People choose to study abroad for quite a wide variety of reasons.
- The quality of education in another country may be better than in their home country, courses that are not available at home may be offered, or cost-of-living or educational costs may be lower.
- Qualifications gained abroad may be more prestigious, which can be useful when seeking work in the home country.
- Foreign qualifications may also be more useful for immigration, even to a third country; for example an Indian doctor who hopes to practice in Canada will have an easier time with licensing if he or she has a British medical degree.
- Studying abroad is also an opportunity for language learning. For example, someone who has graduated from a university in Paris is almost certain to speak excellent French, and to have no trouble convincing potential employers of that.
- Studying abroad is one of the ways in which a traveller can live in a particular place for an extended period. Studying is more interesting for some travellers than working abroad, volunteering or just being a tourist, and in some places a student visa may be easier to get than other types.
- Studying abroad will give you a different set of contacts than you would get at home. For example, an American who wants to work in foreign trade might make more useful contacts in Beijing or Buenos Aires than at Berkeley.
At the graduate studies level, other issues become important:
- A student may want to work with a particular person or at a certain institute. For example, one physicist may have wanted Stephen Hawking (at Cambridge) as his PhD supervisor (before Hawking's death in 2018), while another might want to work in MIT's prestigious physics department.
- Equipment can also be an issue. An astronomy student might want to be near the big telescopes in Hawaii, a nuclear physicist might want to work with the accelerators at CERN in Geneva, and so on. Although this is becoming less critical with network access, you may find the experts on using that equipment at those places.
- Being close to your subject matter may also be important. For example, if you are from Iceland and want to study Indian history, you might go to India or to a well-known Institute of Oriental Studies such as those at Oxford or UChicago. On the other hand, a student of volcanoes or glaciers might come to Iceland to be near examples of those.
Often, studying abroad will expose you to a different culture in a way that would not be possible in your home country, or even by travelling to that country as a tourist.
While you may not need a visa for short visits to certain countries as a tourist or for business, going there as an international student generally requires a longer stay than going there just as a casual tourist. In general, staying in any foreign country for an extended period of time will require you to obtain a visa in advance. Student visas generally have different requirements and application procedures from normal tourist or business visas. For most countries, you will need an offer letter from the institution you wish to study at, and also evidence of funds to support yourself for at least the first year of your course. Check with the institution, as well as the immigration department for the country you wish to study in for detailed requirements.
In addition, some countries, such as the United States and Canada, explicitly prohibit foreigners from studying on a tourist visa even if their length of stay is short enough to be covered by one. There may be exceptions for some types of short courses, though. In the case of the U.S., the relevant State Department site specifically states that "enrollment in a short recreational course of study, not for credit toward a degree (for example, a two-day cooking class while on vacation)" is permitted on a tourist visa.
There are multilateral agreements in some groups of countries, such that you need no visa even for long-time studies if you are a citizen of another country in the group. The most well-known example is probably the European Union.
If a (specific) visa is required for your studies, studies without one may be regarded illegal and void. Thus your diploma may be worthless in many contexts even if you succeeded in graduating. This varies between countries, and may change abruptly.
Things to consider
Moving to a foreign country for the first time is a daunting experience for many people, and going abroad to study is no exception. Going to another country to study will need you to start making preparations many months in advance, from making the application to obtaining your visa and making final travel and accommodation arrangements, figure on the whole process taking anywhere from three to ten months. These are some questions for you to research on before you make a decision:
Often, culture shock is one of the main things people experience when moving overseas for the first time. You will have to adapt to the local customs and lifestyle, and these can often be radically different from your home country. In addition, the study environment also varies radically from country to country, and sometimes, even between different institutions in the same country. For instance, undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom tend to be very specialised and structured, and aim to provide their students with in-depth knowledge in their chosen major. In contrast, undergraduate courses in the United States require students to study a broad range of subjects, and aim to provide their students with knowledge in a well-rounded range of areas.
In addition, you will need to consider the language barrier. Most institutions teach in the official language(s) of the country they are in, meaning that unless you know that language well, you will have to put in more effort than the local students studying in their native language to get the same grades. Of course, this is great for those whose purpose of studying in a foreign country is to improve their proficiency in a foreign language (e.g. an Italian studying in Hong Kong to improve his Cantonese). However, if that is not your aim, then you should seriously consider the factors, as having to learn a foreign language at the same time as having to juggle academic knowledge in your chosen major subject is often an unwelcome extra burden. Some institutions do have courses and entire programmes in a foreign language, often a lingua franca such as English, Arabic or Mandarin, or have the course literature in that language. Not knowing the local language will still be a drawback, as it will be used for much informal communication. Some institutions offer beginners' language courses for foreigners. The good news for English speakers, though, is that English has emerged as the international language of communication in science, engineering and medicine, and the vast majority of academic publications in those fields are done in English. This means that many of the more reputable institutions worldwide give postgraduate research students the option of completing their thesis in English instead of the official language of their respective countries.
Finally, you will need to take into account your school fees and cost of living. Many governments subsidise school fees for citizens and permanent residents of their respective countries, but these subsidies are usually not available to international students, meaning that you will have to pay your school fees in full. In many countries, foreign students are charged much higher fees than locals. Fees for some schools, notably some of the prestigious American places ("Ivy League" and some of the others), can be several tens of thousands of dollars a year.
In some countries, such as Germany and several of its European neighbors, there is no tuition fee for university, even for foreign students. However, these are generally countries with high cost of living and students will have to pay for things like books and probably a good computer, so costs may still be high.
The cost of living varies considerably. It can be very cheap if you are in a small village in India or Southeast Asia, but living in major cities of the developed world such as New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Melbourne can be very expensive indeed. Also in countries where cost of living is generally cheap, this may not be true in cities with universities. There is often affordable accommodation for students, arranged e.g. by the university or the student union. The university may be able to give advice on such matters also when you have to use the private market.
Sometimes, the educational institution, a foundation furthering international contacts, or your home country's government or a private company can cover all or part of your expenses by giving you a scholarship. In the latter cases this will often mean that you have to work for your government or that company for a certain number of years after you have completed your studies. If your country receives foreign aid, that may include scholarships for promising students to study in the donor country. Many Western governments have programs along those lines, Saudi Arabia has scholarships for Palestinians, China has many African scholarship students, Singapore has scholarships for other Southeast Asians, and so on.
Two scholarships stand out as remarkably prestigious; both take a large number of students every year but are quite hard to get since competition for them is fierce:
- Rhodes Scholarship for graduate study at Oxford. It requires not only a brilliant academic record but also evidence of athletic activity and involvement in politics.
- Fulbright Scholarships for foreigners to study at U.S. universities, and for Americans to study at foreign universities; a program run by the U.S. State Department.
In general, finding scholarships you might be eligible for will require doing a lot of your own research. However, you may be able to get helpful advice in several places — your current school, your own government, or the embassy for the country you want to go to. Particularly in the U.S., many prestigious private universities provide limited financial aid to undergraduate students from less well-to-do families, and PhD students are often provided with a comprehensive funding package by the university.
For many students it may make sense to consider undergraduate study at home followed by graduate work abroad; this may be cheaper because you have to pay for fewer years abroad, and for future employment your graduate work will count more than undergrad studies. Also, most schools make some effort to support graduate students, in particular those studying for a PhD. They may get work from their professors as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses (paid by the university) or research assistants (paid by a grant or commercial contract the prof has) on some project. Such work rarely pays very well, but it may cover a lot of your costs and fairly often work as a research assistant can also serve as your thesis research.
Sometimes research grants will also cover trips to international conferences, though usually only for the principal author of an accepted paper and the professor who supervised the work. Such a conference can be a fine opportunity to meet top people in your field and perhaps even line up a potential thesis supervisor for further work abroad. For most fields there are many conferences, perhaps including one reasonably near you; for example in cryptography the main professional association runs three large conferences a year — Crypto is always in California, but Eurocrypt and Asiacrypt are in a different city each year and Asiacrypt is sometimes in Australia — and there are at least a dozen more all over the world run by other groups.
A good score on an English test is almost always required for students not from an English-speaking country to study at a university that uses English (sometimes even when the university has a different primary language). The term "English-speaking country" is often defined to only refer to the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. Students from countries such as the Philippines, India and South Africa where English is widely spoken, or even the lingua franca but not the primary first language are generally required to take these tests. The two widely-used tests are:
- TOEFL, for admission to US universities
- IELTS, for British, Irish, Canadian, Australian and NZ universities
- (Many universities accept either)
See Teaching English for language tests used for other purposes, such as business English tests required by some employers. Some universities may waive the requirement if you obtained your previous degree in one of the aforementioned English-speaking countries.
Other tests are not testing language proficiency, but are pre-admission tests designed primarily for native English speakers. US universities generally require one of these for most admissions; in other countries they are not always required but are fairly common. The main ones are:
- SAT and ACT for undergraduate admissions
- GRE for most graduate programs, with both a general test and subject tests for different fields. With the exception of professional and business schools, almost all graduate programs require the general GRE.
The subject GRE may be required by some programs in addition to the general GRE; the goal is to test whether the student has had an adequate undergraduate education in the field. These tests are quite broadly based and students whose undergraduate work has not been broad enough may score poorly. For example if you are about to take the Psychology GRE and — either because of your own interests or the biases of your school — you have studied mainly behaviorist psychology, it would be a good idea to read up on other branches of the field before the test.
Some universities may also use the Miller Analogies Test:
- MAT for graduate study, sort of a high-end intelligence test for any field.
That test relies on a subtle understanding of English and non-native speakers are at a disadvantage unless they are utterly fluent; most should do the general GRE instead.
There are also specialized tests for many areas of graduate study that lead to professional qualifications:
- MCAT for medical school
- LSAT for law school
- DAT for dental school
- PCAT for pharmacy school
- GMAT for graduate business school
In some countries, such as China and South Korea, there are thriving test prep markets with courses designed specifically to prepare students for any of these tests, with the obvious caveat that the courses are conducted in the local language. Courses for at least the commonest tests — TOEFL, IELTS and SAT — are available in most countries.
Another option for those who don't want to commit, or cannot afford to spend several years abroad, is to go as an exchange student for a semester or a year. The universities you can study at on exchange is generally limited to those your home university has an exchange agreement with (bilateral or via international programmes such as Erasmus). Alternatively, some universities have branches in other countries (e.g. New York University has branches in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai), and students studying at the main campus are often allowed to spend some time studying at one of the overseas branches (and vice versa). The advantage of this is that you are generally not subject to international student fees if your home university is in your country of citizenship (or permanent residency).
Working while studying
Most countries do not issue student visas for international students to study part-time, only for full-time students. Restrictions on employment often apply as well; some countries do not allow international students to work at all, while other countries allow them to take part-time employment under certain conditions. For instance, the UK and Australia allow international students to work for up to 20 hours a week, while the US has an additional restriction that international students may only work on campus. Check with the immigration department of the country you plan to study in for more details.
Where to go?
Deciding where to go is often one of the biggest considerations when choosing to study overseas. Some things that influence such decisions include language, distance from home and costs. The overall quality of tuition, as well as the expertise in your subject of choice at any specific institution should of course also be researched. Here is a summary of some of the more popular countries for international students.
- See also English language varieties § Learn for some important vocabulary differences.
Here is a table with information for the main English-speaking destinations.
|Reviews of universities||Times||US News||Macleans||AEN|
|Official tourist information||UK||USA||Canada||Australia||New Zealand||Ireland|
See our article on teaching English for some discussion of widely used English tests. Most English-medium universities require students from countries where English is not the main language to sit for a language test to demonstrate proficiency before they can apply. This is typically the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) for US universities, and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) for universities in most other English-speaking countries, though many universities will accept both. This requirement is sometimes waived if you previously obtained an academic qualification in certain English-speaking countries; check with the relevant institution to be sure.
- Main article: Studying in the United States
The United States is the most popular destination for students wishing to pursue an education abroad. The United States is particularly known for its universities, many of which are ranked among the most prestigious universities in the world.
With its long history as a centre of education, the United Kingdom is the second most popular destination for international students after the United States. Unsurprisingly, it is home to some of the world's oldest and most prestigious universities such as the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, collectively known among locals as "Oxbridge". Of course, there are also many other institutions which are of good standing domestically and internationally. London is also known as a centre of education and is home to more international students than any other city in the world.
The vast majority of British universities are public universities, and there are only two private universities in the UK.
Bachelor's degree programmes in the UK are usually 3 years in length, though engineering programmes are usually 4 years, and medicine is 6 years. Bachelor's degree programmes in the UK tend to be very specialised and structured, and generally require students to demonstrate an in-depth understanding in their chosen major. Unlike in the US, medicine and law are typically undergraduate programmes in the UK. Master's degree programmes are typically 1 year in length, and can be either coursework or research programmes. PhD programmes are typically 3 years in length, and require the completion and successful defence of a research thesis. However, some universities are also beginning to offer 4-year PhD programmes, which are modelled after the US system, and require students to undergo a year of lab rotations before starting their PhD thesis project.
Standardised testing is generally not practised in the UK, though some MBA programmes require prospective students to sit for the GMAT before they can apply.
- Main article: Studying in Australia
Due to its proximity to Asia, reputation for good quality and relatively easy admission criteria and visa arrangements, Studying in Australia is popular. All Australian universities actively seek international students, and students from overseas make up a high proportion of enrollments in many institutions as well as across the university system as a whole.
With its proximity to the United States, but with arguably more relaxed visa regulations and less competitive admissions to its universities, Canada is also emerging as a popular destination for international students. Universities in Canada generally follow the US system, though unlike in the US, the Canadian government oversees and sets minimum academic standards that its universities have to maintain. Being a bilingual country, depending on which university one goes to, the medium of instruction could be English or French. Some universities are at least partially bilingual; for example, while McGill teaches exclusively in English, students may submit coursework in either English or French except in courses devoted to learning a specific language. The most famous universities in Canada are the University of Toronto in Toronto, McGill University in Montreal, University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Renowned for its breathtaking scenery, New Zealand is a popular destination for international students from the Pacific islands, as well as students from Asia. The most famous university in New Zealand is the University of Auckland located in Auckland.
With an Asian environment, but with English as the medium of instruction, Singapore is a popular destination for international students from all over Asia. The National University of Singapore is one of the top ranked universities in Asia, with Nanyang Technological University also consistently ranked among the top 100 in the world. In addition, the Singapore government has been providing a lot of funding to turn Singapore into a biomedical research hub, so there is substantial funding available for research students.
Bachelor degree programmes in Singapore are typically 3-4 years, though medicine is 6 years. Students in 3-year bachelor degree programmes who perform well academically can take an optional 4th year, during which they conduct a research project an write a thesis, and upon successful completion graduate with a bachelor honours degree. Students in 4-year programmes are typically awarded bachelor honours degrees based on their GPA. Master degree programmes are typically 1-2 years, and can be either coursework or research degrees. PhD programmes are exclusively research degree programmes that require the completion and successful defence of a thesis, and typically take about 4 years to complete.
- See also: Finland#Learn
Finnish universities are generally well-regarded and have good routines to welcome students from abroad. Most degree programmes are in Finnish or Swedish, but as some courses and most advanced textbooks are in English in many fields and teachers proficient in English, there is a soft landing, especially after Bachelor's level. Some programmes, especially some meant for exchange students, are entirely in English (as long as you keep to that schedule).
In 2017 tuition fees were introduced for non-EU/EEA citizens (residents?) in programmes in English, and scholarship systems developed to overcome these. For students in "normal" programs, tuition is free. Housing and living coast are of course still substantial, although student housing is cheap compared to housing in the open market.
Known worldwide for its advanced industries and technological prowess, Germany is rapidly becoming a center for international students looking to pursue higher education. Driven by stricter visa and immigration policies and skyrocketing tuition fees and living expenses in popular study destinations (such as the U.K. and the U.S.), international students are increasingly opting for Germany as their preferred education destination. Germany's long standing history of education (with colleges as old as those in England) and state-funded education (meaning no tuition fee in any degree program, up to the PhD) was probably overlooked because of the language barrier (most of the education is still imparted in German), but now more and more German universities are offering programs taught in English, either partly or completely.
The German government is actively promoting its higher education in developing countries (such as China, India and Brazil) by setting up DAAD centers worldwide, offering generous scholarships, research grants and counseling support to students wishing to go for higher education abroad.
Germany's universities are recognised internationally; in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for 2013, four of the top 100 universities in the world are in Germany, and 14 of the top 200. Most of the German universities are public institutions, charging tuition fees of only around €60 per semester (and up to €500 in the state of Niedersachsen) for each student. Thus, academic education is open to most citizens and studying is very common in Germany. Although the dual education system, that combines practical and theoretical educations and does not lead to academic degrees, is more popular than anywhere else in the world - while it is a role model for other countries.
The oldest universities in Germany are also among the oldest and best regarded in the world, with Heidelberg University being the oldest (established in 1386 and in continuous operation since then). It is followed by Leipzig University (1409), Rostock University (1419), Greifswald University (1456), Freiburg University (1457), LMU Munich (1472) and the University of Tübingen (1477).
- See also: Sweden#Learn
Sweden is one of few non-English-speaking countries where many courses (at least on graduate-level, within science and engineering) are taught in English. As most Swedish people are fluent in English, proficiency in Swedish is, within some faculties, not needed to finish a degree. Tuition is free for Swedish citizens and students within the Erasmus program; students from outside the EEA need to pay a tuition fee.
As one of the richest countries in the world known for its high tech industries and finance, Switzerland is unsurprisingly one of Europe's leaders in higher education. Due to its status as a multilingual country, the language of instruction varies depending on where you are, and can be in any one of the four official languages of German, French, Italian or Romansch, though PhD students in the medical, scientific or engineering fields often publish their work in English. Switzerland's most famous university is ETH Zurich, which is particularly known for its science and engineering programmes. Other well-known universities include Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the University of Zurich and the University of Geneva.
- See also: Studying in China
With its rising status as a global power, China is becoming an increasingly popular destination for international students. As of the 2010 census it had around a quarter million foreign students, and the government has said that should reach a million sometime in the 2020s. The Chinese government has many scholarships that aim to attract international students to Chinese universities, mostly for students from "third world" countries especially Africa.
China's most prestigious universities are Peking University and Tsinghua University, both located in Beijing, and both of which are consistently ranked among the top 100 in the world. Other well-known universities include Fudan University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, both located in Shanghai. The medium of instruction is usually Chinese, but there are programs geared towards international students where classes are in English.
- See also: Working and studying in Japan
As a major centre for research and development, Japan is also a popular destination for international students from around Asia. The most prestigious universities in Japan are known as the "National Seven Universities" (七大学), which were formerly the known as the Imperial Universities (which also include what is today Seoul National University in South Korea, and National Taiwan University in Taiwan) prior to World War II. Of these, the University of Tokyo, located in Tokyo, is the undisputed number one university in Japan, and also considered to be one of the most prestigious universities in Asia. After that, Kyoto University, located in Kyoto, is regarded as the second most prestigious university in Japan. The other members of the National Seven Universities are Osaka University in Osaka, Nagoya University in Nagoya, Tohoku University in Sendai, Hokkaido University in Sapporo and Kyushu University in Fukuoka.
Hong Kong has also been a major centre for education since its days as a British colony. Hong Kong's most prestigious university is the University of Hong Kong, considered to be one of the most prestigious in Asia. Two other universities, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology are also regularly ranked among the world's top 100. Course materials and textbooks are usually in English, though classes are often conducted in Cantonese.
As one the Asian Tiger economies, South Korea is home to some of Asia's most prestigious universities, and attracts international students from all over Asia. South Korea's three most prestigious universities as known as SKY, and consist of Seoul National University (SNU), the undisputed number one university in South Korea, as well as Korea University and Yonsei University, all located in Seoul. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon and Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) in Pohang are widely regarded to be among the top universities for science and engineering, rivalling even the SKY universities in these subjects.
Modes of address
"Lecturer" is the generic term used to refer to university-level instructors in the United Kingdom, while "professor" is the corresponding term in the United States. Modes of address can differ significantly between countries. For instance, in Australia, it is common for students to refer to their lecturers by their given names. The United Kingdom and United States, on the other hand, tend to be more formal, and undergraduates are generally expected to address their instructors by their title and surname, though this varies, and in some more informal schools, professors may prefer to be called by their first name. While the title "professor" is used to address any university-level instructor in the United States, this is generally not considered appropriate in the United Kingdom, where the title is only used to address academics who have attained the rank of professor. Other academics are addressed with the title "doctor" instead.