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The very thought can conjure up images of lecture halls where Durkheim or Sartre once probed society and the meaning of life, dank sheds in which Marie Curie discovered Radium, or cafés in which Camus once plotted his works of absurdism.
France certainly has a strong intellectual tradition, and whether it’s to improve your French, for the richness of cultural activities, or just to try something different, there are a range of options for international students.
When it comes to the practical side, there are frustrations, but it’s doable, and well worth the effort. We’ve put together this guide to help you through the process.
Applying to a university and visas
How you go about choosing a university program in France will depend on where you’re from.
Anyone from an EU or European Economic Area member state won’t need a visa to study, and can apply directly to the university or graduate school of their choice.
Otherwise, you’ll need a student visa. You can get one either at a French consulate or via Campus France.
Campus France is an online portal run by the French government that assists students in their university applications, from choosing a university up to visa processing.
They have a number of regional offices around the world and can also provide extensive information on degree programs.
France recently simplified the notoriously tedious process of applying for a Carte de Séjour, or residency permit, for non-EU nationals.
During your first year of studies, you only need to show your visa as proof of your residency status. However, you still need to register with the immigration office within 30 days of arrival and undertake a medical examination to validate your visa. From your second year of studies onwards, you will need to apply for a Carte de Séjour.
Many universities now offer either bilingual programs or programs taught entirely in English, which is of particular appeal for those wanting to learn or improve their French while specialising in another academic discipline.
However, if you decide to undertake a degree program taught in French, you will need to have at least an intermediate level of French. Many universities require the B2 (intermediate) certificate in the Diplôme d’Études en Langue Française (DELF) or sometimes the C1 (advanced) certificate, (the Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française or DALF), depending on the course.
The French higher education system
France used to have a complicated system of degrees and diplomas, but as part of the Bologna process degrees are being standardised into Licence, Master and Doctorat levels, which correspond to Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctorate degrees, requiring three, two, and three years respectively to complete.
The large majority of higher education institutions in France are state-funded, meaning there is only a nominal tuition fee of around €200-€400 per year, depending on the level of studies.
Many business schools, however, are privately owned, and tuition fees for non-EU students can exceed €15,000 per year.
Under the French higher education system, anyone who has obtained their baccalauréat, or secondary school certificate, is entitled to enrol at a public university, but there are often competitive exams at the end of first year for a limited number of places in second year.
There is also a parallel system of elite, selective institutions known as grandes écoles, which have no real equivalent in the English-speaking world, but can be compared to graduate schools.
Unlike public universities, they have highly selective entry examinations, and are often semi-private, meaning they can charge much higher fees.
The French academic year corresponds roughly with most other northern hemisphere academic calendars.
The autumn semester usually begins in late September, followed by a spring semester starting in early February.
In addition to holidays around Christmas and New Year, some universities may have a spring break and holidays around All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and Easter.
Exams are normally at the end of each semester, and there are usually three months of holidays in summer, running from the beginning of July to the end of September.
Cost of living and housing
The cost of living in France is similar to other countries in Europe, but Paris, which is the most popular destination for students, can be very expensive, and it can be extremely difficult to find housing. There is often a crazy scramble for accommodation just before the beginning of each academic year in early October.
The Cité Universitaire Internationale de Paris is a large student residence in the south of Paris with dormitories representing a number of different nationalities.
The Fondation des Etats-Unis and the Maison des Etudiants Canadiens cater to American and Canadian students, while the Collège Franco-Britannique caters for British and Commonwealth citizens.
Those whose nationalities are not represented can make a general application to the CIUP. Be warned, however, that places are limited – and many students apply up to a year in advance to secure a spot.
Only students in their third year of university and beyond can apply, and the maximum stay is two years.
Universities outside Paris (and even those located in the suburbs around Paris) often have subsidised student accommodation, either on-campus or nearby. You can also find more information about living in dormitories funded by the national student welfare office, the CNOUS.
Financial aid and working
The French government offers a large number scholarships each year to international students. These are normally advertised on the websites of French embassies and consulates around the world. Campus France also has a search engine for scholarships and grants
Students whose universities are part of the Erasmus program can apply for the scheme through their universities. While the scheme is largely limited to universities in the EU, there are a number of non-EU universities who are also involved.
Means-based rental assistance is available to anyone with a valid French visa or Carte de Séjour (residency permit), including non-EU citizens, and are managed by the Caisses d’Allocations Familiales (CAF).
Students are legally allowed to work up to 19.5 hours per week during the semester, and full-time during the holiday period.
Non-EU citizens no longer need to apply for a separate work permit, and can work as long as they hold a valid student visa or residency card, except for Algerian students, who are covered under a separate agreement.
Students who have completed a Master’s are also eligible to apply for a six-month temporary work permit to allow them to find a job after their studies, but this provision was recently tightened and many applications were refused.
French universities tend not to have the same level of student activity that collegiate universities in the English-speaking world do.
Yet there are many extra-curricular activities and social events organised by student unions, or bureau(x) des étudiants (BDE).
As the fourth most popular study destination in the world, and with 12 percent of the student population hailing from abroad, there is often a dynamic cultural diversity on French campuses.
Most universities make an active effort to welcome them; with international students’ offices, student associations and buddy programs to help ease the transition for international students.
There are many benefits extended to students in France including generous discounts for food, entertainment and transportation.
Eligibility criteria can vary. Some benefits are only available to student card holders, while others are available to anyone under the age of 26.
Many public museums in Paris, for example, have free entry for EU residents under the age of 26.
Other benefits require the purchase of a student card; for example, the 12-25 rail card issued by the national rail company, SNCF, is valid for one year and costs €50. It offers up to a 60% discount on rail travel throughout France. In 2011, the offer was extended to those up to 30 years of age.
Bon courage with your studies.
by Jonathan Li / The Local