Step by step: How budget-conscious students can get a Canadian degree

canadian universities
Heading to Canada but don't know where or how to start? This one-stop guide can help you: Source: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP

Canada is among the world leaders in higher education, with plenty of opportunities and experiences to offer students. Over the last decade, this has driven a surge in its international student population — the National Statistics Office of Canada reports a record number of 388,782 international students currently enrolled in Canadian universities. 

From its welcoming community to its impressive mountain ranges and quality education, Canada has it all. It is also home to bustling yet scenic cities such as Montreal, Quebec, Toronto and Vancouver — great places for students to enjoy their time here regardless of where they’re from. It’s no wonder international students flock to the world’s second-biggest country every year.

Compared to its neighbour, the US, tuition fees at Canadian universities cost significantly less. On average, the annual tuition fees for the year 2019-20 showed that Canada’s university tuition fees cost 58% less than tuition fees at US unis. This amounts to a huge difference of US$4,000.

That said, it’s impossible to avoid looking at the biggest factor of studying abroad – application fees, tuition fees and other costs including living, transport and accommodation expenses. But with careful planning and thorough research, there are a variety of ways you can pinch your pennies and still earn a Canadian degree (and a whole lot of great memories).

To help ease your worries, we put together a one-stop guide to help you fulfil your dreams to study at one of your chosen Canadian universities: 

1. Create a checklist of all the requirements you need to meet  

While each Canadian university has its own admission requirements, students still have to meet certain requirements set by the country. Some of these include: 

  • An up-to-date passport
  • An English and/or French language proficiency qualification
  • Proof of how you will be funding your studies

However, do take note these requirements may vary across the provinces. More about university admissions in the next few steps.

2. Finding a course and choosing a university 

Finding a course to pursue can be tricky. But unlike the UK, Canada’s education system allows more flexibility to switch majors if you change your mind.

It goes without saying that your overall tuition fee costs will vary according to your chosen programme. Generally, the cost of a bachelor’s degree is estimated to be 550 to 30,000 Canadian dollars (around US$412.15 to US$22,481 at the time of writing) annually. Some programmes such as a bachelor’s in Medicine, Engineering and Social Science can cost up to CA$56,000. 

Don’t let these figures scare you as there is a list of cheap Canadian universities you can apply to. These top 20 cheapest Canadian universities are ranked as some of the best in the country – University of Toronto, Simon Fraser University and University of Waterloo. 

When it comes to choosing a university, make sure that the university you applied to is listed as a designated learning institute (DLI). These institutions refer to a list of schools approved by the provincial or territorial government. It’s important to check as it’s crucial when you obtain a student visa. 

3. Research your financial aid/scholarships options 

canada universities

Canada offers a variety of generous scholarships and financial aid to international students. Source: Nicholas Kamm/AFP

Once you’ve chosen a programme and a uni, it’s time to figure out how to pay for them. Canadian universities offer generous scholarships and financial aid — there are some available for international students. These can be awarded through the university or the Canadian government and are either partially or fully-funded. 

Again, bear in mind requirements for each scholarship application can vary. Double-check if you meet these criteria before applying to avoid wasting your effort and time. 

4. Ensure that you meet all university admission requirements 

Each university has its own admission requirements. The most important documentation students should prepare is their English/French proof of proficiency. In Canada, IELTS is a more highly acceptable English language proficiency test across all Canadian universities. Alternatively, you could also take the Cambridge English: Advanced or TOEFL examinations.

If you are hoping to study in a French-speaking part of Canada, you’ll likely need a French proficiency test. The most common is the TEF exam but you could also take DALF, DELF, or TCF.

If you’re unsure about something, contact the university. Or use Unibuddy, a platform where students can share their experiences with interested future students. You can connect with graduates on LinkedIn too.

5. Applying to the university of your choice 

Now that you’ve narrowed down your options, it’s time to start applying. An often overlooked aspect of applying to universities is application fees. Depending on the university, these fees can go up to US$187.34. Such seemingly small sums can balloon quickly if you apply to multiple universities. To avoid that, check out this list of universities offering application fee waivers.

Unlike the UK, students don’t necessarily have to go through a third-party platform like UCAS to apply to their preferred universities. Again, this process varies by province but the rule of thumb is to apply directly via the university website. 

5. Applying for scholarships/financial aid

It’s time to apply for scholarships or financial aid. Listed below are four universities offering scholarships for undergraduates. Be sure to check the eligibility requirements as it differs accordingly:

If you did not apply to any of them, here are government scholarships to consider as well. You have probably heard of more popular ones such as Canada-ASEAN Scholarships and Educational Exchanges for Development (SEED) and Study in Canada Scholarships. Other than that, the University of Alberta offers country-specific scholarships for international students as well. 

Other financial aid options include bursaries or emergency stipends

6. Student visa applications 

canada universities

International students can apply for their visas online or in person at their local visa application centres. Source: Marvin Recinos/AFP

At this point, you’ve received an acceptance letter from one of the Canadian universities you’ve applied to. Now comes the time to apply for your student visa. You can do so online or in person at your local visa application centre where you will be required to pay the standard application fee of CA$150 (US$112.32) for a study permit. 

You will need to provide the following documents:

  • Acceptance letter from DLI
  • Current passport
  • Proof of financial support

If you are studying in the province of Quebec, you will also need a “Certificat d’acceptation du Québec” (CAQ), which your university will send to you.

You may be required to provide other evidence which could include your biometrics, which will cost you CA$83 (US$65), and/or an interview. For a more detailed explanation of the visa application process, click here

7. City and accommodation 

Congratulations, you’re more than halfway through this checklist! It’s time to sort out your housing. How much you pay for your student housing in Canada will depend on the type, city and province you will be living in. There are three major types of accommodation to consider, from the most expensive to the most affordable: on-campus accommodation, private housing or a homestay. 

On-campus accommodation refers to student housing located close to or on campus. This option is usually recommended for first-years as it saves them travel time and costs when attending classes. It can also help them meet and connect more easily with other students.

However, this may be a costlier option as the rent usually covers your room, utilities such as electricity, gas and water and sometimes even a mealplan. What’s more, the room is often also fully-furnished, meaning you can save the hassle of buying furniture or electrical appliances. 

Private housing is another popular option among international students. While this may be a slightly cheaper option, there are added costs and effort. In private housing , you would most likely have to pay for heating, internet and electricity on your own. Not to mention furniture, if the apartment is not furnished. Take note that rental costs for off-campus housing can vary dramatically, especially in the larger cities of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. 

The last and cheapest option is a homestay. This type of accommodation is great for those looking for a more immersive experience of Canadian culture. Check with your uni for contacts of local families willing to host students in their homes.

This typically entails having a room while enjoying three square meals per day. There are also options without meal plans. If you’re interested in a homestay option, feel free to explore the Canada Homestay Network.

9. Planning your journey

It’s finally time to plan your journey to Canada. Without advanced planning, your flight tickets can cost you more than expected. Thankfully as students, you are entitled to certain student discounts from airline companies. An example is the MHexplorer programme where students have access to various perks when booking their flight – extra baggage allowance of 22 pounds, up to 30% off flights all year round and a complimentary date change. 

Other airlines offering student discounts include: Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and Air Canada. Each of these programmes varies with their discounts and perks so do check before booking your flight. Beware of using an agent to book your flight tickets as they usually charge higher and have added processing fees. 

Once you’ve sorted your flight tickets, you have to figure out your transport arrangements from the airport. Canadian universities often offer free airport pick-up services for international students arriving in Canada. 

It’s advisable to prepare a file of your essential documents:

  • Birth certificate
  • IELTS test score
  • Letter of acceptance
  • Tuition receipt
  • Passport
  • Police clearance
  • Driver’s licence 
  • Medical records
  • Medication
  • Study permit

If you need help deciding what to pack, this article might help. 

10. Planning your budget 

The last step in this checklist is to plan your budget. As often as we’ve mentioned costs throughout the checklist, budgeting is super important to keep your expenses abroad in check. Living costs in Canada for international students are estimated to cost around CA$600 to CA$800, depending on your lifestyle and spending habits. This ballpark figure includes groceries and other daily expenses. 

If you aren’t financially savvy, don’t worry. There are several budgeting apps that can easily help you keep track of your finances such as Mint, Wally and Goodbudget. Other great ways you can save money is by preparing your own meals and doing your grocery shopping at more affordable supermarkets such as No Frills, Walmart and FreshCo. 

Thankfully, Canada allows international students to work part-time while they’re studying. Canada is ranked 12th as the country with the highest part-time salary. Students on average earn CA$11.45 to CA$16 per hour but they are not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week off campus.

Some of the best part-time jobs for international students are waiting tables, delivery, dog walking and sales. Read this to learn everything you need to know about working part-time in Canada.