5 most underrated best countries for living and learning

best countries for living
Thinking about choosing to study abroad in a lesser-known country? That might pay off. Source: AFP

Sometimes you have to leave home and everything that’s familiar to you to move to the best countries for living and living.

It’ll be hard and you’ll face challenges, but it will be so worth it. It will be worth all your time, effort and sweat.

Dagmawi Bogale, for example, travelled thousands of miles away and left his close-knit family to move to what’s known as one of the best countries for living and learning today: Canada.

He got the chance to study biomedical science at Quinnipiac University, where tuition for this course cost $73,120 for students who live on campus. 

It meant the world to Bogale, who grew up financially troubled in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. 

“There was not much flexibility. My sisters were bouncing from one school to another,” Bogale tells Study International

“We were also bouncing from one neighbourhood to another — just renting houses — due to the financial strains caused after the confiscation of the family’s property like our house, cars and businesses.”

The thing is, moving anywhere costs money. Add the price of a degree today — which costs up to US$55,450 at MIT, for example — and the costs just skyrockets.

Focusing on the best countries for living and learning makes sure you get the best value for your buck.

To do this and to truly maximise your time in a new country, there’s much to consider — from the degrees available, how much they cost, lifestyle, safety, language to even whether they have the food that meets our cultural needs.

The best countries for living and learning focus on these five crucial factors

When looking at global rankings, it’s easy to associate the best student cities as the prime destinations to live in for the best international student experience. 

In this, QS’s Best Student Cities Ranking — compiled based on six factors: university rankings, student mix, desirability, employer activity, affordability, and student voice — is a popular reference.

After all, they are the world’s leading provider of services, analytics, and insight into the global higher education sector.

But look at the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition of “best”, and you’ll find a different meaning.

Here, best is described as the “highest quality, or being the most suitable, pleasing, or effective type of thing or person.”

That may or may not include popular study-abroad destinations such as the UK, US, Australia, and many more. 

Other reliable and neutral sources of information include:

  • The United Nations Human Development Index: It measures the quality of life in a country by assessing how long people live there, what people study, and how much they make, among others
  • The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators: It gives you an idea of how politically stable a country is. These indicators measure six dimensions of governance: voice and accountability, political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and control of corruption.
  • The Global Social Mobility Index shows us how people in 82 countries move up or down the social ladder.
  • The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 180 countries on climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality.

While these metrics can give you a fuller picture of what it’s like to uproot and move your entire lives to these countries, it’s important to understand there are no absolute best countries for living and learning. 

Everyone has their unique priorities and circumstances. The list of best countries for living and learning will differ from you to me and to your second cousin on your mum’s side.

While we can argue we can opt for the list of best countries for living and learning that the majority of people agree with, this could mean we’re choosing popular countries.

These are countries where everyone’s rushing to get a spot in their unis and to fight for the limited number of work opportunities for foreigners.

Note that there are over one million international students in the US alone in one academic year. This means you’re competing with over one million people for limited roles.

Aiming for a lesser-known country, that provides university education and quality of living that are just as good, can help you avoid the crowd and competition.

It can be easier for you to secure a spot at their top universities — which then helps you when you’re looking for a job opportunity.  

best countries for living

Taiwan is often overlooked, but it is actually one of the best countries for living and learning. Source: AFP

5 lesser-known best countries for living and learning

1. Taiwan

First on the list is none other than the country that has been labelled an “Asian Tiger,” a term used for countries with fast-rising economies like Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Taiwan is often overlooked amongst international students, but it is actually one of the best countries for living and learning. 

In this first-world country, you will find efficient public transport, clean streets, global brands, and many other privileges like the richer countries in the Western world.

Despite this, tuition fees are much cheaper and more affordable compared to some of the most popular study-abroad destinations like the US or the UK.

The average tuition fees for undergraduate and postgraduate studies range between US$1,650 to US$2,500 per year. You could also consider public universities, which have even lower tuition fees. 

But if money is still an issue, don’t worry.

The Ministry of Education frequently awards scholarships to international students. You can choose between government scholarships or through the respective universities themselves. 

According to the QS Higher Education System Strength Rankings, Taiwan ranked 19th among a total of 50 countries.

The top universities in Taiwan include the National Taiwan University (NTU), Taipei Medical University and China Medical University, Taiwan.

In fact, NTU is the highest-ranked university in the country, coming in 69th in the QS World University Rankings 2024. 

You won’t just save money from low tuition rates, but also from Taiwan’s low cost of living.

Here, the cost of living is approximately US$705 to US$913 a month. The country offers students the option of on-campus accommodation, off-campus flats or a more unique experience by staying with a host family.

best countries for living

There are 20 public institutions of higher education in Malaysia. Source: AFP

2. Malaysia

Malaysia often gets overlooked due to its neighbouring countries like Singapore (where the film “Crazy Rich Asians” was shot) and Thailand (for its legendary nightlife).

But did you know the country’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, has been named the world’s second most affordable student city by QS Best Student Cities?

As a multiracial country, Malaysia is a great option for students who want to immerse themselves in the cultures of its three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian.

It is one of the best countries for living and learning with low tuition fees, summer weather all year round, delicious food and an affordable cost of living. 

Beyond this, the country hosts several international universities, such as the University of Nottingham from the UK and Monash University from Australia, which offer students the opportunity to earn UK and Australian degrees at Malaysian prices.

Tuition fees range from US$5,400 to US$11,370

Some Malaysian universities have even made their way to the QS Asia University Rankings 2023, such as University Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Taylor’s University and more.

What’s more, the country is home to several international universities, such as the University of Nottingham from the UK and Monash University from Australia, which offer students the opportunity to earn UK and Australian degrees at Malaysian prices.

The affordable tuition combined with the low cost of living of about US$300 monthly makes Malaysia one of the best countries for living and learning.

best countries for living

South Korea isn’t just known for K-pop; it’s also home to some of the world’s most elite universities for science and technology. Source: AFP

3. South Korea

For a country that invented some of the smartest TVs and smartphones, it is a wonder why South Korea is often overlooked as one of the best countries for living and learning.

South Korea offers something for everyone, making it one of the top destinations for international students worldwide.

From fiery autumn leaves to delicate cherry blossoms, the Korean countryside is always a stunning sight. 

For the city-lovers, Seoul is a must-visit spot. You can explore the rich history of the Joseon dynasty or the more recent history behind hit songs like Psy’s Gangnam style.

When you’re hungry, there are many variations of the “kalguksu” (hand-cut noodles in broth) that was featured in Netflix’s hit series “Street Food,” to “bibimbap” (pearl barley rice served with mounds of colourful vegetable) — and many more for just US$5 or less.  

While South Korea is known for exporting K-pop and K-dramas, what’s lesser known is just how elite its universities are, particularly those offering science and technology degrees.

After all, this is the country that produced giant global brands such as Hyundai and Samsung, probably the very phone you’re reading this from.

The country is home to many English-language programmes too, with renowned US and UK educational institutions even establishing branch campuses, such as Aberdeen University and the University of Utah Asia Campus. 

South Korea has 37 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Here are some of the top universities in South Korea:

  • Seoul National University (SNU)
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
  • Korea University

At Seoul’s 16 internationally ranked universities, the average annual tuition fee for undergraduate students is US$6,500. Plus, it’s affordable to live in South Korea — you can get by with US$850 per month.

best countries for living

Tuition fees can go as low as US$1,074.43 per year in Portugal. Source: AFP

4. Portugal

Though overlooked, Portugal is a great destination for international students.

Several reasons make it as one of the best countries for living and learning. According to the 2023 Best Countries for Education Report by US News and World Report, Portugal ranks 25th globally.

Throughout the country, you’ll find universities with excellent reputations.

Some examples include the Universidade NOVA de Lisboa, which secured a place in the QS ranking of the world’s top 50 universities under 50 years old, the Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP), known for its world-class Masters in Management, and the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto (FAUP), a leading European architecture school for decades.

The best part? It offers Western European living and the best of a Mediterranean climate — for a fraction of what studying in London or Helsinki will cost.

Tuition fees for bachelor’s and master’s programmes at public universities typically range from US$1,074.43 to US$1,611.64 per academic year for EU/EEA students and are slightly higher, between US$3,223.29 and US$5,372.15 per academic year for non-EU/EEA students. 

Whether you prefer a bustling city or a quiet town, you can anticipate average monthly living costs of US$537.31 to US$859.70.

best countries for living

The cost of living in Mexico is about 45.7% lower than in the US. Source: AFP

5. Mexico

This Spanish-speaking country offers one of the best living and learning experiences, from its pristine white sand beaches to welcoming locals and vibrant festivals like Día de Los Muertos.  

Mexican study abroad programmes offer both domestic and international students the opportunity to earn college credits while savouring delectable cuisine, exploring historical sites, creating new friendships and mastering one of the most popular languages in the world.

THe country has over 60 institutions among the QS Latin America University Rankings and 14 institutions among the QS World University Rankings.

The higher education system is rapidly improving and is poised to be among the world’s best. With a choice of 3,587 colleges and universities nationwide, students have many options.

Tuition fees at public universities in Mexico can be as low as US$378 to US$818 per year for undergraduate programmes, while private institutions typically charge more, ranging from US$1,636 to US$16,353 per year.

The cost of living in Mexico is about 45.7% lower than in the US, making it easy to stick within a monthly budget of US$600 to US$2,000.