The staggering cost of higher education in the United States has many prospective college students wondering about countries with free college and pursuing a degree abroad. While conventional wisdom still points to the benefits of having a college degree, more students and their families are seeking alternatives to lower their college tuition bills.

More Americans are looking abroad at what countries have free college, as these options abroad are becoming increasingly publicized as the cost of college in the U.S. grows. As this article will explore further, a handful of European countries offer free or low-cost tuition to international students and programs of study entirely in English.

Key Takeaways

  • The high cost of a U.S. college education has many prospective students looking at other countries that offer free college or low-cost programs, including Norway, Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, and Denmark.
  • Reduced or free college tuition in these countries can have strings attached; for example, you may need to be a doctoral student or already have one year of college under your belt before transferring.
  • Although these countries offer virtually free tuition, students need to be aware that a higher cost of living in a foreign country can still put them over budget.

1. Norway

Students willing to brave exceptionally harsh winters and one of the highest costs of living in the world might consider earning their degrees in Norway. Tuition is free at public universities, giving students the opportunity to earn degrees at top-ranked institutions such as the University of Oslo, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and the University of Bergen.

To take advantage of free college tuition in Norway, aspiring undergraduate students from the U.S. must have a high school graduation diploma, and at least one year of college under their belts (or scores of at least 3 on three Advanced Placement exams).

2. Finland

College in Finland is free for students hailing from the European Union. However, starting in 2017, international undergraduate students wishing to earn degrees in English will pay a minimum of 1,500 EUR per year (approximately $1,776 per year), though many universities charge far more depending on the degree level and program of study. 

However, doctoral students--no matter what country they're from--as well as those pursuing their studies in Finnish or Swedish, still pay no tuition. The government also plans to offer scholarships and financial aid to international students with exceptional academic backgrounds.

3. Sweden

Only students pursuing research-based doctoral degrees get free tuition in Sweden; some programs of study even offer stipends to international students. Nevertheless, students should be aware that Sweden’s high cost of living may put them over budget, even when they pay nothing to earn their degrees.

4. Germany

In 2014, Germany officially removed all tuition fees for undergraduate students at public universities. With the exception of some administrative fees, this applies to U.S. citizens, too. Germany needs skilled workers, and this reality creates a win-win situation for American students. Students enrolled in one of the country’s public universities can attend for free. What's more, German universities offer a wide range of programs entirely in English, and an American student can earn a university degree in Germany without speaking a word of German.

Top-ranked institutions, such as the University of Munich and the University of Bonn, mean that U.S. students don’t have to trade prestige for cost.

5. France

In the past, students needed to speak French in order to attend university in France. This is no longer the case, however, as many programs of study at both public and private universities are offered in English. Students who attend public universities usually pay a few hundred dollars per year, depending on the degree level and program of study. Over the years, France has modified its free tuition model, and some EU students pay tuition based on family income.

Such changes may eventually impact how much international students pay to attend French universities. The French government is attempting to implement significant price hikes for students who are not from France or the EU.

In Oct. 2019, France's Constitutional Council struck down the legislation that would have hiked the annual tuition fee to €2,770 ($3,065) for a bachelor's degree and €3,770 ($4,170) for a master's degree. It's unclear whether the government will continue its battle to raise international student tuition fees, but both students and French universities have pledged to fight against such measures in the courts.

6. Denmark

Denmark is the same as its European peer countries with free college: students from anywhere in the EU/EEA and Switzerland are able to take advantage of this benefit. However, international students pay anywhere from 6,000 to 16,000 euros a year, which makes tuition a hefty price compared to other countries.

Though a smaller country, Denmark has a high standard of living and many appreciate the English options available alongside the many different kinds of subjects to study. Some of the best universities include the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University, and the Technical University of Denmark.

Beyond Europe

Europe remains a well-known, highly sought-after destination for students seeking refuge from expensive U.S. colleges and universities, but public universities in countries such as Mexico and Brazil also have virtually free tuition. Students pay registration fees, which amount to very little when considering the exchange rates.

Some universities offer top-quality programs of study in English. Earning a degree south of the border also makes it possible for students to learn highly sought-after languages of commerce, such as Spanish and Portuguese.

Americans can also attend public universities in China and pay tuition costs between $2,500 and $10,000 per academic year, which can be affordable when compared to U.S. tuition rates. The best tuition deals in China, however, are reserved for students able to pursue their studies in Chinese.