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Your parents don't need to be on the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans or have a summer home in the Hamptons for you to have the opportunity to study abroad. Financial aid, study abroad scholarships and other financial options can open the door to an exciting international experience.

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Let's get realistic about study abroad costs

How much it will cost to study abroad depends on several factors, and a big one is the destination country. Your expenses in London could be very different than your expenses in New Zealand. Much of this is due to culture and expectations, and some of it is due to the currency exchange rate, which fluctuates on a daily basis.

Other factors include the program you choose and what the package covers. For instance, will you have expenses for books? Is room and board included in the cost of your program? Each program is different, so it pays to figure out what costs you can expect from each option you are considering.

When moving somewhere for a period of time, whether you'll be staying in a college dorm or a family home, there are almost always expenses that you did not include in the budget. Keep a comfortable amount of ready cash available for those moments when you need to pay for something you didn't expect.

What to expect from financial aid

There are a wide variety of options for financial aid that can help you afford to study abroad. Keep in mind that this list is not complete, nor are there any guarantees that you would be eligible for all of these. For the most current information, speak with your financial aid counselor.

  1. Federal Pell Grant. This grant is based on need. If you qualify, the grant does not have to be paid back.
  2. Federal Supplemental Education Opportunities Grant (SEOG). This grant is also based on need. If you qualify for the Pell Grant, you might qualify for this one as well.
  3. Federal Stafford loan. This loan is offered to all students, regardless of need. The current maximum loan per student is $5,500 per year.
  4. Federal Perkins loan. This low-interest loan is based on financial need.
  5. Parents PLUS loan. If your parents qualify for this loan, they can finance the entire cost of your education, minus any federal financial aid you might receive.
  6. State aid. This aid might be available for your study abroad. Rules vary among states on how you can use any state aid, so check with your financial aid advisor before you count this among your resources.
  7. Institutional aid. Some colleges and universities will allow you to use these funds for study abroad.

Keep in mind that financial aid might not cover the entire cost of study abroad. Additional help can be found through study abroad scholarships. Here are a few of the more popular options:

  1. Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. If you qualify for the Pell Grant, you could be eligible for this scholarship, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
  2. David L. Boren Undergraduate Scholarships for Study Abroad. If you intend to study a language or culture that could be important to the national security of the United States, this scholarship might be for you. There are restrictions, however, so pay close attention to details.
  3. Institutional Scholarships. Some colleges and universities offer scholarships that allow their full-time students to attend a semester overseas.
  4. The Fulbright Program. Established in 1946, this program is sponsored by the government and offers 8,000 scholarships per year to those who want to study abroad.
  5. Private scholarships. Some private organizations offer scholarships to those who want to study abroad. Pursue every scholarship option available to you, no matter how small.

No matter the financial aid or scholarships you choose to apply for, pay close attention to deadlines and always plan ahead. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, students should start serious planning for study abroad at least one year in advance.

Other ways to fund your study abroad experience

What if savings, financial aid and scholarships are not enough? There are other options that could help.

  • Work while you study. A part-time job in your host country can help pay for personal expenses while you are there. However, holding down a job could diminish your chances to experience the country, cut into study time, and possibly affect your scholarship and aid amounts. Working for pay may also violate your student visa terms, although work-abroad programs for students exist, such as BUNAC.
  • Keep your grades up. Those with a higher grade point average stand a better chance of receiving a scholarship based on merit.
  • Exchange programs. Many colleges and universities will offer to take one student in exchange for each student they send overseas. This allows students to keep their usual financial aid package, which can be a very cost-effective option for everyone.

You don't have to be among the wealthy or elite to study abroad. With careful planning far ahead of time, it is possible to have a rewarding study abroad experience you can cherish for a lifetime.