Spain’s vibrant culture and surprisingly affordable cities make it an ideal destination for students looking to study abroad.
You may know a little about the glamor of Barcelona or the bustling culture in Madrid. But it’s the word-class universities, stunning beaches, amazing museums, architecture and the food – yes, all those tapas – that make Spain an international student’s paradise. And studying abroad in Spain is more affordable than you might think, too.
Our Spain study abroad guide will teach you how to plan for your trip: from choosing which city you stay in to the smartest student travel tips – like what to pack and which travel apps you need – to make sure you have the ultimate Spanish experience.
Spain’s top sites spread across the country, and many of these must-sees are notable for their distinct regional culture. From museums to architectural marvels to some of the largest sporting events on Earth, Spain has something for every student traveler.
Spain’s headline attractions
Here are a few of the must-see highlights while you study abroad in Spain:
The Alhambra: A collision of Islamic and Spanish influences, this UNESCO World Heritage site in Granada should be on everyone’s bucket list – but make sure you book your tickets far in advance!
The Prado Museum: One of the largest and best art museums in the world, Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid is home to 18th and 19th century works from influential artists like Francisco Goya, El Greco and Diego Velázquez.
A football match in Barcelona or Madrid: Camp Nou (home of FC Barcelona) and Santiago Bernabeu (home of Real Madrid) are two of the largest football stadiums in Europe, and can be magical places to see a match when you study abroad in Spain. Though Bracelona’s famed stadium is currently under construction.
La Sagrada Familia: Antoni Gaudí’s most lavish work — a church in the heart of Barcelona is an architectural marvel. Fun fact: This structure has been under construction for over 150 years and counting. Students in architecture study abroad programs will want to spend plenty of time here.
The Royal Alcazar of Seville: Originally constructed as a fort in 913, it’s gone through centuries of rebuilds and is one of the oldest palaces still in use in Europe. It was a location for “Game of Thrones”!
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: This marvel of design is the crown jewel in one of the most architecturally vibrant cities in Europe. The modern art inside is thought-provoking, too. Its construction helped give rise to the term “architourism.” A must for any design-minded study abroad program participant.
Park Güell: Put on your most comfortable walking shoes and spend the day in Gaudi’s outdoor masterpiece in the northern section of Barcelona. It’s a highlight of Spain’s Catalonia region.
Are you ready for all the cheese, cured meats and/or fresh vegetables (we see you, vegans) that your heart desires? Spain is one of the top culinary destinations in Europe, and study abroad students don’t have to have a big bank account to enjoy its delicacies. (Insider info: If you’re only in Spain for a few weeks, book a guided food tour of your city. You won’t be sorry.)
Spain is famous for:
Tapas: Small dishes meant to be shared with one or more people. Well-known plates include patatas bravas, gambas al-aljillo, tomato ensalada (usually with tuna on top), and tortilla espanola. You’ll have countless opportunities to enjoy tapas during a semester abroad.
Jamon Iberico/Iberian ham: Considered one of the finest types of ham in the world, Jamon Iberico comes from black Iberican pigs that are native to Spain and Portugal. Their strict acorn diet gives the pork a distinct nuttiness flavor that will leave a lasting impression.
Spanish cheese: Spain is known for producing dozens of specialty cheeses, most famously manchego, Iberico, cabrales and tetilla. Flavors depend on the type of milk used, which are derived from cows, goat or sheep.
Paella: Spain’s Mediterranean coast (Valencia, specifically) is the native home of this famous dish, made of a mouth-watering rice and a mix of seafood. If there was one dish to sum up Spain’s rich cultural heritage, this would be it.
Churros con chocolate: Deep-fried dough (traditionally with sugar in the U.S.) dipped in a thick chocolate sauce. The perfect late-night snack for a cool spring semester night during your study abroad program.
The sights of Spain
Spain isn’t all cultural landmarks, museums and amazing food (though you could spend months just focusing on those three things). Spain’s natural wonders abound. Here are a few you won’t want to miss:
There’s no shortage of top-tier beaches: The sunkissed coasts of Spain await, with Mallorca, San Sebastian and Valencia among the ideal destinations to spend a long beach weekend during a break from your study abroad program.
Cabo de Gata-Níjar National Park: Volcanic rock, Mediterranean views and all sorts of species of birds and plants dot this natural wonder on Spain’s southern coast.
Gaztelugatxe: This islet off Spain’s northern coast with a captivating manmade bridge leading up to a solitary residence will become one of your most liked Instagram posts.
Hike the Camino de Santiago: Pick from a variety of UNESCO-protected routes and go on a spiritual journey in northwest Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Improve your Spanish language skills
Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the world, and gaining Spanish proficiency will pay off even after your study abroad experience ends. It’s also one of the easiest languages to learn for native English speakers, as both are Latin languages. About 600 hours of intense training will get you close to fluent before your trip. The best way to learn the Spanish language is to start with a language app or private tutor and then begin socializing with fellow learners or fluent speakers.
You should also know there are slight differences between the Spanish language spoken in North America vs. the Spanish locals will speak in Spain. Those from the U.S. who’ve achieved Spanish fluency will find several words and pronunciations will be different in Europe. You should also be aware that other languages are spoken in different parts of the country such as Catalan, Galician and Basque.
Walk the streets of Madrid or Barcelona, and you’ll understand how Spanish culture is a mix of business, family and fun. The people of Spain value human connection, family and socializing – especially over meals. You can expect most people you encounter to be friendly, especially if you make an effort to greet them warmly in Spanish.
Are you laid back? Do you love to stay up late? If so, Spain is definitely for you. Many locals won’t eat dinner before 9 or 10 p.m. Also, while traditional post-lunch siestas aren’t as common in cities and business districts, many shops will shut down between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Spain is home to many festivals, seasonal events and unique experiences. Don’t miss these if the timing works out:
San Fermín Festival: Run with (or just watch) the bulls at the famous annual July festival in Pamplona.
Get in a tomato fight at La Tomatina Festival: You read that right. Participate in the world’s biggest food fight during the last Wednesday in August each year in a village near Valencia.
Fallas Valencia: Get fired up – literally – for this four-day festival in March that focuses on pyrotechnics.
Take a day trip to Morocco: The southern Spanish city of Costa del Sol is a one-hour ferry from Tangier, the tip of north Africa. Spend the afternoon crossing another continent off your bucket list and discovering another culture.making for an unforgettable afternoon discovering a new country and culture.
Attend a flamenco dance show: Flamenco dancing us a cultural phenomenon. Witness a popular art form that displays intense human emotions. While you can see shows throughout Spain, Tablao Flamenco El Cardenal in Cordoba is one of the most famous places to watch.
Which Spanish city should you study in?
Choosing your study abroad destination will depend on your personal and educational goals. In general, most students who study abroad in Spain find it to be a cheaper alternative compared to other top destinations such as London, Paris or Australia. Here are six cities in Spain that come highly recommended by students and educators:
Madrid’s central location and diverse population makes it a perfect home base for a successful study abroad experience. If cultural immersion is one of your top goals, you won’t find a better combination than the city’s fusion of architecture, technology and gastronomy. It has a top 10 European safety ranking. It also has a rich history, with countless landmarks and museums (like the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía Museum, El Retiro Park, Plaza Mayor and the shops on the Gran Via). Plus, Madrid is a more affordable study abroad destination than similar major cities like London and Paris. Native English speakers may feel more at home in Madrid’s culture, too, as your Spanish language skills don’t have to be the strongest to get by.
Population: 3.6 million
Average temperatures (high/low): July 89°F / 66°F; December 50°F / 38°F
Location: Central Spain (largest city)
If history and culture are your priorities, take a long look at studying abroad in Granada. Known for its stunning views of The Alhambra from almost any vantage point, this underrated city will blow you away with its Islamic, Spanish and Jewish influences. Visit the mountains or the beach, see a bullfight at Plaza de Toros or watch an authentic Flamenco music show in the Sacromonte district. Universidad de Granada is also a draw – founded in 1531, it enrolls nearly 60,000 students, including roughly 10,000 international students annually. Bonus: Granada a far more affordable option than Madrid and Barcelona if you’re tight on cash.
Average temperatures (high/low): July 94°F / 67°F; December 56°F / 37°F
Location: Southern Spain
The birthplace of Pablo Picasso, Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world, but with a young spirit and culture perfect for those who want to study abroad in Spain. It’s a hub for many international students, so you’ll feel right at home quickly with its college town vibes. That includes a fantastic art scene in the SoHo District and some of the best nightlife in the country. Málaga is a port city – situated on the southern Mediterranean coast – known for its yellow-sand beaches, delicious seafood and one of the top universities in Spain (University of Málaga). Similar to Granada, students will find Málaga extremely affordable – many can get by on roughly €600 per month in expenses, making the cost of their study abroad programs more bearable.
Average temperatures (high/low): July 87°F / 68°F; December 63°F / 47°F
Location: Southern Spain
The capital of the Andalusia region, Seville is a laid back and charming city. Seville is also a great destination if Spanish language immersion is your goal, as you won’t be able to fall back on your English all that often. From beautiful weather (rarely too hot in the summer and never below freezing in winter), to the walkable city, tapas bars and festivals, Seville has so much to offer. It’s also driving distance to Gibraltar for those interested in hopping on the ferry to Morocco for the day. As for schools, Universidad Pablo de Olavide is a popular school for North American students and offers coursework in English.
Average temperatures (high/low): July 96°F / 67°F; December 62°F / 44°F
Location: Southern Spain
There are few places in the world where you can live near the beach, be surrounded by stunning architecture, attend a top university and get into a tomato fight. Valencia is a hotbed for cultural activities and has increased in popularity for students pursuing study abroad programs, as its top-ranked universities have grown in stature. The City of Arts and Sciences (pictured above) is a spectacular modern campus that features a museum and the largest oceanographic aquarium in Europe. Valencia’s coastal location provides excellent weather (and mild winters). And did we mention the food? Valencia is the home of paella, among several seafood dish standouts.
Average temperatures (high/low): July 87°F / 68°F; December 62°F / 42°F
Location: Eastern Coast of Spain
If you’re not planning to become fluent in Spanish and need coursework in English, then Barcelona — the capital of the Catalonia region — is probably your best bet. Barcelona will also give you the most cosmopolitan experience on the list. This large and vibrant city has so much culture to offer: beaches, stunning architecture (make sure to visit La Sagrada Familia and other famous landmarks designed by Antoni Gaudi), parks, food, museums, FC Barcelona football matches and more. If there are downsides, it’s that you’ll get a more authentic Spanish experience studying abroad in the other cities on this list (Barcelona is truly an international location) and the city is on the expensive side.
Population: 1.6 million
Average temperatures (high/low): July 84°F / 73°F; December 60°F / 49°F
Location: Northeastern Spain
How to plan your trip to Spain
If you’ve settled on Spain as your destination of choice, congratulations! Now, it’s time for the hard part: planning for your study abroad trip. Wrap up as many details as possible before boarding your flight to ensure a smooth transition. The last thing you want is to be scrambling as soon as you land in a foreign country. Here are the areas you should be thinking about now, starting with knowing exactly what your program covers – and what it doesn’t.
Timing your study abroad trip
Program fees and cost of living are a huge factor for most students (more on that soon), but timing may play the greatest role in making your study abroad experience in Spain a reality. Here are a few considerations:
Timeframe of attendance: If you’ve read this far, you’ve certainly dreamed of a full semester or even a year abroad. But January sessions, summer sessions or even a quarter-long program could be the best combination of opportunity and price.
Availability of courses: Timeframe is only half the equation. If you’re not locked into your current school’s Spain program (or if they don’t offer one) you’ll need to shop around for a study abroad provider that fits your goals.
Check your eligibility – and that you’ll get credit
Do you have the right GPA and prerequisites to get into a study abroad program? And, once you clear that hurdle, will your study abroad credits apply back to your current school (assuming you’re not using their program)? Bonus tip: Among the most popular subjects for international students in Spain are natural sciences, marketing hospitality management (Spain is one of the hottest tourist destinations in the world), political science and liberal arts.
Find a flight to Spain
Snagging the right flight for your Spain study abroad adventure requires roughly the same process as any other trip. But there are a few things you should know:
Ask your program leaders for advice: We’re going to say that a few times in this guide. Your program coordinator has probably coached dozens of students through this situation and may know which airlines have the best discounts.
Frequent flier programs are your friend: Do yourself a favor and sign up for frequent flier accounts and push alerts for the airlines you think you’ll use. Sales are now just a text message away.
Check out student discount flight websites: Websites like ScholarTrip offer flight deals. They also have the ability for students to pay in installments.
Find a place to stay in Spain
You’ve selected your city and have been accepted into your program. Now, what are your housing options? Student housing in Spain is known to be competitive, given tens of thousands of students cycle through the country each semester. Be sure to check with your university first about housing support and accommodations before searching on your own.
Here are the most common forms of student housing in Spain:
University dorms or residence halls: A residence hall is a good choice if you want to live on or near campus and meet other students quickly.
Studio apartments: Depending on the length of your stay, studios might be your best option – especially if you need flexibility. But they will come at a cost.
Host families: Many students opt to stay with a host family during their time abroad for a more immersive experience. It can help with your Spanish-language fluency and provide a support system immediately upon arrival.
How to get around in Spain
Spain’s train system – which is the second-largest in the world – is usually the best option for intra city travel. The main operator – Renfe – isn’t always the cheapest option, but it’s often the most convenient between major cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Córdoba, and even Paris (look into their student pass!). There are over 40 airports in Spain if you need to travel somewhere fast, especially on discount airlines such as Vueling. Air travel is also a convenient method for a long weekend somewhere else on the continent.
As for getting around locally, most Spanish cities have developed bus systems. Five cities (Barcelona, Bilbao, Madrid, Mallorca and Valencia) even have subway systems. You’ll find taxis and rideshare apps in Spain, too, though smaller towns won’t have many on demand options. Most European cities – especially those in Spain – are also very walkable, meaning students who score prime living locations will have plenty of opportunities to get some convenient steps in.
Safety while you’re in Spain
According to U.S. News & World Report, Spain is the 16th safest country in the world. Aside from pickpockets (a common risk when traveling abroad – especially in Europe), students should be aware of the following:
Taxis: Avoid being overcharged by taxis by asking the driver to confirm your rate prior to getting in the vehicle.
Scams: You might be approached by Gypsy women trying to give you rosemary as a way to get money or pick your pockets. Keep walking! Also, always double check your restaurant bill, as some shady restaurant operators have been known to overcharge obvious tourists.
Terrorism threats: While the risk is extremely low, Basque separatist groups and Islamic terror groups have a history committing attacks in Spain.
The bottom line is that students in study abroad programs who take reasonable precautions – just as they would in their home countries – should be safe traveling around Spain.
Know your emergency contacts in Spain
Make sure you have emergency services contacts in your phone before you arrive in Spain. Here are a few additional contacts to have at the national level:
112: Emergency hotline (Spanish + English for police, medical and fire throughout the EU):
1003: Emergency doctor
080: Fire brigade
091: National police (violent and organized crime, national safety)
092: Local police (theft, traffic issues and disputes)
902 500 002: Suicide, crisis and support line
U.S. embassy website (the embassy is located in Madrid; the U.S. consulate is in Barcelona and there are U.S. consular agencies in Las Palmas, Málaga, Mallorca, Seville and Valencia)
What to bring on your trip to Spain
You’ve filled out all the forms and secured your housing. Now it’s time to pack! Here’s what you should bring on your study abroad journey to Spain:
Clothing for a semester in Spain
Spain has a Mediterranean climate. While most people dress for the weather, they always look presentable when they go out in public. Specifically, athleisure clothing is typically only worn if you’re going to/from the gym. Spaniards don’t have the reputation of being as chic as some of their European neighbors in everyday life, but there are some norms you should follow when you get there:
Spring: Prepare for cooler weather, longer days and a little rain (especially in April) during spring semester. Think about layers to get you through those cold mornings that you can easily shed when it gets warm in the afternoon.
Summer: The summer brings crowds and extremely warm weather, especially in the north. Shorts and light cotton shirts are appropriate this time of year. Flip-flops usually stay by the pool, but find a pair of non-slip shoes when walking the city.
Fall: The temperatures cool down during fall semester, but it can get wet. Bring back out your layers.
Winter: Depending on the region, winter days are often sunny and crisp. Consider denim and blouses, with medium-weight jackets and boots.
Technology and plugs
You’re going to need plug adapters. Type C and F plugs are the standard in Spain — both require two round pins. Purchasing a worldwide power adapter — you can get a good one for $20 — ensures you’ll always be prepared whether you’re in Spain or taking a weekend trip to another country close by. It’s also important to check any electronics you plan to bring (hairdryers, hair straighteners, etc.) to make sure they match the electrical requirements. Electronics between 220V and 240V are safe to plug into Spanish sockets. The standard frequency is 50Hz.
Must-have apps for Spain
Your mobile device will be your lifeline on this incredible journey. There are a number of apps that will make your life easier once you’re in country. Here’s a quick list:
Google Translate: The easiest way to translate words or phrases, as you improve your Spanish.
Cabify: While Uber operates in Spain, the ride-sharing app of choice in Spain is Cabify.
Glovo: Need dinner, groceries or other essentials delivered? Glovo has you covered.
Citymapper: A one-stop-shop for navigating the most popular cities in Spain such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, Basque Country and more.
Renfe: Whether you’re taking the high-speed train to Seville or a regional train to Gribralter, access your train tickets and manage reservations through the Renfe app.
WhatsApp: Stay in touch with your family and friends for free, and avoid paying international texting and data rates.
Travel documents for Spain
It’s always the boring stuff that’s so important. While it’ll be a lot more fun to download the apps above, you’re not getting into Spain – or getting around it – without the following travel documents.
Student visa: Students planning to work part-time and/or who will be staying in Spain for more than 90 days are requiredto obtain a student visa from a Spanish Consulate in the U.S. You’ll need information such as proof of medical insurance, proof of financial means to cover the cost of your stay and be subject to a criminal background check. Check if your program does group visa submissions or if you need to apply as an individual. Either way, it will take one to two weeks to obtain the necessary documents, plus an additional seven to 10 weeks for processing. You can apply for a Spanish student visa here. (And if you’re a non-U.S. citizen, check with your local embassy on student visa requirements.)
Passport: You need a passport that will remain valid at least six months beyond the date of departure to enter the country.
Academic documents: Any enrollment forms necessary for your program of study.
Work permit: If you plan to work, you’ll likely need to obtain a permit from your local immigration office to prove your status as a student.
Driver’s license: You’ll need it if you plan on driving a car while in Spain.
How much does it cost to study abroad in Spain?
The irritating answer to this question is that the cost to study abroad in Spain varies significantly. You should start answering the financial questions of your journey by first understanding what your program does and does not cover. In many cases, if you’re participating in your home university’s program in Spain, you’ll probably pay your regular tuition plus an additional fee that goes toward your studies and administrative costs while in country (those fees sometimes include student housing and/or meal plans, too).
On average, it costs roughly $16,000 per semester, not including personal travel or your flights. If you’re going through a private company, expenses can range from $12,000 to more than $20,000, depending on variables such as program selection, length of stay, student housing, meal plans and visa services.
How to budget for your trip to Spain
In order to obtain your student visa, you’ll need to prove that you can cover the expenses of your stay. Therefore, take the time to think through what your expenses will be. If you’re receiving university-provided housing, you can expect to pay a lot more. However, if you’re finding a place on your own, you can expect to exceed €1,000 in expenses a month in larger cities like Barcelona and Madrid, whereas cities like Granada and Málaga will be more budget-friendly. Here’s a list of seven areas every student traveler will need to budget for:
Tuition, registration and any addition administrative fees
Housing, unless it’s included in your program package (don’t forget about internet and other utilities, too)
Personal travel, as you’re going to want to see other parts of the country and Europe
Food, especially if you plan to visit restaurants several times a week
Entertainment (don’t forget those Flamenco shows!)
International health insurance, which is required to study abroad in Spain (your program may include baseline health insurance as part of your tuition, too)
Trip insurance coverage, understanding you should check your health insurance plan’s location coverage and that you might need additional plans if taking weekend trips to other countries
What currency do they use in Spain?
Spain was one of the first European countries to adopt the euro (€) back in 1999. You’ll get your best exchange rates by using an international credit card or debit card (but make sure there are no foreign transaction fees). Also, be sure you notify your bank that you’ll be studying abroad to ensure you won’t have issues paying while moving around.
All that said, you’ll still need access to cash, especially when traveling to smaller cities in Spain where you’re bound to find yourself in cash-only situations. You can see current exchange rates here.
Finally, if you plan on working part-time during your study abroad program, you’ll likely need to open a Spanish bank account to receive your paycheck. The company Wise is becoming a popular option for students.
What special things do people buy in Spain?
Spanish Caganer: El Caganer means “the pooper” in Catalan. We’re not joking. This traditional, partially naked, pooping Catalan Christmas figurine is a required feature for nativity scenes in Spain. They appeared in the Catalonia region in the early 18th century, and many believe they’re meant to be good luck charms for farmers to provide healthy crops in the year ahead. A traditional Caganer is wearing a white shirt and red hat, but you can find Caganers that depict almost any well-known celebrity, character or politician. (Our personal favorite is R2D2 pooping out a screw.)
Discounts: Saving money in Spain
Expenses can add up fast when you’re studying abroad. However, you should have many opportunities to take advantage of student discounts. Here are some ideas to take the pressure off your wallet.
You guessed it – start by asking your school or program: Insider information from your program leaders will show you the way to local discounts that can save you money weekly.
International Student ID Card (ISIC): If there was a global student ID card, this would be it. For only €11, you’ll have access to significant discounts in over 120 countries, including restaurants, museums, travel and more.
Discount language courses: If you’re an international student, many language schools will offer special courses and pricing during your stay.
Renfe Student Pass: If you’re planning inter-country travel throughout Spain, consider a quarterly Renfe Student Pass to trim down on train tickets costs.
Bonus tip – Don’t forget a VPN: The digital subscriptions you have in your home country may not work outside its borders. A VPN subscription is relatively cheap and should fix most of those issues.
How should student travelers tip in Spain?
Tipping in Spain is entirely optional and you likely won’t see locals doing it. You’ll read that you should tip good service and hard work, but it’s still up to you.
If a “servicio” (service charge) has been added to your restaurant bill, then a tip isn’t necessary. If not, tipping up to 10 percent in cash or coin would be appropriate. For tour guides, especially free ones, tipping a few euros would be a nice gesture. And for luxury services such as porters in 5-star hotels, room service or fine-dining, a tip would be recommended if good service was provided.