Country Guide : Study in France

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.

Why study in France?

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.

Universities in France

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 41 French universities are included in the QS World University Rankings 2014/15, of which 11 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 50, cementing their reputations as two of Europe’s and the world’s strongest institutions.

In addition to the 41 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 France’s leading universities 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 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? Find out about graduate-level studies in France with the QS Top Grad School Guide.

Learn more about France's top cities for students...

Paris

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

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 >

Toulouse

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.

Montpellier

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.

Lille

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!

Admissions and tuition fees in France

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.

Student visas for France

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:

  • If you want to start in the first year of a program and you hold a French baccalaureate, you must use the online application system used by French students (APB – admission post-baccalauréat). If you want to enter the system a little further on, you may apply directly to the institution at which you want to study.
  • If you have a different high-school qualification you should get in touch with the institutions at which you are considering studying – they may request that you apply directly to them rather than through the system.
  • Grandes écoles and grands établissements have their own application procedures, so it’s advisable to get in touch to find out what it is required. You can apply to preparatory classes and to some establishments through APB if you want to enter in the first year.
  • You will not need a visa.
  • If your course is in French, as is likely, you will need to prove you are sufficiently fluent. You can do this by way of a TCF DAP (Test de Connaissance du Français, Demande d’Admission Préalable), DALF (diplôme approfondi de langue française) or CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) score. Similarly, you’ll need to prove you can speak English if that is the language of tuition – check with the university to see which language test scores they will accept.

Applicants from outside the EU:

  • The application procedure will vary depending on whether or not you are from one of the 31 countries in which CampusFrance runs the CEF procedure. If you are from one of these countries (listed on the CampusFrance website), then you are obliged to use this online application system, which takes you through the entire application procedure, including obtaining a visa, telling you what you need to do and which documents you require. The CEF system can be accessed through the CampusFrance website.
  • If you are not from one of these countries then you will need to submit an application for preliminary application at your local French embassy before applying, after which you may apply for your visa. How you will have to apply will depend on your previous qualifications and where you are applying. Contact the establishment(s) you’re thinking about attending to find out the correct procedure to follow.
  • The visa you will need – which also includes a residence permit – is called the VLS-TS, which is valid for a year at a time. In order to obtain this visa you will need to present a completed application form and OFII (the French Office of Immigration and Integration) passport photos, your passport, proof of your previous qualifications, a police certificate attesting to your lack of a serious criminal record, proof you can speak French to an appropriate level (if your course is in French – see above) and proof you have sufficient financial means. You will, of course, also need to prove that you’ve been accepted to a university.
  • When you arrive in France you will need to contact the OFII, who may request that you undertake a medical examination.