Study Abroad for free

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Study Abroad For Free? A Budgeting Approach

How to study abroad for free? This might be the most common question about studying abroad across all search engines, communities, and Q&A platforms on the internet. After studying abroad four times on three different continents, I’d like to share my perspective on that topic. Unfortunately, I can’t provide you with a magical formula here, but some thoughts and tips on budgeting and how to choose a country accordingly (assuming you won’t receive any scholarships). Is studying abroad for free possible? To answer that question correctly, we have to break it down a little bit – and specify what “for free” actually means in this context.

Costs for studying at your home university

Studying abroad is still studying

First, let’s talk about the main costs when studying at your home university. These usually boil down to accommodation, food, hobbies, everyday essentials, and things you need for your studies. In many countries, there are also high tuition fees. However, none of these costs is specifically related to studying abroad yet. It just shows that being a student anywhere in the world is always associated with some costs. The same goes for abroad. Technically, you are doing the same thing, just somewhere else. You still have to pay for food, rent, and leisure activities, right? To some extent, these expenses can be compared with overhead costs of operating a business: they are vital for you to study at a university, have all required resources, and food on a daily basis. However, they don’t get you anywhere close to an airport yet.

How to cover costs back home?

There are many ways to cover these general expenses: Government or federal support, student loans from a bank or financial institution, financial support from your parents and grandparents, part-time jobs, dual study programs, savings, inheritance, scholarships, awards, full-time summer internships or jobs, tutoring, etc. Living with your parents is also a way of saving money. Regardless of who you are and where you are from, you already have some sort of “income” that allows you to study at your home university. In the best-case scenario, you can maintain the exact same level of income without being dependent on anything back home when studying abroad. This includes local part-time jobs or living with your parents. More on that later.

Tuition fees are not part of study abroad costs

What was studying abroad again? It is studying at a partner university abroad for one or two semesters. By definition, this implies that you don’t have to pay any additional tuition fees because of the existing partnership agreements, as explained here. Paying fees to any third-party agency isn’t studying abroad, unfortunately. In general, whenever you see anything with a huge price tag labelled as “study abroad”, you should be suspicious. Short-term programs like summer and winter schools are exceptions to this, as they are additional income sources for universities. If you are interested in such programs, only go for the ones offered by the universities directly. To study abroad for free, partner universities are the only options you can go. So make sure to have a look at your partner network.

Study abroad specific costs

Next, let’s take a look at the costs you have to deal with when going abroad. If you are particularly interested in the USA, check out this cost breakdown here. You can compare the following expenses to direct costs since they are connected explicitly to studying abroad.

Mobility: Flight, Transportation, and Visa cost

Depending on where you want to go, flight and transportation costs can rank anywhere from almost insignificantly cheap to somewhere around $1200: While it is pretty cheap to travel around Europe, getting from, for example, New Zealand to Portugal is somewhat more expensive. With some research, $800 to $1200, give or take, should get you a return flight ticket to anywhere in the world (depending on the airline, timing, season, etc.).

With almost 200 countries out there, it is difficult to talk about average visa costs. This really depends a lot on where you are from and where you want to go. The price for a US visa for a German student, for example, is somewhere around $400. While you might have to pay way more for other countries, some won’t require any visa at all. There is really no standard formula here, which is why you have to do the research yourself. Find out how much the student visas cost in the country you are interested in and keep it in mind for later.

Traveling

Traveling is what makes studying abroad actually really expensive: many people want to explore the country in-depth and travel to neighboring countries, too. In theory, the sky is the limit here. But you could also live very modestly and focus more on the campus life or your research projects, which is fine, too. Maybe you’re primarily passionate about the one country or city you want to apply for and don’t even plan to travel around a lot (Bangkok? Rio de Janeiro? Hanoi?). Cutting down on traveling can save you a lot of money and allow you to go abroad in the first place. Also, there are many ways to have fun on a budget.

Costs of living

As everybody knows, the costs of living vary significantly around the world. This can go two ways: If you’d like to live in a country with higher living costs than your home country, it would actually “cost” you money, and you’d have to come up with extra cash (compared to your current monthly spending). On the flip side, if you decide to go to a country with smaller living costs, this allows you to “save” money by merely spending less than at home. This presumes you still have at least some monthly budget available throughout the semester abroad.

What does "for free" mean in this case?

According to collinsdictionary.com, for free means “getting something without having to pay for it” or “without charge, gratis” (dictionary.com). As we pointed out above, studying anywhere in the world isn’t really “without charge”. Assuming you still have to pay for all the basics, the initial question should not be “how to study abroad for free”, but “how to find free flights”. To put it in a nutshell, in my opinion, “studying abroad for free” means studying abroad at no additional costs compared to your spending back home. This refers to the total cost distributed over the entire period of the stay abroad. In other words, it means to study abroad without any additional income sources. These include any form of scholarships, more student loans, or extra money from your family (in addition to what you might get anyway). However, it still requires you to have at least some cash for daily spendings, of course – just as at home.

So how do you study abroad for free then?

Suppose you want to study abroad for free according to the definition mentioned above. In that case, your only real option is to go for countries with the same or significantly lower average costs of living. Ask yourself two fundamental questions. First, how far away from home would you like to go? Second, what portion of your current “income” can you maintain throughout the semester abroad? Does it depend on a part-time job back home? Or does it require you to live rent-free at your parents’ place? As a result of that, there are four main situations you might find yourself in, which are explained below.

Where can I go?

Your mobility allowance is the difference between the average monthly spendings at home and abroad times the number of months. For example, if you spend $600 per month on rent, food, etc., and could manage to live somewhere for $400 per month or less, you’d be left with at least $1000 for transportation per semester (5 months). That is 5 times the difference between $600 and $400. So there is always a tradeoff between your expected monthly costs abroad and the corresponding mobility costs to get there. To some extent, it is an iterative process here: if you want to go further, you’d have to spend less per month and vice versa. The following websites can give you an impression of the average living costs in different countries worldwide. Remember, your home university must have partner universities there for you to get the tuition fees waived. Choosing partner universities also reduces the amount of paperwork before and after your program. Learn how to find the right country and program here.

Check out these links:

In any case, you need the money for flights, transportation, and visas upfront, even if you manage to save money abroad. For that, you could ask your parents or grandparents to lend you the money, take a student loan, or use your savings.

You can also flip the situation around! Imagine you want to study abroad in a country with higher living costs. In that case, you could estimate how much money you have to save in total by comparing your monthly spending at home and abroad and multiply it by five (for one semester). However, this would not be “free” according to the definition mentioned above.

What are the four situations?

As mentioned above, there are four main scenarios for you depending on your financial situation and destination preferences. All four assume you don’t get any additional financial support for your study abroad program!

Assuming you…

… can maintain your income and want to go as far as possible

In this case, the mobility cost is your only real burden. However, the further you want to go, the more expensive the flight tickets will be. As explained above, you have to choose a country where you can minimize your monthly spending to such an extent that your savings cover the flight tickets. If you want to save on visa costs, pick a different country. The good news is that you can still maintain your income and therefore can have a good time abroad without thinking about your finances too much. If you want to travel, you should be able to do so every now and then by budgeting well and not spending too much daily. However, traveling costs are very individual and vary depending on your preferences. The further you go, the more you might want to travel around because everything is new and exciting to you. But remember that you are trying to study abroad for free or at no additional costs, so try to minimize your spendings and enjoy campus life, too.

Study abroad for free possible? Yes, if you find a good middle ground between mobility costs and costs of living abroad. Don’t go too far to save on transportation.

… can maintain your income but don't want to go far away

This is probably the most convenient and easiest way to study abroad for free, a.k.a. at no additional costs. Not having to worry about expensive flight tickets is a great relief. It is also less likely that you’d have to pay any visa costs at all by staying close by. In this case, you could even consider countries with the same or similar living costs compared to your home country. However, suppose you decide to go for a country with a significantly lower cost of living. In that case, you can travel around and explore even more. You can also just enjoy yourself more, eat out more often, and just have a stress-free study abroad experience overall.

Study abroad for free possible? Yes, absolutely. Your “degree of freedom” solely depends on the costs of living, but you don’t really have to limit yourself in any way.

… can't maintain your income and don't want to go far away

If you can’t maintain the same income level throughout the semester abroad, your best choice is to pick a country close by anyway. You can still have a fantastic time. Just imagine how many different cultures live “side by side” in Europe. But also in other parts of the world, there is a lot to discover in neighboring countries! However, this scenario presumes that you have enough money saved to go on a study abroad program in the first place. Or you still get enough funds every month to “survive” until you come back (having a decreasing account balance month by month). To keep your dream alive, you have to choose a country close by with significantly lower living costs and avoid visa fees. Traveling for leisure is probably not for you this time. There is still a lot to do and discover around the campus, too. Also, this allows you to settle in and focus more on your new home away from home. Besides that, you are never the only person who goes abroad on a strict budget. In any case, you will make friends and have the time of your life. You just have to budget your money wisely and prioritize more, which is an experience and lesson in itself.

Study abroad for free possible? Maybe, but only if you’ve saved enough money before and budget well. At least there is no need to think about transportation.

… can't maintain your income but still want to go far away

This is by far the most challenging situation. Basically, everything from the previous case applies to you, but you still have to somehow pay for flight tickets or transportation. If you haven’t saved enough money before, studying abroad on a different continent, for instance, is hardly possible. But it really depends on your financial situation and the countries you are interested in. Check how much money you’d still have available each month and where you could survive with that. Maybe you still get at least some income each month to fund the trip anyway. In any case, you would have to choose a country with low costs of living.

Study abroad for free possible? Maybe, rather not. You need enough money in your bank account to cover all costs throughout the entire semester, including all mobility costs. If you strongly depend on a part-time job back home or living with your parents, it is almost impossible to study abroad without any additional financial support.

Key take away

Being a student anywhere in the world comes at a price. Therefore, I consider studying abroad at no additional cost as “for free”: you get the experience of studying and living in a foreign country without paying extra. But you still need some cash to pay for your everyday life, like rent and food. Your only real option is to go for countries with lower living costs to make up for any associated travel costs. In general, you will find yourself in one of the four scenarios mentioned above. Decide how far you want to go and how much money you have available per month. Based on that, find a middle ground between distance (flight cost) and living standard (cost of living). Keep the high costs for leisure travel in mind, as well as your university’s partner network abroad. Once there, you can always save a lot of money with free activities. Finally, you can use the study abroad checklist to go through your application documents and start preparing today.

This was solely a budgeting approach or thought experiment to the ever dratted question of “how to study abroad for free?”. Ideally, it has given you some ideas on budgeting your next study abroad – “for free” or not.

How to come up with extra money?

In any of the cases mentioned above, some extra cash would come in handy. Not to go for more expensive countries, but to make the whole experience more enjoyable and stress-free. Sometimes, a couple of hundred dollars decide about you going abroad or staying at home. Next week, I will give some tried-and-tested real-life tips on saving money for your study abroad.

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