The Most Popular Locations to Study Abroad

The Most Popular Locations to Study Abroad

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Study abroad simply refers to “any educational experience that students have outside of their home countries.” Although some students have the opportunity to study abroad in high school (or earlier), most students who study abroad do so while in college. Typically, colleges and universities allow students to study abroad any time between their freshman and senior years, and participants receive credits while abroad that count toward their degrees at home. For some students, study abroad may be the only way for them to visit a foreign country; for others, it is an exciting change of pace from campus life.

Using data from The Institute of International Education, a nonprofit organization that examines the movement of students between countries, we have compiled a list of the top 15 destinations for American students to study abroad. The IIE compiles an annual Open Doors report, based on information from the US.. Department of State, to provide insights about students studying abroad in foreign countries. The most recent Open Doors report, released in November 2018, examines data on US students studying abroad during the 2016–2017 academic year.

Europe is by far the most popular continent for American students to travel to for study abroad experiences. The top five countries on our list are all within Europe, and seven of the 15 countries included on our list are European. However, countries on other continents made the list, too, with a few surprises at the end!

  1. United Kingdom (39,851 students; Europe): England is an easy choice for study abroad, as English is the primary language. Plus, England hosts several well-respected institutions, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and University College London. In their free time, students can explore historical sites, try fish and chips, and check out a pub or two.
  2. Italy (35,366 students; Europe): Italy is a close second to England when it comes to popularity with students. The country’s rich history, culture, and the prevalence of English as a second language all increase its appeal. With universities in major cities including Rome, Milan, Naples, and Florence, students have a multitude of choices as to where they study. Additionally, students can easily travel to France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and other neighboring countries on their days off.
  3. Spain (31,230 students; Europe): Rounding out the top three, Spain is almost equal in popularity to Italy. In addition to being an excellent place for students to practice their Spanish, it also has several large cities to explore—including Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia—and there are easy opportunities to travel to other European countries nearby, especially to Portugal and France.
  4. France (16,462 students; Europe): Although it only hosts about half as many students as the most popular European spots, France boasts many of the same qualities that make the top countries so popular: historical sites (many in Paris, but also strewn throughout the countryside), a Romance language, the commonality of English as a second language, and easy travel to other countries. Outside of the cultural hub of Paris, France also features beaches in the south for a nice weekend getaway.
  5. Germany (12,585 students; Europe): Although its history is complicated and the German language doesn’t have the same smooth-sounding appeal as the Romance languages, Germany still ranks in the top five countries worldwide for Americans to study abroad. Remember, Germany, like the other Western European spots, offers large cities (including Berlin, Frankfurt, and Cologne), the widespread use of English as a second language, and easy travel to nearby countries, which include France, Italy, Belgium, and The Netherlands.
  6. China (11,910 students; Asia): Finally, the first country outside of Europe to make the list! China is home to several well-respected universities, including Tsinghua University, Peking University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Fudan University. Additionally, the country offers a plethora of unique cultural experiences; think: the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Terracotta Army. Add to that a handful of very large cities to explore (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin), and we can see why it’s popular!
  7. Ireland (11,492 students; Europe): Ireland sometimes gets forgotten under England’s shadow. Top schools include Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, University College Cork, and the National University of Ireland. Students can spend free time exploring cities, as well as the country’s landscape and culture. Attractions include the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and the Guinness Storehouse.
  8. Australia (10,400 students; Oceania): By far the most popular destination for students in the Oceania region, Australia’s draws include an English-speaking population, large metropolitan areas (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth), and unique landscape to explore (including the Outback and Great Barrier Reef). Keep in mind, though, that the trip to get there (and back) is long, there is a big time difference, and the seasons are reversed.
  9. Costa Rica (8,322 students; Caribbean): This top spot in the Caribbean is well known for its natural beauty. As an added bonus, it’s a relatively short trip from the United States! The capital, San Jose, is the cultural hub of the country, and much of the rest of the country is composed of protected natural landscapes, including the rainforest, volcanoes, and beaches.
  10. Japan (7,531 students; Asia): Although the Japanese language can be tricky for English speakers, much of the country speaks some English as well. Top universities in Japan include The University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, and Osaka University. With large cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka to explore, students will have no trouble discovering cultural experiences and interesting places to eat. Japan is full of museums, shrines, and temples, and, of course, there’s also the Imperial Palace.
  11. South Africa (6,042 students; Africa): The only African nation to make the list, South Africa is home to the cities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban. Students in South Africa can visit cultural sites like the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill, and Robben Island, and take in the natural beauty of Table Mountain, Kruger National Park, and Addington Beach. Top schools include the University of Cape Town and University of the Witwatersrand.
  12. Mexico (5,736 students; Central America): Often overlooked due to its proximity to the United States, Mexico is home to many large universities, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, and Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí. In their free time, students can visit a variety of cultural and natural sites, including the beaches of Cancún, Aztec ruins and the Frida Kahlo museum in Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá, and the El Castillo ruins in Tulum.
  13. Czech Republic (4,777 students; Europe): When considering studying abroad in Europe, many students likely don’t consider a destination like the Czech Republic, with the strong lure of so many other well-known countries nearby. However there are a significant number of English speakers, and the cities (especially the capital of Prague) feature historical architecture. The country hosts institutions like Charles University, Czech Technical University, and Masaryk University. Although the Czech Republic is landlocked, visitors won’t find a shortage of places to visit, including medieval towns and castles. Additionally, popular destinations like Germany, Italy, and Belgium are relatively close by.
  14. India (4,704 students; Asia): Students considering a study abroad in Asia may consider China and Japan first. However, India is a unique destination in its own right. The country is home to the Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Technology, and Panjab University. Popular destinations within the country include the Taj Mahal, as well as the cities of Delhi, Jaipur, and New Delhi. Students looking for an urban experience unlike one they could find at home may thrive in India.
  15. Cuba (4,607 students; Caribbean): Somewhat of a surprise due to the country’s historical relationship with the United States, Cuba is a relatively popular destination for American students who are studying abroad. Local schools include the University of Havana, Universidad Tecnológica de La Habana José Antonio Echeverría, and Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” De Las Villas. Popular destinations to visit on the island include the cities of Havana, Trinidad, and Cienfuegos, and the beaches of Varadero.

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About Hannah Holley

Hannah earned a BS in Psychology from the College of Charleston, and an MA in applied behavior analysis from Ball State University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and worked as a therapist for children with special needs for more than five years, but now spends most of her time keeping up with her own toddler. In between playing cars and picking up after her tiny human tornado, she loves to try new recipes, take photographs, and re-watch episodes of "Parks and Recreation" for the 10th time. Hannah lives in Charleston, SC.

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