When Canadian Saskia Boehlje first started looking for a post-secondary institution, she wasn’t quite sure what she was after.
“I come from a middle-class family and didn’t have a lot of money to put toward university, so I wanted the most affordable English-language study abroad option possible,” she says.
This criterion—and a good dose of wanderlust—got her looking at the education available to English-speaking Canadians in Europe. In the end, a romantic relationship steered Boehlje to Germany, where she ended up focusing on midwifery, a program that required she first become fluent in German.
“I spent the first year just learning the language,” she says.
It was a major hoop to jump through, but one that was outweighed by the main drawcard: tuition was free. Not only was she based in a country with no tuition fees, but the practical, in-hospital part of her training was paid at a decent hourly wage.
“I came out of school with qualifications, a second language and no debt,” she says. It was something Boehlje doesn’t believe would have been possible had she stayed in Canada.
“Affordable study abroad” might feel like an oxymoronic phrase, but in reality many countries offer free or affordable tuition—including to Canadian students, provided you qualify for a student visa.
That's why we’ve rounded up some of the best destinations around the globe for making the most out of your post-secondary years, without going broke.
Germany is more than just Oktoberfest, efficient engineering, and a vibrant nightlife — it’s also a haven for international students looking for an inexpensive, world-class education. Since 2014, Germany has offered free tuition at all of its 300 public universities. That means that if you enter Germany on a student visa, you can earn yourself a degree without paying any tuition fees.
It’s worth noting that universities do charge administration fees, which vary per institution and range anywhere from to €100 to €350 per semester. Your day-to-day expenses in Germany will also depend on where you choose to study—however, the country has a lower cost of living than many of its European counterparts, including Ireland, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
Adding to the list of reasons why Germany is a great location to earn your free degree is the wide variety of English-taught Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees available—though you will still need German for day-to-day life (check out the scholarships for three to four-week summer language courses at German universities). Most undergraduate degrees here will take three years to complete, with a two-year average for Master’s degrees. You’ll have the right to work part-time; however, the details will vary depending on which visa you’re eligible for.
If you are interested in pursuing a degree in Germany, apply early.
“It can sometimes take months for a visa to be issued, so it's important to apply early on even if you have not yet been accepted to a higher education institution,” advises the German Academic Exchange Service (known under its German acronym DAAD).
Iceland has become well known in tourism circles for its dramatic volcanic landscapes—but it should also be known as an option for international students. Only about 5 percent of the approximately 18,000 students enrolled in the country’s higher education system come from outside the country—in part because of the perception you need to be fluent in Icelandic to enroll. While it is true most undergrad programs are taught in Icelandic (with the exception of a few language degrees and a scattering of other classes) options open up at the Master’s level, where a wide variety programs, including niche environmental subjects such as polar law and coastal and marine management, are taught completely in English.
Iceland’s four public universities operate tuition-free for all students, with administration fees in the $500 range. The cost of living in Iceland is notoriously high, so it’s also worth applying for any grants and bursaries you could be eligible for, as well as looking at options for discounted student housing and rental benefits. This country also offers scholarship opportunities to international students. With an undergraduate course length of three to four years, and two for a Master’s degree, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the glaciers, mountains, waterfalls and lava caves that make this country feel so popular.
If you are not a resident of the EU/EEA, you’ll need to apply for a residence permit to study in Iceland. The first step is to apply and be accepted into the university program of your choice. Once you are accepted by an Icelandic university, you can apply for a residence permit. You’ll typically need to update the permit each semester (twice a year), and be able to prove you are able to support yourself. Living in Iceland will also give you the right to work up to 15 hours per week. You can learn more about the visa process on Iceland’s immigration website, while you can find more about studying in Iceland on the Study in Iceland website.
Norway is synonymous with amazing outdoor adventures: the Aurora Borealis (northern lights), the midnight sun, the fjords and the mountains. It’s also known as one of the Nordic countries with no tuition. Norway’s state-owned universities, university colleges and scientific colleges are publicly funded and don’t charge fees. This free education also applies to international students, no matter which country they come from.
While you’ll find a wide variety of English-taught master’s degrees across all of Norway’s public education institutions, the majority of undergraduate courses are taught in Norwegian. A listing of English language programs across all Norwegian schools appears on the Study in Norway website.
Most students who plan to stay in Norway for more than three months will need a student residence permit through the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI). Non-EU/EEA students can work up to 20 hours a week during their first year of study-but this permit needs to be renewed annually, and is contingent on making “satisfactory progress” in your studies.
Norway is an expensive country and living expenses are high, though scholarships are available. International students from outside of Europe are required to show they have the resources to support themselves before they’ll be granted a student residence permit.
The Central American country of Panama is a blend of a modern city, dense jungles and tropical beach towns. It also has a range of public universities that are proud of their programs in engineering, business and medicine. Panama hosts an increasing number of international students each year, in part because its public universities offer free education, even for international students. Although some classes and programs are available in English, the working language of the universities and the (sometimes labyrinthine) bureaucracy is Spanish.
University entry requirements in Panama reflect the diverse backgrounds of students and the Panamanian love of paper. International students need to have their high school documents authenticated in the Panamanian embassy in their home country in order to obtain a Certificate of Admission for Foreign Students (up to $250). Once you have a student number, the admission process often includes an academic aptitude test, levelling courses, preparatory courses and university life orientation courses (all of which have fees of $30-$100).
Students also need a Panama Student Visa, which requires proof of finances and health and a variety of other documents that may change at any stage of your application process (this is one reason applicants frequently use an agent for this process). Your visa is only for studying and you’re not allowed to work. Once you are through the paperwork, Panama is an affordable and fun place to live with a low cost of living and a vibrant student culture.
With castles, parks, historic spas and medieval-era university towns, the Czech Republic attracts 50,000 international students a year to its mostly tuition-free universities. The main teaching language is Czech, however the range of classes that are delivered in foreign languages (mainly in English) is expanding to meet the needs of international students. (There are tuition costs for classes in languages other than Czech, but these are still less than in many European countries.) To be eligible for a free education, you’ll need to learn Czech. The Summer Schools of Slavonic Studies offer Czech language courses designed for foreign students (some with scholarships) that are organized by several public universities and run three to four weeks each summer.
The basic condition for entering studies is the successful completion of the previous level of study; a certificate of graduation from secondary school for undergraduate degrees, or a bachelor’s degree for a master’s. After applying to the program of your choice, you may be required to sit an entrance exam and go through an interview. As soon as you’re admitted to a program, you’ll want to apply for your visa, especially if you are a non-EU citizen as the procedure can take up to 60 days.
The average cost of living in the Czech Republic ranges from USD$350 to USD$750 per month, including meals, accommodation, public transport and discounted entertainment (student cards come with a lot of cost-saving perks). For more information, the Czech National Agency for International Education and Research has an easy-to-navigate website to help you plan.
With a mild Mediterranean climate, fascinating historical sites, gorgeous beaches and delicious affordable food, Greece has long been popular with tourists. Now the country is trying to revive its academic culture with the Study in Greece (SiG) program, which aligns university courses with international standards and has increased multilingual offerings. Public universities offer free education to students from EU/EEA member countries, while non-EU students can access cheap study abroad options in a range of disciplines. There’s only one catch: Greece requires its applicants to be proficient in the Greek language to enroll in its universities. Students who do not hold a language certificate will not be able to enroll; fortunately, however, Greek classes are held regularly.
The application portal for international students is only open for one week in July (results come out in August) so preparing all your documentation in advance is essential. Once you're accepted at a university, you can apply for a student visa through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Greece’s 24 public universities are located throughout the country and the cost of living will vary depending on where you study. Student dorms are not always available, especially outside of the larger cities, but the Study in Greece website offers a good breakdown of options and costs. If you are looking for scholarships, IKY, the Greek State Scholarship Foundation, gives a good rundown of some options.
Fans of food, culture and history can join about 350,000 other international students and attend university in France. Public universities that the fall under the Ministère de l'enseignement supérieur, de la recherche et de l'innovation (MESRI) offer subsidized education to students from EU/EEA member countries as well as to students from Quebec (tuition is €200 to €600). Other international students interested in MESRI schools can access affordable study abroad options in a range of disciplines for €3,000 to €4,000 euros.
Depending on your French language background/proficiency, you might have to take a French test. Although you’ll need a certain amount of French, many classes and programs are taught in English. Numerous organizations are out there to help you assess the cost, and get through the paperwork for studying in France including Welcome to France for Canadian students and Study in France.
You’ll need to apply for a school, be accepted, and then obtain a student visa—which can be a long process—so start early and double-check your paperwork as you go. The cost of living in France can vary significantly, depending on where you study—but one perk that is country-wide is that your student card gets you into many museums and attractions for free.
Even more options: Erasmus+
The EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) offers cultural, social, and academic exchanges between European students at roughly 5,000 higher institutions in more than 30 countries. Although Erasmus is geared towards European students, individuals from non-EU countries may be able to take part through Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees or the international dimension of student and staff exchange (if your university takes part) and youth exchange schemes.
As universities around the world increasingly realize the value of an internationally diverse student body, more and more options are opening up for affordable study abroad especially at a postgraduate level. While not all promise a free education, depending on your goals studying abroad may be a good way to delve into a new culture and earn your degree, all while stretching your schooling dollars.Add this article to your reading list