Going to university abroad – your study options

Globe on a beach - going to university abroad
UK students interested in studying abroad can do their whole degree overseas or just part of it. Explore your options and hear from graduates who chose to study abroad in America and Spain.

If you’re a UK-based student who wants to experience university study overseas, you have two main options:

  • applying to an overseas university and studying for the whole of your degree abroad
  • applying to a UK university that offers the opportunity to spend part of your degree studying overseas (for example, for a year).

If you want to do all of your degree overseas, you’ll need to find a way to finance it yourself, as you can’t usually use student loans to attend a university outside the UK (though do investigate the portability pilot if you live in Scotland). In contrast, your student finance shouldn’t be affected if you attend a UK university but study abroad for a year, as you’ll officially still be a student at your home university even while you’re off overseas. Find out more below, then read our article on the cost of studying abroad for more detail about fees in different countries and sources of financial assistance.

Studying abroad for you whole degree

In theory you’re free to apply to any university you like, anywhere in the world. In practice, you’ll probably want to study somewhere that has degrees taught in English, unless you speak another language to a high level.

The most popular destinations for UK residents tend to be North America (the US and Canada) and the rest of Europe.

  • The US and Canada offer a huge variety of courses taught in English. However, fees tend to be high and flying to and from North America is expensive.
  • In Europe, the availability of courses taught in English varies from country to country. The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark offer a good number, and there are some available elsewhere. Fees for EU students are frequently much lower than UK tuition fees; however, it’s not yet known how much students from the UK will have to pay after Brexit. Be aware also that the cost of living is high in Sweden and Denmark.

A number of countries offer the chance to explore a broader range of subjects at university than is typical in England and Wales (Scottish universities offer more flexibility than the rest of the UK). For example:

  • In the US there’s a great deal of flexibility – in most cases you don’t need to decide what subject you want to specialise in (your major) until part way through your degree. Instead you can simply apply to universities you like the look of and spend your first year or two trying out a wide range of subjects. However, there are a few exceptions, such as if you want to study medicine, architecture or engineering.
  • In Canada you apply to a specific faculty (eg arts, science or business). Each year you can choose modules from a variety of different subjects; most need to be from your faculty but you’ll also get some ‘freebie’ modules that can be from a different faculty. If at the end of your first year you decide you preferred your ‘freebie’ modules you can usually switch faculty without having to extend the length of your degree.

Studying for part of your degree abroad

Spending a year abroad can work out well financially. Typically you don’t need to pay tuition fees to the overseas university at which you study, and will pay a reduced fee to your home university for the year that you are away. You’ll still be eligible for a maintenance loan from the UK government for your year abroad.

If you want to do a year abroad you can either:

  • specifically apply for degree courses that include a year abroad at the UCAS application stage.
  • apply for standard degree courses, start university and then apply for opportunities to study abroad offered by your university once you’re there.

Typically universities offer placements within Europe via the Erasmus+ scheme, and placements elsewhere in the world via their own network of partner universities. The Erasmus+ scheme is an EU initiative, so it’s unclear whether the UK will continue to participate long-term. Alternatively, some UK universities have overseas campuses – for example the University of Nottingham and Middlesex University – and sometimes allow UK students to apply to spend time there.

Be aware that if you wait till you’re at university to apply, you probably won’t be guaranteed a place. For example, Durham University states that in 2017/2018, the average success rate for applications to its overseas exchange programme (for exchanges outside Europe) was 33% and the success rate for its Erasumus+ exchange was around 80%.

Also be aware that you may not get your first choice of university or country, whether you apply via UCAS or once you are at university.

Take a good look at universities’ websites to find out the detail of what they offer before applying; university open days may offer the opportunity to find out more in person.

What to consider when deciding whether to study abroad and where

  • If you plan to study in a non-English speaking country and don’t already speak the language, are you prepared to learn? Even if your course is taught in English, you’ll need to deal with matters such as opening a bank account, renting a room, making friends and living your day-to-day life.
  • Are you happy to adapt to the local laws and culture? For example, in the US the minimum legal drinking age is 21 so your social life is likely to revolve around lattes rather than cider.
  • Will you be OK with the climate and number of hours’ daylight in the country and area you are considering? For example, in some parts of Canada temperatures can be minus 30 degrees for three months of the year, which is great if you want to ski but less good if you’re into running or cycling. Likewise, in parts of Scandinavia there can be little or no daylight in winter – is this something that would bother you?
  • Would you want the option to stay on in the country after graduation? For example, in Canada you can stay on and work for up to three years via its postgraduate work programme (as long as your degree was at least three years long) and if you want to stay longer the criteria for obtaining permanent residency aren’t too demanding. In contrast, in the US you have 60 days to leave the country after finishing your studies.
  • Have you been to the country you’re thinking about? It’s not essential, but visiting is a good move if at all possible. Failing that, try to find someone who has lived there to talk to about it.
  • Would you be comfortable living a long way from your family and current friends and knowing that it’s probably not practical to see them very often or get their help in person with any problems you face? How far away is too far?
  • Could you afford to travel home if there’s a family emergency? You’ll know your term dates well in advance so you can book your flights early and get the best price, but you won’t have that option if you suddenly need to return to the UK in a crisis.

How to apply to universities overseas

Application processes vary from country to country; this is something you need to research. For example:

  • In the US, you usually need to apply to universities individually, and they don’t all have the same deadlines. Each university will typically set one or more essays that you need to write just for them and submit as part of your application; these are similar to the UCAS personal statement in that they are about you selling yourself, not academic essays, but each university sets its own questions and word limits. You may also need to complete tests, such as the SAT. Some use the Common Application, an online system that allows you to apply to multiple universities using the same basic information about yourself and an essay, but unlike with UCAS you’ll also need to respond to individual universities’ requirements (such as writing an additional essay they want).
  • Likewise in Canada you typically apply to individual universities by their individual deadlines, though some provinces (areas) have a centralised system just for that province. Usually Canadian universities decide whether to admit you purely on the basis of your school grades and don’t ask you to submit anything extra or sit tests.
  • In the Netherlands you usually apply to universities via the Studielink central application system. For most courses, your predicted (or actual) grades in your A levels, Highers or IB don’t affect whether you are offered a place; there’s usually just a minimum requirement such as passing three A levels. However, Dutch universities focus instead on how you perform academically in your first year – you need to pass or you’ll have to leave, so be realistic about the courses you apply for.

Benefits of studying abroad

  • It’s a good opportunity to spend an extended period of time in a different country. You’ll get to understand it better than you would as a tourist, and could choose to spend your weekends travelling to different areas.
  • It could help you learn or improve your language skills – if you study somewhere non-English speaking, of course. You’ll get the best results if you throw yourself into the experience, resist the urge to just hang out with fellow English-speakers and – if you’re somewhere where a lot of the population have good language skills – you try to keep going if they want to switch to English to make life easier for you.
  • It will help you develop maturity and independence as you adapt to new people, cultures, and situations and deal with any problems that arise – but you’ll still have the university’s student services and facilities to draw upon, rather than being completely on your own.
  • It will look good on your CV. A few graduate employers specifically look for applicants who have knowledge of another culture and/or have spent time abroad – for example, some investment banks. Almost all will see that you’re someone independent who doesn’t mind trying something new, and it will give you good examples of challenges you’ve faced to talk about in job interviews.

Graduates reflect on being a student overseas

Lydia Cartwright spent a year in Spain at Universitat Jaume I, Castellon, as part of her degree in European law with Spanish at Coventry University. She is now an assistant headteacher at a primary school.

Josie Taylor spent a year in the US at the University of South Carolina as part of her degree in English Language at the University of Leeds. She now works in academic book publishing as a senior editor specialising in criminology at Palgrave Macmillan.

What made you decide to do part of your degree abroad?

Lydia: I was studying Spanish and liked the idea of living abroad.

Josie: I was interested to experience the US university system and the amazing facilities that they have, particularly as it would cost me a fraction of the usual price to do it as a UK student as part of a study abroad exchange for one year. I felt that it would be a great opportunity that would only benefit me in the long run.

How did you go about making it happen?

Lydia: I applied for undergraduate degrees that had the option of a year abroad.

Josie: I went to a careers fair to hear from other students who had studied abroad and I also went to the university careers office to read the surveys that others had written about their experiences.

Tell us a bit about your time overseas and what you did there.

Lydia: I spent time travelling around the rest of Spain.

Josie: I lived in a Greek-style building with large columns that housed some of the international students. I met lots of people from England, Europe and beyond and each apartment had one US student who would help you settle into life there. I didn't have to share a room but some others did. I chose a really wide array of modules, from psychology and anthropology to tennis lessons, to enjoy the extra year at university as it didn't count towards my final grade, but my results were taken into account for my final degree classification.

What was it like making friends in a new country?

Lydia: It was good to make friends from other parts of England and other parts of the world.

Josie: My halls ran activities and outings for the intentional students, which really helped us get to know each other from the very beginning. They also organised a bus trip to Target (a household goods shop) so that we could buy the essentials!

What were the best and worst aspects of studying abroad?

Lydia: It was lovely to experience another culture. It was lonely at times.

Josie: The best part was meeting like-minded, adventurous people who are some of my closest friends now, and travelling around on my weekends to different cities and states, including to the Bahamas for spring break! There wasn't really a bad part to studying abroad. I found that the style of teaching and learning was quite different in terms of having regular in-class quizzes and more teaching time, but also not needing to do much additional reading compared to what is expected in the UK, so it was interesting to try a different system.

What was the biggest challenge?

Lydia: I found the Spaniards in that part of the country would often revert to speaking English, so it was challenging to actually use the language as you tend to be paired with other overseas students.

Josie: The biggest challenge was getting used to life in a different culture, even the small things such as getting used to the food and supermarkets and not necessarily having public transport to get around.

Do you think that study abroad has had any long-term effect on you or your career?

Lydia: I think it broadens your horizons, giving individuals the opportunity to have new experiences, meet new people and ultimately become more independent.

Josie: Studying abroad gave me an extra year to consolidate what I'd learned during my degree and therefore probably helped me to achieve a higher result. I think it also helped me to stand out when applying for jobs (similar to having a masters degree). Large companies often have offices abroad and clients around the world and therefore having experience living abroad and working with a diverse range of people can lend itself well to your career after university.

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