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Universities in France: Everything You Need to Know

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Are you looking to study in France? Wondering how to tackle the French university system? It may all seem overwhelming, but if you follow our guide below you’ll be enrolled in your dream program in no time.

And if your French isn’t up-to-snuff, don’t worry -- there are definitely French universities for English students and English-taught classes available!

Top French universities

The five best French universities, in order, are:

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  1. Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL Research University Paris)
  2. Sorbonne University
  3. École Polytechnique
  4. University of Paris
  5. Télécom Paris

All of the above universities offer English-speaking classes. The American University of Paris and Sciences Po also offer enough English classes to complete your whole degree in English.

To find a full list of all French universities rankings, both within France and compared to the world, click here.

Many students immediately choose Paris as their new school playground. But other French cities, such as Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, and Montpellier, are other great options for students when choosing a university town.

Types of French universities

There are 83 public universities in France, 250 elite universities (grandes écoles) and numerous research and specialized schools on top of that.

The grandes écoles are schools that educate the future politicians and scientists, among others. They are tough to get into. They are typically specialized in a particular field, such as business, and offer English programs as well as French ones.

Most French students study at public universities. These are funded by the government, meaning students attending these establishments have nothing or near to nothing to pay.

The French university grading system

French universities follow the Bologna ECTS (European Credit Transfer and accumulation System). This means that each level of university (Bachelors, Masters, PhD) has its own amount of ECTS. Each course within that also has an amount of ECTS, and each course a student completes will add up to the total level needed to graduate from their program.

The number of ECTS needed to graduate from each program is as follows:

  • Bachelors: three years or 180 ECTS
  • Masters: two years or 120 ECTS
  • Doctorate: three years or 180 ECTS

Students enrolled in les grandes écoles take two years to study before taking an entrance exam for a three-year program. Completing this five years of total study rewards students with a diploma that is equivalent to a Masters degree.

How to apply to a French university

While the application process is pretty straightforward, there are some things that differ, depending on if you’re applying as a resident of the European Union or as an international student.

You would use this same process when applying to colleges in France.

Applicants from the European Union and EEA

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You will not need a student visa to apply to any universities in France.

The first step is to obtain an application form from the university of your choice. If you already have a high school diploma from France and want to start the university program in its first year, you will have to apply online through Parcoursup (ex-APB or Admission post-baccalauréat), the French application system. This also applies if you’re applying for a Masters program.

If you have a high school diploma from another country or are applying to the program and not starting in its first year, you will have to apply to the university directly.

If you are applying to a program in French, you will be tested for fluency before entering the program. You can find out more about accepted language certifications here.

In general, for the application, you will need to provide:

  • Your educational transcripts, either from your high school or previous degree
  • Personal information such as ID, social insurance number, address
  • Proficiency test in French (if required)
  • Proficiency test in English (if required)
  • A letter of intent or personal essay (depending on the program and school)

There will likely be an application fee at the end of this process.

International applicants

You will need to obtain a student visa to apply to French universities. However, this visa process depends on which international country you are from.

Campus France lists 44 countries under EEF, or the “Etudes en France” procedure. Prospective students from these countries must apply through this platform in order to enroll in a school in France.

Double-check whether your country of residence is on the "Etudes en France" list before you do anything else.

If your country is not listed on the Campus France list, you will need to contact your local French Embassy and submit a preliminary application to study abroad first.

Then, contact the French school of your choice in order to obtain more information about the documents they will need to process your application. These documents will depend on your area of study and your previous education credits.

Once your application is accepted, you can apply for a visa. You will need the long-stay visa (VLS-TS), which is valid for one year at a time.

To streamline your visa process, visit France-Visas.They will tell you exactly which documents you’ll need based on your nationality.

You will likely need to provide the following documents, if not more:

  • Your educational transcripts, either from your high school or previous degree
  • Copy of your passport
  • Copy of your birth certificate
  • Proof of funds to be able to live in France for the duration of your program
  • Proof of enrollment
  • Other personal information such as your social insurance number, address
  • Proficiency test in French (if required)
  • Proficiency test in English (if required)
  • A letter of intent or personal essay (depending on the program and school)

After you arrive in France, you’ll need to register yourself at the French Office of Immigration and Integration (OFII) and undergo a medical exam.

If you want to stay longer than one year, you will have to apply for a residence permit, or carte de séjour.

French university tuition fees

Tuition fees for French universities are relatively low compared to schools around the world -- it’s one of the biggest differences between American and French universities!

Currently, the cost of one year in a French university looks like this:

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EU/EEA and Swiss students:

  • Bachelors: €170 a year
  • Masters: €243 per year
  • PhD: €380 per year

International students:

  • Bachelors: €2,770 (~US$3,100) per year
  • Masters: €3,770 (~US$4,240) per year
  • PhD: €380 (~US$430) per year

Scholarships and grants to French universities

Several grants are offered to international students through cultural programs in their respective French embassies and consulates. Research grants are also offered to international students for doctoral or postdoctoral research, as long as they have lived in France for at least two years and pay French taxes.

You can find a list of available scholarships in the CampusBourses database.

Grants are also given through the Erasmus Mundus program, a subsection of the Erasmus program. The original program allows students from different European countries spend time in another European country to work or study. The grants allotted for the Mundus program are for Masters, Doctoral and other special projects. It is open to non-Europeans.

Student accommodation in France

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Okay, so you’ve been accepted into your program and have sorted out your visa. Now you just need a place to crash! Never fear -- check out our article on how to find the best place for your student situation.