If you are heading to college in the U.S., you may be wondering what your transportation options will be once you arrive. Is it necessary to have a car? Or are there other ways to get around? Read on to learn about five different transportation methods available to international college students in the United States.
If you are going to school in a suburban or rural area, having access to a car is helpful. These places probably don’t have much in the way of public transportation and there may not be many stores or restaurants within walking distance of campus. Having a car means you won’t have to rely on the bus or a ride from a friend whenever you need to venture off campus to buy groceries.
NOTE: Freshmen aren’t allowed to have cars on campus at many colleges. This information should be available on your school’s website.
Purchasing a Car
Step One: Get an International Driving Permit (If Necessary)
Some international students choose to purchase cars during their time in the U.S. But before you purchase a car, note that you will, of course, need a driver’s license in order to drive in America. If the information on your license from your home country is not written in English, then you should look into getting an International Driving Permit (IDP).
Keep in mind that the U.S. does not issue IDPs to foreign nationals, so you will need to get one from the motor vehicle department in your home country before you come to the U.S. An IDP is not a replacement of your license, so you will need to carry both your license and your IDP while driving abroad.
Applying for a U.S. driver’s license once you are here is also an option, although the process can be complicated. You can learn about how to apply for a U.S. driver’s license by downloading this factsheet.
Step Two: Get Insured
It’s also important to remember that you cannot drive a car in the U.S. without car insurance. If you are not able to provide proof of insurance while purchasing a vehicle, you will not be able to drive the car off the lot. You can read more about finding an insurance policy that’s best for you on ConsumerReports.org.
Step Three: Research Your Options and Make a Purchase
Once you are licensed and insured, you will be able to purchase a vehicle. Make sure you thoroughly research your options in order to find a car that fits your needs and budget. If buying a new car is too expensive, getting a used one is always an option. Carfax has a handy tool that allows you to search for a used car by either make and model or body type and price.
Step Four: Register Your Vehicle
After you have purchased a car, you are required to register it. The deadline to do this varies, so do some research to find out what it is in your state. You will also need to look into what paperwork and documents you are required to take with you to the DMV to submit your registration application.
NOTE: You will probably need to acquire a parking pass in order to be able to park your vehicle on campus. This information should be available on your school’s website.
If you don’t have the money to buy a car, or you don’t think you would get enough use out of one to make purchasing a car in the U.S. worth it, there are other options available to you.
One of these options is Volvo’s International Student Program. Through this program, you can select an eligible vehicle from a local Volvo dealership, make one payment upfront, drive it during your time in school, and return it once you graduate.
Car sharing is a great option to look into if you don’t plan on regularly driving but think you may occasionally need a vehicle. Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing network, has cars on hundreds of campuses throughout the U.S.
Zipcars can be booked for as little as an hour or for as long as seven days, so they are great for everything from running errands to heading to Florida for spring break.
How to Stay Safe While Driving
Driving responsibly is vital to your own safety as well as the safety of those sharing the road with you. Keep these things in mind while you are operating a vehicle:
- Wear your seatbelt. Not only is it illegal to drive without a seatbelt, it’s also incredibly dangerous. In 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seatbelts saved an estimated 13,941 lives.
- Don’t text and drive. If your focus is on your phone, then it’s not on the road. Texting while driving is illegal for all drivers in 47 of the 50 U.S. states.
- Don’t drive under the influence. In all 50 states, it is illegal to drive if your blood alcohol concentration is above .08%. Be smart. If you’re intoxicated, don’t get behind the wheel of a car. Instead, call a cab, request an Uber, take public transportation, or get a ride from a (sober) friend.
- Obey U.S. driving laws. Read over this information to make sure you are familiar with the rules of the road.
Not interested in dealing with the hassle of a car? Check out the 13 best cities for students without cars!
If you want to reduce your carbon footprint a bit, then you may want to look into ridesharing. With rideshare programs like Zimride, you can carpool with other people who are headed to the same destination you are.
And of course, there’s Uber and Lyft. With these mobile apps, you can request rides and easily pay for them using the account linked to your app. Check to see if Uber is available in your school’s city here and if Lyft is available in your school’s city here.
How to Stay Safe While Ridesharing
Although ridesharing companies do their best to keep things as safe as possible, there is always risk involved when you get into a car with a stranger. Make sure you keep these safety tips in mind:
- Wait inside until your ride shows up. You don't want to spend unnecessary time standing around outside by yourself. Wait until the app has notified you that your driver has arrived.
- Trust your instincts. If something seems off, don't get in the car. If you find yourself in an emergency situation, call 911.
- Share your trip details. Both Uber and Lyft provide an easy way for you to send information about your driver, car, location, and estimated arrival time. More information about how to do so can be found here (Uber) and here (Lyft).
3. Public Transportation
Owning a car is expensive. In addition to actually purchasing the vehicle, you have to cover the costs of registration, insurance, gas, upkeep, parking, etc. A lot of money can be saved by taking public transportation instead.
In fact, according to the American Public Transportation Association, people living in major U.S. cities can save upwards of $10,000 a year by taking mass transit instead of driving.
If you have a student ID, it is likely that you will be able to ride local buses for a reduced rate. Larger college campuses may even have their own campus buses that you can ride for free. You can check your school’s website or its city’s public transit website for more information.
If don’t have access to a car and need to travel to a different city or state, you may consider booking a trip on a Greyhound bus—an intercity bus service across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico with over 3,800 destinations.
If you attend school in one of these major U.S. cities, you can use its heavy rail rapid transit systems to get around:
- New York, New York – New York City Subway
- Chicago, Illinois – Chicago “L”
- Washington, D.C. – Washington Metro
- Boston, Massachusetts – MBTA Subway
- San Francisco, California – Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – SEPTA
- Atlanta, Georgia – MARTA
- Los Angeles, California – Metro Rail
- Miami, Florida – Metrorail
- Baltimore, Maryland – Baltimore Metro Subway
- Cleveland, Ohio – RTA Rapid Transit
PRO TIP: Carry a transit map with you or download an app with that information so you can avoid getting too lost. Also, make sure you know if and when the transit system shuts down at night, so you don’t end up stranded somewhere.
Cable Cars and Streetcars
Some cities also have cable cars and streetcars (also known as trolleys or trams). To find out information about all the public transit options in a certain city, a quick Google search will probably get you to the public transportation website that has that information. For example, search for “[city name]” + “public transportation.”
PRO TIP: Fare for one trip on a bus, subway, or streetcar will probably cost you around $2 or $3. But if you plan to use these services often, it would be beneficial to find out what kind of multi-trip passes are available for purchase.
If you want to travel to another city or state by train, Amtrak is a national passenger railroad service that provides intercity service in the continental U.S. as well as to Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia in Canada.
How to Stay Safe On Public Transportation
Public transportation is an inexpensive and convenient way to get around, but there is risk involved. Keep yourself safe with these tips:
- Stay awake and alert. You don’t want to sleep through your stop and end up somewhere unfamiliar.
- Know where you are going. Plan your trip ahead of time using a map or a transit app such as Moovit.
- Keep your belongings safe. Try to avoid bringing valuable items like laptops or expensive purses with you on to public transportation. Keep your bags zipped and hold them close.
You can find more public transportation safety tips here.
Regardless of whether or not you have a car or access to public transit, you’ll probably do a lot of walking around campus. Many students who live on or near campus walk to class every day.
PRO TIP: If you are worried about getting lost trying to find your classes, take some time during the days leading up to the first day of classes to locate the buildings and classrooms ahead of time.
During the warmer months, get out and enjoy your campus’s beautiful architecture and green spaces. It is not uncommon to see students tossing a frisbee around the quad or lying around in the grass or in hammocks. Colleges often have plenty of amenities and activities for students to take advantage of, so get out and explore your new home on your own two feet!
How to Stay Safe While Walking
Walking alone can be risky, especially at night and especially if you are a woman. Many campuses have safe walk programs that you can utilize if you ever feel uncomfortable walking alone at night. Call a number, give your location, and someone will come walk with you. Depending on the type of program at your school, this could either be a police officer or a student volunteer. You can check your school’s website to see if they have such a program in place.
Other safety tips for walking alone:
- Walk confidently. Keep your head and walk at a steady pace. Make eye contact with people you pass instead of averting your gaze.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Make sure you are alert and paying attention to what’s going on around you. Avoid wearing earphones or headphones. If you feel uneasy, you may want to call someone and stay on the phone until you feel safe again, but make sure being on the phone doesn’t distract you too much.
- Trust your gut. If someone seems suspicious, do your best to avoid them. If you feel you are being followed, turn around or cross the street a couple times. If they continue to follow you, try to get to the nearest store, restaurant, or other public place as fast as possible.
- Carry pepper spray. Pepper spray can be legally purchased and carried in all 50 states and may be used in situations involving imminent physical threats.
Nervous about adjusting to life in the U.S.? Download our free Guide to U.S. Cultures and Customs!
You’ll probably see lots of students riding bikes around campus. There are plenty of places you can purchase a bicycle if you decide to have one with you on campus—major retailers like Walmart and Target, sporting goods stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods, or local bike shops near your school. You can also check sites like Bike Exchange or Perfecto for used bikes in your area.
If you still want to be able to ride a bike every so often, but don’t want to shell over the money to buy one of your own, then you may want to look into bike sharing programs such as Zagster. The idea behind bike sharing is similar to car sharing. Individuals can borrow bicycles that have been made available for public use and return them when they are through.
And if you’re more of the skateboarding type, don’t worry! It’s not uncommon to see students navigating campus on skateboards and longboards.
How to Stay Safe While Biking
Make sure you check your school’s website to find out if bike registration is available and whether or not it is required or just recommended. Registering your bike can help with identification in the event of your bike being stolen.
Here are some other tips for keeping you and your bike safe:
- Wear a properly fitted helmet. A 2016 study of more than 64,000 cyclists found that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of a serious head injury by nearly 70%.
- Avoid biking at night. Riding a bike at night is much more dangerous than riding during the day. If you can’t avoid it, make sure you are wearing reflective gear and that your bike has reflectors and lights.
- Know the traffic laws. Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road that motorists do.
- Keep your bike locked to prevent theft. Check out these tips for properly locking your bike!