Choose to study in Spain, and one thing is for sure: your friends will be very jealous! Stretching to the Pyrenees in the east, the Mediterranean in the south, the Bay of Biscay in the north, and Portugal in the west, Spain is one of the biggest countries in Europe – and also one of the most-visited.
Spain is consistently among the world’s most popular tourist destinations (third in 2014, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization), welcoming an annual volume of tourists which considerably exceeds its population. It's also among the most popular destinations for international students, due to its winning combination of good universities, attractive lifestyle, and the fact that Spanish is one of the world's most spoken languages.
This is a country of contrasts, where the affluence and cosmopolitan bustle of Western Europe is mixed with a distinctly southern European extravagance and charm; where an expressive and flamboyant culture segues into afternoon naps and languid evenings in bars and cafés; and where distinct regional identities often take precedence over a unified national one. Of course, lifestyle alone isn’t enough to draw in the punters – you need to have good universities too!
If you like the idea of studying Spain, click on the tabs below to find out more about Spanish universities, popular student cities, and what steps to take next.
Spain has a long history of higher education, with its oldest university, Universidad de Salamanca, dating back to 1218. Its higher education system was overhauled in 2007 to embrace the three-cycle system of the Bologna Process, ensuring compatibility with the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).
There are a total of 78 universities (or universidades) in Spain, 51 of which are run and funded by the state whilst 27 are private or run by the Catholic Church. A total of 21 Spanish universities are featured in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017, of which 10 are within the global top 500. The largest concentrations of leading Spanish universities are found in capital city Madrid and second city Barcelona.
Read more about the top six Spanish universities, all ranking within the world’s top 300:
The highest-ranked Spanish university, the University of Barcelona is joint 160th in the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. Established in 1450, it's among the oldest higher education institutions in the world, with rich traditions dating back to the Medieval Ages. Today, more than 90,600 students are enrolled in a wide array of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, across the university's 18 faculties and 100 departments. The University of Barcelona ranks within the world’s top 100 for many of the subject areas covered by the QS World University Rankings by Subject.
The Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona was established in 1968, and ranks at joint 203rd in the world, making it Spain’s second representative at international level. As one of the world’s leading universities under 50 years old, it features in the QS Top 50 Under 50. It teaches about 36,000 students and is famous for being one of the few universities in Spain to have a centralized campus, created in order to promote a strong university community, with all academic, research, cultural and social activities in the same place. This integrated campus is located about 20km (12 miles) from the center of Barcelona.
Also established in 1968, the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (sometimes called UAM, or the Autonomous University of Madrid), is currently ranked at joint 210th in the world – as well as featuring in the QS Top 50 Under 50. The Universidad Autónoma de Madrid is home to more than 36,000 students across its eight faculties, and is especially noted for its Faculty of Law. It has three campuses, of which the main one, the Cantoblanco Campus, is located 15km (9 miles) north of Madrid. The Universidad Autónoma de Madrid prides itself in being the alma mater of His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain.
The oldest Spanish university, the University Complutense Madrid is in fact one of the oldest higher education institutions in the world. It dates back to 1293, when it was originally known as Estudio de Escuelas Generales de Alcalá, before receiving its current name in 1499. Today, the University Complutense Madrid ranks at joint 239th place in the world and within the global top 50 in the subject area of dentistry. More than 86,000 students study in the university, which was one of the first in the world to give a doctoral degree to a female student, in 1785.
A private university, the University of Navarra was established in 1952 by Saint Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. More than 12,700 students are enrolled in the university’s undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs, with many international master’s students. The university’s main campuses are in Pamplona and San Sebastián, while its prestigious IESE Business School also has offices in Barcelona, Madrid, New York, Munich and São Paulo. At the start of 2015, the university inaugurated a new museum of contemporary art, designed by well-known architect Rafael Moneo. In the QS World University Rankings 2016-2017, the University of Navarra ranks joint 245th, up 20 places from last year.
One of the youngest Spanish universities, the Universitat Pompeu Fabra features in the QS World University Rankings this year in joint 283rd place, and is another Spanish representative in the Top 50 Under 50. It was established in 1990 and named after the famous Catalan philologist Pompeu Fabra. The university is located in Barcelona, across three separate campuses which each focus on a particular field of study: social sciences and humanities, health and life sciences, and ITC and communication sciences.
A relatively large and highly diverse country, Spain offers a wide range of experiences for students. Depending on where you’re based, you may be able to spend your downtime relaxing on the beach, trekking in the mountains, or pursuing snow sports. Wherever you are, you’re also guaranteed to have ample opportunities to join in with the distinctive Spanish customs and traditions, such as the afternoon siesta, late-night meals and delicious tapas, and a wide plethora of festivals – from the messy tomato-based food fight La Tomatina to the danger-laced Pamplona Bull Run.
Find out about some of Spain's top student cities...
As in any historic European capital worth its salt, in Madrid you’ll find fast-paced modern life taking place against a backdrop of beautiful historic architecture. One of the largest urban hubs in Europe, Madrid is a major international center for business and finance, as well as being known for its world-leading arts and cultural venues. Among the most prominent of these are the three art museums which comprise the city’s so-called “Golden Triangle of Art”. Meanwhile football fans will know the city for its team Real Madrid, one of the world’s most decorated and famous. The strong reputation held by Madrid’s universities among employers contributes to its placing at 22nd among the world’s best student cities.
Madrid is home to some of the best Spanish universities, including four which feature in the QS World University Rankings: Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (joint 210th), Universidad Complutense de Madrid (joint 239th), Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (joint 280th) and Politécnica de Madrid (551-600).
Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region to the southeast of Spain with a proud regional identity. It is one of the most aesthetically distinctive cities in Europe, dominated by daring modernist architecture, and in particular the spectacular creations of the architect Anton Gaudí. A famously youth-orientated city, it’s known for its vibrant nightlife, and events such as the annual Primavera Sound music festival. On top of all its urban delights, Barcelona also offers very close proximity to beautiful Mediterranean beaches, and some of Europe’s best surfing spots. Like Madrid, it too boasts one of the world’s most famous and successful football teams, popularly known as “Barça”.
Universities in Barcelona include some of the highest-ranked in Spain: the University of Barcelona (joint 160th in the world), Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (joint 203rd), Universitat Pompeu Fabra (joint 283rd) and Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (joint 321st).
Spain’s third-largest city, located on the coast about 350km south of Barcelona, Valencia is probably best known for being the spiritual home of the delicious rice-based dish paella. It is also home of the massive Les Falles festival, when hundreds of giant puppets are paraded and then burned, and the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim, one of the biggest music festivals in Europe. It is a major tourist magnet, due to its beautiful beaches, attractive city center, museums and interest-packed “Ciutat Vella” (old town) – full of historic buildings and bustling bars.
Located towards the south of Spain, Granada has a distinctly North African feel, the result of centuries of Moorish rule. The most famous example of this legacy is the spectacular Alhambra, a huge castle which overlooks the city. It is fair to say that Granada is a major student city, with the Universidad de Granada ranked within the global top 550. This large university hosts more than 80,000 students across its five different campuses, offering instant access to a large and diverse student community. Regional traditions in this part of Spain include a custom of serving free tapas with every drink you order – not a bad perk!
Another charming historical city, located towards the southwest of Spain, Seville is the capital of the region of Andalucía. Like most Spanish cities, Seville is known for its festivals (Semana Santa and the Feria de Sevilla are the biggest), and its tapas, but the city is probably most famous for being the home of flamenco – Spain’s national dance, and the accompanying music. In the modern age, Seville is also famous for its relaxed but exciting nightlife – so if you like to party into the early hours, this Spanish city should certainly be on your list. Universities in Seville are led by the sizeable Universidad de Sevilla (ranked 601-650 in the world).
There is no centralized application system for Spanish universities, and each institution will set its own entry requirements and deadlines – so be careful to check with the university itself. You may need to sit an entrance examination, though EU students and others who have completed International Baccalaureates will often be excused this part of the procedure.
Teaching, as you might expect, will almost certainly be in Spanish, so it’s important that you have a grasp of the language; in many cases you’ll struggle to even apply without this.
The requirements for Spanish student visas depend on whether or not you’re from the EU. Students from Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland are treated the same as EU students.
Applicants coming from the EU pay the same tuition fees as local students. These are usually between US$800-1,500 per year at public universities in Spain, and between €5,500-18,000 (~US$6,000-19,670) per year if you study in Spain at a private-sector university. If you come from a non-EU country, your fees will be higher, but only marginally. For exact information on your tuition fees, contact your chosen university or visit its website.