How to Study Abroad (and how to pay for it!)

picture of me and a friend from long ago
In my younger days, I studied abroad in Scotland

Having studied abroad and then worked at several universities, I've always had a pretty good idea of how 'the system' works.

It's fairly clear, from conversations I've had and articles I've seen, that this is not universally the case.

This page will hopefully offer some useful information, gleaned both from my personal knowledge and from my contacts in the field, on how you or your family member / student / whatever can experience the amazing educational opportunities of studying in a foreign country.

I'm writing it because I truly believe studying abroad is one of the best things you can do for your education.

Although much of this content is US based, often study abroad is handled as much in the destination country as it is in the home country, so some of the information may be useful to people outside the United States.

In general, this is written for people who currently (or are about to) attend university. Again, much of the information will also apply to people who are not students, but might need to be adapted slightly. It will be fairly clear to you what does and does not apply.

Option 1: Participate in your university's study abroad program

This is a no-brainer for many. If you're at a university which has a study abroad office, in theory it's their job to help you find study abroad opportunities. They may not have all the options you want, and you may not be totally on board with some of the ways things get done, but in general this one is going to be the easiest. They've done this before, so they know all the little ins and outs of how your trip will work. They will also know how the money situation will work - many universities participate in programs that let you use your financial aid on your trip abroad. This may not always be the best option, but it's nice to have it as an option!

Often the process for working with your university's study abroad programs takes a long time, so go well before you intend to study abroad to learn about timetables. If you're reading this, you're probably already thinking about studying abroad, so you should probably go talk to them today.

Note that, if you google 'study abroad', most of what comes up is private for-profit companies that will arrange a study abroad experience for you. These may be the companies your university works with, and as they are for-profit, they may charge more than a DIY experience would cost. In general I do not recommend this sort of trip, although some of them may offer things that are harder to arrange yourself (e.g. homestays, which I do recommend).

Option 2: Build your own study abroad program

picture of Germany
Free tuition in Germany! (photo by Trey)

There are several reasons you might want to build your own program, rather than take the ones offered by your university (assuming your university offers them). The costs might be significantly lower. Your options for where to go will be much expanded. You'll get exactly what you want (or what you think you want - more on that in a bit).

The first and most important thing, if you're counting on your study abroad experience counting toward graduation, is to talk to your university about whether, and how, credits will transfer from the place you want to go to. Again, your study abroad office is a good place to start, followed by the registrar (or whoever handles transfer credits at your institution). If for whatever reason your university won't recognize credits from the place you want to study, you may want to choose a different destination.

If your university doesn't have a study abroad office, you might also find the foreign language professors to be a resource for finding trustworthy study abroad programs. Even if you don't study their language, they might be able to connect you to the people who arrange their trips abroad, who might also be able to arrange yours. At the very least, hopefully the companies they work with are trustworthy and experienced in the process.

On the question of 'getting what you want', if you don't have a lot of knowledge about your destination, you should still feel free to create your own study abroad experience, but be prepared for the unexpected (this is a good rule in general for living outside your home country - sometimes things are much more different than you might expect). Be flexible in planning, and in your expectations.

Countries that are recommended for their low fees and high quality education include France (nearly free), Finland (free), Norway (free), Sweden (free if arranged through your home university), and Germany (free). Most of these will also offer degrees in English. Note that most universities do not cover room and board, so you will need to cover those costs, which are estimated at 500 - 1500 Euros per month, depending on the country (and, of course, things like how often you plan to travel and whether you find cheap housing). Private universities in most countries will have their own tuition structure.

Other countries I have seen mentioned for low fees are Australia, but the information I was able to find suggested they are actually quite expensive. There may be exemptions for certain exchange students.

If you followed any of those links to country-specific websites, it is probably clear to you that these countries really want you to come study! So don't be intimidated - more than likely the university you want to go to has someone whose job it is to help you come study at their institution, and they'll help you navigate the tricky bits.

One additional thought on building your own program versus going through your university or another arranged program - double check your dates. Foreign universities often operate on a very different calendar, and if you are out of sync with their timelines, you can find it hard to meet local students (something many people who have studied abroad say is a priority, and a difficulty they had), or hard to finish classes in time to go back to your home country. Sometimes, programs arranged by others will be made to fit your home institution's schedule, rather than the schedule of the place you want to study. So do a little research on when classes start and end, and whether there are any end-of-semester or end-of-year exam periods that you need (or might want) to be there for.

Option 3: Get your entire degree from a foreign university

picture of Ann Arbor
Studying abroad: cheaper than Ann Arbor!
(photo by Mark)

Apply to a foreign school. Get accepted. Go there for however long it takes to graduate. Most likely pay for everything yourself. It's possible, if you're already in a university, that you can get some credit at the foreign university for classes you've already taken. Thus, you might be able to do a two-year program somewhere and graduate from that place, using credits you've already earned. Just like transferring between universities in the same country, this might be more complicated than just picking a university and staying for their full program.

Why would you do this? Sometimes universities abroad are cheaper (or free), even for foreign students. Housing can also be cheaper than in the US (the University of Michigan has some of the most expensive apartments I've ever seen - for example, you could probably fund your whole education in some countries for the amount you pay in rent on an apartment in Ann Arbor!)

Option 4: Study abroad in a non-traditional manner

There are several ways to study abroad that are not semester programs at a partner university. Internships, for example, are often recommended by employers as a way to stand out when you apply for a job, and doing your internship abroad would definitely draw the eye of potential employers. You could also volunteer with a Nonprofit or NGO, take a language course or conduct research. Many of these options could be done in the summer months, or over the course of a semester or year. Most universities have a mechanism to allow you to put your studies on hold for a semester or year without penalty.

Additional help and information

Saving money

Bankrate.com - "How to study abroad with not much dinero"
Go Overseas - "5 Savings Tips to Help Your Child Study Abroad" - I especially like their comment "Your student will likely come home from the study abroad fair loaded down with shiny brochures. Generally, these are for expensive program providers."

Other information

The Australian government has a study abroad website that includes lots of tips that are not exclusive to Australians.

I offer up this website as an example of the more polished study abroad sites you may run across. Naturally, everyone says their experience was 'life changing' - because studying abroad changes your life. It links both direct enrollment and for-profit companies. Drilling down I was able to find some useful reviews, but in general these sites seem as likely to confuse as to elucidate.

The Abroad Guide is a different sort of site - they're still selling something (an ebook), but the information they offer seems to be pretty unbiased.

What to do once you're there

HuffPo did a 'mistakes not to make while studying abroad' piece. It won't help you get there, probably, but it might help you make good choices once you're there.

The somewhat mis-named 15 Study Abroad Mistakes to Avoid if You Want to Have a Blast is actually an excellent checklist, of things both to-do and not-to-do.

Please let me know if this has been helpful! If you studied abroad, what tips do you have?