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European Visa and Immigration Rules for Postgraduate Students


If you’re looking to go on to study at postgraduate level at a university within Europe, you’re going to be in for a great experience. Europe boasts some of the world’s very finest institutes of higher education and relatively low tuition fees, alongside exceptional levels of accommodation for international students.

However, there is a caveat to keep in mind; the prerequisite legal provisions for study. The vast majority of respectable universities will require a guarantee beforehand that you can legally attend at their university for long enough to complete your selected program, as a matter of course. 

Here are the key logistical questions to consider when planning your study in Europe.

Visa approval

Will I require a visa in order to study?

The answer is undoubtedly yes, if you are travelling to a host country within the European Union or wider Schengen area (including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania) from outside of Western Europe (i.e. from the United States of America, Russia or China.) 

Schengen Visa

If you are looking to study for a month or single semester as part of an exchange program, acquiring a Schengen Visa should be your first port of call. Upon successful application, this will grant you temporary visiting access to all EU member and associated nations for a maximum period of 90 days (3 months) from the stamped date of entry within a pre-determined 180 days. You will need to display this visa alongside your passport (or other relevant national identification) upon entry to your country of choice.

Please be aware that if you occupy one of the 37 commonwealth nations classed under Annex II of the Schengen Agreement (i.e. those existing within the linked post-colonial or historical remit of either the United Kingdom or Spain, such as New Zealand, The Holy See or Mexico) you may not require a visa to enter, for either business or pleasure. Despite this, you must still provide a passport or other valid travel document upon entry, and the same initial 90 day restriction applies. It is worth checking the specifics beforehand; certain post-colonial nations, such as Cuba, are not classified. You may apply for a Residence Permit or additional Schengen Visa (to extend your stay to 180 days if your case and nationality of origin qualify) during this allotted time period.

Additionally if you are entering a country to join relatives you may remain in the Schengen area without a visa indefinitely, on the express condition that you provide upon entry a valid travel document, current Residence Permit and written or physical proof of an existing family connection (i.e. attending the border checkpoint with a named relative).

If you have been living, working or studying abroad while possessing an existing EU residency status, you will not require any documentation to return to study aside from a valid passport or travel document. 

Long Stay Visa

Student Visas and Immigration If you are planning a stay that will meet or exceed 91 days, you will need to apply for a Long-Stay Visa or Residence Permit. A Long-Stay Visa essentially carries the same provisions as a Schengen Visa, but allows the owner to remain legally in the Schengen area for a period of 90 days to a year (classified as 365 chronologically continuous days). This is more suitable for students looking to study for 9 to 12 months, the length of a typical taught Masters course. Certain local exemptions may also apply, but these are usually extended to historically connected European micro-nations only (such as Andorra or San Marino).

Residence Permit

For those international students looking to stay for an even longer continuous period of time – ie MPhil or PhD candidates – an EU Residence Permit will almost certainly be required. Although these are also applied for through embassies, consulates and third parties, individual EU countries are allowed to set their own conditions and provisions for residency. As such, the process may vary greatly; research the criteria that your intended country will require for semi-permanent entry before applying for a longer post-graduate course. 

How do I apply for these documents?

You will need to submit a full application form for each type of visa to the embassy or consulate (or respective, recognised third party client) of the country you are aiming to study in, along with certain proofs of your intent. These forms can be obtained online, or through written request. 

Your intended university should provide you with details of whom to contact, as most applications are undertaken once an unconditional offer of a place has been made. The supporting evidence that you must provide will determine the visa or Residence Permit that you are granted. This evidence typically includes a copy of your current passport, documentation relevant to your finances, insurance, planned accommodation and work, two or more photographs, your postgraduate acceptance letter, a travel itinerary and certain additional documentation relevant to that country. Multi-purpose visas can be granted, but most postgraduate applications receive a student classification only (usually excluding any paid work). Most countries will also require a processing fee for each document tendered. 

How long will it take to process?

The maximum period of normal consideration across Europe for documentation is 90 days. If you do not receive a reply by that point, assume that you have been denied entry for a reason such as a previous criminal conviction or insufficient provision of evidence – at this point you should contact the visa office to find out what has happened. Most visa applications will be returned within a month.

What limitations apply?

You are obviously subject to all relevant local laws and statutes while studying, along with the aforementioned document dependant time limits. Legal action and forcible deportation may be taken against you by your host country if you exceed your personally prescribed period, accidentally or deliberately. Keep in mind that you must also stick firmly to the express purpose for which you have been granted entry, or else run the risk of deportation or even a permanent travel bar. You may seriously jeopardise your studies and future career if you acquire a paid part-time job without securing permission for a business visa from your host government, for example. 

Immigration fraud is also policed and punished severely in the European community. Do not attempt to deceive assessors or lend your documents out under any circumstances, even to gain entry for a friend or relative. Anything else?It's also worth remembering that "opt-out" EU nations often have highly specific local rules concerning immigration that may affect your application(s). Contact your chosen embassy or consulate if you run into any problems.

Find out more about studying in the EU and the EEA .