For many, the prospect of studying at university conjures up images of gleaming spires, leather-bound books and mortar boards, but with the costs of higher education soaring this academic idyll can feel increasingly beyond reach. It is still possible to experience it, however, if you choose your course and destination carefully, and Portugal offers some excellent opportunities in which to do so.

The ancient city of Coimbra is home to one of the oldest seats of learning in the modern world, while the country’s other thriving cities such as Lisbon, Porto and Braga all offer higher education institutions that feature in the top 700 worldwide. With fees as low as 1,000 Euros per year, studying at university in Portugal is certainly a compelling option, so what do you need to know in order to decide if it is the right choice for you?

Types of higher education institutions in Portugal

As in many countries, higher education in Portugal is delivered in a mix of universities and polytechnics, with universities generally delivering more academic courses and polytechnics more technical or vocational courses. In practice this means that degrees in medicine, law, pharmacy, natural sciences, economics, psychology and veterinary medicine are only available at universities. Both universities and polytechnics offer courses in the humanities, engineering, management, education, agriculture, technology and sport, while those wishing to train in vocations such as nursing and healthcare services, early years education or practical accounting will find such vocational courses offered by polytechnics only.

Portuguese universities have a good reputation with a strong focus on research, although polytechnics, too, are catching up fast. All higher education institutions must be accredited by the Ministerio da Ciencia, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior in order to be permitted to award degrees. All major public institutions hold such accreditation, as do many high-quality private universities, however it is always advisable to check the credentials of the individual institution you are applying to before embarking on your course. Since 2006 both universities and polytechnics have been permitted to award Bachelor’s (licenciatura) and Master’s degrees (maestrado), while only universities are permitted to award doctorates.


Five of Portugal’s universities are currently rated in the QS World University Rankings, the leading listing of the world’s top 700 higher education institutions.

The highest ranked is the University of Porto at 293rd. Located in the historical city of Porto, it boasts the largest student numbers of any of Portugal’s universities with more than 30,000. Almost one third of these are postgraduates, earning it a reputation as the country’s leading research institution. Specific strengths include sciences such as molecular pathology and immunology, as well as computer systems research.

Second to the University of Porto, on paper at least, is the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, ranked 312th. Specialising in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as well as finance, accounting and other business-related subjects, it is one of three public universities based in the Portuguese capital.

The University of Coimbra is the country’s oldest university, having been founded initially in Lisbon in 1290 and transferred between the two cities several times before finding its permanent home in the historical city to the northeast of the country. With eight faculties offering subjects from the arts and humanities to STEM it is a popular choice for domestic and international students alike, attracting more non-Portuguese students than any other higher education institution in the country.

The University of Minho, spread over two campuses in the ancient cities of Braga and Guimaraes, is another popular choice, offering a wide range of courses every year for its student body of almost 20,000.

How to apply to a university in Portugal

Places at state institutions are competitive, with a limited number of spaces allocated each year to domestic students of school-leaving age. Additional places are retained, however, for allocation to mature students, students seeking readmission, those transferring from other courses or institutions, international students and students specifically from other Portuguese-speaking countries.

If you are already in secondary education within the Portuguese system you will be expected to hold your 12th-grade diploma with minimum marks in specific subject areas according to the course you wish to follow. If you are over 23 years of age you may apply for admission with a diploma exemption via an interview and examination.

International students are welcomed at Portuguese universities, and actively sought after by many. Most courses at bachelor’s level are taught in Portuguese, though English-language taught programmes are more common at master’s level. However, if you wish to get the best out of your experience both in the classroom and in your non-study time, a strong command of the Portuguese language really is a must.

Applications for EU students are made through a centralised system by February of the year of entry. You may apply for up to six institutions and courses and the online system includes a programme to calculate your qualification points in the event that you are applying with non-Portuguese qualifications, such as UK A-levels.

Fees for non-EU students are higher than for EU nationals but are still competitive when compared to the cost of studying, for example, the UK, USA, Australia or New Zealand. As an example, undergraduate course fees for international students at the University of Minho range from 4,500 Euros per year for arts and humanities, education, social sciences, economics, management and law to 6,500 Euros per year for architecture, engineering, science, maths and optometry.

Applications for international students usually take place in two phases, during March/April and early July, while transfers from other institutions are usually processed in July/August. If you are interested in studying at a Portuguese university is it important that you seek relevant, up-to-date information regarding entry criteria and the application system for the specific university or universities that you are interested in applying to.

Student visas for Portugal

If you are a non-EU citizen intending to study at university in Portugal you must apply for a residence visa before you enter the country.

EU citizens are permitted to live, study and work in any country within the European Union. If you do choose to study in Portugal, however, it is important that you apply for your Portuguese residence card within four months of arriving in the country in order to comply with local requirements.