How does a broke college student afford to go abroad? Travel isn’t cheap, and the economy isn’t exactly lively these days. Still, thousands of students pay for round-the-world adventures each year. These students often see travel as an investment in themselves and their futures. They know that they will grow and mature abroad and that their résumés will follow suit.


Reduce the costs associated with your study abroad experience.

  • Plan ahead. Planning your trip in advance gives you more time to apply for funding and programs. You’ll avoid late application fees, get first dibs on scholarships, and jump-start your savings goals. If you firm up your plans to study abroad early, you’ll also have some time to make long-term plans, such as your housing and campus employment arrangements upon return to campus.
  • Take a shorter trip. If you don’t have as much success with scholarships as you’d like, consider a shorter study abroad experience. When you spend an entire year abroad, your incidentals quickly add up. You’ll save money when you only go for a semester or a summer.
  • Choose a cheaper destination. If you’re wavering between a few destinations, lean toward the cheapest one. The cost of living in European cities is often more expensive than the cost of living in small towns across the United States. To get the biggest bang for your buck, consider a destination where the cost of living is less expensive than in your hometown. Use Expatistan to compare the cost of living in any two parts of the world. Pay particular attention to the cost of food, transportation, and entertainment.
  • Enroll directly. Tuition policies for study abroad programs depend on your home university, so check with your school’s study abroad office and bursar to find out how you’ll pay for your adventure. Many home universities act as the middleman between students and their study abroad programs. This means that study abroad program tuition is often billed to your home university, not to you. In this case, you continue sending your tuition checks to your home university, which will, in turn, pay your study abroad program. This might not be the best deal since tuition at many colleges abroad is cheaper than tuition at your home university in the United States. In some countries outside of the United States, enrollment at a public university is free. Instead of paying $40,000 to your home university for the year you study abroad, you might have a cheaper option. Consider taking a leave of absence from your home university and enrolling directly in a university abroad. At a public university in Argentina, for example, you wouldn’t pay tuition at all, just housing, food, travel, and personal expenses. Keep in mind that while often cheaper, a direct enrollment does not provide the ancillary support that a study abroad program would. You will be responsible for your registration in classes, your housing, your visa, and your transfer of credits upon return to your home university. If you direct enroll, you may also have to forfeit federal financial aid and study abroad scholarships. Research your options well.
  • Request an ISIC card. You can apply for an International Student Identity Card before you leave to study abroad. It serves as an international picture identification and supplements your existing health and travel insurance if you were to have an accident or need medical evacuation or repatriation. Your card also gives you access to discounts on some airlines, hostels, tickets, and meals. The card costs $25 upfront, but it may save you hundreds of dollars down the line.
  • Book a cheap flight. Unless you’re driving across the border to study in Mexico or Canada, a plane ticket is an expense you can’t avoid, but you can cut some costs. Book your flight early, compare prices, and rack up frequent-flyer miles.

Transfer your financial aid package and use it while you study abroad.

The Higher Education Act, passed in 1992, gives students the right to continue receiving federal and state aid while studying abroad, whether or not the study abroad experience is required for graduation. Therefore, it’s important to fill out the FAFSA before you leave. To receive the full amount of aid to which you are entitled, you must be enrolled in classes full-time while abroad. Work with your home university to make sure that your financial aid is paid directly to your study abroad program. Depending on your university, these funds will be transferred by a school’s financial aid office, study abroad office, or bursar’s office. For more information about applying your financial aid to your study abroad experience, refer to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) and to the relevant offices at your home university.

Apply for scholarships to study abroad.

The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship is available to U.S. citizen undergraduates who will be studying abroad for at least four weeks in one country (or for at least two weeks if you are enrolled in a community college). To meet eligibility requirements, you must also receive a Federal Pell Grant during your time abroad.

There are plenty of other opportunities. IIE maintains a study abroad scholarship database. You can search for funding specific to the destination of your choice. Additionally, it is a great idea to contact your study abroad program directly. Programs frequently offer scholarships on a limited basis, so get in touch as early as you can.

Avoid baggage costs.

Travel light. Most airlines allow you to check at least one bag for free on an international flight, but they instate weight limits. Check with your airline. In most cases, your bag must be under 50 pounds if you want to avoid an overweight baggage fee. If you can’t fit everything into one 50-pound suitcase, you may have to check a second bag. Some international flights allow you to check two bags free of charge. Other airlines, however, charge fees for more than one checked item. They can cost anywhere from $40–100. In any case, don’t overstuff your suitcases on the way to your destination. You’ll want to have extra room in your bag to bring back souvenirs for your family and friends.

Avoid ATM fees abroad.

Banking overseas can do serious damage to your wallet. Most U.S. banks don’t have counterparts abroad, so many travelers hit up the ATMs closest to their hotels when they run low on cash. Don’t get caught in the same trap; if you don’t do your research, you’ll be overpaying for the convenience.

Watch out for two types of banking fees that travelers incur abroad. The first is an international ATM fee, which you will be charged for withdrawing money at an out-of-network ATM. These are usually flat fees of $3–5. If you pay this fee once a week over the course of your study abroad year, go ahead and kiss $260 goodbye. Avoid these fees by banking with international institutions, like HSBC or Citibank, which have ATMs all over the world, or a brokerage company, like Charles Schwab, which will reimburse all ATM fees. Otherwise, consider trusting your money to a bank that participates in the Global ATM Network, a consortium of banks that operate partner ATMs around the world. Bank of America is the U.S. affiliate of the network.

As a traveler, you will also face foreign transaction fees. This means that the currency network (Visa, Cirrus, MasterCard, etc.) will charge you 1–3% of the total transaction to convert into the foreign currency. NerdWallet maintains a list of ATM and foreign transaction fees charged by the big U.S. banks. Find yours to anticipate the costs of banking abroad.

Work and earn money while you are abroad, if you have the proper documents.

The time you spend studying abroad really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To make the most of your travels and your classes, make sure that those are your priorities. If you’re really hurting for cash, you could consider taking on a side gig. Since your visa is likely for studying—not working—this is tricky. Check the visa you have and see what it entitles you to do. Can you bartend at an expat bar, tutor locals in English, or nanny? Be sure to follow local laws and respect your visa category. Otherwise, you could consider doing some independent contract work for a U.S. company, all from your computer. You will fill out W-9s and file U.S. taxes. Visit the IRS website to learn more about working as an independent contractor. No matter how you earn your extra cash, always follow laws in both your home and host countries.

Page last updated: 10/2017