Top of main content

How to choose the right overseas university

How to choose the right overseas university

Australia, Canada and the US all have great universities, but each place has its own pros and cons. For example, there are more world-renowned schools in the US, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. Australia and Canada might have fewer famous institutions, but there are fewer universities overall, and more stringent government oversight. They also offer a better opportunity for permanent residence as well.

Here are a few of the things to consider when you're choosing an overseas university:

The education systems

Schools in different countries have varying requirements for academic records, language certification and other related testing and documents. All of those will affect how long it will take to get your degree.

US: Undergraduate degrees take 4 years. You choose your undergraduate major after 2 years or after you earn a certain number of credits. This has the advantage of giving you a little more time to try out different courses and really discover your passion.

Australia, Canada: Most undergraduate degrees take 3 years, though some subjects offer optional fourth years. With a few exceptions, you need to choose your major when you apply, and it can be very difficult to change it afterwards. However, this means you could be marginally ahead of your US counterparts when you finish your undergraduate degree, which could make you better placed for certain careers.


World-class universities in the US tend to be considerably more expensive than those in Australia or Canada, particularly if you add the fact that most American undergrad degrees take an extra year. Importantly, however, the best and most prestigious US universities have generous scholarships, bursaries, and funding options for enrolled students, so much so that there is often a marked difference between the advertised and the real cost of studying.

Scholarships and bursaries also exist in the Australia, Canada, but institutions there have far fewer resources and are comparatively less generous with funding. But all three countries do offer scholarships that are worth looking into. In addition, your local community might have scholarships that can help offset the costs of international education.

Learn more about how to fund an overseas education


In the US, the average cost of a university education for an international student is about USD40,000 a year, and it can be much higher at the best and most famous institutions. This year, tuition at Harvard or Columbia is around USD50,000. Tuition, room, and board add up to USD72,391 per year.


Fees for international students vary, ranging between USD15,000 and USD35,000 each year. A few courses, such as Medicine, cost more. This does not include accommodation, which varies greatly between venues. But the plus side is that based on the supply and demand of the local workforce, the government marks certain majors as having a better opportunity for getting permanent residency.


The average international student fee is USD15,800 a year with subjects such as Engineering and Medicine costing about a third more. Other subjects, however, cost somewhat less. Living expenses vary from institution to institution and depend to some extent on whether students live on or off campus.

Check out our 3 student checklists for studying abroad


International students attending the best-known universities in Australia, the UK and US tend to live on campus. But it always depends on the university. This is a critical consideration as having to find housing in a foreign country can be stressful and expensive, and living off campus can sometimes adversely affect your studies or social life.

Social life

All good universities try to make sure students can relax and have fun as well as study, though the style of social and sporting life varies considerably between institutions and countries. If you're considering different universities try to speak to current students and recent alums to get a sense of what life is like in and out of class.


If you're enrolled in a recognized program in any of these three countries, you're usually entitled to work part-time during your studies and full-time during vacations. However, rules can vary as to what type of work is permitted.

If you want to stay on in the host country to gain post-university work experience, you can usually do so for a certain amount of time – up to 2 or 3 years – but you need to apply for a different visa or permit. It's important to note that this right is not necessarily guaranteed.

How to apply

Excellent universities around the world tend to care most about your academic record. Traditionally, if you're thinking of applying to universities in Australia, Canada, it's probably best to concentrate on your academics and language certification as well as extra-curricular activities that underscored your passion for your proposed major. Your other pastimes or interests probably aren't looked at as closely – unless you happened to have achieved something especially noteworthy. However, as we are discovering, this is changing.

You should also concentrate on academics if you're applying to world-class US universities. In addition, though, you'll be expected to show a commitment to extra-curricular activities, such as sports, voluntary service, student clubs or student government, as well as good citizenship. These things could play a significant role in your acceptance, so it's important to mention them on your required introduction letter.

How things have changed

COVID-19 has muddied the waters. Because of the pandemic, and because of legitimate concerns over fairness, it's much harder now for universities to rely solely on traditional measures of academic performance, such as standardized testing and exams.

This means bright and ambitious students in all geographies have more opportunity – so you need to think much more tactically about how to make sure you stand out. You cannot simply rely on doing well in your exams, you need to make sure your work is consistently excellent and find additional ways to prove your academic commitment, such as summer programs, internships, and private study projects.

In short, universities struggle to agree on what makes an ideal candidate in our post-COVID world. So even if you're applying to universities in Canada or Australia – places that traditionally focus almost exclusively on academic results – you might need to make more time for non-academic extra-curricular activities.

Ready to open an overseas account?

Tuition costs, housing, student life - there's a lot to consider when choosing a university. Thankfully, you'll be spoiled for choice if you decide to study in Australia, Canada, or the US. If you're an HSBC client or Premier customer, you can even set up an overseas bank account ahead of time to make paying school expenses easier from afar. Leave your details on our quick form and we'll get in touch to answer your questions and to help you open an overseas account.

Discover more from Premier

Overseas education support

Give your children a priceless learning experience.

International connections

Manage your global accounts, no matter where you are.

Premier for you and your family

Find out how your family can benefit from Premier.