How to Study Abroad as a South African

study abroad

Looking for an excuse to jet off to a far-away land? Studying abroad is a wonderful way to pursue your education while experiencing an entirely new country and culture. This article will give you the ins and outs of applying to study overseas.

With the unsettled atmosphere around South African universities and the promise of greener pastures overseas, applying to study abroad is something that has crossed most of our minds over the last few months. But how possible is it for South Africans to study overseas? You might have to do a little extra work, but getting into a university overseas might be easier than you think.

Here’s what you need to do:

Decide What You Want to Study

The first thing you need to do when considering studying overseas is to decide whether you’re going to pursue undergraduate or postgraduate (if you’ve graduated with your undergrad) qualifications. The application processes for these levels of education differ quite drastically.


Most countries have their own high school syllabus so this makes applying to study undergraduate programmes quite tricky. As we know, the South African education system isn’t perfect. This means that a South African matric alone is usually not enough to apply overseas.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that you have to redo high school. But you might have to supplement your academic record to qualify to apply. Here are the different routes you can take:

Cambridge International Examinations:

If you’re in grade eight, nine or ten and you’re pretty sure you want to apply overseas, you could consider moving to a private school that offers the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). Schools that offer these examinations will allow you to complete your AS and A levels. These qualifications are internationally recognised, and will enable for you to apply to universities overseas and in South Africa. Typically, you will start to prepare for these exams in grade 11. It usually takes two years for a student to complete both their AS and A levels.

This means that you are able to gain an international qualification in the same amount of time that it takes you to receive a South African Matric. In order to study overseas, you will need to have completed both AS and A levels, so you should be sure that your school offers both of these options. 

All universities in the UK and most universities in the US and Canada accept Cambridge International A levels as an adequate qualification to apply, a luxury the NSC matriculants don’t have. If you do choose to pursue A levels instead of a traditional matric, it’s important that you choose your subjects very carefully. In order to qualify to study at a South African university, you need to take some specific subjects to get an NSC exemption. I know this is an article about studying overseas, but it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan.


What if you’re already in matric, done with matric or your school doesn’t offer CIE’s? SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) are the USA’s standardised tests that students write in their final year of high school. And anyone can write them. For American students, university acceptance depends almost entirely on these results. Similarly to the CIE’s, the SATs are internationally recognised and will allow you entry into most universities. In order to write the SATs, you will need to:

  • Register with CollegeBoard and find a test centre and date that suits you.
  • It’s then up to you to prepare for the tests yourself, but there are loads of online resources and it’s also pretty easy to get your hands SAT prep books.
  • Before you register to write the SATs, make sure of the entrance requirements at the university you’re applying to.
  • Most international universities won’t recognise your South African matric, you will have to write both the general SATs and SAT subject tests. These tests will have to be written on different dates, so it’s important to give yourself enough time to book and prepare for these tests.
  • You might also want to consider giving yourself enough time to write them twice, so that if you don’t do as well as you’d hoped, you can rewrite and improve your results before sending them through to the universities.

ACT Exams:

The SATs are not the only standardised tests that you can take, but they do have the most test centres in SA. If they’re not for you, you can choose to write the ACT exams. These are very similar to the SATs but include: a science section; the reading, writing and maths sections that are covered in the SATs. These tests are considered equal by overseas universities, so you can choose which one is best for you. It might be a good idea to complete practise tests in each (SATs and ACTs) and see where you perform better. This means you’ll be sending your best possible results to your potential universities.

Typically, South Africans will apply to English-speaking international universities. If English is not your first language, you will be required to write an English competency test – the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). This is just so that the university can be sure that the language barrier will not prevent you from reaching your full academic potential. To find out more about this test and where you can write them, visit their website.


Applying to study overseas when you already have an undergraduate degree is slightly easier. This is because South African university qualifications are internationally recognised, making it easier for you to get credit for your qualifications.

How to Start Applying

South African bachelor’s degrees are usually only three years long, where in most other countries, it takes four years to get a bachelor’s degree. Countries like the UK and Australia also offer three-year bachelor’s degree, and like SA, offer honours degrees that follow on from these degrees.

As a South African, it is easier to apply to study towards a master’s or PhD overseas after completing your undergraduate degree and honour’s locally. In order to apply to most master’s programmes, you will need to have completed a four-year bachelor’s degree or a three year undergraduate degree and your honours degree. This means that people who have studied professional degrees like LLB’s, engineering, education or medicine are able to apply directly to master’s programmes from their undergraduate degrees since it includes the honours year. If you are studying a three-year undergraduate degree, however, you will usually need to complete an honour’s degree before you are eligible to apply to master’s programmes.

When applying to these postgraduate programmes, you will be required to write entrance exams. These entrance exams can be course-specific or standardised (similar to the SATs). In order to apply to most American graduate programmes, you will have to write the GRE General Test. These tests give you the opportunity to show the schools you are applying to what you can do compared to other applicants.

Now that you know what kind of qualifications you need in order to apply, how do you actually do it?

Time to apply…

The USA and UK

Applying to universities in the USA and the UK is pretty easy because both of these countries make use of common applications, such as UCAS  in the UK and the Common Application in the USA. This means that you fill out one application (which you might have to supplement with an essay here or there) and you send that same application to all of your potential universities. Because the education systems in these countries work on totally different calendars, applications close between November and January and you’ll find out whether or not your application was successful from February onwards.

Everywhere else

Unfortunately not every country is as standardised as the UK and the USA. This means that if you’re looking to study somewhere else, you’ll have to do research about individual institutions and their admission requirements. As a rule of thumb, universities in the southern hemisphere start their academic year at the beginning of the calendar year (the same as South Africa). Their application dates usually close earlier than their northern counterparts, who usually start the academic year in July/August.

Paying for University?

Contrary to what the #FeesMustFall protesters are saying, South African universities are actually relatively affordable compared to other universities around the world. While there are loads of bursaries available, moving (and living) overseas is expensive, especially when the exchange rate is so rarely in our favour. You will probably have to pay international student fees, which can be a lot more than the standard fees. There are universities in countries like Germany and Sweden that are free to international students, but they often don’t offer undergraduate courses in English.

Tuition isn’t the only cost you have to consider. Remember, when you’re studying overseas there’s a whole world of expenses that we often forget about, like:

  • Visa applications and renewals
  • Airfare to and from home (you’re going to want to come visit)
  • Medical aid and/or international insurance
  • Living costs (rent, food, transport, etc)
  • Textbooks and study material
  • Exchange rates
  • Writing of standardised tests and entry exams

This article will give you more information about exactly how much it costs to study overseas.

Studying abroad is not completely far-fetched, but it does require a lot of research and writing an extra test or two. It’s an excellent way to travel the world, meet new people, immerse yourself in new cultures and expose yourself to new opportunities. But you’re not reading this article because you need convincing – so get applying!

EduConnect 2Cents

Studying abroad full time is not your only option. There are tons of international semester exchange opportunities available so you can have the “international student” experience without having to leave home permanently. Global Education is an organisation that can help you with everything from visas to finding residence if you want to study abroad, contact them for more help.

You can even go on international exchange as a high school student through organisations like Rotary Youth Exchange.

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