Updated 7 months ago

Amsterdam is one of the top cities for students, and it’s easy to see why: good universities, an international city where English is widely spoken, big enough to be fun but small enough to explore by bike, meaning that so you won’t need a car, which is good if you’re spending all of your money on textbooks and student fees. It truly is a city where there is something for everybody, and students especially benefit from the numerous free or low-cost activities and prices that can be found there.

The two universities in Amsterdam are the University of Amsterdam (UVA) and the Free University of Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit, abbreviated VU). Together, the students from these schools number almost 60,000, or about 8% of Amsterdam’s total population. What makes these schools so great, and why should you consider studying there?

University of Amsterdam

The University of Amsterdam was founded in 1632 and is the third-oldest university in the Netherlands. As such, the list of storied alumni of this school is long, including six Nobel Prize winners and, most notably, Aletta Jacobs, the first female physician in the Netherlands and a pioneer for women’s rights. It is also one of the largest institutions, with over 30,000 students and almost 5,000 staff.

UVA is not comprised of a distinct campus; the university’s buildings are mainly located within the city centre. The new Science Park sits on the East Side and hosts the Faculty of Science, sports centres, and some student housing, while the Medical Center is in the south of the city, close to Bijlmer. As such, it is an enticing mix of old and new, much like Amsterdam itself.


UVA is one of the largest research universities in Europe and the largest university in the Netherlands, in terms of numbers of students. As of 2016, UVA has received a number of grants from the European Research Council, as well as the Dutch government, for research excellence, with each grant worth between €1-2.5 million. Thanks to this extensive funding, the university is able to research a diverse range of topics, and it keeps close ties with many universities all over the world. As an undergraduate institution, QS World University Ranking puts UVA at 58th worldwide, and first in the Netherlands. It is worth noting that the University of Amsterdam excels in Communications and Media.


“All work and no play” is not what most students experience at UVA. UVA has multiple student groups which are involved in everything from throwing the best parties, to tackling some of the major ecological issues surrounding the Netherlands, to representing LGBTQ issues, to making art and music. Sports that you can join can be pretty conventional, such as football or swimming, but there are also clubs for activities such as mountain climbing, horseback riding, lacrosse, and rowing, amongst others. Suffice to say: boredom is not an option!

International Student support

International students have access to numerous support systems at UVA. The International Student Network, amongst other clubs, helps students settle in and connect with Dutch students, while the International Offices work to make sure everything is in good order.

Free University of Amsterdam

Most non-Dutch speakers are initially dismayed to discover that the “free” in the Free University of Amsterdam does not refer to the tuition costs. Vrij and gratis are both translated as “free” but only gratis means “at no cost”. Instead, “free” refers to the fact that the university is completely independent of both the church and the state. In 1880, Abraham Kuyper began giving lectures on theology, law, and the arts in order to perpetuate Neo-Calvinism. Within a few years, the number of students exceeded the capacity of the church, and the curriculum increased widely, but the Christian nature of the university limited its growth until 1968 when university administrators decided to make the VU public. Once it did, the culture of the university changed almost overnight, and by the end of the 1970s, all traces of Abraham Kuyper’s original vision had disappeared, as the VU began accepting students and professors of all backgrounds.

The VU has a distinct main campus in the southern part of Amsterdam and a satellite campus (Uilenstede) in Amstelveen, which houses the student housing complexes, apartment buildings, and the sports centre. The VU has approximately 25,000 students and 2300 faculty members.


The VU is the second-largest academic institute in the Netherlands. The VU’s dedication to quality research and academic integrity is part of why the university received €3.5 million this year for three physics research proposals and 4 Veni grants (one of the most prestigious awards given by the Dutch government) this year. The university has a high code of ethics and integrity for the research it does and this has given it an edge when it comes to securing funding and doing cutting-edge research.

The VU offers fourteen bachelor’s programs and 120 masters’ programs in English. It ranks pretty well in the field of religious studies. The university also has strong ties to several international universities and conducts exchange programs with them.


The VU has a number of student societies. Some of them act as meeting points for people to connect to Christian, Muslim, and other groups of students, including international students. Some of them are for those interested in specific activities, such as playing music, singing, or theatre. Still, others play sports. It can be hard to fit in when you’re in a new school, but the VU helps you make those connections that will last a lifetime.

International Student Support

The VU is fully supportive of international students, with offices dedicated to assisting students with housing, residency permits and visas, and even pick you up from Schipol airport. The VU has career counselling available, and for those students who wish to remain in the Netherlands upon finishing their studies, there are Dutch lessons to prepare students for life in the Netherlands.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees at accredited universities are the same no matter which university you attend; the fees are determined by the nature of the courses, whether there is a laboratory portion involved and things of that nature. For bachelors’ programmes, the annual tuition fees residents from the EU start at approximately €1950, while for non-EU students the average tuition fee is between €6000-€15,000, while masters’ programmes cost €8000-€20,000 (per year, numbers reflect 2016 amounts). Scholarships are available to help offset the costs.

Living in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is fantastic as a tourist destination, but living in the city is a different experience. There are a number of considerations that long-term residents (more than 90 days) have which do not apply to tourists. However both the VU and UVA have offices to help students with these issues, so do not hesitate to ask. Moving to a new country is difficult enough – do not be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Getting into the Netherlands

The first thing you will need to do, assuming that you have already been accepted as a student, is check and see if you need a visa. Citizens of countries that are members of the EU or EEA, or Switzerland, do not need a permit to stay in the Netherlands. If you are from outside the EU, EEA, or Switzerland, though, the host school will apply for a residence visa on your behalf.

The university will need copies of your passport, officially legalized by a government authority. The passport must be in Dutch, English, French, or German; if it is not then you must arrange to have it translated. Because the university is applying for the visa, each school may require slightly different papers, so make sure to keep in regular contact with the international students' office at the school. It costs €317 euros (as of 2017) to apply for the visa, and the visa is valid for the duration of your studies, or five years, whichever comes first. You are allowed to remain in the Netherlands for 3 months after your studies have ended. During this time you can either apply directly for a regular residence permit, or for an “orientation year” to live in and look for work in the Netherlands. Be advised that the cost of the orientation year visa is €633 (2017).

Finding a room

Finding a room to rent in Amsterdam can be quite difficult. Dutch universities do not typically provide housing for students, so you will have to arrange to rent a room on your own. That being said, both the UVA and VU provide accommodations for international students, but these are limited and if you need a room it is best to apply early. There are also a number of housing collectives that specialize in renting to students. De Key and DUWO are two of the largest organizations. Kamernet is another good resource for finding rooms, but be forewarned that most people prefer renting to women. Sometimes you will also find advertisements for rooms for rent tacked onto bulletin boards in the hallway. While these are mostly legitimate, it is best to exercise a bit of caution when approaching the landlord. Keep in mind that you may not have any legal recourse should the landlord turn out to be disreputable. Room rental prices typically range from €300-600.

Living expenses in Amsterdam will depend on whether you rent a room or an apartment, how often you go out and what bars you frequent and so on, but the average student in Amsterdam spends between €800-1400/month. Eating out tends to be expensive, but groceries tend to be more affordable, and if you adopt the Dutch way of a boterham met ham en kaas for lunch, your grocery budget could be as low as €200/month.

Regardless, it is critical that you register with the gemeente (municipality) as soon as you can. Once you register you will receive a burgerservicenummer (BSN), which will essentially make life possible: you will be able to open a bank account, arrange for a mobile phone plan, purchase health insurance, see a doctor, and possibly even find a job.

Getting Around

The most economical and efficient way of getting around in Amsterdam (and the Netherlands, in general) is by bicycle. Amsterdam’s cyclists have acquired a reputation for being reckless and crazy, but the truth is most cyclists follow most of the rules most of the time. Contrary to popular belief, there are actually a lot of rules about riding a bike. For students, the most pertinent ones are: 1) cycling after dark without lights, especially during the winter months. You will need one red light in the back and one white light in the front, and 2) cycling while using your mobile telephone is illegal; this is a new rule that was passed in 2017 so some websites may still say that you are allowed to use your mobile. The police will certainly stop and fine you if they catch you doing these things.

In the event that your bicycle gets stolen – an unfortunate but likely scenario – there are still a number of options for getting around. Public transportation is readily accessible, and for students, the cost is bundled into your student finance package. In order to use this you will first need to apply for a personal OV Chip card and then link it to your DUO student financing package. Keep in mind that this is technically a loan; the government covers travel costs up to €89.07/month (as of 2017), but if you do not graduate within 10 years you will have to pay the money back.

Phone and Internet

If you are renting a room, it is likely that your rental contract covers internet access, or it may be provided for but you have to pay for it on top of your rent.

For mobile phone access, you can purchase either a pre-paid SIM card or get a two-year contract with one of the Dutch providers. Pre-paid SIM cards can include internet, calling, or both. If you want to purchase a contract with a provider, be advised that you will need a valid Dutch bank account (see below) and address, and a valid ID.


Unlike most other European countries, the Dutch healthcare system is privatized, so you may have to buy your own health insurance, or demonstrate some proof that you have insurance before you are allowed to live here. If you are from Europe, you may be eligible for the European Health Insurance Card, which provides access to health care for nationals of 28 member states of the EU, who are residing in another country on a temporary basis. The policies of the UVA and VU are slightly different and it is strongly advised that you read them carefully.


There is no escaping the fact that you will need money. Part of the visa application process requires you to show that you are financially independent. For the enterprising student, it is possible to work in the Netherlands during your studies, but this applies only to EEA/EU nationals, and the employer needs to apply for a work permit. If you are doing an internship, your employer does not need a work permit, but they do need to sign an agreement with the university. Nationals from outside the EEA/EU are not allowed to work unless they become permanent residents first.

In the Netherlands, “pinning” – using debit cards secured with a PIN – is a common method of payment for paying for things, adding money to your OV Chip card, and so on. You will need an online banking account in order to pay rent and/or receive your financial aid package. The banks ABN Amro and ING bank both have accounts for students. If you are coming from a country in the EU and/or EEA, you might be able to keep using your banking service, but if you are coming from a country outside the EU, you may have to create a new bank account.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.