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Dear International students: True, Portugal doesn’t have top world universities … it has something more valuable! 

I have been an international student in three countries. Portugal, by far, has been the best experience of them all. 

Undoubtedly, British universities offered me a more challenging environment which I appreciated a lot. French universities were somehow closer to the system I am familiar with back home. However, I truly enjoyed being a student in Portugal as life was generally less stressful while being challenging enough.

A balance my mental well-being needed.

Every year, more than 50,000 students from around the world opt for Portugal as their preferred study abroad location, and this choice is well-justified.

Lisbon is increasingly becoming an attractive spot for international students. And I don’t only mean students from the European Union who make up the majority of international students, but also students from as far as Japan, the United States, Chile, and Egypt (just as in my case).  

Lisbon at night

The advantages

There are several upsides to studying in Portugal whether for an undergraduate or a postgraduate degree. Portugal’s attraction for students is inseparable from how it is generally becoming one of the trendiest destinations in Europe. The same way companies from the U.S., Germany, and France are re-locating or opening up new offices in Portugal for the beautiful weather, the work-life balance and the fluency of locals in English, international students are attracted to those very same living conditions. 

It is cheaper for parents to send their children to Portugal for their degree as the tuition fee of Portuguese public universities tend not to exceed 1,500 euro per year. Moreover, incoming students don’t struggle much with integrating themselves in the community given that their Portuguese counterparts are likely to speak English and/or Spanish well.

Students work hard in Portugal, public libraries which are always full testify to that. However, Portuguese culture also appreciates work-life balance. People are likely to socialize over a drink on a weekday after their work is over or go out of town for the weekend. I also know students who felt heavy spending gloomy winter semesters in Germany, and hence decided to come for one or two semesters in Portugal to distress in a sunny climate and with a bit of a social life. 

Portugal’s higher education system is divided into public and private institutions, comprising universities and polytechnics. Some of the schools in Portugal are reputable internationally for their academic merit such as the Business school of Universidade Nova.

The Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon and the Faculty of Arts at the University of Porto have also established reputations for their robust academic divisions specializing in social sciences and humanities. Their departments encompass a wide range of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, history, and literature.

The challenges

Having raved about studying in Portugal as an international student, and from a purely subjective experience, I would say that it is much better to come to study in Portugal as part of a prior agreement between a Portuguese institution and your home university than to seek an entire degree in Portugal.

Many universities from all over the world are creating more and more exchange agreements with Portuguese universities. Those agreements allow foreign students to spend a minimum of a semester and a maximum of two years studying in Portugal depending on the program. The reason I recommend this framework is the overwhelming Portuguese bureaucracy.

I studied in Portugal as part of an existing international agreement between a Portuguese university and other E.U. universities for my master’s degree. I also studied in Portugal as an international student primarily enrolled at a Portuguese university for my PhD degree.

I have to say the difference was really big. 

When I arrived in Lisbon as part of an international agreement, the bureaucratic procedures were cut in half for me.

For example, I had to submit very few – almost no – documents to the Portuguese side of the agreement. It was also easy for me to be automatically considered for free Portuguese language courses and get assigned two mentors both at my home University and in Portugal to help me navigate the Portuguese educational system.

This was different for me when I applied directly for a Portuguese university:

• I had to show proof of several vaccinations (not sure why this wasn’t required within an international agreement, I am the same person who is likely to carry the same infections with or without an exchange program!)

• I also had to present criminal records in different languages, from different countries.

• In addition to notarizing all my previous academic qualifications from both their home countries as well as the Portuguese embassies of those countries. I had to take care of all my paperwork upon arrival to Portugal on my own as no one at the university had any advice for me on that matter.

• It also took ages to receive answers from the University’s administration as they have very few employees dealing with registrations as opposed to specific international programs which come with employees responsible specifically for that exchange program and its paperwork. 

Warning

A mistake many students make is assuming that rent would be much cheaper in Portugal (particularly Lisbon) than in their respective home countries. Unless you come from Switzerland, the U.K. or a Scandinavian country, be prepared to pay as much on rent, if not sometimes more, as you do in France, Belgium, or Germany.

Rent is not cheap in Lisbon; however, the other relatively affordable living expenses make up for the difference. 

It is true that Portugal does not have one of the Top 10 or 20 or even Top 50 universities in the world. But it has something else: a priceless, truly healthy, emotionally balanced student experience which is indispensable for academic performance and overall personal well-being. 

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Read more here about studying in Europe.

Read more from Sarah here.

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Sarah Nagaty has a PhD in cultural studies, She’s lived in Portugal for six years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kind of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

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