Updated 4 months ago

California – especially San Francisco – has attracted a number of international students over the years. Home to the internationally renowned Silicon Valley, it is definitely the place to be for those hoping to get their start in the tech sector. However, the city is more than just tech, with iconic landmarks and its famous hilly streets, it has a lot to offer to anyone looking to study in California.

Moving to San Francisco is described by many as a once in a lifetime experience. It has attracted foreign professionals and students in large numbers thanks to an amazing cultural blend along with its rich history. Most of its international student population consists of Indian and Chinese nationals that have chosen to study in its prestigious universities. Even though the cost of living in San Francisco is higher compared to other US cities, you are likely to benefit from quality higher education – Stanford University ranks 2nd worldwide according to QS Top Universities.

Some of the world's best universities

San Francisco hosts a number of universities and community colleges – the most popular being Berkeley and Stanford. San Francisco State University, San Jose State University, Santa Clara University and University of California, San Francisco, are also among the best in the US.

Berkeley University

Located in a picturesque setting, Berkeley University is sought after by many international students. It is easily accessible via the public transport system – the Bay Area Rapid Transit – which makes it the perfect place to be. Founded in March 1868, the university has impressive architecture that is steeped in history. The main campus stretches over some 2,700 hectares of land, and is surrounded by lush nature and beautiful parks where you can relax or plan study groups.

Berkeley University is also praised for its quality education. It's worth noting that 90 Nobel prize winners are former or current Berkeley students and professors. Students can also rely on the university's assistance in the development of their ideas, like Spencer Kimball and Peter Mattis who developed the GIMP software during their studies back in 1995.

As a public university, Berkeley is more affordable than many other private universities. QS Top Universities ranked it 28th worldwide in 2016, during which its autumn intake accounted for no less than 40,000 students, including 6,000 international students.

To date, Berkeley provides 106 Bachelor (over 4 years), 88 Masters and 97 PhD programmes in 14 faculties. However, it does not have a faculty of medicine. From 2013 to 2014, 7,500 Bachelor degrees, 2,600 research or professional Masters and 930 PhDs were awarded. It also provides affordable accommodation to its students.

Whenever you get and hour or two for yourself, you can head into the city centre which is full of activities. The nightlife is also quite interesting. On top of that, if you like sports, be sure to catch the on-campus basketball, soccer, hockey or rugby matches.


Stanford University is closer to Silicon Valley and its innovative companies, located in the south of the San Francisco Bay. However, as a private university, it is more expensive that Berkeley University. On average the cost of being educated at one of the world's best universities wll likely cost around USD50,000 per year, including accommodation, tuition fees and materials.

Founded in 1885, Stanford is world famous for its quality education as well as its selective admissions process. Its yearly intake accounts for a total of 15,000 students, including 22% of foreigners. Among its former students, 30 are billionnaires, 17 are astronauts and 60 are Nobel Prize winners. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google, also graduated from Stanford. Furthermore, Google itself initially began as a university project in 1996.

QS Top Universities ranks Stanford second in the US, with notable praise going to its high level athletes. The university is comprised of seven faculties; business, earth sciences, education, engineering, humanities & sciences, law and medicine. You can choose from over 50 undergraduate and graduate programs, ranging from aeronautics to religion. Distance learning is also available via its online platform. Stanford also has close links with various entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley.

Differences between Stanford and Berkeley

You may struggle to choose between the universities, as both Stanford and Berkeley offer similar programs and courses. Berkeley is regarded as an artistic institution with a more rebellious energy, while Stanford is closer to the tech sector and Silicon Valley.

Stanford enjoys a better climate than Berkeley thanks to its ideal location in the south of the Bay. 'Carl' is the name given to the massive fog that takes over Berkeley along with heavy rain.

If you're still hesitating, let your own character decide!

Courses and student life

The Californian higher education system somewhat differs from what you might have known in Europe, for example. University is divided into two main parts – the Bachelor degree which goes over 4 years, and the Masters degree and PhD than can last several years, depending on the course. Thus, you will be referred to as an undergraduate student until you are awarded your Bachelor's degree.

Doctorate, law schools and medical schools are only accessible to those who have already received their Bachelor' degree. You can also spend the first two years in a community college, which is much cheaper, before enrolling in a university for the remaining two years.

Another crucial part of the US higher education system is 'majors', which which are awarded according to the number of units received – usually determined by the university. For instance, you need to pass your final exams and obtain a certain number of units (in biology and chemistry maybe), to be able to declare a major in biology. For more information, please refer to the Berkeley University website.

If you're new to this system, there is no need to panic! Freshmen are usually referred to a supervisor for guidance. You will then be able to choose the most appropriate course according to your chosen major.

You will be known as a freshman during the 1st year, sophomore in the 2nd year, junior in the 3rd year and senior in the final year. After completing your undergraduate degree, you will be referred to as a grad student.

If you're joining a US university after graduating from a European University, you will probably have to translate and transcribe your degree via a specialised agency. Only then you will have appropriate information regarding the equivalents.

It's much easier to obtain a Masters or a PhD than a Bachelor's degree. You just have to follow the instructions provided on the relavent grad school website depending on your program (here is an example of Stanford's Masters in Biology).

Teaching language

Most courses are taught in English. However, you can enroll for English as a second language course to improve your level. Language courses often include grammar and conversation sessions as American English is quite difficult from British English, so it may seem a little bit odd at first. Some libraries also offer English language workshops for international students. Another option would be to build up your expat network in San Francisco and help one another to learn American English.

Spanish is also quite widespread in California given its wide Hispanic population. In fact, 38% of Californians are native Spanish speakers.

Scholarships and financial help

Studying in the US is quite costly, regardless of the State. To enroll for an undergraduate program in California, you may need up to US$ 24,000 a year. However, you are allowed to work in San Francisco upon enrollment for a Masters program. Universities have agreements with laboratories and companies in this regard. You can thus make some extra cash while studying.

Even though classic scholarships are not available for international students, you can still be eligible to a couple for them in some cases. Most universities can provide registration to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

On the other hand, European students can apply for student exchange programs for one or more semesters abroad.

Student accommodation

It may be quite difficult to find accommodation in San Francisco. However, many websites offer flat rentals and flat sharing. Craiglist is by far the most popular housing classifieds website in San Francisco, but you can also browse Hotpads and Roomster if you are specifically looking for flatsharing.

Rent prices, however, can be quite high – up to $US 3,000 for a single bedroom flat in the city centre. This is why most international students prefer flat-sharing to renting a flat on their own. This can also be an interesting way to discover different cultures and learn new languages along with making new friends.

Everyday life

It is probably unsurprising to hear that the cost of living in San Francisco is quite high, particularly following the expansion of Silicon Valley, which has attracted more American and international workers to the region.

San Francisco hosts a developed public transportation system, so there is no pressing need for a car, as may be the case in other larger US cities. You have the option of utilising the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI), or California Trains (CalTrain) if you are headed outside of the Bay area.

What about your weekends? There is a wide range of things to see and to do in San Francisco, including a vibrant nightlife. For sports fans, professional sports teams regularly play matches that you can either attend or watch on TV. On the cultural side of the city, you have several museums such as the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art (SFMOMA). However, many of them do not offer student rates.

The famous Big Games, where the two main universities Stanford and Berkeley oppose each other, are the major student sports events in San Francisco.

On campus activities and many other events are also held by student organisations in the Bay Area at affordable rates.

Formalities and visas

You better be quite patient if you wish to move to the USA as relating procedures can be quite complicated. Find everything you need to know in the USA Expat Guide.

The most common student visas are the J1 and the F1.

In general, international students who have enrolled for language courses in an American university or a community college are eligible for the F1 visa. To qualify, you must be a full time student and follow the courses indicated in your application solely. However, you are now allowed to work in the USA with a F1 visa – otherwise your current visa can be revoked. Like in the rest of the country, you're advised not to mess with the US administration. For more information, please refer to the International Student website or the Berkeley University website.

The J1 visa is somewhat different as it is not a specific student visa. However, you won't be eligible for the US Green Card in case you wish to settle permanently in the country. The J1 visa particularly applies to professors or visitors coming to the US for cultural exchange in terms of research and entrepreneurship. This visa is also quite difficult to obtain as it solely depends on the program in which you are enrolled.

Interns are also eligible for the J1 visa when moving to the USA via a specific program. This means that they are not allowed to carry out any other profession than the one which is mentioned in the application. In case you are fired or you are willingly ending your studies or internship, you will have to leave the country within 15 days. Note that the J1 is valid for a maximum of 5 years and cannot be extended. You may also have to go back to your home country between two J1 visas or any other type of visa. For more information, please refer to the US Embassy in your home country or to the J1 visa page.


You are advised to avoid messing with the US state – you could be banned! Bear in mind that any issues with your legal status in the country could have long term consequences, even in the case of a tourist stay (you can be banned for no less than 10 years).

 Useful links:

F-1 visa
Scholarships for UK students

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