To study abroad in Spain, learn about the Spanish university system, required qualifications, how to apply, fees, scholarships, accommodation and student life.
If you’re planning to study in Spain, you will find a long history of college education, international education, and universities in Spain. The higher education system in Spain is well positioned internationally, and generally ranks in the top 10 education systems alongside US, UK and Germany.
Top universities in Spain
Spain’s tradition of university education dates back to medieval times – the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, is one of the world’s oldest universities – but it also has some of the world’s fastest rising new universities. Five Spanish universities are ranked in the Times Higher Education’s (2014-15) World University Ranking top 100 universities less than 50 years old, with Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona coming at the highest at number 12. Spain also has six universities in the THE global top 400: Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona), University of Barcelona, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Autonomous University of Madrid, University of Valencia and University of Navarra.
Higher education in Spain
There are around 1.8 million students in Spain and some 3 percent of these are international students. According to the Ministry of Education, in 2012/13 the top five nationalities of foreign students were Italian, Columbian, Chinese, Romanian and Moroccan. At some universities, international students account for around a third of all Master’s students and over half of all doctoral students.
Most courses at Spanish universities are taught in Spanish and some courses are taught in a regional language such as Catalan. But there are increasing numbers of courses at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels taught in English. The Internationalization of the Spanish Higher Education Unit has an online database of English-taught programmes at Spanish universities. You can also read about studying in Barcelona.
Most Spanish universities divide the academic year into two semesters: the first generally runs from mid-September/early October to the end of December; the second runs from late around January/early February to the end of May. Some universities have trimesters.
Types of universities in Spain
There are 76 Spanish universities (universidades): two-thirds are state-run by the autonomous communities in all but two cases where the Ministry of Education and Science steps in; one-third are run privately, of which a small selection are run by the Catholic church. Most of the leading universities are in Madrid and Barcelona. There are also prestigious business schools and other specialised schools.
The largest university in Spain is the National University of Distance Education (UNED), a distance learning and research university run by the central government, combining traditional onsite and distance learning programmes.
The types of university establishments in Spain can be grouped into four types:
- university schools (escuelas universitarias), where shorter courses are offered, such as undergraduate courses;
- university colleges (colegios universitarios), where the first three years of study leading to a licenciado is completed;
- faculties (facultades) where longer courses are offered in all academic disciplines (except technical courses);
- higher technical schools of engineering and architecture (escuela superior de ingeniería y arquitectura) where long-term technical courses are completed.
The Spanish university system is rigidly structured and in some cases students have to choose a fixed curriculum and may not be permitted to change universities during their studies (except in outstanding situations).
International universities in Spain
There are several international universities and institutions – generally business schools – that offer higher education in Spain, usually in English or bilingual education.
International education offers a degree and credit structure that is widely accepted at higher education institutions around the world. These institutions offer a very diverse faculty, host students from around the globe, and are generally accredited by international bodies.
In addition to Spanish universities, there are outposts of American universities in Spain: Schiller International University, the St. Louis University and Suffolk University (all in Madrid). There is also the European University and the United International Business Schools in Barcelona and Madrid, as well as international schools in several regions, including Isabella I of Castile International University (Burgos), International University of Catalonia (Barcelona), International University of La Rioja (Longrono), Valencian International University (Castellon de la Plana), and Marbella Design Academy (Monda).
Qualifications awarded in Spain
Spanish universities offer official and non-official degrees. Official degrees follow the Bologna ECTS (European Credit Transfer and accumulation System) and are recognised within all the countries making up the European Higher Education Area (EHEA):
- Grado – Bachelor’s, four years, 240 ECTS.
- Posgrado – Master’s, one to two years, 60–120 ECTS.
- Doctorado – PhD, three to five years, 60 ECTS.
Under the ECTS, one credit corresponds to the student workload required to successfully complete the course modules, and these credits can be accumulated and transferred.
All Spanish universities also award masters and graduate degrees specific to each university. These ‘non-official degrees’ or maestrias – non-official degree, Magister or non-official master, or Expert Master – are awarded by individual universities, do not give access to PhD courses and are usually not recognised outside of Spain. However, they are often linked to specialised sectors and therefore can be very useful in gaining employment in Spain.
Exchange programmes, grants and scholarships in Spain
Spain has fewer scholarship opportunities than other European countries. It is signed up to the Eurasmus+ programme, an EU initiative which allows students from the EU and elsewhere in the world to study in other countries. American students may be able to study in Spain on a grant through the Fulbright US Student programme. You can search for scholarships across Spanish universities on the Internationalization of the Spanish Higher Education Unit’s scholarship database and look at individual university websites. If you’re already enrolled in an university abroad, ask your university about any exchange programmes.
Applying to a Spanish university
You have to apply directly to each university because there’s no centralised system in Spain and each university sets its own entry requirements and deadlines for applications. However, you may need to get qualifications validated first. Competition can be fierce as there are usually too many applications for the number of available places. Most universities reserve about five percent of places for international students. See each university’s website for application procedures, or try to contact the student secretariat (vice-rectorado de alumnos).
Foreign qualifications and accreditation to study in Spain
To enter higher education in Spain, local Spanish students are required to reach a certain level of academic achievement in secondary school and pass an entry exam.
If you are from within the EU/EEA/Switzerland or another country which has a reciprocity agreement with Spain, you are usually eligible to enrol at a Spanish university if you hold an equivalent valid school leaving certificate/university entrance level qualification from your home country. You may be asked to get your qualifications verified through the National Distance Education University (UNED). If you’re from outside the EU/EEA/Switzerland and hold a European or International Baccalaureate you are also eligible.
If you are from outside the EU/EEA/Switzerland, you may be asked to apply for official accreditation (homologación) or partial recognition (convalidación) of your qualifications. To get your qualifications approved, you will need authenticated and translated copies of your qualification, course details and proof of identity. For more information on official recognition for foreign qualifications, see the Ministry of Education.
Undergraduates may also be asked to sit an entrance exam called the Prueba de Acceso a Estudios Universitarios (PAU) and popularly known as the Selectividad, similar to Spanish students.
Cost of studying in Spain
The fees (tasas) for official degrees at public universities are set by the autonomous communities within guidelines set down by the General Assembly for University Policy. Students from within the EU are charged the same tuition fees as Spanish students. In the academic year 2014-15, tuition costs for a Bachelor’s degree at a public university in Spain ranged from €700–3,700 per year. For a Master’s or Doctorate, fees were set from €17–65 pre credit (one credit = 25 to 30 hours student work). If you come from outside of the EU, or you are repeating a subject, you will pay more. Public universities set their own fess for non-official degrees.
Private universities set their own fees. Enrolment costs for Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctorate courses can be between €5,000–15,000, depending on the course and institution.
Contact individual universities for information about their specific fees.
Language skills for studying in Spain
You will need to have a good knowledge of Spanish (Castilian) on undergraduate courses, or the regional language (such as Catalan, the regional language of Catalonia).
Most universities offer preparatory summer, intensive or extensive Spanish language courses alongside your degree course – or you can take classes at a private school. Diplomas in Spanish as a Foreign Language (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera or DELE) are the official, internationally recognised qualifications. DELE are awarded by the Cervantes Institute. See a list of language schools in Spain.
Student accommodation in Spain
Some universities have their own halls of residence (colegios mayores) and student flats but places are limited. Look on the university website for information on university residences on and off campus as well as home stays with Spanish families.
Rent for private accommodation varies from city to city. For example, for a shared room in a flat expect to pay around €350–600 per month in Madrid, or around €300 per month in Seville or Valencia. Nuroa is an accommodation search engine across Spain, or see our guide to renting in Spain.
The cost of living in Spain also varies between cities and regions, with Madrid and Barcelona being the most expensive; budget for between €350 and €1,000 per month for all living expenses.
Visas to study at a university in Spain
If you’re from the EU/EEA/Switzerland you don’t need a visa to come and study at a Spanish university but you do need to register with the Central Office for Foreigners. Take along your passport/national ID document and proof of acceptance on a university course to get a certificate confirming that you have a right to study in Spain. Read more in Expatica’s guide for EU/EEA/Swiss nationals moving to Spain.
If you’re from outside of the EU/EEA/Switzerland you’ll need to apply for a student visa from the Spanish embassy or consulate in your home country but only after you’ve been accepted onto a course at a Spanish university. You’ll also need proof of health insurance, sufficient funds to support yourself while you study in Spain (a letter from parents will suffice). You will also have to apply for an Autorización de Estancia por Estudios within 30 days of your arrival in Spain. This gives you temporary right of residence. It can be renewed every year so long as you are doing well on your course. For more information, see Expatica’s guide to Spanish student visas and permits.
Working while studying in Spain
Students can work either in employment or self-employment as long as the employment does not interfere with studies. In practice, this means that work may be part time during term-time and up to three months full-time work in the holidays. If you’re from outside of the EU/EEA/Switzerland, you’ll need a Spanish work permit to do so (unless the work is an internship as part of your course). Read about finding a job in Spain.
Tips on Spanish student life
Many Spanish students attend the university closest to home and still live at home or go home at weekends. This means that university facilities may close at weekends. There are few extra-curricular activities offered by universities.
Courses at Spanish universities are very structured, with few elective elements. You must select your curriculum and are not usually allowed to change university part way through the course unless in exceptional circumstances.
Teaching includes lectures seminars and practical work. Lectures are often short at about an hour long. Initially, lectures may be very crowded – arrive early to get a seat – but there’s a high drop off rate after the tough first year exams. It’s been estimated that as many as 30% of students in Spain drop out before their course ends. Exams may be in February or June although some courses are evaluated throughout the year.
Health insurance is obligatory in Spain. Students under 28 are covered for health insurance by a students’ insurance fund; others must organise their own health insurance. EU students can use their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Read more in our guide to health insurance in Spain.
List of top Spanish universities and institutions
- Autonomous University of Barcelona
- ESADE Business School
- Polytechnic University of Catalonia
- Pompeu Fabra University – Barcelona
- University of Barcelona
- Autonomous University of Madrid
- Complutense University Madrid
- Polytechnic University of Madrid
- University of Alcalá
- University Carlos III de Madrid
- University of Navarra
Santiago de Compostela
- Internationalization of the Spanish Higher Education Unit: information for international students.
- National Distance Education University (UNED): information about verifying qualifications and courses.
- Servicio Español para la Internacionalización de la Educación (SEPIE): information for international students.
- Ministry of Education
- Cervantes Institute: information about diplomas in Spanish.