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That France is one of the world's most popular study abroad destinations is surely no great surprise. Read on to find out why so many international students choose to study in France - and what to do next if you want to join them.
France occupies a distinct place in our collective imagination. From the urbane sophistication and history of its cities, to its legendary food and wine, to the spectacular scenery – think rugged mountains and verdant forests, golden beaches and azure seas, rolling pastures and mighty rivers – everyone has their own idealized conception of France.
Consequently, it is also the world’s most popular tourist destination by far, according to the United Nations World Tourist Organization.
Perhaps your personal image of France involves its proud intellectual and artistic heritage. This is the nation, after all, which produced thinkers such as René Descartes and Jean-Paul Sartre, authors like Marcel Proust and Albert Camus, filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir, and artists like Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne.
On top of these names we can add a whole host of scientists, mathematicians and other researchers, whose names are slightly less familiar, but whose achievements are no less spectacular for it. A total of 49 Nobel laureates places France fourth in the world.
This academic and artistic tradition continues to this day – there are few countries which invest quite as much money into research and education as France. QS’s rankings reflect this: a total of 35 French universities make the 2012/13 edition of the QS World University Rankings, 22 of which are in top 500.
The nation’s two leading universities, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris and Ecole Polytechnique ParisTech, both make the top 50, cementing their reputation’s as two of Europe’s and the world’s strongest institutions. What’s more, tuition fees at France’s leading universities are among the cheapest in the world, with annual fees averaging under US$1,000 per year for domestic and international students alike.
So is France for you then? Well, if you want to attend a high-quality institution in a nation with a proud intellectual heritage which will have the added benefit of making everyone you know jealous, then is the answer could well be ‘yes’.
Studying at master’s or PhD level? Read our graduate-level guide to France >
Learn more about France's top cities for students...
You will, no doubt, already have your own set of ideas regarding Paris, which may well be the result of a visit to the City of Light. Over 15 million tourists descended on the city in 2010, pulled in by attractions like the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, and world famous galleries like The Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay, or just to experience the city’s celebrated café culture.
But, like any other great city, the only way to truly get to know it beyond the tourist trail, is to live there and intermingle with the people who make the city what it is. Luckily, if a more extended relationship with Paris appeals to you, there is no shortage of universities at which you might study – seventeen public institutions (albeit not all with the same focus) and several prestigious grandes écoles – and resultantly, a large and cosmopolitan student base which goes a long way to giving the city its unique intellectual and creative culture.
Read more: A student's guide to Paris >
Lyon is a picturesque medieval city (though its history goes back even further than this) situated close to France’s borders with Switzerland and Italy. It is known for the being one of the culinary capitals of France, and is also within spitting distance of the French Alps, for those who like to hit the piste.
Its well-preserved architecture has earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but there is more to France’s joint second city (there’s some debate whether Marseille or Lyon can lay claim to this title) than spectacular architecture. Its many higher education establishments mean that it boasts a large student population, and, consequently, the vibrant nightlife common to all student cities.
But if it’s more civilized cultural pursuits you’re after, then Lyon will not disappoint on that front either, and those who have one eye on their future career will be glad to hear that it is one of France’s main financial centers.
Read more: A student's guide to Lyon >
A historic city situated not too far from France’s south-western borders with Andorra and Spain, Toulouse is known in the modern age as one of the capitals of the European aerospace industry. Its universities are also historic, with the institution that is now split into Université Toulouse 1, Capitole and Université Toulouse II, Le Mirail having been founded in the 13th century.
Toulouse has a large student population, and is known for being a hotbed of alternative culture. But this is France, after all, so if it’s opera, theatre and immaculately preserved architecture you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. And if you want to get out of the city, then the South of France is your oyster, with the proximity of the Pyrenees allowing skiers to get their fix.
If it’s a student-dominated city you’re after, then you could do a lot worse than Montpellier. Around a quarter of the city’s population consists of attendees of its universities, three of which make the 2012/13 QS World University Rankings, and one of which (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier III) is the seventh oldest in the world.
Its location near France’s Mediterranean coast makes it a good option for sun-worshippers, though it also means you’ll have to brace yourself for a mass influx of tourists in the summer months. The benefit, of course, is that in the off season you can enjoy almost exclusive access to the beaches, and will be left with plenty of time to find yourself some of the more well-hidden pleasures that the South of France has to offer.
In former times, Lille was one of the main industrial centres of France, which meant that it sadly went through a period of decline as the world entered the post-industrial age. However, in recent years the picturesque city has undergone something of a renaissance and is now considered by many to be one of France’s hidden treasures, with a vibrant cultural scene and a strong commercial backbone.
One of the main advantages of being based in Lille is how easy it is to leave – its location in the north-west of the country means that it can serve as a great base from which to explore northern Europe. You can, in fact, catch an express train directly from Lille to the world’s two most popular tourist cities, Paris and London, or to Brussels, which can serve as a gateway to the Netherlands or Germany. For those who like to travel, then, there is a pretty strong case for Lille!
See which French cities feature in the QS Best Student Cities >
One major benefit which students studying in France will enjoy is the country’s fee system. For the majority of courses at most universities you’ll have to pay only EU€177 (around US$230) a year for a bachelor’s degree (there are exceptions – engineering courses tend to cost more for example).
If this sounds too good to be true it is because, in a way, it is: French universities tend to levy additional administrative charges which are known to bring the price up considerably. That said, the final figure is still likely to be far lower than you would pay in a comparable destination.
You will pay more at France’s highly selective grandes écoles and grands établissements (great schools and establishments), which set their own fees. Some of these operate only at postgraduate level, and some – like Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris – require students to either get through two years of preparatory school (which is nearly as selective as the grande école itself) or to transfer across after two years or so of an undergraduate course.
Visa requirements will depend on whether you come from a country in the EU (students from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are treated the same as EU students in this case) or from further afield.
Applicants from the EU:
Applicants from outside the EU:
Search and compare French universities in the QS World University Rankings >
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