Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

How to Get Scholarships and Financial Aid for Study Abroad

University of Avila in Spain
University of Avila near Madrid in Spain.

“I’ll see you next September,” I kept repeating. It was December, the end of the fall semester of my junior year at Columbia University. I would be studying abroad in Madrid for the spring, and was saying goodbye to my friends. Some of them would be studying abroad as well: Paris, Beijing, Buenos Aires…all these destinations popped up in conversations. But one single remark stuck in my mind. “I wish I could go abroad, too,” a friend from another school lamented, “but it’s just too expensive.”

Study Abroad: An Unattainable Luxury?

Traveling to many foreign countries in itself is expensive. From flights and accommodations to food and health insurance, the expenses can quickly add up to a significant, if not entirely unaffordable, bill.

Study abroad includes conventional costs cited above, and more. You will have to factor in tuition, as well as supplies, ranging from books to electronic devices and web access to specific equipment depending upon what you are studying. While literature majors might be able to save on used books, photography students with non-digital cameras are likely to have to buy a new rolls of film on a constant basis.

Moreover, as a student abroad, chances are you will want to travel in your destination country, or even continent. Even if you just want to use public transportation (or the occasional taxi after those long nights out, experiencing the “local culture,” of course), this will add up after some time, as well. Then there is the need for a cell phone.

The list goes on and on, and after totaling everything up, you are likely to be deterred from going abroad given the high cost. And that is not even taking into account the need to have an emergency fund should anything go wrong. Study abroad is expensive, and thus unattainable for many.

But it need not be.

Making Study Abroad Available To All

From experiencing a distant culture, learning a foreign language, becoming more independent...the reasons to study abroad are many and varied. In fact, there have been large studies, such as those conducted by IES abroad, which have demonstrated that students who study abroad increase their job prospects. Studying abroad is essential not only for peaceful international relationships, but also in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace. To support students in this endeavor, numerous educational and governmental institutions, as well as private organizations, provide options for scholarships and financial aid.

Funding Options

The primary options available to students seeking financial assistance for study abroad are as follows:

1) Federal and University Financial Aid and Scholarships

Depending upon which college you are attending, the requirements for applying for financial aid and scholarships towards study abroad will vary. Plan ahead, and read the fine print. In other words, make an appointment with a financial aid advisor well ahead of time, if possible even during in your freshman year. Here are some relevant questions to ask, moving from the general to the specific: 

  • Do you pay the same tuition abroad as back home? Some schools, such as Columbia University, charge the same tuition fees for studying abroad and studying at the home campus. Other schools, such as Maryland State University, charge a program fee, which varies according to the program you choose and the destination. On the one hand, this allows students the opportunity to save by choosing a less costly program and destination, and on the other, it deters people from going to more expensive destinations. Columbia University, for example, argues that it wants to keep things equal for students seeking to go to any destination, and encourages study abroad by keeping the fees the same.  
  • Can university or federal financial aid be applied towards study abroad? A straightforward, but essential, question. According to a survey by, 37% of students studying abroad did not know they could use their financial aid for programs overseas. Again, find out early on the answer to this key question.
  • If so, are there any restrictions as to which programs you can attend? Congratulations, your school allows you to use financial aid for study abroad. Now it is time to read the fine print. For example, does the financial aid office differentiate between state and non-state sponsored programs? For example, if you are studying at the University of Maryland, state-sponsored aid will not go towards a Syracuse University program. Other schools may also have requirements in terms of the difficultly of the program (e.g. the number of foreign language semesters required to be admitted), so be sure to inquire about such issues as well.
  • Are there study abroad specific scholarships?
    In addition to regular financial aid, some schools offer scholarships specifically for study abroad. Given that the application process frequently involves personal statements, high GPAs, recommendation letters and more, it is recommended that you plan early. If you find out in your first year what you will need to go abroad in your third, chances are there will not be any unexpected surprises. lists factors that determine scholarships, categorizing them as:
    • Merit-based
    • Student-specific
    • Destination-specific
    • Program-specific
    • Subject-specific
So, when inquiring about scholarships, consult not only with the Study Abroad and Financial Aid offices, but also with your departmental advisor, as well as any organizations you interact with on campus.

Last but not least, inquire about exchange programs; here, a foreign student will attend your home university, while you attend theirs. Costs of living vary, but tuition remains the same.

  • When will your money be transferred?
  • Receiving a scholarship or financial aid can make the world appear rosy. However, do not take off just yet without knowing the specifics. Be sure to find out when and how your money will be transferred. I have known numerous students who were abroad and had to borrow money from locals merely because their financial aid check was being sent to their home instead of to their new address abroad. While I certainly empathized with their dilemma, I wondered whether it could have been avoided by planning ahead. If you know that your money is not going to arrive right away, be sure to have some access to backup funding.

2) Third Party Programs: Scholarships And Lower Tuition

Third party programs, meaning those not associated with your home institution, can be a source of scholarships as well. CIEE, an independent organization which was founded 70 years ago, offers more than $3 million dollars in various forms of scholarships yearly for study abroad depending upon your needs and eligibility. Visit their website to see the requirements and contact them to find out how they can help you. SIT, AIFS, and others also offer scholarships. Never hesitate to ask a third party program to which you apply if they offer any financial aid in the form of scholarships or grants.

Which brings me to a point I already touched upon above: choosing a destination can significantly reduce your expenses if you keep in mind the cost of living. Developing countries not only allow you to save money, but will provide you with a perspective on the world that is different than your life back home. In other words, when choosing a study abroad location, don't forget to look beyond Europe.

3) Attending Colleges Abroad Directly

College tuition in the United States is extremely high compared to that in other countries. By enrolling in a program directly, you pay local tuition. In Germany, for example, that can be as little as 500 Euros a semester if attending a public university.

However, enrolling directly also means that you will have to withdraw from your home university. Most likely, you also will not receive credits for the courses you take while abroad. So when choosing to do so, be sure to weigh the costs against the benefits. Perhaps you could go abroad for a summer instead? By taking the path of summer study abroad you will not lose academic momentum at your home institution, and will likely return with an enhanced education which will set you ahead of your peers.

If you add up all the factors and study abroad during college is still too expensive, no need to despair. Another option is to graduate and go abroad after college. From teaching English and learning to tango, to working as a freelance photographer for an adventure sports company, there are numerous ways to sustain a life abroad on a budget. In your free time, you can then interact with locals and learn the local language, for example. All in all, be patient, be alert and be persistent. If you are a hard worker, chances are that your efforts will eventually pay off.


Program Finder of the Institute of International Education: site allows you to search programs by field of study, program location, participant type, and participant country/territory of origin. Results are easy to navigate and show program type, including grants, fellowships, scholarships and exchanges.

Transitions Abroad section on Study Abroad Funding: a comprehensive list of resources, including information on Fulbrights fellowships and scholarships and more.

Related Topics
Study Abroad Advisor
Essential Study Abroad Funding Articles and Resources

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