Over the last couple of months, I have come across various articles shared on my social media networks, declaring (almost festively) that attending university in Germany is free for national and international students alike.
Now that I have some time as a university student behind me, I decided to write about the extent to which studying in Germany is really free. Let me tell you right away that I can’t actually name an exact sum as expenses may vary from person to person. I want to mention some aspects that are good to keep in mind considering your budget as a potential student in Germany since the term “free education” may be interpreted differently.
In comparison to the American or Canadian system, in Germany there is not really such a thing as actual TUITION fees if you choose to attend a state owned university. The university staff and anything purchased for the university is paid by the government, not by parts of the fees that students pay. There is however, a fee you have to pay each semester in order to be or stay enrolled. This we call Semestergebühren or just semester fees which are (at the university where I am at) made up of the following:
contribution to student union: € 8,70
contribution to student government: € 48, 77
enrollment/re-registration fee: € 50,00
student public transport ticket (optional): € 189,10
The public transport ticket provided by the university is optional for you to obtain. Considering the cost of a regular public transport ticket, even the one for apprentices which would cost you € 740 per year, the university ticket is your cheapest option (€ 378,20 per year). In Berlin it covers all regions A, B and C. If you study in one city but live in another, you can get a ticket that you can use in the city of your university as well in the place you live in.
The most important thing to mention here is that while you may have to pay an administrative fee here and there, your actual college credits are free. It’s not like I have to pay higher fees a semester with my 43 credits registered, than someone who chose to do 28 this semester.
Food and drink: Mensa Card
In order to eat at the university cafeteria, you will have to purchase a so called Mensakarte, a little card onto which you can put money to pay for your meals. You have to deposit € 1,50 upon receiving the card. Once you turn it back in because you don’t need it anymore, you will get the deposit back.
Prices in university cafeterias are divided into three categories: students, staff and visitors. The student prices are the lowest and the guest prices are the highest so if you don’t pay with your cafeteria card and don’t show your student ID, you will have to pay the guest price. The price of a meal for students can range from 55 cents up to roughly € 4, depending on what you want to eat.
You can use your Mensakarte in every university cafeteria of your town but (since recently) not in other German towns.
At the beginning of the semester in the first week of class, pay close attention to what your prof says about textbooks. Just because you get a list of books for the course, that doesn’t mean you have to have read ALL of them in order to pass. This semester none of my professors made a book mandatory. The information essential for the exams is always distributed in class or uploaded to our online platform. Some professors might give you a list of suggested textbooks and ask you to get only one of them, whichever suits you more.
Many of the textbooks I need are provided as online resources by my university. However, that option may vary from university to university as some are funded more than others. If a textbook is not available online, there is a good chance that it will be available as a hard copy in the university library or at one of the various city libraries. In Berlin most textbooks are easy to find in big book shops or can be ordered online. They usually cost about € 20 per book, except for the one or the other very specific copy (there is one I need for a seminar that costs € 99) but even for such cases there is always a textbook flea market organized by students at the beginning of the semester, or you can find offers on eBay.
Another important thing you need to consider is the cost of living in Germany. Some sources I have come across say that a student needs about € 600 a month to survive but that really depends on your lifestyle and whether you can get a good flat sharing deal. If you are lucky, you may even get a dorm room and live on campus but let me tell you that people wait several years to finally get a dorm room so flat sharing is much more popular here.
In a way one could argue that studying in Germany is not exactly free because a.) tuition is paid by tax money of those who work (an argument I recently heard by an American) and b.) there are the semester fees. But in my opinion, compared to the unbelievable sums students pay overseas just to get their credits, cost of living put aside, Germany is really the best option for you. If you are already willing to invest thousands of dollars into your education, in Germany you will most likely be able to save some of that money. I shall write another post about the benefits of studying in Germany as an international student in the near future hopefully.