Purpose – Despite the increasing number of transnational universities around the world, little attention has been paid to students who attend foreign universities in their own countries and their adjustment to the new learning environment. This study aims to examine some of the adaptations freshmen students have to undergo while studying at an American university in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Design/methodology/approach – This study is conducted at an American university in the UAE and involved 152 freshmen students, investigating their challenges to adapting to the university academically and socially. The target respondents were first-year students, typically 18–19 years old men and women of various majors and nationalities who completed high school in the country. Questionnaires were emailed to students; a total of 184 surveys were completed (with prior permission), but only 152 of those fitted the criteria and were used in the study. Findings – Findings indicate that although these students study at home, by attending a foreign university many of them rely heavily on the support of peers, especially co-nationals. They require similar academic and emotional support from teachers as many first-year students at university do. Research limitations/implications – The findings have limitations as data were collected at a single point in time through surveys. Being a single researcher, the study did not opt for breadth to answer the research questions but aimed to find out freshmen students’ challenges in adapting to the university. Despite the limitations of the study, several issues were raised that can be investigated in future studies. Originality/value – The study provided insights into the challenges first-year students face at a transnational university in the UAE. It identifies the support that could be provided by the university to facilitate students’ successful adjustment process to the educational and socio-cultural environment of the university. Although this was small-scale research and cannot be generalized to a larger population, the findings could be transferable to other, similar settings in transnational universities in the region. Findings might be compared and contrasted to other, related cases, as the structural aspects could be noticed in similar cases or situations.