Iceland is famous for its glaciers, geysers and volcanoes and can be a thrilling place to study if you prefer dramatic and remote landscapes to city living

Known as the 'land of ice and fire', it's a small island nation with a population of about 330,000. Much of its cultural, academic and economic activity is focused around Reykjavik, the capital city, and the locals generally enjoy a high quality of life.

Tourists flock to Iceland to catch a glimpse of the northern lights, bathe in hot springs and marvel at the stunning scenery. That scenery also attracts film crews, with Game of Thrones and Star Wars: The Force Awakens among a long list of movies and TV productions to use Iceland as a setting.

If you want to get away from the crowds, it's a great study abroad destination, with low-cost public universities particularly attractive. There are seven universities in all, hosting 18,000 students. International students make up 5% of that total.

Icelandic universities

Four of Iceland's universities are public institutions:

  • Agricultural University of Iceland;
  • Hólar University College;
  • University of Akureyri;
  • University of Iceland.

The other three are private universities that receive some state support:

  • Bifröst University;
  • Iceland Academy of the Arts;
  • Reykjavik University.

The University of Iceland was founded in 1911 and is home to more than 13,000 students, making it the country's oldest and largest higher education institution. It achieved a place in the top 250 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017.

International students can attend Icelandic universities as exchange students or full degree-seeking students. The University of Iceland offers a range of subjects, while other institutions tend to specialise in certain fields.

As there are only seven universities, you can easily browse all the courses that are available to find the most suitable for you - especially as each has an English version of their website.

Work is typically assessed on a scale of 0-10, with a five required for a pass. The academic year runs from September to May and is split into two semesters. Exams are held at the end of each semester.

Student exchanges

Iceland is not a member of the European Union (EU), but still fully participates in the Erasmus+ exchange programme. This scheme offers study, training, work experience and voluntary placements to students throughout Europe, with opportunities lasting from three months to one year. To take part, your home university must have a formal agreement with a partner university in a participating European country. Ask your university for details.

In addition, students from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden can arrange exchanges in Iceland through the Nordplus programme.

You can browse more exchange options on the websites of individual Icelandic universities.

The University Centre of the Westfjords runs intensive three-week courses in Icelandic language and culture at a cost of €1,100. Taking place over the summer, these are specifically designed for Erasmus, Nordplus and other exchange students who plan to spend one or two semesters in the country. You'll be based in a former boarding school in remote northwest Iceland.

Degree courses in Iceland

In Iceland, Bachelors degrees take three or four years to complete and are directly equivalent to undergraduate study in the UK.

Bachelors-level qualifications in nursing and teaching act as professional certifications enabling you to enter those careers, while degrees in other subjects prepare you for postgraduate study. You'll usually be assessed though coursework and exams.

Meanwhile, candidatus degrees take four to six years of study, combine elements of undergraduate and postgraduate study, and qualify you to join a specific profession.

Entry requirements for undergraduate programmes are determined by individual universities, but you'll need to have at least studied to A-level or equivalent and you may be asked to take an entrance exam.

Apply directly to the institution you're interested in. Visit their website for deadlines and details of the documents you need to send.

Masters degrees

Masters degrees are awarded following two years of study and involve completing a thesis or research project in addition to coursework and exams. They are broadly equivalent to Masters degrees in the UK.

In certain subjects you can be awarded a postgraduate certificate after just one year of postgraduate study in Iceland.

A growing number of courses at postgraduate level are available in English, or you can choose to study in Icelandic.

To be eligible for Masters-level study you must have successfully completed a three-year Bachelors degree or international equivalent. In many cases this will need to be in a subject related to the Masters programme you're applying for.

If you are not a native speaker of the language your course is taught in, whether that is Icelandic or English, you'll need to demonstrate your proficiency through a recognised test.

PhDs

To be eligible to study a PhD programme at an Icelandic university, you'll need to have successfully completed a Masters degree.

Contact individual institutions to find out about the subjects you can research and the availability of supervisors, and to apply.

A PhD in Icelandic is comparable to the UK version of the qualification. Taking three or four years to complete, you'll undertake a piece of original research, then write and defend your thesis. Most PhD programmes in Iceland can be studied in the English language.

Course fees

Iceland's four public universities do not charge tuition fees. You only need to pay an annual registration fee, currently ISK 75,000 (£540). In addition to this, if you are from outside the EU/European Economic Area (EEA), you will be asked to pay an application fee when you apply.

However, private universities do charge tuition fees. These vary by institution and course, so you should check individual websites for the most up-to-date information.

As an example, EU/EEA students at Reykjavik University will pay ISK 229,000 (€1,630) per semester for an undergraduate course, and between ISK 379,000 (€2,700) and ISK 995,000 (€7,080) per semester for a postgraduate course.

Non-EU/EEA students can expect to pay higher fees.

Funding to study in Iceland

The Icelandic Ministry of Education, Science and Culture awards annual scholarships for the study of Icelandic as a second language at the University of Iceland. Around 15 scholarships are available, covering university registration fees and providing a monthly allowance. This scheme is administered by the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies.

Search for alternative funding opportunities on the websites of individual universities.

How to apply

Applications to study at an Icelandic university should be made directly to the institution, usually via an online form.

You'll need to complete the application form and attach any documents requested. These are likely to include your CV, academic transcripts, a photocopy of your passport, and evidence of your proficiency in the language that your course is taught in.

In some cases you may have to send a printed and signed copy of the form. Any application fees should also be paid at this stage.

Language requirements

Universities in Iceland teach a growing number of courses in English, mostly at Masters level. You'll find these listed on individual institutions' websites. However, the majority of undergraduate programmes are taught in Icelandic, and to fully participate in student life you will need to have some knowledge of the local language.

You can begin learning Icelandic before moving to the country through IcelandicOnline.com. To use this free service, which is provided by the University of Iceland, you will need to create an account and log in. There are six difficulty levels, from 'survival' to advanced. Two of the courses are also offered with additional tutor support at a cost of around £300.

Alternatively, the University Centre of the Westfjords offers short residential courses in the Icelandic language costing between €300 and €600 (£267-£534). Lasting one or three weeks, these are available at beginner or intermediate level and give you the opportunity to experience life in a remote Icelandic town while you learn.

Student visas

Citizens of the EU/EEA don't require a visa to study in Iceland. However, if you're planning on staying for longer than three months, you'll need to register with the authorities. This can be done after you arrive.

Non-EU/EEA students should contact the Icelandic embassy in the country in which they reside as a visa is required to enter the country.

On arrival, all students must apply for a kennitala, an Icelandic ID/social security number. This is required for various practical matters, including opening a bank account.

Comparison to UK qualifications

Undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in Iceland, including Bachelors and Masters degrees, are generally directly equivalent to their UK counterparts. As such, universities and employers should have no problems recognising them when you make applications.

Discover more about the recognition of international qualifications at ENIC-NARIC.

Find out more