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University comparison series How expensive is Switzerland for a student on a budget?

cafeteria

After accommodation, the next big-ticket item in Switzerland is food, which is notoriously expensive.

(Keystone)

While Switzerland may have relatively low university fees, living expenses can take a toll on a student’s budget. But is it pricey when compared to the US or UK? 

A common question for most international students is “How much should I budget for my studies?” It is relatively straightforward to get an idea of tuition fees by contacting universities but living expenses are trickier to pin down. The reason being there are so many variables involved. 

In Switzerland, prospective international students applying for a visa or permit must give authorities guarantees that they can cover the financial costs associated with their studies. To help students estimate what these costs might be, several universities provide a breakdown of average living expenses in their region. A quick scan of select schools across the country suggests budgeting between CHF1,500 and CHF2,800 (($1,535 and $2,866) a month. 

As far as the UK is concerned university websites are a good guide to local living costs. The University of Edinburgh gives a range of £695 to £1,350 ($896 to $1,741) a month of estimated overall costs, including accommodation, which correlates to Manchester University’s estimation of an average monthly expenditure of about £925. Imperial College in London offers a slightly higher average at £1,220 a month with rent included.  

In the US, cost of living depends a lot on the kind of living arrangement a student opts for. One comparison proposes a bare bones nine-month budget of $12,550 (CHF12,260) and upwards of $18,730 for a slightly more comfortable lifestyle. Washington DC is listedexternal link as the priciest option (range $14,809 to $22,101) while Pittsburgh, Detroit and St Louis are the most affordable ($12,550 to $18,730). 

University comparison series How does Switzerland compare when it comes to university tuition fees?

The US and UK are the top destinations for international students. Relatively low tuition fees could help Switzerland compete for the top brains.

Accommodation

In Switzerland, the largest chunk of a student’s budget will be swallowed by accommodation, with rent that can vary depending on living arrangements and location. The University of Fribourg, the country’s only bilingual (French and German) university, suggests cutting costs by staying at a student hostel for as little as CHF350 a monthexternal link. In Swiss cities where such accommodation does not exist, rent is likely to run about twice that amount. 

Within the British context, London is by far the most expensive city in the UK. The rents especially are very high. Students living in London can expect to pay around £668 a month for a single room according to a survey by Nat Westexternal link, a bank. Elsewhere, the rents are much lower. In Glasgow, Hull, and Belfast, students pay between £340 and £400 a month.   

Most higher education institutions (HEI) will own accommodation facilities, which they lease to their students for 37 to 51 weeks. These tend to be cheaper, more central, better equipped and maintained than accommodation a student is likely to find and be able to afford in the private sector. International students new to the UK are usually prioritised in the allocation of these rooms, given the extra difficulties that a long-distance move typically entails.   

As with university tuition fees, living expenses in the United States will vary greatly depending on geography and a student’s particular situation. Is she an undergrad student living on-campus? Or is he a graduate student living off-campus? Living alone, or with roommates? 

For an undergraduate international student in the US living on campus at a public university, one breakdownexternal link estimates room and board would average $10,800 a year. This would include an option to live in a dormitory and purchase a meal plan to eat in a dining facility. Off-campus living offers benefits and other challenges. You’re looking at an average 9-month living expense budgetexternal link of $18,730 with this option.

Other costs

After accommodation, the next big-ticket item in Switzerland is food, which is notoriously expensive. Schools recommend setting aside an average of CHF450 per month to stock the fridge or eat at the university canteen. After that comes basic health insuranceexternal link, which is mandatory for all residents, except students who hold comparable insurance. Minimum costs vary, but some providers offer discounts to youth under 26 or even affordable packages specifically for international studentsexternal link, so expect a monthly bill ranging from CHF100 to CHF350. 

Other items to consider are phone and internet bills, costing CHF100-150, and transportation (another CHF50-100). As for course material, some universities suggest a monthly budget of roughly CHF100-150, although this may depend on the subject area - students in architecture, for instance, can expect to pay more because of field visits, according to the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL). Other factors, such as whether photocopied handouts (which tend to be cheaper than books) are available, can also come into play.

With all of these unavoidable expenses to factor into the monthly budget, students may wonder if there might be any pocket change left for leisure activities. A cinema ticket will set moviegoers back an average CHF17, but consider the cheaper or even free alternatives, like going for a dip in one of the many public swimming pools that don’t charge entrance fees. Or take advantage of on-campus entertainment, such as student theatre, which is often cheaper than off-campus events. 

Non-housing expenses can add up in the UK too. The student buget calculatorexternal link of Which University, a student advice website, is a useful tool to estimate one’s expenses both big and small. Broadly speaking, the main additional expenses are transport, food and drink, and utility bills, although these are normally included in university accommodation rents. Books and university supplies cost around £15 per week, phone subscriptions range between £10 and £30 a month and a pint of beer can be had at a price of £2.50 to £5.  

For students living on campus in the US, books and other supplies might average $1,250, transportation $1,170, and miscellaneous costs another $2,100 per year. And costs appear to be trending higherexternal link. Off-campus students should set aside a food budget of about $286 per month and transportation - estimated at 18% of total costs - would come to about $374 per month. 

There are ways to trim expenses. If the off-campus housing is close enough to walk to the university, and there’s no need for a commuter rail pass, then transportation costs may be lower. Cutting down how many times a student eats at a restaurant (where costs varyexternal link), or goes to the movies (avg $9.16/ticketexternal link), might also save some bucks. 

Are international students allowed to take up part-time work to offset some of the costs, whether in the US, UK or Switzerland? We tell you about that in our next article.

Our correspondents

Tony Ganzer is an American journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio who lived and worked in Switzerland for many years. He will help examine the American university system for this series. 

Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi, a Canadian journalist based in Switzerland, will report on the Swiss university system for this series. She is also involved in fact-checking projects for swissinfo.ch.

Leo Shearmur is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and has lived and studied in the UK and Switzerland. He will report on the British educational system of this series.

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