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How to Study Abroad in France for Free

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Originally published November 19, 2012.

It's no secret: France is one of the most popular destinations for study abroad students, but it isn't exactly known for being an inexpensive country.

As a study abroad student in France, you can try to use federal financial aid or find a study abroad program that offers scholarships, but what if you want to go to France without accumulating more student loans? Is it possible to study in one of the most expensive countries in the world for free?

For students wanting to study in France on a tight budget, it's worth shopping around.

Maybe not totally not-paying-a-penny free, but yes -- a resounding yes! Studying in France debt-free is totally possible. I've done it and lots of others have too. You just have to have a little know-how, a lot of patience, and an independent streak. And speaking French reasonably well won't hurt. Here's how:

Live on a Budget While Studying in France

Whether you're studying abroad with a provider, through your university, or directly enrolling at one of France's many prestigious universities, there are a few quick tips anyone can use to save money while studying in France. Here are our favorite quick tips to get you started:

  • Consider studying in smaller cities, away from Paris, for a more authentic (and inexpensive) French experience. Cities such as Grenoble, Lyon, and Cannes are good possibilities.

  • Avoid touristy areas where restaurant prices will skyrocket -- for trips to these attractions, pack a baguette-and-cheese lunch from the corner store. Don't be afraid of dingy looking restaurants: what you’re looking for is many happy-looking people speaking French, the lack of an English-language menu, and a fat chef.

  • Students and the under-25's are eligible for quite a few discounts in France. Purchase an international youth travel card and you'll get discounted entry to the Eiffel Tower and other major sights around France. In some places, your age alone will be enough to cheapen the price (it never hurts to ask!). Take a look at this list of resources for student deals and discounts in France.

  • Take out large sums of money at a time from your bank account back home at ATM's around the cities. Take this money and deposit it into your newly-opened French bank account. This way, you can avoid repetitive fees for withdrawing money and ease your purchasing convenience with a French debit card.

Au Pair and Get French Classes Paid For

If you want to study abroad to learn French but don't want or need a degree, you may want to consider becoming an au pair in France. Au pairs can be up to 30 years old and come to France as a sort of sponsored worker, typically with some kind of exchange program.

Au pairs only have the right to work in France as au pairs, have specific working hours of no more than 30 hours per week (after school and on Wednesdays) and get a room, a transportation card, and a small monthly stipend of around 275 Euros as payment.

Direct enrollment costs a whopping EU437 (about $550) -- and that includes a year of basic student health insurance!

Families are also required to pay for 10 hours of weekly French language classes for their au pairs, who must take the classes during their stay and prove enrollment to keep their visa. Being an au pair in France isn't a very well-paid job, but it provides a way of studying French in France in a non-degree program for free.

Note: If you work as an au pair, you may not be able to switch families if things don't work out, and you won't be able to switch to a different kind of visa once you arrive in France.

Consider Direct Enrollment

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If you choose to study abroad in France with a third party study abroad program, you'll pay tens of thousands of dollars in program fees for administrative and academic support during your stay. Although some students want or need the extra level of support while studying abroad, it's not always necessary and you can accomplish more or less the same thing independently.

How, you ask? By enrolling directly in a French university. Direct enrollment costs a whopping €437 (about $550) -- and that includes a year of basic student health insurance!

In order to enroll directly, you usually have to commit to a more long-term program. You'll first have to decide whether you're going to do a year of undergraduate courses or a master's program. The cost difference isn't huge, but enrolling directly as an undergraduate can be complicated.

First, you'd have to make sure that your home university would accept transfer credits from a French university and count the credits towards your major without requiring you to pay any fees. If you prefer to do a master's program in France, you'll earn a degree recognized in all of Europe and not have to worry about equivalencies.

The easiest way to enroll directly in a French university is to already have a reasonably good level of French, as you'll have to take a standardized French test and earn a level of at least B1-B2 (intermediate by European standards) in order to qualify for direct enrollment.

If your level of French isn't good enough from the get-go, you can take a month-long intensive French course in a French university at the beginning of the school year, but the tuition can be ten times regular tuition (at several thousand Euros).

Consider also participating in a foreign exchange program that your university operates -- this can be a cost effective method as all of your university financial aid can still be used to foot the bill, and you'll pay monthly tuition to your home university like normal (a perk if you're at an affordable state school -- not so much otherwise).

Attend a Grande Ecole for Your Master's

Grandes Ecoles graduate schools like the Ecole Polytechnique (for science and engineering) and the Ecole Normale Supérieure (for humanities) are the Ivy League of French universities, and acceptance in one of these prestigious schools is usually accompanied by a full tuition scholarship and a cost-of-living stipend.

Graduates of the Grandes Ecoles are expected to become top contributors to French society, and they earn highly coveted private sector jobs as well as top-notch appointments in all levels of the French administration once they've earned their diplomas. So it's only natural for the schools to be well-funded.

Although France isn't exactly known for being an inexpensive country, it doesn't have to be expensive as a study abroad student.

While earning a degree from one of these schools basically means you're set for life in France, admission is highly competitive. Candidates to public French universities are accepted if they have completed the previous year of study, but Grande Ecole students often spend several years preparing for a set of rigorous entrance exams that make the baccalauréat look like a first-grade spelling test.

Fortunately for you, these schools also have a mandate to educate the best and the brightest students in the world, and admit foreign students based on a separate set of exams and a quota.

If you're super smart, highly motivated, and speak good French (which you'll definitely have to do to get admitted), a graduate degree from a Grande Ecole is a great start to an international career, and a great way to live in France for free. In addition, most of these schools are accredited by FAFSA, meaning that even though you'll get a scholarship to attend and won't have to use federal financial aid (though you could), you can also defer your student loans from undergrad during your studies.

To apply, you'll have to fully research the program you want to do, come up with a project proposal, and then take the entrance exam for foreign students in France in May or June for admission the following year. Admissions decisions are released in late June or early July.

Teach English or Babysit to Cover Expenses

Studying abroad in Paris for free

If you don't want to go to (or can't get into) a Grande Ecole, the best way to fully fund your year abroad is to take advantage of one of the many programs available to native English speakers for teaching or working as an au pair in France. You're also legally able to work for up to 20 hours / week while studying abroad

The winter before you want to go to France, you can apply to the Teaching Assistant Program in France, or TAPIF, to get a job teaching 12 hours per week in an elementary, middle, or high school somewhere in France.

Take-home pay is just under €800 per month, and that amount will cover most of your living expenses. State in your application that you're planning on doing a masters in whichever French city you want to go to, and they'll try to accommodate your choice.

If you miss the January deadline or don't get accepted the first time around, you can always go to the local Minister of Education office (rectorat) and ask to be considered as a local hire.

With a student visa, some teaching experience, and native English skills, there's a good chance you'll get a job in the fall, as they often have English assistants change their minds about coming to France at the last minute.

The teaching assistant salary should be plenty to cover basic living expenses in most French cities, but in Paris, that amount will barely pay the rent. So a good solution is to also look at one of the American / Anglophone job boards in FUSAC (France USA Contacts magazine with classified ads) or at the American Church in Paris to try to find a babysitting-for-rent arrangement.

Lots of bilingual families in France want their kids to have a native English speaker for a babysitter, and many offer rooms in exchange for part-time babysitting, usually after school or on Wednesdays.

You can consult FUSAC online in advance, as families start posting job ads for the following year as early as February vacation. If you're enrolling in a French university, make sure to indicate that you'll be a student and possibly teaching English, as families can't sponsor work visas other than au pair visas.

Shop Around for Inexpensive Programs

For students wanting to study in France on a tight budget, it's worth shopping around. Being one of the most popular study abroad destinations and all, students are definitely not for want with options. A few options:

Low cost, all inclusive study abroad providers ($10,000 or less):

For students who want a program that provides housing, tuition, support, and sometimes even a few extras, France has more than a few low cost, all inclusive study abroad programs.

Low cost language program providers ($2,000 or less per month):

If you're not looking to study abroad for a full year or semester, consider a program at a language school. You may have to petition to get the credits to transfer and be accepted at your home university, but language courses tend to be one of the easier courses to get approved for credit.

Low cost programs at universities:

Some of the aforementioned programs offer better services to students than others. Read their ratings and reviews to compare alumni' experiences and see how these programs stack up.

Apply for Scholarships

Students from all over the world want to go to France to study, and unfortunately, there aren't very many scholarships available. The low cost of education in France means that non-Europeans from affluent countries (i.e. Canadians, Americans, Australians, etc.) don't really need scholarships to pay the cost of their tuition.

Scholarships that include a cost-of-living stipend are generally reserved for students who participate in the Erasmus exchanges between European countries and a small number of engineering, business, and medical students from French-speaking former colonies.

If studying in France is your dream, don't let money stop you. Get creative and make it happen!

The only major scholarships available to American students, the Fulbright Scholarship and the Chateaubriand Fellowship, are so competitive that they are almost exclusively reserved for advanced Ph.D. students.

A handful of French government sponsored scholarships do exist, but seek to support students perfecting their French skills and not other areas of study.

Bonne Chance!

Although France isn't exactly known for being an inexpensive country, it doesn't have to be expensive as a study abroad student.

The country has many programs and benefits in place for students, low tuition if you directly enroll, and some fantastic au pair and teaching positions that will help you -- at the very least -- live in France and come home speaking more than just a few phrases French.

If studying in France is your dream, don't let money stop you. Get creative and make it happen!

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Photo Credits: Chip Beck.
Disclaimer: We have paid relationships with some of the companies linked to within this article.
Photo of Allison Lounes

Allison Lounes writes about living and studying abroad in France on her website Paris Unraveled. Keep up with her on Twitter @parisunraveled or on Google+.