living costs in california
California is a dream come true for many, but it don't come cheap! Source: Ian Schneider/Unsplash

To study in California is a dream come true for many international students. With some of the best colleges and universities in the country – both public and private – as well as the best climate and that famous Californian living, it’s no wonder the US state hosted the most international students in 2018.

Almost 200,000 international students called California their home away from home in 2017-18, so the state truly is one of the most popular study abroad destinations in the world. But all the great perks appear to come at a hefty price. News reports now describe California as “crazy expensive” with “escalating housing costs” and gas prices “soaring well above what most Americans are paying at the pump”.

We crunched the numbers to give you an estimate of what it would really cost to study and live in the region:

Tuition: US$26,820-36,880

Average published out-of-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions rose by US$620 (2.4 percent), from US$26,200 in 2018-19 to US$26,820 in 2019-20. For state residents, the average cost of tuition and fees are US$10,230, according to College Board.

At the University of California Berkeley, the flagship school of the University of California system, out-of-state students would have to fork out an additional US$29,754 in “Nonresident Supplemental Tuition”.

Meanwhile, the average tuition at a private four-year college is US$36,880.

International students would also have to pay the non-refundable, non-transferrable visa application fee, as well as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee, which is US$200 for F/M visa holders and US$180 for J student visa holders.

Rent: US$11,510-33,600 per year

Staying on-campus would cost US$11,510 at public four-year higher education institutions and US$12,990 at private colleges.

Living off-campus isn’t going to be cheaper in a state where rent costs 64.7 percent more than the national average. In November 2019, data from Zillow show the average rent in California to be US$2,800. With an average apartment size of 1,388 sqft, the average price per square foot in California is US$2.016.

living costs in california

California’s rents can be eye-wateringly high. Source: Cosmic Timetraveler/Unsplash

However, note that these figures can be influenced by the fact that California is a state of extremes, home to the nation’s richest and poorest cities and counties. Cities like San Jose and San Francisco would definitely command higher rents than Fresno or Los Angeles.

Food: US$3,573 per month

Food expenses for an adult with no children living in California would account for US$3,573 per month, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator. Again, this varies depending on where you stay in the state.

Data from this year show that a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs in Los Angeles costs US$0.96 and US3.39 respectively. In San Francisco, those prices would jump to US$1.08 and US$3.54, respectively.

Transport: At least US$100 per month

A monthly transit pass in LA will cost you US$100 per month and if you plan to save money, this should be your preferred transit mode.

If you want to drive on its beautiful stretches of highway (and get stuck in its infamous traffic), you’ll need a car. A Volkswagen Golf, Toyota Corolla or equivalent new car would set you back at least US$22,000. Add to that the insurance annual premium at US$1,846, and gas prices with average cost of US$4.09, and you’ve got yourself one of the most expensive car ownership costs in the country.


This is one area where costs are relatively low compared to the rest of the country. Californians pay an average monthly electricity bill of US$101.49, lower than the US average (US$111.67).


There is no shortage of things to do in the Golden State. If surfing and hiking are what you’re into, you’ll save loads, as these activities don’t cost a pretty penny. Art fans can benefit from the many free museums. If you’re in the mood to splurge, there’s always Los Angeles Lakers games at Staples Center, where just one ticket costs a hefty US$171.00–2,514.89.

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