Key facts for international students in Philadelphia
Updated 2023-10-04 09:21

Located between New York and Baltimore, Philadelphia – affectionately called Philly, has a rich history, affordable public transport, and a thriving cultural and dining scene. It's a perfect place for international students, and it won't break the bank compared to some cities in America.

Is Philadelphia a good place to study?

If you're looking to move to Philadelphia, you'll likely enjoy a good quality of life and a lower cost of living than in New York or San Francisco.  However, don't feel like you're missing out by going somewhere a little less iconic than the big-name cities – Philadelphia is known for being a dynamic city with a fascinating history, many museums, venues, and restaurants if you're looking for ideas to have a good time with your friends or family. This city is also famous for its prestigious universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania, which is a major research center, and Drexel University.

In 2023, there are more than 11,000 international students, scholars, and faculty at Penn State, and Drexel University also has solid international representation with about 3,500 international students, scholars, and faculty from over 120 countries.

Universities in Philadelphia

So, what are the best places to study in Philadelphia?

Before further, let's distinguish between public and private universities in the USA.

Public universities are state-funded, by Pennsylvania, for instance, while private universities are not. Note, however, that university can be quite costly yearly — even a state-funded university.

If you're planning to enroll in Pennsylvania State University, which is the state's public university, you will still need to pay a hefty sum. The average cost of tuition at the university (before financial aid, if you qualify for it) is around $19,000. Other related costs (like books and on-campus room and board) can amount to another $20,000, making the total annual tuition cost around $39,000.

University of Pennsylvania (not to be confused with Pennsylvania State University)

Founded in 1740 by none other than Benjamin Franklin, the 6th President of the USA, the University of Pennsylvania, also known as Penn or UPenn, is a world-famous private university specializing in research. It is also part of the Ivy League, comprising the eight elite USA universities, and ranks 13th worldwide in the QS World Universities Ranking of 2023. Year after year, it has been among the top ten or fifteen universities in the USA.

UPenn is especially famous for advanced scientific research. It even came up 38th worldwide in the Scimago Rankings. In 2013, a team of doctors from Penn's Perelman School of Medicine was in the news headlines for their efforts in cancer prevention. Following years of research, they have been able to isolate attacking cells from HIV and program them in such a way as to kill cancer cells.

UPenn is well known not only in the field of research but also for its business school. Indeed, a decent chunk of the CEOs listed in the Fortune 500 come from the Wharton School of Business. It has even been ranked by the Business Insider as the best business school in the world. Its prestigious reputation means it's popular worldwide, and international students make up 19% of the study body.

Other than its MBA program, UPenn also offers a Bachelor of Science in four-year courses. Students are generally more likely to enroll in finance, business, medicine, economics, and biology programs. William Harrison, the 9th President of the US; Warren Buffet, an extraordinary investor; Kwame Nkrumah, the 1st President of Ghana; Google and Apple's CEOs; and Donald Trump, the 45th President of the US, are some of the most famous UPenn alumni.

UPenn's Harry Potter-style campus is found in University City in eastern Philadelphia. Find more information on enrollment formalities on the university website.

Did you know that the university's mascot is Quaker Ben Franklin?

Drexel University

Founded in 1891, Drexel University is a private university comprising 16 schools and colleges. Each of these specializes in a particular field, namely arts and science, business, engineering, law, health and medicine, etc. International students can choose from a total of 80 majors.

Ranking as the 105th US university according to US News & World Report, it is world-famous for innovation and its quality higher education, especially in the fields of business and engineering.

Compared to other universities in Philadelphia and nationally, Drexel's most significant strength is its co-op system, referring to internships. If you come from Europe, for instance, this might not surprise you. However, only a few universities in the US include internships as part of their programs. Students can, therefore, acquire some professional experience before stepping into the labor market. Drexel also offers a five-year Bachelor of Science (BS) and an over five-year Bachelor of Arts (BA). The university year consists of three semesters.

The main campus is found in western Philadelphia near UPenn in University City. International students can hence be part of the vibrant urban life whether they are working or just living in the area.

Drexel has been attracting many international students over the years. Today, the university is home to around 5,000 foreign students. Find more information on Drexel University here.

Good to know:

John Langdon, the former assistant professor of Drexel's Arts and Media Department, has created the ambigrams of Dan Brown's book and movie Angels and Demons. Tom Hanks' role as Professor Robert Langdon is inspired by him. Mary Corinna Putnam Jacobi, the first woman to join the National Academy of Medicine, graduated from Drexel. Drexel's mascot is "Mario the Dragon".

Pennsylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University, also known as Penn State, was the first state-owned university in the region. Founded in 1855, it now comprises a total of 24 campuses across the whole state, each one offering its own Bachelor program over four-year courses.

As of 2023, Penn State ranks 93rd in the QS World University Rankings. Business, management, marketing, and engineering are the most sought-after courses. The university is also well known for its expertise in scientific research and its involvement in fundraising for research in child cancer through its yearly THON dance marathon. The THON dance marathon is the largest student-run charity event in the world: thousands of students get together at the Jordan Center to dance non-stop without sleeping for 46 hours. Since 1977, the event has raised over $219 million, helping over thousands of families in the state.

Hillary Clinton's father, High Ellsworth Rodham, and Mark Parker, Nike CEO, are Penn State's most famous alumni.

Find more information on enrollment requirements on the university website.

Penn State's mascot is the "Nittany Lion".

Temple University

Located in northern Philadelphia, an area that is continuously developing and expanding, Temple University is quite similar to Penn State. Founded in 1884, it is a public university that is partly funded by the State of Pennsylvania. It's interesting to note that it is the least expensive of the four universities listed in this article. In-state tuition cost was set at $17,338 in 2023, while out-of-state tuition was just over $30,000.

With more than 37,000 enrollments every year, Temple University only attracts 5.4% of international students. However, it has 2 overseas campuses, namely in Tokyo and Rome. It also provides many international programs, namely in China, Israel, France, etc.

Jesse Williams and Kunal Nayyar, who played Raj's role in the "Big Bang Theory", are the most popular alumni.

Find more information on enrollment requirements on the university website. Temple University's mascot is the "Temple Owl".

Courses in Philadelphian universities

US universities host an impressive number of international students every year. Therefore, most major lectures are delivered in amphitheaters. Some specialized courses, such as logistics operations courses at Drexel, are provided in smaller conference rooms. To put it this way, broader courses are taught in more expansive spaces. For instance, there's a greater demand for 101 business marketing courses than for courses that focus on a more specific aspect of marketing.

To make lectures more lively and interactive, most faculties are likely to organize workshops or group presentations. Note that US students are used to making presentations in front of their class, which may be something foreign students will need to adjust to.

Remember that all courses will be taught in English. You are free to share your international experience with your fellow students, as diversity is very much appreciated.

Cost of living for international students in Philadelphia

We've briefly mentioned university fees in this article, so remember that you will need over $50,000 a year to study at private universities like Drexel and UPenn. Financial support is also available for international students, but these are quite limited. Also, these do not apply to postgraduate studies and those completing an MBA. You could perhaps consider applying for a scholarship from your home country.

Housing in Philadelphia is quite costly. According to Numbeo, you will need at least $1,300 monthly to rent a one-bedroom apartment on the city's outskirts. And, if you want to live in the city center, you must pay over $1,900.

Overall, the cost of living in Philadelphia is almost as high as in many big cities in Europe, although if you compare it with Seattle, New York, or San Francisco, you may get a pleasant surprise.

Flat-sharing is also a common practice in Philadelphia. You can opt for flat-sharing or room-sharing if you plan to study at Temple, UPenn, or Drexel. The International House is quite popular with international students for being a cultural center. Rent is also quite flexible as you can pay monthly, although the rooms are quite small.

What to do on campus in Philadelphia?

US universities are well known for organizing many extracurricular activities. You can join clubs, participate in many different events, apply for memberships in sororities and fraternities — and more. Once you have, you will also feel that pride and sense of belonging to the university called the school spirit. Among the four universities mentioned in this article, Penn State and Temple have the strongest school spirit. Penn State's campus is particularly vibrant during the American football season. Located in western Philadelphia, the University City comprising Upenn and Drexel has a dynamic student population and is quite lively. These are easily accessible by public transportation on a 5 to 10-minute ride. Needless to say, Philadelphia is a top destination for student trips as well. For more information on Philadelphia, feel free to browse city guides on the Internet or even inquire from locals.

Student visas and internships in the US

In all cases, you need a visa to study in the US. If you have enrolled as a full-time student, you will have to obtain the F1 visa that allows you not only to study at the chosen university but also to perform an internship. It also entitles you to get a job after the internship and then for the Green Card or H1B.

If you're moving to the USA with a student exchange program, you will probably be entitled to the J1 student visa, which does not make you a full-time student. You can still perform an internship under some conditions, but you're not allowed to work in the USA. In Drexel, for instance, professional and placement assistance is unavailable for exchange students. Moreover, you cannot join any club or other association.

Regardless of your visa status, internships in the USA involve a lot of administrative procedures. These can be quite strict, depending on your profile, the duration of your studies, your professional experience, and your visa, and therefore determining the duration of your internship. You can find more information on the J1 visa on the Department of State website. Regarding the F1 visa, see the Optional Practical Training section at the bottom of the page.

Enrollment in US universities

Enrollment deadlines usually vary from one university to another and depend on the period of the year. You may have to produce results obtained from a SAT test. Find more information on the US News website. Also, feel free to ask your questions, should you have any, on the USA Forum or have a look at the USA Expat Guide.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.