed price of items at a store or market. Income and/or property taxes may also be different from your home country.
  • Tips - When to tip, how much to tip, and who to tip can be a difficult piece of American culture to get used to; even domestic students sometimes struggle with it.
    • For example, it’s customary to tip between 15-25% of the bill when you’re at a sit-down restaurant or ordering delivery, but you wouldn’t tip if you go to a fast-food restaurant.
  • Internet - You may need to pay for internet service or it may be much higher than what you’re used to paying.
  • Reception of Wire Transfers - You will need to pay to receive wire transfers or ask the sender to include that cost while sending.
  • Water

Again, these are just a few of the unexpected expenses that some international students run into when they come to the US.

Banking in the USA

As an international student, you may want specific services or products from a financial institution, including ATM or online banking that is provided in several languages, lower wire transfer rates, or nationwide branches (for in-person service and access to your money when you travel for example). Whatever you choose, it must be the right fit for you, and if the financial institution that you choose no longer meets your needs, you can always switch to a different one.

Financial Institutions: Banks & Credit Unions

Money kept in deposit accounts in the U.S. is usually insured by the federal government. There are two main types of financial institutions in the United States: banks and credit unions.

Deposit accounts like checking and saving accounts are typically insured up to at least $250,000 per individual named on those accounts that are at insured financial institutions. Banks are often insured by the FDIC and credit unions are often insured by the NCUA. Financial institutions that are insured will likely have that information posted in their physical locations and on their websites. If you buy investment products at a financial institution like bonds, IRAs, or mutual funds, then these are not insured. Ask if you’re not sure.

Online banks & credit unions are good options to consider. Don’t think you are required to look for a physical financial institution near campus.

Feel free to shop around when it comes to choosing a bank or credit union and make sure to compare fee schedules & services.

Choosing a Financial Institution & Opening an Account

1. Decide on services and/or products you want. Options may include:

  • Checking
  • Savings
  • Money Market
  • Certificates of Deposit
  • Loans

2. Select the financial institution that has those services/products. 

  • Bank – FDIC-insured
  • Credit Union – NCUA insured

3. Generally, you will need:

  • Social Security Number or Individual Tax ID Number (ITIN)
  • Evidence of physical & mailing address(es)
  • Government-issued ID (e.g., driver’s license, passport)
  • An initial deposit

Remember: Processes for opening an account vary by institution as well as the requirements for specific services you're seeking.

Checking vs Savings Accounts

Savings accounts are often considered "deposit" accounts and typically earn interest. Checking accounts are most often used to pay bills or make daily purchases.

Main features of savings accounts:

  • Primarily used to save money
  • Typically pays interest
  • May require a minimum balance

Main features of checking accounts:

  • Primarily used to make purchases
  • May or may not pay interest
  • May require a maintenance fee

Credit or Debit

When you use your debit card, you're withdrawing money directly from your checking or savings account.

When you use a credit card, you're accessing a line of credit from the financial institution that issued your card. Each purchase is borrowed money that you repay later.

Tips for building credit as an international student:

  1. Look for a credit card that's specifically for international students. If you find it difficult to get a credit card, check with your financial institution about getting a secured credit card.
  2. Manage card balances wisely. It is important that you understand when you use a credit card, you must repay that money, sometimes with interest or additional fees.

Paper & Coin Currency

No matter where you go or what you do in America, you will want to have some form of US currency with you at all times.

In the U.S., currency can take the form of paper (cash) or metal (coins) and can be transferred a multitude of ways:

  • Cash/coin exchange = paying for items with physical forms of currency
  • Checks = the payment of items using a paper form to be presented to a financial institution to transfer funds from one person or entity to another. 
    • Note: Debit is the electronic version of the check method. Funds could be transferred with a debit card or your financial institutions routing and account number.
  • Credit = similar to Debit, but credit refers to an agreement between you and the creditor to repay the promised, borrowed amount plus interest back at the end of the month or payment period.

Tax Tips for Foreign Nationals

If you are an international student, there are many factors that may complicate your situation.  Here are some resources to help you navigate filing taxes and understanding withholding.

It's important to note that regardless of the tax preparation software you use, you may have to pay additional fees to use extended features of the program, like state-level filing through the software.

A Word About Money

Many of the words we associate with money today come from ancient uses of currency.

  • Buck - Early settlers in North America relied heavily on the skin of deer for trade. Each skin was referred to as a buck.
  • Fee - This word comes from the German word for cattle. vieh.
  • Shell out - The use of shells as currency among Native Americans, and, later, the European colonists, led to the phrase "shell out", meaning "to pay".
  • Salary - This is a money-related word we got from the Romans. At one point, Roman soldiers were paid part of their wages in salt. The Latin word salarium means "of salt".
  • Dollar - A count in a Czechoslovakian town called Jachymov started minting silver coins in 1519. The coins were known as talergroschen, which was eventually shortened to talers. They spread throughout Europe and today many nations have currency named for some variation of the word taler, including the American "dollar".

SMMC Educational Resources for International Students 

Budgeting & Financial Planning

Saving or Cutting Expenses


University Resources