Foreign students: A guide to studying in Portugal

PDV talked to several foreigners who chose Portugal to pursue their university studies. Reasons behind their choice include the cheap cost of living, the friendliness of the locals and the quality of Portugal’s education system.

Living in Portugal What's New — 28 September 2012 by Andrea Duarte
Foreign students: A guide to studying in Portugal

They come from all over the world, but mainly Europe and Portuguese-speaking countries. The main reason is to pursue their studies, but the sunny climate, the language or the opportunity to experience life in a different country are also factors that prove attractive to the many foreigners enrolling in Portuguese universities.

“The way you seem to learn new things every day is great”, says Ingrid Montfort, a French graduate who took part of her course in Portuguese Language, Literature and Culture at the Universidade Nova, in Lisbon. “It was the best place I could imagine to study”, she adds, “because I believed the specialists in Portuguese culture and literature would be based in Portugal’s capital and I wasn’t wrong.”

She also knew that teachers would not “make it easier” for her, forcing her to progress quickly. For Ingrid, the quality of Portugal’s higher education is “good, like in France, but the difference is that classes are more formal.” She is not alone in feeling this way. At Universidade do Porto, which has the highest number of foreign students in Portugal, 10.89% of the student body comes from other countries. In Coimbra (see photo), where the country’s oldest university is based , that percentage reaches 20.4%.


Martina Pospisilova (see photo) is one of them, a Czech graduate in Portuguese Language and Literature who first came to Portugal under the EU Erasmus exchange programme, studying in Évora, and later returned to finish her master’s degree in Coimbra. “I like the Portuguese spirit, I fell in love with this place some time ago and it’s always a pleasure for me to be here”, she says. Martina likes the history, the culture, but also the sun and warm weather. “I wrote my final essay on ‘Viagens na Minha Terra’ by Almeida Garrett, finished my degree and then worked for two years in the Czech Republic, but I missed Portugal”, she told PDV. “The Portuguese, despite being a little more reserved than their Spanish neighbours at first, are very open and willing to welcome foreigners”, adds Jan-Jakob F., a German law student.

Cheap cost of living

Studying in Portugal means having contact with top-notch degree programmes and the world’s third most-spoken European language. It is also the linguistic gateway to Africa and Brazil, as pointed out by the Universidade de Aveiro (see photo). There are four Portuguese universities on The Times Higher Education Ranking of the best 400 institutions: Aveiro and Porto rank 301st and 350th, respectively, and Coimbra and Lisbon‘s Nova are placed 351st and 400th.

The cost of living in Portugal is also attractive, as the Universidade de Lisboa likes to point out to prospective students. Martina and Ingrid agree, having lived in Coimbra and Lisbon on less than €600 a month. Ingrid adds that she rented a shared flat for €400 a month right in the centre of Lisbon. A room can range between €250 and €300 euros a month. Jan-Jakob says he spent more, around €800 a month, but he admits he “did a lot of travelling to get to know continental Portugal and Madeira”.

The 50% concession in public transports for higher education students under the age of 23 (which can be requested at DGES) means a €35 monthly Lisbon Metro card will cost only €17,5. “Good coffee between €0.50 and €0.80 is my luxury”, says Martina, for whom travelling is too expensive. Students are given good discounts at museums and historic buildings, often in the 50% off range. Sunday mornings and bank holidays are a good time to visit public museums, since admittance is free until 2pm. Even in Lisbon, students can find a €5 or €6 meal in a small restaurant. Universidade do Porto estimates that a student will spend between €150 and €220 a month on lodgings in the northern city and adds some indicative prices: a litre of milk costs about €0.60 and a cinema ticket (for students) €4.

The “praxe”: archaic tradition mixed with solidarity

However, choosing Portugal as the place you want to study is only the first step. The spirit of adventure needed to leave home shouldn’t let you forget to pack some other essential items, such as the European Health Insurance Card, in case you come from a European country. The Universidade de Coimbra advises students to bring their identity card or passport, provide the address where they will be staying, their vaccination record card and two passport-type photos. “Students who come to study at the University of Lisbon should book their lodgings before coming to Portugal”, warns the Universidade de Lisboa on their website. The website Study in Portugal is another good source for tips.

“Students should contact the international relations department of the university, as well as ask for the support of the student structures of that university” upon arrival, adds the Universidade do Porto. “There is nothing better than to join one of the groups at the students’ union”, recommends the Universidade de Aveiro.

The possibility of learning a new language is one of the reasons why Jan-Jakob, a 22 year-old German student on the Erasmus exchange programme, arrived in Coimbra in the summer of 2011.

According to Jan-Jakob, “Talking to students from my university who did their Erasmus in Portugal and who really enjoyed doing their Erasmus there” helped him opt for the country as well.

Like Jan-Jakob, Ingrid Montfort applied to come to Portugal through her university in France, Lille3. She wanted to discover the country where some of her roots lie, she said. In her case the process was quite simple, since both universities in France and Portugal have an exchange agreement.

After arriving in Coimbra, and despite the heat, Jan-Jakob walked around the city with a Spanish student he met in the hostel he was staying in and “rang the bell of every house that had a white sheet of paper in the window, which is the sign they have a spare room to rent”, he says. “I then tried to find out how much the room was and who would be living there with me. Not being able to speak much Portuguese, me and my Spanish friend had to use every other language we knew to communicate, but we finally succeeded in finding a flat where both of us would be living the whole first semester together with five Brazilians and another Spaniard”, he adds. After finding a room, he settled in and began attending classes in his Law degree, also taking some time off throughout the year to travel around the country.

Meanwhile, Jan-Jakob got to know his colleagues and felt “welcome”, while he thought the staff at the university was “really friendly” helping him whenever he needed. Living in Coimbra, he noticed that “the life of a student is dominated a lot more by traditions”, the so-called “praxe”, or students’ customary law which also includes the infamous initiation or welcoming rituals. Although “some of the things first year students are forced to do seem a little archaic” to him, Jan-Jakob says he “really enjoyed seeing the spirit of solidarity and brotherhood that many older students showed while interacting with the younger ones.”


Tuitions and classes in English

The tuition fees for a first cycle degree, a three-year long ‘licenciatura’ in a public university in 2011/2012, cost between €935 and €999,17. There are 16 public universities in Portugal and many offer courses in English. In Aveiro, despite having many courses with some classes in English (mainly in Management, Economics, Chemistry, Materials Engineering and most PhD programmes), only a few master’s programmes are taught entirely in English: Environmental Studies, Advanced Clay Science, Higher Education, Material Science, Functionalised Advanced Materials and Information Networking.

The same occurs in Coimbra, where besides the university’s PhDs their postgraduate programme in People Management and Organisational Performance and their master’s in Neuroscience, Sustainable Constructions Under Natural Hazards and Catastrophic Events, Applied Ecology, Software Engineering and Information Technology-Software Engineering are entirely taught in English. All courses in the Universidade de Lisboa are taught in Portuguese, except for the degree in English Literature and Culture. The Universidade do Porto is similar, only stressing that “some teachers allow essays or exams to be delivered in other languages, especially English. However, this situation must be assessed individually”. Universities are also a good place to start learning Portuguese, as they all offer courses for foreigners. From then on, students can either enroll in a language school or just practice in their everyday lives.


Check list: make sure you have the following before leaving home

  • Before coming to Portugal, make sure all documents you sent to the university you’ll be studying in (application form, your school history and study plan) are in order. Then you can start packing by some essentials, like…
  • Identity card or passport which, according to the Universidade de Lisboa, you should carry with you at all times;
  • Address of where you’ll be staying. You can book a room in a students’ dorm in advance, by contacting the university’s international relations department;
  • European Health Insurance Card or private health insurance;
  • Vaccination record card, updated with a tetanus shot;
  • All foreign exchange students coming from non-EU countries should hold a study visa obtained at the Portuguese Embassy or Consulate in their home country, which is valid for one year. As far as students coming from EU member states are concerned, they are allowed in the country upon the presentation of a valid ID card or passport and their entry in Portugal is not subject to any control;
  • However, the law states that for stays longer than 3 months these students (coming from any EU member state or Schengen country) should request to the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (Immigration Office, SEF) a residence permit within 3 months after their arrival. All EU citizens are entitled to this permit, which is valid for one year and can be extended for equal periods. This request should be submitted to the Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras.
  • Two passport-type photos.


Check list: what do to after getting here?

  • Contact the university’s international relations department, which will introduce you to the university and the teachers;
  • Get in touch with other students by contacting the students’ union, which often carries out several welcoming activities in September/October for new students to get to know the university and each other;
  • “Seek out every opportunity to learn Portuguese, through formal courses or informal learning”, advises the Universidade de Aveiro;
  • Take walks to get to know the city you’ll be living in, after you’ve settled in.

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Andrea Duarte

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