How to Become a Medical Doctor in United States (8 Steps)

Becoming a doctor in the United States is a great commitment, as you will most likely need to start studying specific subjects to help get into medical school from a very young age. Most students focus on sciences from their high-school years or earlier, and take the highest level of these subjects they can, in order to prepare the best. After a long arduous process, however, becoming a medical doctor in the US can be very rewarding. There are many underrepresented areas of the United States, where doctors are today in high demand: from suburban, low-income neighborhoods, to some remote rural parts of the country, the demand for doctors continues to exist.

As such, once you become a medical doctor in the US, you will be in high demand in states like California and Texas, or even Florida. This gives you a broad spectrum to choose from when looking for places you can work as a medical doctor in the US.

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1. Study in Medical Schools in the USA if Possible

The clearest pathway to becoming a medical doctor in the US is through studying in the country. Most frequently, this includes obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an American college or university as well.

The standard pathway to becoming an MD is as follows:

  • Graduate high school with high grades and attend a good college
  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree preferably in a science major, and ensure you take science courses which will count towards your pre-medical preparation (NB: Many colleges have pre-med advisors that can help you with this)
  • Take the MCAT – Medical College Admission Test
    • There are various websites which aggregate what the mean and median MCAT scores for admitted students are across medical schools.
  • Apply to medical school
    • This can be quite a long process so make sure you check the application deadlines on your school’s website. Generally, American medical schools all use the AMCAS – a centralized application service where you upload all your information, students records etc.
  • Study medical school and graduate
    • In year 2, pass USMLE-1 exam – the United States Medical Licensing Examination. This is the first step towards getting a medical license.
    • After you pass the USMLE-1 you can continue with years 3 and 4 of your medical school
    • At the end of year 4 you need to pass the USMLE-2 exam to carry on and be matched to a position for your residency
  • Choose a specialty and complete your residency – this can take up to another 3 years
    • Take and pass the USMLE-3 exam – the third and final step towards a medical license
  • Take and pass the final boards to practice independently.

2. English Requirements for Becoming a Medical Doctor in the United States

If you study medicine in the United States, speaking English to a high academic level is a pre-requisite to be gain admission into any medical school. In fact, most medical schools require that, as an international student, you have studied at least one academic year at an accredited college or university in the US, UK, or Canada. For example, Stanford University School of Medicine stipulates that international students meet this criterium.

Moreover, in order to have studied in a US / UK / Canadian college or university, you would need to again be able to speak fluent English. As far as American colleges are concerned, a pre-requisite for admission is a high level of fluency proven by the TOEFL test results.

In some areas of the United States, where there are high numbers of Hispanic/Latino/Latina Americans, there could be a benefit to also speaking conversational-level Spanish. This will help you better communicate with families of patients, especially in cases where they are first-generation immigrants into the US.

3. Required Test to Pass

During your medical studies in the US, you will need to pass a series of exams as part of the US Medical Licensing Examination series. As described above, these are:

  • USMLE-1 – a first test you need to take at the end of your first 2 years in medical school
  • USLME-2 – taken at the end of medical school, before residency
  • USMLE-3 – the final test, at the end of your residency.

You will need to pass these tests in order to become a medical doctor in the United States.

4. Doing Residency in the States

To begin your residency, you will be matched to a program through the National Resident Matching Program. This is available during your medical school final year and your results and preferences will influence where you are matched to. However, you do not automatically get matched to one of your preferences, and you cannot refuse the residency match you’ve been given.

5. Getting a US medical license

In order to have a medical license in the US, you need to pass the US Medical Licensing Examinations. This is done through three steps during your studies in medical school and beyond, as described above.

If you are not a medical student in the US from the start, you may be able to jump straight to step 2 or 3 of the USMLE exam series, depending on the level of studies achieved. In all cases, you cannot take USMLE-3 without having taken steps 1 and 2 or an equivalent to become a medical doctor in the States.

If you are not a medical student in the US but hold a medical degree from another country, you can obtain certification through the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, which assesses your eligibility to either begin a residency in the US or practice as a doctor.

6. Getting a work visa

Getting a work visa to practice as a doctor in the US requires an application through the H1-B visa scheme (the visa scheme applying to specialty workers in the United States).

The general rules in order to obtain an H1-B visa are:

  • You must also have a license in the state you intend to practice as a doctor
  • You must have an unrestricted license to practice in your country of origin or have graduated from a foreign or US medical school
  • You must pass the “appropriate examinations” – i.e. depending on the level of exams you have already taken.

To find out more specific instructions, check the guide here.

7. Starting your own practice or finding hospitals to work in

As a licensed doctor, you can start your own practice as long as you have the appropriate funding and follow a few simple steps:

  • You need to incorporate as a legal entity and obtain a tax ID number
  • You need to get your healthcare providers credentialed to submit claims to the payers you’ll be working with – this is critical in a country like the US where the healthcare providers and insurers are so diverse
  • You need to purchase your own insurance: medical malpractice insurance coverage is absolutely crucial in the United States.

If, however, you are looking to find hospitals to work in instead, a simple job search will be sufficient. If you arrive in the US without having worked there previously and don’t have a social security number, this is essential in order to be in the system regarding taxes, so make sure you also apply for one (or your hospital will help you apply for one).

8. Becoming a medical doctor in the United States with a Foreign Degree

Foreign trained doctors can practice in the United States, but they first need to obtain a medical license in the state they will be living and working in, and a H1-B visa to allow them the right to work.

Please follow the steps described above for each and ensure your paperwork is fully up to date before looking to start your own practice or applying for work with a hospital.


I hope that this article was helpful. If you are interested, visit the USA Scholarships Page!