Living in the U.S. can be expensive and it’s important to make necessary financial preparations before your arrival. As you research your host city, you should also come up with a monthly plan of your anticipated expenses. Here you’ll find some useful resources for creating a budget for your time in the U.S., as well as some advice for saving money throughout your program.
Also consider our Special Discounted Offer on the Mobile ISE Plus Card – Activity Discounts and Deductible Benefits and use our Budgeting Worksheet to help determine what your budget should be.
Determining Your U.S. Living Expenses
Your estimated living expenses in the U.S. will depend on a variety of factors:
- Length of your program: The more time you spend in the U.S., the more money you will need. After the first couple months, assess your spending and set a new budget for the remainder of your program. Once you’re settled, you should have a better sense regarding the amount of money you’ll need on a monthly basis.
- Location of your program: In urban areas such as New York City, San Francisco, and Boston, your rent, food, and entertainment will be more expensive than in suburban or rural areas. You should plan to spend more for necessities in larger cities.
- Paid vs. unpaid internship: Even if you are doing a paid program, you should still research the cost of living of your city in advance to ensure you can cover all your expenses. If your program is paid, you will also want to think about evaluating your gross vs. net income. For example, if your internship stipend is $2,000 per month, this is your gross monthly income. Once you factor in income tax withholdings (J-1 Interns are subject to local, state, and federal income tax, but exempt from Medicare and Social Security taxes) that new amount is your net income, also known as “take-home” pay. You can always ask your host employer if you have questions about your earnings and tax deductions. The amount withheld from your paycheck depends on a variety of factors, including your host city and state, so be aware of these factors if you have a paid internship. You will also likely to be entitled to a tax refund, so make sure to file your tax return each year following any year you earned income in the U.S.
- Employee Benefits: If your employer offers free housing or a food or transportation allowance, this benefit will help reduce your monthly costs.
- Personal spending habits and limits: When traveling, most people spend money in the same way they would at home. If you spend a lot of money in your home country, you will probably spend a lot of money while you’re in the U.S. You’ll also need to budget for any traveling you intend to do while in the U.S.
We suggest you budget between $2,000 and $4,000 depending on where you will be living to cover your initial costs, including: a hotel or hostel while you conduct a housing search; security deposits and first month’s rent for your housing (often first month, last month and security in New York City); transportation from the airport to your temporary or permanent housing; food and extra monetary funds to cover any unexpected emergency situation while in the U.S. If you will not be paying for housing, $750 should be sufficient for your arrival.
To give you some guidance on allocating your money during your time in the U.S., please review the estimated standard expenses for a single person during a typical program in the United States. These estimates will help you to budget accordingly.
- Initial Expenses (Average transportation cost from the airport to your host city and one week stay in a hostel or budget hotel): $300 to $500.
- Housing: $300 to $1200 per month. Housing in urban areas can be very expensive, but safe, lower-cost options are always available. Plan to stay temporarily in a hotel or hostel so you can conduct your housing search in person. Most landlords will require a security deposit equal to one month’s rent and the first month’s rent when you sign a lease.
- Utilities (gas/electric, phone, internet): $100 to $200 per month.
- Food: $250 to $500 per month or more, depending on how often you cook at home or dine out.
- Transportation: $50 to $500 per month, depending on whether you use mass transit or drive a car. Please note that you will also need car insurance if purchasing a car, which will add to your monthly costs.
- Personal Care Products: $35 per month.
- Miscellaneous/Entertainment: $0 to $1000 throughout your program.
Your accident and sickness insurance will cover most of your expenses for unexpected illnesses/injuries, but you will still need to pay a co-pay for any doctor’s visits and a deductible. However, if you qualify for the Mobile ISE Plus Card, you can receive reimbursement for some of your medical expenses in the U.S. Remember, your insurance does not cover pre-existing conditions or preventative care, so you will need to pay out-of-pocket for any preventative care or to treat pre-existing conditions.
Cost of Living Resources
Please visit the National Standard: Food, Clothing and Other Items section on the Internal Revenue Service’s website to learn more about the average cost of living in the United States. You can also compare the cost of living between your home city and your host city in the U.S. on these sites:
You can also check out our budgeting tips.
Use our Budgeting Worksheet to make sure that you will have sufficient funds for your experience in the United States. Check cost of living websites to learn how much rent, utilities, food, etc. cost in your host city to estimate how much you will spend on each category. Be honest with yourself about how you are accustomed to spending (e.g. if you eat out for most meals or love to shop in designer stores, you should add these expenses into your budget).
We’ve also created a sample budget for a six-month program in New York City for your reference (note that amounts are only examples).
Completing an internship abroad can help drive the success of your career, and you don’t want to miss out on this opportunity due to a lack of necessary financial planning.
When considering an internship program in the U.S., evaluating your living expenses and making appropriate financial preparations is essential. If you’ve already taken a look at our Cost of Living & Budgeting Guide, you should have a sense of the money you’ll need to do an internship in the U.S. With pre-departure costs (program fees, flight ticket) as well as incurred costs while in the U.S. (living expenses, food), it may seem overwhelming. Just as your education at home is an investment in your future, so too is an international internship. When considering the costs you will incur by participating in an internship in the U.S., think about the outcome of your experience. Will the internship help you in your studies upon your return to school? How will potential future employers evaluate this experience? Will you have made valuable connections and learned lifelong skills? Interning in the U.S. is an opportunity that will help launch or improve your career upon returning to your home country, so it’s a worthwhile investment.
Doing financial research beforehand and saving money will be well worth your effort. Some participants may be fully or partially funded through scholarships, but many participants must be creative in order to find the necessary funds. You have numerous options when it comes to financing your program in the U.S. We have compiled some resources to assist you in earning or gathering funding for your internship.
- If your internship is paid, you will have income to help offset your expenses. If your host employer is unable to offer a stipend/salary, try negotiating a housing allowance or a transportation/meal allowance to help offset your program costs.
If you’ve saved enough of your own money, you can support yourself on the program.
Create a separate savings account at your bank dedicated to going abroad. You can then set up a direct deposit schedule where a set amount of money is automatically transferred into the account. A separate account helps you keep track of your funds, and you’re less likely to spend the money if it’s not part of your regular checking account!
Consider using financial management systems such as PayPal.com or Mint.com to track your progress and eventually reach your savings goal.
You may already have some financial support from family or friends. Write emails or send postcards home, and share photos when you return to your home country to share your experience with those supportive friends and family. They may be more likely to support you financially if you express that you’ll update them on your adventures.
If you do have people in your life willing to support you, you can show your appreciation by writing a thank-you note or bringing them a little something back from your trip.
Host a Fundraising Event
Invite friends and family to an event where they can learn about your proposed internship experience abroad and what you hope to gain from the experience. Not only is it a way for you to earn money to support your trip, it also gets your loved ones involved in your travel abroad plans.
Be prepared to explain why you are fundraising. Convince people that your experience abroad will be valuable!
Another fun idea is to make your event themed around the U.S. and/or your career field by serving food and having decorations related to your abroad program.
You could also host this type of event as your own birthday celebration. In lieu of gifts, you could ask friends and family to donate to your international experience.
Other ideas for a fundraising event include a bake sale, car wash, concert, or auction.
Keep your event simple or risk spending more than you’ll get in return. Check out these tips for hosting a successful fundraising event.
Make sure to thank all attendees and keep them informed of your experiences abroad through emails or a blog.
Create a Blog or Website
Create a website or blog for your trip to get the word out and ask for financial support.
Once you are on your program, you can use your blog to share your travel experiences with those who may have supported you or are continuing to support you while in the USA.
You can post anything from photos to videos or format it like a travel diary. Make sure to share it via email or post to your social media outlets.
Your blog is not only a great way to keep in touch with friends and relatives, but also for you to document your travels and look back on your experience in the future!
Yard/Garage Sale or Online Sale
Ask friends and family if they have items to donate.
Does your school have a scholarship or financial aid office? Talk to your advisor about any scholarships or grants that may be available for you. Many universities have started programs to help fund students who want to pursue unpaid internships.
If you are currently on a scholarship, you may be able to transfer your current package for use in the U.S., especially if you are receiving academic credit for your internship.
Consider alumni associations. Perhaps a school you previously attended has scholarships for its graduates. You could also ask about putting an announcement in your former high school or university’s newsletter with an explanation of your plans to gain support.
- Your country’s government may have available funds and scholarships for which you can apply. Do some research into opportunities for funding. This could be on a local, regional, or state level.
Private or Community Organizations
There may be private organizations in your home country that provide support for internships in the U.S. Some examples include local businesses, chambers of commerce, foundations, and religious groups. Are you a member of any associations or clubs? Contact them and see if they might have funds available to contribute to your program.
If you are a member of a religious congregation or community organization, you could ask permission to make a presentation about your proposed program in the U.S. Explain what you will be doing and describe your goals. Members may be willing to donate.
If you give a presentation, make sure to mention you’ll have photos and stories about your experiences that you can share with others in the community when you return. Highlight the fact that you are taking responsibility for funding the trip (like working extra hours, for instance) and not only soliciting donations.
Crowdfunding websites allow friends, family, and the world know about a project or plan you are working on and gives them the opportunity to support you by donating money.
Create an account and describe your proposed internship, why you want to go, and your goals; you can then share the page with friends and family.
Some examples of crowd funding sites include:
Make sure to post your crowdfunding page via social media. Share it on Facebook or tweet a link to it. You could even make a Facebook Group and invite your friends to join. They can learn about your trip and donate. Once you are on your program, you can share updates and photos to the group.
We hope you will consider these resources to help offset your costs. While international internships can be costly, the reward is long lasting.
Stay on target: Once you have an idea of how much you will be spending each month, it’s important to stick to that number! When you’re in a new and exciting place, it’s tempting to overspend and splurge. Think about your needs versus your wants: paying your rent on time is a need, but buying a souvenir for your friend is a want!
Rainy day fund: It’s always a good idea to have an emergency fund - that is, a savings account where money is set aside in case you really need it. Most U.S. checking accounts have an attached savings account where you can put a portion of your money or earnings. If your host company offers direct deposit (meaning your paycheck is automatically deposited into your account each pay period), you may be able to have a portion of your paycheck put directly into savings.
Couponing and deals: Using coupons and deal websites can be a great way to save money. Just be careful: if the deal isn’t something you would normally spend money on, you’re not actually saving money! Check out our blog post on “Deal-ing” for a list of the best “deal” websites.
Student discounts: You can get a student discount card or just look for student rates that are available for travel and entertainment. Be sure to bring your student ID card with you.
Save your receipts: A great way to keep track of your spending habits is to save your receipts. After making a purchase, add the total amount to your record of monthly spending and keep your receipts in a safe, accessible place.
Pay with cash, when possible: It’s easier to see what you are actually spending when you pay in cash. It’s much more difficult to complete a big purchase when you are physically handing over the money as opposed to swiping a credit or debit card.
Avoid ATM fees: Plan ahead for your expenses. Many ATMs will charge you a fee (in addition to your own bank’s fee) for using them, particularly if you have an international bank account. Make sure you know ahead of time what these fees will be by checking with your bank before arriving in the U.S. It will probably be more cost efficient to set up a U.S. bank account and use only that bank’s ATMs when you need cash. Read our guide on How to Open a U.S. Bank Account.
Use a (free) budgeting website or app: Mint.com, toshl.com, Budgetpulse.com and Budgetsimple.com are just a few of several great sites you can use to manage and track your spending. It’s nice to know exactly where your money goes each month so you can plan accordingly!
Remember to budget for your travels, too. You will want to use the opportunity you have on the weekends or during the 30-day grace period at the end of your program to do some traveling. Look at your budget and think about how much you can afford to save up each month. If you make sure to save a little every week, you’ll be surprised how quickly your savings can grow. Use our blog post on budget travel sites to save even more!
Need more advice? Our former participants shared how they saved money during their program:
“Attend all staff events and briefings, as often they supply lunches and snacks. Cook meals where possible and walk or cycle instead of using a taxi. Utilize the metro service and other public transport. Visit the museums as they are mostly free of charge.” —Kate W. from New Zealand, 2015
“I would suggest them to go to buy all the food at the supermarket. Always is cheaper than the small markets or downtown.” —Claudio M. from Chile, 2015
Read more participant budgeting advice on our blog.
If you are going to be in the U.S. for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to open a U.S. bank account to manage and access your finances. Even if you are not doing a paid internship, you may want to consider opening a U.S. bank account to help cut down on fees your own bank may charge for international use.
If you are doing a paid program, you may want to choose the bank that your employer uses, especially if your employer offers direct deposit, a process through which your employer will electronically transfer your paycheck directly into your checking account. Below are the necessary steps for opening a bank account in the U.S. and some things to keep in mind.
1. Explore Your Options
Most checking accounts in the U.S. are free to open! Do some research and visit some of the branches in your neighborhood or near your internship: you can meet one-on-one with someone at the bank who will explain how it all works. Some banks will also have special promotions for students. You should also ask roommates, American friends, and co-workers which banks they would recommend using. You will want to think about where the bank is located and where they may have other branches and ATMs available.
2. Consider and Ask These Questions
Do you have a minimum required amount to open an account or a minimum daily balance? Some banks require a certain amount of money to be in your account at all times.
What are the interest rates for a checking or savings account?
Do you have a maintenance fee? Some banks charge a monthly or yearly “maintenance” fee, usually about $5, but this varies from bank to bank and depends how much money you keep in your account.
What additional fees do you charge? Are there overdraft fees? ATM fees?
How long does it take to “clear” a check? (that is, how long from the time a check is deposited into your account before you will be able to access or withdraw your money?)
Do you have online banking or an app? Most banks have a secure website where you can view your balance and transfer money and many banks will now even let you deposit checks by taking a photo via your smartphone.
Why should I choose to open an account with your bank?
As an exchange visitor to the U.S. on a J-1 Intern visa for x number of months, is there anything I should know about banking with you?
3. Bring the Right Documents
Keep in mind that each bank is different and may require different or additional documentation (particularly forms of identification) from the list we’ve provided below. Check your chosen bank’s requirements online before going in person to open your account.
- Your passport with your J-1 Visa
- DS-2019 Form
- DS-7002 Form (Training Plan)
- I-94 card
- Your Social Security card (if you have already received it)
- Your full name, living address in the U.S., phone number, and place of employment. Some banks might ask for your lease or something showing your local address, like a utilities bill.
- Your student ID card (if you have one)
- Government ID from your home country (if you have one)
- A credit card (if you have one; it can also be used as a form of ID)
4. What to Expect
When you go into a bank’s branch office, someone will greet you and ask how they can help you. Tell them that you are interested in learning about opening an account with them. You might have to schedule a time to come back later and meet with someone, or they will see if an associate is available to help you right then. You will probably want to open a checking account, and these usually have a savings account attached. If you are doing direct deposit with your employer, they can automatically have your paycheck deposited into one (or both) of these accounts. Make sure you have the documents listed above with you!
The bank associate will go over some questions with you, such as biographical information and contact information, when setting up your account. Make sure you tell them that you are an exchange visitor in the U.S. for x number of months on a J-1 Visa, participating in an internship. They will probably ask you questions about what you are looking for in an account and assess your needs. As mentioned earlier, you will most likely want to open a basic checking account that will come with an ATM/debit card. You will be told to choose a PIN (Personal Identification Number), which is the code needed to access your account at an ATM when you withdraw cash. If you wish to have paper checks to pay rent and bills, you will have to ask and pay for them, and the bank will order them for you. Your ATM card will probably be mailed to you and will require you to go to an ATM to activate it for the first time.
Make sure to take the bank associate’s name and contact information if you have additional questions or concerns. For day-to-day transactions and general banking, you can always wait on line to speak with a bank teller. For just withdrawing cash, you would only need to go to an ATM. You should also have the toll-free number for the bank in case of any emergencies, such as losing your card so they can cancel it and send you a new one.
5. Start Banking
Always keep anything bank related, such as account numbers and checks, in a safe place at home. You should never give out your account number or checkbook to anyone. Don’t share your ATM card or PIN number with anyone. Your host employer, however, will need some of this information if you wish to set up direct deposit, but they will never need your PIN.
Keep the phone number for your bank with you or stored in your phone. If your ATM card is lost or stolen, you will need to call this number to report it and have a replacement mailed to you.
Always be aware of how much money is in your account to avoid any overdraft fees or bounced checks.
Withdraw cash at ATMs associated with your bank to avoid fees for using your card through a different bank.
Use ATMs at banks or inside stores. Try to avoid using ATM machines on sidewalks where passersby can see you withdrawing cash or entering your PIN number.
Check your account details on your bank’s website to ensure there are not any erroneous charges or fees that were not explained to you.
If you will travel home during your internship and wish to withdraw cash from your U.S. bank account or use your debit card, be sure to call your bank in advance to notify them of your travel plans. Otherwise, they may suspect someone stole your card. Many banks now will let you enter travel information through your online account.