Top 10 Tips: Advice for the Parents of the College-Bound Expatriate  

By Barbara C. Chen
College Admissions Professional, Beijing 

As the annual ritual of parents sending their children off to college nears, articles highlighting debates such as buying versus renting a mini fridge abound. Indeed, these editorials have merit, but they overlook a growing population of students arriving on U.S. college campuses each year: the American expatriate. If the number of Americans living overseas were placed in one state, it would be the 13th most populous state in the U.S. Adjusting for growth since the last census, at roughly 8 million citizens abroad, they comprise a demographic that remains largely invisible. To add to that perspective, that figure excludes those who reside abroad related to U.S. government and military work.  Different from their fellow citizens who live and attend high school in the US, and different still from international students, the American who grew up overseas but returns “home”
for college has an entirely different college move- in check list. 



Seasoned expats know what to pack when limited to two suitcases. They are well versed in transitions, both emotional and logistical. They’ve built their RAFT. They know which shape the outlets are and have necessary converters. They know the value of a tool-kit, duct tape, bottled water, and a  Red Cross first aid kit on moving day. But for the parents of first time college- bound students around the globe, this is home leave with a twist: your child will not be returning with you. Faced with different issues that seldom arise during a short summer home leave, you have some extra work to do, starting before you even set out from your host country.


1. Book your flight, hotel, and rental car early. Thousands of other families will be converging on the same town or city, and the only thing worse than expensive rates is no availability. This issue is magnified in a city like Boston, which is home to multiple colleges and universities, as well as a bustling tourism industry.
2. Update emergency contact numbers. The university will have many forms to fill out regarding emergency contacts. In addition to your international number, consider getting a call forwarding service such as Skype To Go so that you can enter a domestic number on forms.  This eliminates barriers in communication that arise when certain phones are prohibited from making international calls. If possible, if you have a state-side relative that you and your child know well, and who agrees, have that person listed too. (See my article on The expat talk: Five conversations parents need to have with their U.S. college bound child.)

3. Contact the university and ask for an early move in date, which is typically afforded to international students. It’s not only less hectic in the parking lot and hallways, but eases congestion unpacking in the room at the same time as your new roommate.

4. Pre-order all your dorm necessities on line and have them shipped to the dorm directly or a local store for pick up. Stores such as Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond offer this service. Dorm shopping can be daunting as it is, and most expats accustomed to small boutique shopping are easily overwhelmed by cavernous stores.

5. Give your child the following documents:

a.     Social security card: Even though he/she can recite the numbers from memory from having entered it multiple times on college applications, FAFSA, and standardized test forms, many places require the actual card, not a copy, for employment or identification verification. These flimsy cards are easy to lose. Keep it in the same case as the passport. (See my related article 7 Stellar Gifts for the Globally Mobile High School Graduate)

b.     Medical Insurance Card: Most U.S. medical facilities require the actual card and will make a copy when you visit. Call one or two providers in your insurance plan that are near campus and ensure they are accepting new patients. Get registered in their system. This is the last hassle your child needs when faced with his/her first illness away from home. 

If you plan on coming to campus directly from your host country, pad your trip with a few extra days ahead of move in to take care of the following items.

On Arrival:

 6. Check your child’s passport expiration date. You already know why. Renew if necessary. Now check your host country’s visa regulations. Some countries do not allow dependents over the age of 18 to remain on their parents’ work/resident visa. Begin the process now of getting a tourist or other appropriate visa so your child can return for the holidays, or earlier, heaven forbid, in the case of an emergency.

7. Obtain a state ID. Many expat teens never get a U.S. driver’s license. If your child doesn’t have one, and can’t manage to obtain one before starting college, an alternative is to get a non driver's ID. College IDs are not always accepted as proof of identification, and carrying your passport for daily transactions is not recommended.

8. Mobile phone service: contract plans that lock your phone are not a good option for students who will be swapping out SIM cards on trips home during school breaks. A pay as you go, such as AT&T go phone allows you to bring your existing phone, set up a monthly plan that auto renews, yet can be suspended during trips abroad without losing the number.  Once you have the phone and plan sorted out, start programming important numbers in it right away, especially the US forwarding phone number to call in case of emergency! (Share this number with your roommate, too.)

9. U.S. bank account: Many banks offer free accounts for students. Choose one without minimum balance requirements and with ATMs convenient to your child’s school. Inquire about a credit card in the student’s name alone. Consider using Venmo to add funds to your child’s account.

10.  Register to vote if you are, or will be 18, by Election Day. After all, you are American!

Returning Abroad:

The seasoned expatriate is no stranger to goodbyes. But this can be the toughest of them all, because it splits the core of expat stability: the family as a unit. Parents, rest assured. You’ve raised a global nomad who has a new city to discover, new friends to meet, and will be just fine if all the essentials aren’t in the dorm on day one. After all, expats are experienced in going without while waiting for the shipment to arrive. You’ve provided the nuts and bolts so your child can hit the ground running. Now take those empty suitcases and fill them with all your home leave purchases to bring back overseas!


Barbara Carletta Chen is a member of International ACAC. She earned an M.S. Ed. in Higher Education from The University of Pennsylvania, a B.A. from Georgetown University, and a college counseling certificate from the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of Eight Essential Steps: Admissions officers share their tips for successful college applications from Americans living abroad. She has been successfully guiding students, families, and corporate executives through educational, professional, and international transitions in Asia and North America for over twenty years. Specializing in undergraduate admissions with a deep understanding of China, she has a sincere appreciation of the challenges presented to Third Culture Kids as they navigate the college application process. She and her husband have raised two global nomads.

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