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Applying to UK Universities as an International Student

Applying to UK Universities as an International Student

10 min Read|February 17 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb


The United Kingdom has established itself as a prominent destination for international students, renowned for its esteemed higher education system. The appeal of the UK's universities lies not just in their academic excellence but also in the multicultural and vibrant campus life they offer. This allure has positioned the UK as one of the top destinations for higher education, second only to the United States.

Increasing Number of International Students in the UK

Graph Showing Rapid Rise in Number of International Students in the UK in Recent Years

Graph Showing Rapid Rise in Number of International Students in the UK in Recent Years

Recent trends indicate a significant increase in international student enrolment in the UK. For instance, the number of students from India and Nigeria has shown remarkable growth, with figures from India rising from 17,800 in 2018/19 to 87,000 in 2021/22 and those from Nigeria increasing from 5,500 to 32,900 over the same period. However, there has been a notable decline in students from EU countries following Brexit and changes in visa requirements and student finance, with a 40% drop in undergraduate applications from the EU in 2021/22.

The UK's International Education Strategy aims to bolster the number of international students, with goals to increase education exports to £35 billion per year by 2030 and raise the number of international students to 600,000 annually by the same year, a target already achieved in 2020/21.

According to former UCAS Chief Executive Clare Marchant:

“Students from around the world continue to hold the UK’s universities and colleges in incredibly high regard. From our world class academic offering to the opportunities to live and learn as part of a diverse society, the UK is clearly a destination of choice for students looking to study internationally."

UK Government Steps to Facilitate International Students

The UK government's policy changes, including the introduction of a post-study work visa under the ‘Graduate route’, reflect efforts to maintain the country's appeal to international students. These policies provide students with opportunities to gain work experience in the UK post-graduation, enhancing the value of UK education on a global scale.

One reason for such steps is international students' significant contribution to the UK's economy, which is estimated to be up to £42 billion per year. Further, the presence of international students on campuses also enriches the educational experience, fostering a global outlook and preparing students for international careers.

Understanding the UK Higher Education System

Overview of Universities in the UK

The UK higher education system is distinguished by its diverse range of degree-awarding universities, known for their academic excellence and rich heritage. These universities offer a comprehensive array of courses at various levels:

  • Undergraduate Level: Here, students work towards their first degree, typically referred to as a bachelor’s degree. The courses cover a broad spectrum of disciplines and are designed to provide foundational knowledge and skills in a particular field of study.
  • Postgraduate Level: This level includes master's and doctoral programs. Master's degrees, such as Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), and Master of Business Administration (MBA), are usually one to two years in duration. Doctoral programs, leading to a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), involve extensive research and can take several years to complete.

Undergraduate Degree Structure

The UK undergraduate degree structure is characterised by a combination of lectures, tutorials, and independent study, designed to encourage analytical thinking and problem-solving skills. The degree structure typically follows a modular system, where each module carries a certain number of credits. Students must accumulate a set number of credits to complete their degree.

  • Course Duration: Most undergraduate degrees in the UK, such as a Bachelor of Science (BSc) or Bachelor of Arts (BA), are three years long. However, in Scotland, undergraduate degrees typically last four years. Some specialised programs, like Medicine or Engineering, may have longer durations.
  • Classification System: Upon completion, degrees are classified based on the student's academic performance. The classifications are First Class, Upper Second Class (2:1), Lower Second Class (2:2), Third Class, and Pass. This classification is crucial for employers and for students who wish to pursue further studies.

Teaching and Learning Approach

UK universities are renowned for their innovative teaching methods, combining traditional lectures with interactive seminars, group projects, and practical sessions. This approach ensures a balance between theoretical knowledge and practical skills, preparing students for the workforce or further academic pursuits.

  • Assessment Methods: Assessment methods vary by course and institution but typically include a mix of examinations, coursework, presentations, and practical work.
  • Focus on Employability: Many UK universities incorporate work placements, internships, and industry projects into their courses, enhancing student employability and providing real-world experience.

Quality Assurance and Accreditation

The UK higher education system is underpinned by rigorous quality assurance mechanisms. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) plays a central role in maintaining standards. Universities also undergo regular internal and external reviews to ensure the quality and relevance of their teaching and research.

  • Accreditation: Many courses, particularly in professional fields like Engineering, Law, and Medicine, are accredited by relevant professional bodies, ensuring that graduates meet the industry standards.

Research Opportunities

UK universities are at the forefront of global research, offering numerous opportunities for undergraduate students to engage in research activities. This involvement not only enhances the learning experience but also contributes to the development of critical thinking and research skills.

Eligibility and Entry Requirements for International Students

When applying to UK universities, international students must navigate a set of specific eligibility and entry requirements. Entry requirements vary across universities and courses, necessitating thorough research and planning.

HE student enrolments by level of study, mode of study and domicile. Academic years 2021/22.

UK Higher Education Student Enrolments by Level of Study, Mode of Study and Domicile, 2021/22.

Academic Qualifications

The baseline academic requirement for undergraduate courses in the UK is the completion of secondary education, with qualifications comparable to UK A-levels. This encompasses a range of international certifications, including the International Baccalaureate (IB), Advanced Placements (APs), and various national high school leaving certificates. For example, top UK universities typically require grades like A*AA for high demand courses like engineering and computer science.

Some courses have unique prerequisites beyond the general university entry criteria. For example, programs in fields like Medicine, Veterinary Science, or Engineering often require specific science subjects at a higher level. Similarly, courses in the Arts or Humanities may require evidence of relevant skills or experience, which could be demonstrated through a portfolio or written work.

For help in navigating entry requirements, we recommend consulting qualified A-Level tutors and IB tutors who can provide valuable guidance about the most suitable universities for you according to your qualifications. Those with AP qualifications can consider seeking the services of experienced AP tutors.

English Language Proficiency

As English is the medium of instruction in UK universities, non-native speakers must demonstrate proficiency in the language. This is typically validated through standardised tests like IELTS Academic, TOEFL iBT, PTE Academic, or Cambridge Assessment English. Each university and course has its own set of minimum score requirements, which might be higher for programmes in Law, Medicine, or other technical subjects. Some institutions may accept high grades in English language courses during secondary education as evidence of proficiency. These requirements are discussed in further detail below.

Funding and Financial Information

Detailing funding plans is an integral part of the application process. Universities require applicants to declare how they intend to finance their studies. This information can encompass scholarships, student loans, sponsorships, or personal funding. Moreover, for the UK Student visa application, proof of sufficient funds to cover tuition and living expenses in the UK is mandatory.

Foundation Programs

For students whose qualifications do not meet the direct entry requirements for an undergraduate degree, many UK universities offer foundation programs. These one-year courses prepare students academically and linguistically for undergraduate study.

Visa Requirements

While not a direct university entry requirement, obtaining a UK student visa is necessary for international students. The requirements for a student visa include proof of acceptance into a UK university, evidence of sufficient funds, and possibly a health check or tuberculosis test, depending on the country of origin.

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Preparing to Apply: Research and Documentation

Selecting Universities and Courses

Your choice of university and course is a decision that shapes your future academic and career trajectory. Begin by exploring university rankings and course options, focusing on areas that align with your career goals and personal interests. Use resources like the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and QS World University Rankings for comprehensive comparisons. When considering how to select the right university for you, pay close attention to course content, teaching standards, and research activities. Consider also the cultural and social aspects of university life, including societies, sports teams, and campus facilities.

Countries of Origin of UK International Students in 2023.

Countries of Origin of UK International Students in 2023.

Documents Required for International Students

When applying to UK universities, international students must prepare a range of documents to support their university and visa applications. These include:

  • Academic Transcripts and Qualifications: Include all relevant educational documents, such as high school diplomas, certificates, and transcripts. These must be in English or accompanied by certified translations.
  • English Language Proficiency: Proof of English proficiency is typically shown through IELTS, TOEFL, PTE Academic scores, or equivalent tests. The required scores vary by university and course.
  • Passport: A valid passport is essential for identification purposes and visa applications.
  • Student Visa Documentation: This includes the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) statement from the university and financial proofs showing you can support yourself during your studies in the UK.
  • Financial Proofs: Evidence of financial capability to cover tuition fees and living expenses. This can be bank statements, scholarship award letters, or financial sponsorship documents.
  • Additional Documents: Some courses may require additional documents, such as a Statement of Purpose, research proposals for postgraduate studies, portfolios for art and design courses, or work experience documentation.
  • References: Letters of recommendation from academic or professional referees can be required, particularly for competitive courses.

Remember, each university and course may have unique requirements. It is important to check the specific requirements on the university websites and contact their admissions office if you have any queries.

UCAS Application Process for International Applicants

The UCAS application process is essentially the same for international students as it is for UK based applicants. Briefly, the application involves the following:

1. Course and University Selection: Sign up at UCAS Hub and choose your preferred courses and universities. You can choose up to five courses at different universities or the same university.

2. UCAS Deadlines: For most courses, applications should typically be submitted by mid-January of the entry year. However, courses at Oxbridge, and those in Medicine, Dentistry, and Veterinary Science have an earlier deadline in mid-October of the preceding year.

3. Personal Statement: Highlight your motivations for choosing the course and your suitability. There has been an important change to the UCAS personal statement recently. Instead of an open format personal statement, students will respond to three questions revolving around their motivation and readiness to study at university.

4. References: Choose an academic referee who can provide a detailed and supportive reference. This reference should ideally align with your academic performance and potential.

5. Tariff Points for International Qualifications: UCAS tariff points are used by some universities to translate qualifications into a numerical value. As an international student, it is important for you to understand how your grades convert into UCAS tariff points.

6. UCAS Fees: Pay the UCAS application fee, which was £27.50 for the 2024 application cycle.

7. Application Review and Submission: Ensure your application is complete and accurate, paying particular attention to personal details, course choices, and your personal statement.

8. Tracking and Responding to Offers: Use UCAS Hub to follow your application's progress and respond to university offers.

For an in-depth overview of the application, refer to our comprehensive guide to the UCAS application process.

English Language Requirements

When applying to UK universities as an international student, you may be asked to show English language proficiency.

Accepted Tests and Score Requirements

Most UK universities accept a range of English language proficiency tests. The commonly accepted tests include:

  • IELTS Academic: IELTS is one of the most popular English language tests. Specific score requirements vary by course and university. For example, many UK universities requires a minimum overall score of 6.0 with no sub-skill below 5.5 for some courses, and higher for others. It is advisable to train with expert online IELTS tutors to increase your chances of meeting English language requirements.
  • TOEFL iBT: This internet-based test is also widely accepted, with score requirements varying. Some universities, for instance, requires a score of 91 for most Master's degrees with minimum scores in reading, listening, speaking, and writing. Many students seek the help of online TOEFL tutors to achieve their desired scores.
  • Pearson Test of English (PTE) Academic: This computer-based test assesses real-life English skills. Score requirements differ based on the level of study and course.
  • Cambridge English Qualifications (C1 Advanced and C2 Proficiency): These tests are recognised by many universities, with score requirements aligning with course-specific demands.

Universities may have additional specific requirements for certain courses, especially those involving a high level of discussion and writing.

Waivers and Exemptions

Some students may be exempt from providing a test score if they meet certain conditions:

  • Nationality from Majority English-Speaking Countries: Students from countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, are often exempt.
  • Previous Education in English: If you have completed a qualification equivalent to a UK degree taught in English within the past five years, this can sometimes waive the requirement.

Pre-sessional English Courses

If you don’t meet the required English language standards, many universities offer pre-sessional English courses. These courses are designed to improve your English skills to the level needed for your degree course.

It’s important to check the specific English language requirements for your chosen course and university, as these can vary significantly.

Apply for a UK Student Visa

UK Student Visa Statistics 2013-22.

UK Student Visa Statistics 2013-22.

Most international students wishing to study in the UK will need to secure a UK student visa.

Receiving Your CAS Letter (Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies)

  • Essential for Application: Once you have received and accepted an offer from your chosen university, you will receive the CAS letter, a mandatory electronic document confirming your acceptance onto a course.
  • Contents of CAS: It includes details about the course, your personal information, and any fees paid. The CAS number is unique and will be needed to complete your visa application.
  • Validity: CAS is valid for use in a visa application for six months from the date of issue.

Visa Application Process

  • Applying from Outside the UK: You can apply up to six months before your course starts. Decisions usually arrive within three weeks. For more details, view our guide to visa requirements for studying in the UK.
  • Applying from Inside the UK: Apply three months before your course starts. Decisions typically take up to eight weeks.
  • Fees: The application fee is approximately £490.

Financial Requirements

  • Proof of Funds: Demonstrate sufficient funds for your course fees and living expenses. The required amount depends on your situation and location of study.
  • 28-Day Rule: Maintain the required funds in your account for at least 28 days before applying.

Visa Interview and Documentation

  • Preparation for Interview: Prepare to discuss your choice of course, future plans, and how you intend to fund your studies.
  • Required Documents: Include your CAS, academic qualifications, proof of English proficiency, and financial documents.
  • Biometric Information: This involves providing fingerprints and a photograph at a visa application centre.

Post-Acceptance Procedures

  • Biometric Residence Permit: Upon a successful application, you’ll receive a biometric residence permit or a digital immigration status.
  • Arrival in the UK: You can arrive up to a week before your course begins if it’s less than six months or a month prior for longer courses.

Scholarship and Financial Aid Options for International Students in the UK

Scholarship Opportunities

  • UK University-Specific Scholarships: Many UK universities offer scholarships for international students, which could be full or partial funding. These scholarships often cover tuition fees, living expenses, and sometimes even return flights to the UK.
  • Government Scholarships: The UK government provides scholarships such as the GREAT Scholarships, Chevening Scholarships, and Commonwealth Scholarships. These prestigious scholarships are usually fully funded and cover a wide range of study areas.
  • Institutional Scholarships: Several UK universities like the University of Bristol, University of Manchester, and University of East Anglia offer scholarships specifically for international students. These scholarships can range from tuition fee waivers to full-funding options, covering various study levels including undergraduate, masters, and PhD.

Bursaries and Grants

  • Based on Personal Circumstances: Some bursaries and grants are available based on students' personal circumstances, such as coming from low-income households, or being refugees or asylum seekers.
  • Academic, Merit, and Excellence Scholarships: Awarded to students with strong academic backgrounds or achievements in extracurricular activities like sports or music.

Eligibility and Application Process

  • General Eligibility Criteria: Typically, you must be an international student from a specific country or region, self-funding your studies, and have accepted a full-time undergraduate course offer.
  • Application Procedures: The application process varies with the type of award and the offering institution. Most involve an application form, possibly supported by additional documents or evidence. It’s important to start the application process early due to the time involved in preparing and submitting applications.

The landscape of scholarships and financial aid for international students in the UK is diverse, offering numerous opportunities based on academic merit, personal circumstances, and specific talents. It’s crucial for applicants to explore all available options and tailor their applications to meet the specific requirements of each scholarship or grant.

Support Services for International Students

UK universities offer a comprehensive range of support services to help international students in their transition and ensure a rewarding educational experience.

Academic and Language Assistance

  • Personal Tutors: Most universities assign a personal tutor to international students, providing academic guidance and support throughout their studies.
  • Language Support: Universities often offer English language support services, including courses and workshops to enhance academic English skills.

Psychological and Wellbeing Support

  • Counselling Services: Many universities have counselling services offering individual sessions, group therapy, and workshops on topics like stress management.
  • Peer Support Programs: Programs where students can connect with fellow students for support and guidance are common. These programs may include peer mentoring, where senior students help new arrivals navigate university life.

Integration Programs

  • Orientation and Induction Programs: Designed to familiarize international students with the university environment, these programs cover academic expectations, cultural adjustment, and practical aspects like banking and healthcare.
  • Social Events and Societies: Universities encourage participation in social events and societies, helping students to build networks and integrate into the university community.

Specialised Services

  • International Student Offices: These offices provide tailored support, including advice on immigration, visas, and accommodation. They are a primary resource for international students for any study-related or personal concerns.
  • Disability and Special Needs Support: Universities offer specific support for students with disabilities, including personalised learning support plans and access to specialised equipment or resources.

For international students, these support services help in ensuring a well-rounded and successful university experience in the UK, from academic success to personal well-being and integration into the UK’s diverse cultural landscape.

Preparing for Arrival in the UK

Accommodation Arrangements

Securing accommodation should be a priority. Students have the option to stay on-campus or in privately-rented apartments. On-campus housing is often guaranteed for first-year students and provides basic amenities like kitchen, laundry, and Wi-Fi. Off-campus accommodation offers more independence but requires more self-management. Start looking for accommodation as soon as you receive your university offer to ensure you find a suitable place within your budget.

Health Insurance and Healthcare

Healthcare in the UK is managed by the National Health Service (NHS). International students are typically required to pay a health surcharge as part of their visa application, granting them access to NHS services. However, it's advisable to arrange additional health insurance for comprehensive coverage. Familiarise yourself with healthcare services near your university and register with a General Practitioner (GP) upon arrival.

Financial Preparation

Ensure you have sufficient funds for your initial expenses in the UK. Setting up a UK bank account might take some time, so it's crucial to have access to funds through an international bank account or a functional debit/credit card. Check with your university about any initial tuition fee payments that might be due upon enrolment. Budgeting for living costs, including groceries, commuting, and utilities, is also essential.

Travel Plans

Book your travel to the UK well in advance. Familiarise yourself with what you're allowed to bring into the country, as there are restrictions on certain items. Upon arrival, plan your journey from the airport to your accommodation. Some universities offer airport pick-up services, or you can use public transport or taxis.

Cultural Adaptation

Adapting to a new culture can be challenging. Expect differences in communication styles, social activities, and food. Engage with student societies and events to integrate into the campus community. Many universities provide orientation programs specifically for international students to help ease this transition.

Still, studying in an international environment allows students to discover themselves. According to a Geography student from Greece,

"Living in a country that differs significantly from my own country, provided me with all kinds of experiences; experiences that stimulate you to socialise with others, to pore questions, to discover new methods and ways to doing things, to appreciate different perspectives, to be flexible and to determine what is of relevance, based on new insights.”

Document Organisation

Prepare a file with essential documents like your passport, visa, original certificates, funding proof, CAS statement, and acceptance letter. Keep these documents handy, preferably in your hand luggage, for UK border control.

This pre-arrival preparation will ensure a smoother transition to life in the UK and set you up for a successful and enjoyable university experience.


Embarking on the journey to study in the UK as an international student is both challenging and rewarding. It involves careful selection of courses and universities, navigating the UCAS process, fulfilling language requirements, preparing visa applications, and planning your arrival. This process, while demanding, opens doors to a world-class education, personal growth, and a diverse cultural experience.

The UK's educational landscape offers a supportive and dynamic environment for international students. Embrace this journey with determination and enthusiasm. The experiences and knowledge gained will be invaluable for your academic and professional future. Welcome to an exciting chapter in your life and the beginning of a transformative adventure in the UK!


What are UK university term dates for international students?

UK universities generally follow a three-term academic year, with the terms dates being same for both international and domestic students. The Autumn term starts in September and ends in December, the Spring term runs from January to March, and the Summer term from April to June for undergraduate students and until August for postgraduates. However, these dates can vary between institutions. Additionally, there are significant vacation periods during Christmas and Easter, and a longer summer break, providing international students ample time for rest, study, or travel​​.

How do international students open a bank account in the UK

To open a bank account in the UK, international students usually need to provide a passport, a student visa, proof of address in the UK, and a letter of acceptance from their university. Some banks might have additional requirements. It’s advisable to compare different banks as they offer various benefits and services tailored for students. It's also possible to start the process from your home country with some banks.

Can international students access part-time work in the UK?

International students in the UK on a student visa are typically allowed to work up to 20 hours per week during term-time and full-time during vacations. They can work in most jobs, but cannot be self-employed, work as a professional sportsperson/sports coach, or entertain as a professional artist. The rules might differ slightly depending on the type of visa and the course of study, so it’s important to check the specific visa conditions.

Are there orientation programs specifically for international students in the UK?

Many UK universities offer orientation programs specifically for international students. These programs are designed to help students acclimate to life in the UK, understand the university system, and meet other students. They often include tours of the campus and local area, introductions to university services, and information sessions about UK culture, healthcare, and legal rights as a student.

How do international students apply for UK student accommodation?

International students can apply for accommodation either through their university or private providers. University accommodation usually requires students to fill out an application form, which can often be done online after receiving an offer of admission. Private accommodation options include rental apartments, shared houses, or homestays. It’s important to consider factors like location, cost, and amenities when choosing accommodation.

What is the process for international students to register with a GP in the UK?

International students should register with a General Practitioner (GP) upon arriving in the UK. This can typically be done at a local surgery near your place of residence. You will need to provide your personal details and proof of address, and in some cases, details of your previous GP or health records. Registering with a GP is important for accessing healthcare services under the National Health Service (NHS).

What are the common public transportation options for students in the UK?

The UK offers various public transportation options, including buses, trains, trams, and underground (tube) services. Students often get discounted fares on these services. Buses are a common and affordable option for local travel, while trains are useful for longer distances. In cities like London, the underground is a fast way to get around. Many students also use bicycles for short commutes.

Are there job opportunities for international students in the UK post-study?

International students can explore job opportunities in the UK after their studies, especially if their skills are in high demand. The UK's Graduate Immigration Route allows students to stay in the UK for two years (three years for PhD graduates) after completing their studies to work or look for work. Finding a job related to your field of study can be beneficial for career development and gaining international work experience.

Can international students travel within the EU during their study in the UK?

International students in the UK can travel to EU countries, but they may need a visa depending on their nationality and the destination country. It's important to check the entry requirements for each country and ensure that you have the correct documentation, including a valid passport and possibly a Schengen visa.

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For personalised guidance and expert advice on your journey to studying in the UK, reach out to our team. We specialise in assisting international students with UK university applications, ensuring you navigate the process with confidence and success!



Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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