Step by step: How international students can study in the UK for cheap

english education
Gearing for an English education in the UK? Here's what you need to do. Source: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

So, you’ve decided to study in the UK — the home to some of the oldest and most respected universities in the world. Some of the most well-known on this list include the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, and many, many more. 

But it cannot be understated that an English education is extremely expensive. As an international student, you’ll be required to pay higher fees — which tend to be twice or three times the amount paid by locals. 

Take this BA Economics and Management degree at Oxford, for example. Home students are charged 9,250 pounds. International students must pay 37,280 pounds. This doesn’t take into account the costs of housing, visa fees, health insurance, and more. 

Still, it isn’t impossible to get an English education at an affordable price. The secret behind this? Planning ahead. It’s important to start laying out your next steps as soon as possible. 

We’ve created a guide to help you out with that:

10 steps to get a cheap English education

It’s always a great idea to conduct research in advance. Source: Joe Raedle/AFP

1. Check for any required documents or qualifications

The first step to getting your foot in the door is to make sure you have the qualifications and requirements needed for a UK university. These tend to look like: 

  • A pre-university qualification (e.g. A Levels or IB)
  • A letter of recommendation from your school or teachers
  • Your academic transcript 
  • A personal statement 
  • An English language proficiency test (e.g. IELTS)

The most important thing here is to sit for a pre-university qualification that will be accepted across the board. Generally speaking, taking the A Levels will be your safest bet. Still, more UK universities are beginning to accept other qualifications such as the IB and foundation programmes. 

If you have a specific programme in mind, your university will list the qualifications needed. If you have a pre-university qualification that isn’t listed, be sure to find out how to convert your grades — or, if necessary, sit for an examination that is accepted. 

In the meantime, get ready with other documents like your personal statement and letters of recommendation. Make sure to translate your academic transcript — and any other documents — to English, or they won’t be accepted as part of your application. 

2. Find a course and choose your uni

Now that you’ve got the right qualifications for a UK university, it’s time to conduct some research on the right one for you. 

The first thing you should do is narrow down the course of your choice. Think about your interests and subject choices. What do you enjoy doing most? What do you see yourself doing more of in the future? The more research you conduct, the more courses you’ll find. 

Once you’ve decided on a course, it’s time to filter out the most expensive universities. It’s important to be realistic here. An engineering degree at Imperial College London might be a dream for you, but you might not have considered the high accommodation fees, relentless study culture, and busy central location, for example.

Tuition fees at universities tend to vary in price according to a few factors. This includes the university’s reputation, campus size, the experience of its academic staff, and demand. Looking at universities on any one ranking table will give you a general idea of their price points. Hint: Those taking up the top spots are usually the most expensive because they are in high demand by students and employers worldwide. 

Looking for cheap UK universities? We’ve compiled a list right here for you. 

3. Find funds

The first option is to pay for your tuition fees yourself. However, you might need some extra assistance if you’re applying to a university that’s way above your budget. 

Scholarships are the easiest and most accessible option for students. They might set specific grades for you to get, deadlines to meet, and other requirements that might come into play. Some scholarships ask you to apply well ahead of time, while others may only put up a posting for a short period of time. Know their deadlines and posting dates well, and you’ll stay ahead of the competition.

Here are the most common funding options for international students: 

  • Scholarships awarded by the university 
  • Scholarships awarded by private or global organisations (e.g. Chevening by the British Council)
  • Scholarships awarded by national organisations 
  • Student loans or bursaries granted by your country

We explain your options best here

The British Council is a great resource to look for international scholarships to UK universities. These may vary in number according to the country you’re from, so be sure to visit the website most applicable to you. 

Some scholarships might be granted to you by companies or organisations. While these are great options to consider, you should know that most will require you to return and work for them for a set number of years. Keep this in mind if you are looking to work overseas after your studies end. 

4. Check for uni-specific entry requirements 

Some universities will require some extra documentation from you. For example, STEM students might be required to present an ATAS certificate as part of their application. Others might ask you to write an extra academic essay or meet for a virtual interview. 

The best way to find out is to get some insight from the students themselves. Find them on Unibuddy or do a simple search on LinkedIn. 

5. Apply to uni

University applications in the UK go through a streamlined service called UCAS. Here, you pay a fee of 26.50 pounds to apply to up to five universities. This helps you save on the cost of making single university applications, which can charge you around 70 pounds each time. 

You can make your application yourself or employ outside help from education agents to smoothen the process. Most schools will set aside time for you to submit your application. Your teachers will also be there to help you craft your personal statement and CV, as well as arrange your documents. 

Be mindful of application deadlines if you are looking for a September intake. Most students will submit their applications by the end of the previous year, from October to December. The latest you should be submitting your application is the end of January. 


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6. Apply for scholarships or financial aid

In most cases, you can only apply for scholarships or funding once you’ve received your offer to university. Still, many don’t give you much time before their application window closes — which is where your earlier research comes in handy. 

Financial aid can be partially or fully-funded. The first refers to funding that will cover the full cost of your time at university. The other will only give you a specified amount — for example, granting you 7,000 pounds to cover the cost of your 17,000 pound degree. Think about how much you need and apply accordingly. 

Whatever it is, don’t miss your deadline!

7. Apply for your visa

Your visa is your ticket into the UK — without it, all your efforts will be in vain. However, you have an extremely tight window to work in, as you can only begin the process after you’ve received an unconditional offer from your uni. 

Some universities might grant you this off the bat, but most will only do so after you’ve achieved the grades they’ve set out for you. This means that if you’re sitting for your exams in May, you’ll have to wait until your results are out before you can apply for your visa. 

In the meantime, gather your documents. Make sure you have: 

  • An up-to-date passport
  • Access to identification documents (e.g. your national identity card and birth certificate)
  • Your academic transcript from your school 
  • Proof of funding to support your studies (more details here)
  • Written consent from your financial sponsor if applicable

Full details of the UK student visa application can be found here

Once you’ve received your grades and gotten your offer, ask your university for a Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies (CAS) as soon as possible. This will allow you to get your tuberculosis test results and book your visa appointment. 

Your visa application will cost 363 pounds, which is non-refundable. A healthcare surcharge is also included as part of the application fee. Find out how much you’d need to pay here

8. Research your city and find your accommodation

Once you’ve done this, it’s time to start looking for where you’ll stay. 

First-year students tend to stay in campus housing, a set number of which are set aside every year. You can typically find information on the costs, facilities and options on your university website. 

Private halls are another option. Unite Students is a popular independent student accommodation service for those looking for places to stay outside their universities. Scape is another. 

Halls, both university-owned and private, are usually the most expensive. This is because some may offer extra facilities and services not typically provided in a rented property, such as weekly cleaning or catered food. Private halls are usually more expensive because they are more modern and have better facilities. 

The cheapest option would be to look for rooms or flats to rent. This works best if you know other students who will be going to university with you and can flatshare. 

The amount of rent you’ll pay depends on where you’re situated. London is the most expensive city in the UK, with rent costing a minimum of 250 pounds per week. You can venture to the outskirts for cheaper options, where you might find rooms for 170 pounds per week, but you might have to make up for this in transport costs. 

Other cities in the UK are relatively cheaper. For example, a single room in Canterbury Student Village for Kent University students costs around 134 pounds per week. 

Stuck on where to start looking? Try amberstudent, Rightmove Student Accommodation or StudentPad.

Plan ahead of your travels to get cheaper flights. Source: Justin Tallis/AFP

9. Plan your journey

Now you’ve gotten your foot into the door, it’s time to plan how you’ll get to the UK. We all know how flights to the UK can get very expensive. To cheat the system, there is a simple hack: booking early. 

Here are some general tips on booking your flight: 

  • Book as early as possible. Flights tend to increase in price closer to the date of travel. Set up price alerts to find out about deals as they are posted.
  • Search for flights through travel websites such as Google Flights, Skyscanner or KAYAK, but book directly through the airline
  • Select flights at odd hours for cheaper fares. 
  • If you can, choose a connecting flight. 

Most universities will offer shuttle services to get to campus. Some may even offer a free pick-up. Contact your student services to find out what services are available. 

Finally, make sure to pack a starter kit for your flight. This may include your laptop, an extra change of clothes, phone chargers, a book, and a neck pillow. You might want to prepare for when you land, too — changing your cash for pounds in advance, for example, can be a great help. 

10. Plan your budget

Finally, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to manage your money while you’re there. How can you cut costs, and where should you go to do so? 

Here are some cheap stores to look out for: 

  • Poundland – to get cheap, one-pound household essentials 
  • Asda – for cost-effective groceries 
  • Wilko – for cheap household goods
  • Itsu or Wasabi – for cheap bento boxes
  • Three – for affordable phone plans 
  • Save the Student – a website to help you get the best student discounts and deals 
  • TodayTix – for discounted theatre tickets 

There are many other ways to save during your time in the UK. If you’re in London, have a look at this guide. UK-bound students can also have a look at the free things you’re entitled to here