3 best English proficiency tests for international students

English proficiency test
A 6th grade student takes notes during an English class at the Sotero Figueroa Elementary School in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 6, 2017. The school reopened its doors without electricity to receive students 46 days after Hurricane Maria hit the island. (Photo by Ricardo ARDUENGO / AFP)

If you want to study abroad, you need to know which are the best English proficiency tests today.

As a result of globalisation, English is now an extremely important language. Over a billion people speak English worldwide and over 700 million are non-native speakers.

It’s considered the top language of communication – a lingua franca, if you want a fancier way of describing a language used for communication between groups of people who speak different languages.

And if you plan to attend colleges and universities in the likes of the US, UK, Canada and Australia, you’ll need to know how to communicate in English well. 

This is because you need to understand, speak, write, and read English not only in classes and exams but also in your daily life outside of campus. 

When you graduate, and seek work experience abroad, you’ll need to know English well to succeed as well.

This is why most universities require you to show the results of an English proficiency test as part of your application. 

Even if you’re a native English speaker, you may be required to take the test for university or work.

Don’t think you don’t need to prove your English language skills just yet; even if you think you’re a master of the English language, you may score average on a proficiency test.

We’ll explain why this happens below — it’s all part of how English proficiency tests are designed and conducted. 

English proficiency test

A mentor uses flashcards to help prepare a students for their English proficiency test. Source: AFP

The best English proficiency tests, according to what you want and need


There are many English language proficiency tests available, but the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) remains the most recognised and trusted test of all.

It’s offered by the British Council and is recognised by over 10,000 organisations worldwide.

It comes in two types: Academic and General Training. The Academic test is usually used by universities and other educational institutes, while the General Training is used for migration or work.

You take the same speaking and listening tests in Academic and General Training, but the reading and writing tests differ, so it goes without saying that you should take the correct test type based on your requirements.

Remember how we said even if you’ve spoken and written English all your life, you may not get the highest scores? The answer to that lies in the name of the two types of IELTS tests offered: “Academic” and “General.”

While you’ve used English since your earliest memories, you’ve not used it in the context of Academic English, which refers to the kind of English you need to:

  • read and understand textbooks, journals and other study materials
  • write about your subject

For example, you can describe what you need from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, but the words and sentences used for are a lot different from Academic English.

In college and university, you need to express relationship between ideas — which is what much of Academic English is about. It’s more complex and you have be as accurate as possible.

The IELTS thus assesses your ability to communicate in Academic English in all four skills: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Each segment lasts about an hour or more, so it’s pretty intensive.

It’s also the only English proficiency test where a certified examiner evaluates your speaking and listening, so practising with someone before you take the test is a good idea.

The best part? They offer it online as well! You will take the listening, reading and writing segments online, while the speaking test will be done with a human examiner via an online video call. 

To register for the exam, you need to check their online booking system for a test venue and session that you are available for, then book and pay for the test. 

You will be given a score of one to nine for each test segment, but there’s no standard passing score.

It’s your university or business organisation that will set a predetermined score for applicants, so make sure to double-check that.


The TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) is used to measure the ability of non-native speakers.

It’s mostly required for international students who want to study at English-speaking colleges and universities. So if you’re a student hoping to study overseas, this may be a great option for you.

It’s less intensive than the IELTS, lasting only three hours and having shorter segments.

The test comprises reading, listening, speaking and writing, and they focus mostly on academic topics.

The level of English used might be found in an undergraduate university textbook, and consists of tasks like skimming text for information, listening for main points and more.

The biggest takeaway from this test is that it mainly measures your ability to communicate in English, specifically in an academic setting.

It judges how prepared you are to speak to your peers, listen to your lecturers and study for exams.

Each section of the TOEFL is worth 30 points, totalling up to 120 for a full score.

There is generally no passing mark as it depends on each university – the harder it is to get accepted to a university, the higher the score they expect. 

Students can register online, and then book the test at a nearby centre or opt to take it from home.

English proficiency test

Malaysian students in a centre taking an exam. Source: AFP

Cambridge English 

The Cambridge exams use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) to measure a candidate’s language ability.

The framework uses a six-point scale to measure (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2), and can be grouped into three broader levels: A1-A2 (Basic User), B1-B2 (Independent User), and C1-C2 (Proficient User).

International schools and universities usually require at least a B1-B2 level in proficiency.

Employees and hiring managers may ask for B2 and above for job applicants, so it depends if you’re aiming for an academic or professional environment.

On record, the B2 level is the most popular amongst the Cambridge exams as most schools and universities use it as a requirement.

The Cambridge C1 and C2 exams are the highest-level exams offered by Cambridge Assessment English. Both exams comprise of four segments – reading and use of English, writing, listening, speaking.

The speaking segment differs slightly from other exams, as you will carry out this segment with another candidate instead of an examiner.

Overall, the C1-C2 tests will determine if you can confidently speak in English for both work and study purposes.

To book for a Cambridge English exam, students will have to find their local centre and apply there.

There are over 2,800 testing centres in 180 countries, so make sure to find the one most convenient for you.

English proficiency test

Job seekers applying for English proficiency training. Source: AFP

Free English proficiency tests

For the three options listed above, you have to pay fees.

Fees for the IELTS Academic test in Malaysia and South Korea are US$174 and US$214 respectively.

Fees for the TOEFL test is US$205 in India and US$210 in Indonesia.

The Cambridge English: C2 Proficiency test, for example, costs 362 euros (approximately US$389 at the time of writing) if you take it from The Netherlands and around US$72 if you’re in India.

There are many sites that claim to offer free English proficiency tests but most colleges and universities do not accept them.

If you need a more affordable option, you can consider the Duolingo English Test, which after the pandemic is increasingly accepted by universities.

The Duolingo Englist test costs US$59 for one try. You can purchase two tries for US$49 each.

Which English proficiency test is right for me?

With so many options available and accepted worldwide, it can be hard to choose the best English proficiency tests for you. 

Here’s a handy guide to help:


This would be the most obvious factor, as you’ll need to actually sit for the test.

Even if you take an online test like the TOEFL, make sure to check if the actual exam is held in a test centre, or if you can take it entirely from home.


The level of difficulty and which test components you take depend on what is required from your university, company, or even the government.

A good way of gauging your capability to do which test would be by trying out free, online sample tests for the IELTS, TOEFL, and so on.

Scoring method

Some proficiency tests are partially graded by AI. For example, the PTE Academic test is scored digitally to prevent human error and bias.

If you prefer having a human element to your test, look up which tests offer certified examiners. 

Results time

If you need to retake your proficiency tests or are pressed for time for any reason whatsoever, some tests have different timeframes for delivering results.

For example, an online IELTS proficiency test can take three to five days to process your results, while a TOEFL iBT can take up to six days or more.

Paper-based tests can take longer, up to two weeks, so make sure you double-check your timing.

If you’re looking for additional tips to prepare for your English proficiency exam, check out our guide here.