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 conjures up a distinct set of associations 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. This is reflected in its status as the world’s most popular tourist destination, 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 may be slightly less familiar, but whose achievements are no less spectacular.
If you’re keen to visit France not just as a holiday-maker but as a student, read on to find out about French universities, student cities, and how to get started with applications, costs and visas.
France’s strong academic and artistic tradition continues in the modern day; there are few countries which invest as much in research and education. Global university rankings reflect this; a total of 39 French universities are included in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017, of which 10 are within the global top 250. The nation’s two leading universities, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris and Ecole Polytechnique ParisTech, both make the world's top 55 at 33rd and joint 53rd respectively, cementing their reputations as two of Europe’s and the world’s leading institutions.
In addition to the 39 French universities featured in the QS World University Rankings, France is also known for its strong contingent of specialized business schools. These are not placed in the overall rankings due to their subject-specific focus, but nonetheless enjoy wide-reaching international reputations. Notable examples include ESCP Europe, ESSEC Business School, HEC Paris and INSEAD.
What’s more, tuition fees at the leading universities in France are among the lowest in the world, with annual fees averaging under US$1,000 per year for domestic and international students alike.
So is studying in France for you? Well, if you want to attend a high-quality institution at an affordable cost, become fluent in the beautiful and internationally used French language, and generally get to grips with the nation’s famed art de vivre, then the answer could well be "oui".
Studying at master’s or PhD level? Find out how to study in France at graduate level with the QS Top Grad School Guide.
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 so-called City of Light. Around 45 million tourists descended on the city in 2015, pulled in by attractions including 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.
Like any other great city, the only way to truly get to know Paris is to live there and intermingle with the people who make the city what it is. If student life in Paris appeals to you, there is no shortage of great universities to choose from, including 17 public institutions (with varying specializations) and several prestigious grandes écoles. As a result, the city has a large and diverse student community, which goes a long way to guaranteeing the continued vibrancy of its long-established intellectual and creative culture.
A picturesque medieval city (though its history goes back even further than this), Lyon is situated close to France’s borders with Switzerland and Italy. It is known for 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.
Lyon’s 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 over whether Marseille or Lyon can claim this title) than spectacular architecture. Its many higher education establishments mean that it boasts a large student population, and, consequently, the vibrant nightlife commonly found in all student hubs. If it’s more civilized cultural pursuits you’re after, Lyon will not disappoint on that front either, while those who have one eye on their future career may be interested to hear that it is one of France’s main financial centers.
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 – alongside more traditional cultural outlets in the form of opera, theatre and immaculately preserved architecture. 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.
Another major student community is found in Montpellier. Around a quarter of the city’s population consists of attendees of its universities, two of which are featured in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017, and one of which (Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier III) is the seventh-oldest in the world.
Montpellier’s 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 explore 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 centers of France, which meant an inevitable 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 lesser-known treasures, with a vibrant cultural scene and a strong commercial backbone.
One of the main advantages of being based in Lille is the ease of travelling to explore other parts of France, and much of 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. If you’ve got the travel bug, Lille could be for you!
The major benefits enjoyed by those who study in France include relatively low tuition fees at public universities. For the majority of courses at most public universities in France, you’ll have to pay only EU€189 (around US$210) a year for a bachelor’s degree (there are exceptions – engineering courses tend to cost more for example).
It should be noted that universities in France 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 to study in 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 complete two years of preparatory school (which is nearly as selective as the grande école itself) or to transfer across after two or more years of an undergraduate course. Top management schools can charge up to €30,000 a year (~US $33,500).
The application process and visa requirements to study in France will depend on whether you come from a country in the EU, or from further elsewhere in the world. Students from Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are treated the same as EU students in this case.
Applicants from the EU:
Applicants from outside the EU: