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Preparing for U.S. College: Student Checklist for Canadians

By Diane Amato

Published June 7, 2023 • 6 Min Read

As you get ready to attend school in the U.S., you’re undoubtedly very excited — and likely a little anxious at the same time. To help ensure a smooth transition to a new country, new school and new experiences, this student checklist covers key documents, steps and considerations — so all you need to do is focus on school.

Student status

Canadian students do not need a student visa to study in the U.S., but you need an I-20 certificate from your university. If you’ve already been accepted as a student, your school has likely issued an I-20 form by this point.

When you receive your I-20 form, you’ll be registered with SEVIS, the U.S. student tracking system. You’ll be assigned a SEVIS number and need to pay a registration fee — by completing these steps, you satisfy your eligibility requirements.

By now, this should sound familiar to you, but if have not yet received your I-20 form or SEVIS registration, be sure to contact your school. You’ll want to have all your documents in order well before you leave.

The I-20 certificate can be used to apply for an F-1 or M-1 student visa, but this is not required for Canadians studying in the U.S. Whether entering on an I-20 certificate or student visa, you will not be able to enter the U.S. more than 30 days before the start of your study or program.

U.S. border crossing paperwork

When crossing the border to begin studying in the U.S., students must show a few things to the officer at the port of entry. Here’s what you should be prepared with:

  • Your Canadian passport

  • The original I-20 certificate received from your university

  • Proof that the SEVIS fee has been paid

  • Proof of ability to pay for school fees and living expenses while in the U.S., such as family bank statements, stock statements, financial aid letters, scholarship letters or proof of the employment status of the individual(s) supporting the student

  • Proof of ties to Canada, such as rent receipts, utility bills, and/or mortgage payments, which serve as proof of Canadian residence

  • Once admitted to the U.S., you’ll receive an I-94 record, which outlines the terms of your admission and is used to document your legal status in the U.S., including your length of stay and departure

Students entering the U.S. by land should be issued an I-94 paper card. If you enter by air, your I-94 record will be entered into the online system. You will need to print it out upon arrival to the U.S. as evidence of legal status and keep it on hand for future border crossings.

Learn more about I-94 records here

U.S. health insurance for Canadians

Given the high cost of healthcare in the U.S., it’s important for Canadian students studying across the border to be sufficiently insured. Typically, you’re required to enrol in your school’s international student health insurance program or else demonstrate that you have insurance comparable to the plan offered before you can begin your academic year. Typically, insurance compliant with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be required. Remember, health coverage provided by your province of residence will not be sufficient, as it won’t pay for the costs of U.S. health care (and would require you to return to Canada for non-emergency care).

Travel insurance is typically not accepted either, as it’s designed for short trips — not for students living in the U.S. for an academic year or more. Check with your school to understand the health insurance requirements and coverage offered.

U.S. bank account

It’s a good idea to open a U.S. bank account1 once you arrive to study in the U.S., so you don’t need to worry about tricky conversions or foreign exchange costs. A U.S.-based account may also make it easier to pay for your expenses — including housing/rent, tuition, books, meals, transportation and more — through U.S. checks, online banking transfers and cash accessed at an ATM.

U.S. credit card

When you use a Canadian credit card in the U.S., you’re often charged a foreign transaction fee, which is typically 2.5 per cent of the amount of what you purchase. These fees can add up, especially when making every dollar count on a student budget. Given the convenience of credit cards — and the fact they’re often needed to secure a cell phone plan, an apartment or a rental car — a U.S.-based card1 is a worthwhile addition to your wallet.

Financial aid

It’s not always easy for international students to get financial aid from U.S. colleges and universities, as much of that aid is reserved for U.S. students. While Canadian students aren’t eligible for U.S. student loans, it’s worth exploring the opportunities for financial support through your school. You can also look at other grants and scholarships available for international students, such as those from

Keep in mind that financial aid received by international students (by a U.S. institution) is subject to U.S. income tax. If you don’t have a U.S. Social Security Number (SSN), you will need to complete an application for a federal Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

Learn how to apply for an ITIN

Tax obligations for Canadian students studying in the U.S.

Every international student has to file a tax return in the U.S. — regardless of whether or not you’ve earned an income while in America. As a non-resident, you will need to file what is known as Form 8843 before the deadline. Typically, the deadline for filing Form 8843 is the same as any tax return due — April 15th. If you earn an income in the U.S., you must also file a tax return — Form 1040NR or Form 1040 NR-EZ and Form 8843.

Compliance with the IRS is one of the conditions of the student visa (and if you want to get a job in the U.S. in the future, the handling of U.S. taxes can affect future Green Card applications). It’s worth working with an accountant or a tax filing service to help make filing U.S. taxes easy and worry-free.

Attending college or university for the first time is exciting for any student. Going to school in another country adds an extra layer of adventure and perhaps some anxiety. By getting your paperwork and finances in order well in advance, you can be ready for what’s surely going to be a remarkable year ahead.

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This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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