Been there, done everything: How to afford London as an international student

cost to live in london
I spent four years of my life in London as an international student. Here's how I afforded it. Source: Sofiya Shazal

“How much does it cost to live in London?” 

As an international student, this question played out in my mind before I was due to begin my studies at Queen Mary, University of London. 

I was thrilled, at first. Who wouldn’t be? London is a multicultural city known for its diversity, rising industries, entertainment, and more. In short, it’s a city full of opportunity — perfect for an international student taking her first steps into the world. 

It played out exactly as I’d hoped. As a huge theatre fan, I indulged in London’s arts scene and participated in all the workshops I could find.

As a literature student, I explored all the nooks and crannies the world’s greatest writers used to frequent. As an international student, I attended festivals, parades, pop-ups and networking events. 

I loved it so much that I decided to come back to pursue my master’s in London — this time at University College London (UCL). 

Can I afford to live in London as an international student?

There was no ignoring that London was — and still is — a painfully expensive city. ECA International lists it as the fourth most expensive city in the world.

Most of this has to do with a 20% rent increase, making the cost to live in London that much higher. 

That’s not even mentioning all the other expenses you’ll be spending on: travel, university supplies, food, entertainment and more. 

Still, I’m here to tell you that you can afford to live in London as an international student — you’ll just have to be smart about where you live, what you spend on and how to find discounts.

Here’s how I did it: 

My graduation ceremony at Queen Mary, London. Source: Sofiya Shazal

Living expenses in London for international students

It’s absolutely essential to know what you need to look out for as an international student in London. Generally, this is where your money will go: 

  • Rent 
  • Transport 
  • Food 

Rent will by far be the most expensive cost to live in London. I write about this in more detail below. 

The second thing to consider is transport — but, as a student, you’ll have plenty of discounts available to you.

I registered for a Student Oyster Card the week I arrived in London. It gave me 30% off travel cards — perfect for me, as I wasn’t living on campus. 

Food was the third biggest spend. The best way to save money on this is to cook your own meals.

Looking for cheap places to do your groceries? Try Asda or Iceland — these are known for selling ingredients at a cheaper price. 

Other than that, restaurant chains often sell food at a discounted price before they close to prevent food waste. There are apps you can consider for these, too. 

As with any international student, there were days when I craved my local food. During these times, I’d go to Malaysian restaurants. 

There weren’t too many around London, mind you, and the popular ones weren’t half as good as what I’d find at home.

For these meals — and any other restaurant meals — I’d have to fork out around 15 pounds, so I saved them for special occasions. 

The flat my friends and I rented out in Surrey Quays. Source: Sofiya Shazal

Renting in London for international students

The first thing to know about London is that its cost of living differs according to where you decide to stay. Like every other city in the world, London has its posh areas, gentrified hotspots, and more run-down districts. 

Of course, there are usually accommodation options on campus that you can consider. These are usually more expensive. For example, a single, non-ensuite room in a UCL hall costs 206.50 pounds a week. 

This is why many students often choose to live off-campus. The price you’ll pay here really depends on which part of London you decide to rent in.

On average, rent in the east costs around 906 pounds per month; 876 pounds per month in the north; and 1,017 pounds per month in the west. 

It’s certainly cheaper to rent in the east and north compared to the west– but all are more expensive  compared to the rest of the UK, which just averages 583 pounds per month.

Which areas should I consider in London?

As an international student, it’s important to decide not only according to your price range but your class schedule, university location and transport options as well.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself: 

  • How long am I willing to travel to get to my classes? 
  • What time are my classes and will I have to travel during peak hours? 
  • Do I need certain activities around me (e.g. a park, gym, etc) to live a fulfilling student life?
  • If my accommodation is out of the way, am I willing to sacrifice any campus experiences such as participating in student clubs and activities?

I was willing to sacrifice my university campus experiences in favour of exploring the wider city of London. Because of this, I was fine with living off-campus and searching for my own flat. 

I spent four years in London — three at Queen Mary for my undergraduate degree and one at UCL for my master’s. During that time, I lived in the east, south and north. I’ve listed them out in detail here: 

Graduating from UCL in 2022. Source: Sofiya Shazal

Stratford, East London: 210 pounds per week

During my first year, I chose to live in Stratford ONE run by Unite Students in Stratford, east London. This was a fully-equipped building with hang-out spots, a fitness studio and a mail room. 

It was situated right opposite one of the largest shopping centres in London, making it easy for me to do my shopping and groceries.

Stratford is also well-connected, with tube, rail and bus services. It took me around 20 minutes to travel to Queen Mary via the Central Line. 

Borough, South London: 170 pounds per week

Borough is located just a 10-minute walk from London Bridge. It’s extremely well-connected — with three different tube stops — and has plenty of cheap-ish options for food and other fun stuff.

I chose to rent in Borough with two friends. We spent a good year here exploring what the south had to offer, walking along the Thames River and checking out the nightclubs.

It took me around 30 to 40 minutes to travel to Queen Mary via the tube. 

Surrey Quays, East London: 160 pounds per week

In my third year, I rented a flat in the quaint, quiet neighbourhood area of Surrey Quays. This was by far the most “local” spot in London I’d ever lived in.

Most of our neighbours were small families or older folk. There was a small park opposite our place. 

The downside? Surrey Quays was not as well-connected as the others. I only chose to live there because it wasn’t that far off from my uni — I travelled around 20 minutes to get to my classes. 

But getting to central or west London was a pain. It would usually take me at least 40 minutes.

Tottenham Hale, North London: 208 pounds per week

Like Surrey Quays, Tottenham Hale is a little more family-oriented than your typical London borough. I returned to Unite Students, this time to its North Lodge hall. 

This area was a little isolated but had everything I needed to survive. I had access to multiple grocery stores that were known for their affordable prices; shops to furnish my space; and cheap food options. 

The only drawback was how badly connected it was. Tottenham Hale is on the Victoria Line — which is known for its speed. I was able to get to UCL within 30 minutes. 

But when the tube system was down, I didn’t have many other options in terms of transport. This meant I had to travel for over an hour to get to uni. 

The cost to live in London on a budget

Sorting out the main cost to live in London was a huge relief. After that, all I had to do was figure out how I’d be able to explore London — without paying the exorbitant tourist prices. 

Generally speaking, it wasn’t too bad. There are many things to do in London for free. Most museums are free — which meant I could attend exhibitions, view famous paintings and educate myself about London’s history without paying for anything. 

I also took advantage of London’s status as an extremely walkable city. You can walk almost anywhere and be met with impressive views, surprising nooks and crannies, street entertainers and more.

It certainly made travelling by foot very appealing. 

Pride in London was one of the many free festivals I was able to attend. Source: Sofiya Shazal

Affording theatre in London

This was especially concerning to me as a fan of theatre. On average, it costs around 80 pounds to get a seat in the stall section of any theatre.

Otherwise, you’d have to consider seats with restricted views, or ones all the way at the back. 

I managed to get front-row seats for 25 pounds. I did this by: 

  • Queuing up for last-minute tickets on the day of the performance
  • Checking Theatre Monkey to see the discounted tickets available 
  • Registering for rush tickets and daily lotteries on the TodayTix app 
  • Checking the TKTS Booth in Leicester Square for last-minute discounted tickets

I usually limited spending on entertainment to once every two months, depending on what my bank balance was looking like. 

Advice for international students in London

Through careful budgeting and searching for the best discounts available, I was able to fully enjoy all the opportunities London had to offer during my time there.

Looking back, my university years were some of the most memorable of my life. 

I believe that you can fully enjoy your time in London as an international student, too. Just keep these pointers in mind: 

  • Keep a close eye on your bank balance and budget accordingly 
  • Allow yourself to indulge in something you enjoy once a month
  • Venture outside the typical London student boroughs — but DO YOUR RESEARCH
  • Invest in a Student Oyster Card for travel 
  • Find friends to rent with
  • Look out for student discounts wherever you can

The cost to live in London as an international student is high, but that doesn’t mean it’s unaffordable. Spend wisely, choose the right accommodation for yourself, and most importantly — have a blast!