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Complete Guide to Financial Aid for Study Abroad Programs

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Think studying abroad is out of reach? The up front costs can certainly be daunting: a semester abroad can cost anywhere between $15,000 and $22,000, on top of existing university tuition. The good news is that there are plenty of financial aid options students can use to fund their overseas adventures in education.

In fact, the majority of study abroad program participants can afford only 67% of the total cost, relying on loans, scholarships, grants, and other funding sources to cover the rest. Fortunately, this abundance of options means that students can use financial aid to offset many of the costs associated with studying abroad, including:

  • Program tuition and fees
  • Travel and transportation
  • Living costs
  • Health insurance
  • Passport and visa fees
  • Textbooks
  • Meals
  • In-country excursions and activities

Without further ado, let’s dive into all the options available for funding your study abroad experience.

Types of Study Abroad Financial Aid

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Fortunately, nearly every type of financial aid used by U.S. college students can also be applied to study abroad programs. In fact, under U.S. federal law, all federal financial aid for which a student qualifies can be used to study abroad as long as their home institution will accept the credits earned during the experience.


Borrowing money to pay for college is incredibly common; over half of all college students in the U.S. take out loans to fund their education, with many colleges offering loan options as part of their financial aid package. Repayment is deferred until a student graduates, at which time they must pay the loan back with interest. Federal loans can be applied to any study abroad program affiliated with or approved by an accredited university. If you find that your federal student loans will not cover the cost of studying abroad, consider taking out a private loan — but beware of any loans that do not allow you to defer the payments.


Scholarships are a common source of funding for students at every level of education, often furnished by nonprofit organizations or philanthropic foundations. Funds are awarded based on academic merit or for demonstrated proficiency in a specific skill set or a certain academic discipline. Unlike a loan, recipients do not need to pay the provider back, though they may be limited in how they can use the funds. If you are considering using a scholarship to pay for study abroad, make sure the program allows it.


Like scholarships, grants do not have to be repaid, as long as the recipient completes their program and adheres to the funding terms. Unlike scholarships, grants are awarded on the basis of financial need, rather than academic merit. Some federal grants may be used for studying abroad — and some study abroad programs (like Semester at Sea) will even match federal funding! There are many private grants available as well. Please note that enrolling in a non-U.S. school makes you ineligible for federal grant programs, though you may still be eligible for private grants.

Work-Study Jobs

Working while studying abroad is a unique opportunity to “earn back” the expense or otherwise defray the cost of the program. If you’re planning to find your own jobs in your host country, please be aware that immigration laws may require you to apply and pay for a temporary work visa, which can add a considerable amount to your overall expenses. To maximize your study abroad investment, look for programs that offer work opportunities in exchange for a scholarship or other financial aid.

529 Plans

Think of a 529 plan as a college-specific savings account: Students can pre-purchase credits at a university or college to redeem at a later date, or simply invest their savings in an account with the sole purpose of funding their education. Most prepaid tuition plans (and all education savings plans) are sponsored by state governments and carry specific stipulations regarding how and when the funds can be withdrawn and used. However, most 529 plans can be applied to study abroad programs.

VA Benefits

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helps current and former service members and their dependents pay for education or training outside of the military. Study abroad programs that accept federal aid also accept VA benefits.

Payment Plans

While a payment plan is not technically financial aid, it can help students pay program costs on a more manageable schedule. This can ease some of the anxiety around how to pay for study abroad, since there is not as much pressure to pay the bill all at once.

Factors That Affect Study Abroad Financial Aid

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The majority of study abroad participants may use financial aid for study abroad, but it’s not always guaranteed. There is a range of factors that affect either the funding amount or a student’s eligibility, including:

  • The type of study abroad program – For example, some financial aid cannot be applied to third-party study abroad programs that are not affiliated with a student’s home institution.
  • Your matriculation – That is, whether you are an undergraduate, in graduate school, or taking a pre-college gap year. Recent high school graduates who are taking a year off before formally enrolling in college are ineligible for federal student aid. Lifelong Learners who are not enrolled in college may also have difficulty finding financial aid options.
  • Direct enrollment in a foreign university – Schools based overseas do not participate in federal U.S. grant programs, though many accept U.S. federal student loans.
  • Your academic standing – Students with higher GPAs and a track record of high academic performance are more likely to receive funding (and larger amounts).
  • The terms of the financial aid agreement – Always check whether your scholarships and grants can be used to study abroad! Assuming you can use these funds without checking the terms can result in an unpleasant surprise.

Federal Student Aid for Study Abroad

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Most U.S. colleges and universities that participate in federal funding programs will include an invitation to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) along with their acceptance letters. As previously mentioned, any student who is eligible to receive federal financial aid can use it to study abroad while enrolled in a U.S. school, as long as their home institution accepts the credits they earn during the program.

If you are filling out the FAFSA form specifically for a study abroad experience, be sure to list your home institution on the application, not the host school. FAFSA begins accepting applications every October for programs that will take place the following fall semester, so be sure to submit your paperwork on time to receive funding.

Be aware that financial aid eligibility varies between students, institutions, and study abroad programs. For example, if you attend a U.S. school that does not participate in federal student aid programs, you will not be able to apply for any federal aid to study abroad.

Financial Aid for International Students (U.S. Citizens)

So you’re a U.S. citizen who decided to earn your degree from a school outside the country — exciting! Here’s what you need to know about funding your experience:

  • Research which international schools participate in U.S. federal loan programs, and whether any of these schools appeal to your academic or geographical interests. Be aware that international schools do not accept U.S. federal grants for education.
  • If your chosen school participates in the U.S. federal loan programs, check whether your desired academic program does as well; some schools may have a general acceptance policy, but specific departments or programs may not.
  • There is significant paperwork required to study full-time overseas as a non-citizen. You will likely need to apply for a visa, complete housing forms, register with the local police, obtain a valid passport, purchase medical insurance, enroll with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate, and more. Many of these requirements will incur additional costs on top of tuition.
  • Before making any major commitments on paper, contact your desired school’s financial aid department to make sure you meet all their requirements to receive funding while enrolled.

Tips for Securing Financial Aid for Study Abroad

Provided you can demonstrate that you are a dedicated student, and that a study abroad experience will enhance your overall academic trajectory, it’s possible for anyone to receive financial aid to study abroad. Follow these five tips for success as you explore your options:

  1. Start early! If you are considering seeking financial aid for study abroad, it’s crucial to start the process as soon as possible. There is a great deal of paperwork and due diligence involved in applying for loans, grants, and scholarships, including soliciting letters of recommendation from educators or employers. Be sure to stay ahead of deadlines set by funding sources, your home institution, the host intuition, and/or your chosen study abroad program.
  2. Contact the financial aid office at your home (U.S.) school. If you feel overwhelmed or stuck as you begin the application process — or simply want to be sure you’ve considered all your options — your own school’s financial aid office will be able to help you determine which types of aid you can use for your study abroad program. They have likely helped dozens, if not hundreds, of other students fund their study abroad experiences, and will be very familiar with the options available.
  3. Make sure you’re in good academic standing. Bear in mind that financial aid is never guaranteed — your eligibility is dependent on your grade point average, past academic performance, financial need, and your ability to follow through on your intended program. As a general rule, students in lower academic standing may be less likely to receive financial aid, or may receive less than applicants with higher GPAs.
  4. Don’t forget the small expenses.
    The cost of studying abroad includes more than tuition and initial travel fees. When you’re calculating your overall budget for the semester, don’t forget to include expenses such as meals, recreational travel and activities, insurance, day-to-day necessities like medications or cleaning supplies, international taxes and fees, and the general cost of living in your host country, even on a temporary basis. Scholarships and grants often have stipulations for use, so check what you can and cannot apply the funds to. Once you know your funding limitations, be sure to save extra funds to cover the rest of your expenses overseas.
  5. Get creative with your research.
    Besides federal student aid and grant options, there are countless scholarships available for almost any type of academic or extracurricular undertaking. Check with local nonprofits, service organizations like the Lions or Rotary Clubs, churches, educational foundations, and more. Applications can range from simple and straightforward to quite comprehensive and involved, depending on the funding amount or the organization’s mission. Either way, know that you should never have to pay to apply for or receive scholarship funds.

Study Abroad Financial Aid Resources

While there is a lot to know about securing financial aid for study abroad, it is entirely possible to fund your overseas adventure in both traditional and creative ways. As you begin your research and application process, bookmark these resources:

At the Institute for Shipboard Education, we work hard to ensure every student who participates in our Semester at Sea programs receives the funding they need to make the most of their experience. From our scholarships and grants to our payment plans and work-study opportunities, we can help you identify the options that best fit your needs and goals. Reach out to us with any questions as you explore our programs — we’re always happy to help future voyagers set sail on the adventure of a lifetime!

  • Finances & Budgeting

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