Contrary to what people may think, South Africa is much more than safaris, wildlife, and warm weather. Also known as the Rainbow Nation because of its multicultural and diverse society, this country has gone through tough times when they had to fight against segregation and defend their rights. Fortunately, they’ve been able to leave their dark past behind, and they are now improving every aspect of the nation. One of these is higher education, which has significantly changed and improved since the last century. This article will discuss cheap universities in South Africa for international students.

Higher education in South Africa has recently gained a great reputation, especially in terms of preparation for the job market. Many South African universities have a place in global university rankings, and 61% of students think that the education they receive prepares them to find a job after graduation.

Studying in South Africa is a great option for those pursuing a degree in social sciences, medicine, natural sciences, and even engineering or architecture! Students will be in contact with a diverse and multiracial society, they will be able to explore the natural wonders and study the exotic flora and fauna, and they will have the opportunity to join one of the multiple projects of urban development.

The higher education system was recently redesigned. The process started in 1994 and finished in 2005. Public universities are currently divided into three groups that offer academic degree programs (from traditional universities), professional or vocational degree programs (from technological universities or “technikons”), and a mixture of both. During this process, many institutions were merged with and incorporated into other universities.

Also, the government’s budget for education has significantly increased. In 2013, 21% of the national budget was for education, and half of that was assigned to higher education.

In 2017, the president announced that universities in South Africa would be free for low-income South African families. Although both public and private universities charge tuition fees to international students, they are very affordable, and the experience of studying here will give you much more than just a degree.

Living costs are also affordable. This will depend on the area where you live, but you should be able to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the city for around $400. Also, many universities have their own student dorms.

For those interested in living the experience of studying in South Africa and debunking their preconceptions about this country, we prepared a list of cheap universities in South Africa. But first, let’s quickly cover what you need to study here as an international student.

Affordable Schools in South Africa for International Students

1. University of Cape Town (UCT)

The University of Cape Town is one of the best in South Africa. It is the oldest public university in the country and was founded almost two centuries ago, in 1829. It was ranked as the 198th-best university in the QS World University Ranking, and the 22nd-best of the BRICS, which is an association of five important emerging economies: China, South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and India.

It has six faculties with over 50 departments. There are also many extracurricular activities, with 36 sports clubs and 80 student societies. In 2016, there were almost 30,000 students enrolled, and 17.7% of them were international students, which is 4,674 international students.

If you visit their website, you’ll find a section that is exclusive to international students. There they explain the application process and the requirements. Besides bachelor and postgraduate programs, they also offer short academic programs. All the programs are taught in English. They also have a university residence, but it only has 6,000 spots available, so demand is high.

As for 2019, tuition fees for international students are R 90,000 per year, which is around $6,400. Because of its low tuition of $6,400 a year for an excellent education, the University of Cape Town is one of the cheapest universities in South Africa. If you need help to finance your education, UCT has scholarship options for both domestic and international students.

2. University of the Witwatersrand

Better known as Wits, the University of the Witwatersrand was founded in 1896, which makes it the third oldest in South Africa. This cheap university in South Africa ranked as the 400th best in the QS World University Ranking and as the 40th best in BRICS.

It has five campuses in the city of Johannesburg. Two of them are located in Braamfontein and the rest are in Park Town. It also has five faculties, 14 museums, one planetarium, two main libraries, and 12 additional libraries that belong to the faculties. There are six residencies available for all students.

In order to apply to Wits, you must ask for your Matriculation Exemption, fill out the online application form, submit the required documents, and pay the application fee. International students must show language proficiency certification. They prefer IETLS or CAE test results. They also offer English courses for those who want to improve their English level.

Tuition fees will vary greatly depending on the major you choose and if you are a full-time or part-time student. They have a PDF document in which they explain in detail how payments work. Annual fees can be as little as R 41 840 (around $3,000) in the case of anthropology for example, or increase up to R 70,000 (around $5,000) in the case of some health sciences programs.

However, international students have to pay two times local tuition fees. This means that if you want to study anthropology, you’ll have to pay $6,000 per year instead of $3,000. There are certain exemptions to this, like students that come from a country that belongs to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or asylum seekers.

3. University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria is another affordable public university in South Africa that was founded after Wits, in 1908. It is the 45th best in BRICS and the 561st best in the QS World University Ranking.

This university has nine faculties, a business school, multiple libraries, and museums. It is one of the biggest universities in South Africa because it has seven campuses located in Pretoria and Johannesburg, and educates around 49,000 students each year. It also has 27 undergraduate and post-graduate residencies.

As for activities, they have 30 sports clubs, over 100 student clubs, and 10 sports academies. The University of Pretoria is the South African leader in the field of research, and they are well known for their postgraduate degree programs.

The application process is done online. They have a detailed guide on their website where they explain every aspect of admissions: the process, documents required, important dates, additional payments, the steps to follow, etc.

Until January 2019, Afrikaans was used along with English in the programs of the university. However, they changed this policy, and now English will be the only language used. This also means that you’ll have to submit a language proficiency certification if you aren’t from an English-speaking country.

As for tuition and fees, the case is similar to Wits, because international students have to pay double local fees. However, fees change depending on the year. Some increase as the student gets close to the end of the major, and some decrease.

Local fees range from R 28,000 to R 67,000 (around $2,000 to $5,000) in the first year. This means that international students are expected to pay from $4,000 to $10,000 during the first year, which is cheap compared to the cost of education in the USA, Canada, and the UK. Also, most majors are under R 45,000 (local fee). And students can pay in two partial amounts instead of everything at the beginning.

4. Stellenbosch University

The Stellenbosch University (SU) was founded in 1918 and is located in Stellenbosch, Western Cape. It is the 427th best in the QS World Ranking and the 51st in BRICS.

It has four campuses, 10 faculties, over 40 research institutes, and around 150 departments. It also has 34 residencies available for both domestic and international students.

SU is one of the few cheap universities in South Africa that still offer bilingual education, which means that lectures are offered in English and Afrikaans. However, this won’t be a problem for international students as they aren’t allowed to take courses in Afrikaans unless they come from Belgium and the Netherlands or can prove Afrikaans language proficiency. So, you’ll be able to complete your degree in English without any problem. Check their language center to learn more.

They explain the application process in their international students’ section. Check it out to learn what you need and the steps you have to follow.

As for tuition fees in 2019, they are R 60,000 (around $4,200) unless you come from a country that belongs to SADC. However, international students have to pay an International Registration Fee (ITF). This fee doesn’t apply if you are from a country that belongs to SADC. If you are from any other African country, ITF is R 22,170 (around $1,500). For any other nationality, the ITF is R 46,860 (around $3,300). This must be paid before or at registration.

5. University of Johannesburg 

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is the newest university on our list of cheap universities in South Africa. It was founded in 2005 after merging three different institutions: Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), two campuses of Vista University, and the Technikon Witwatersrand (TWR). It is the 501st best in the QS World University Ranking and the 61st best in BRICS.

It is one of the largest universities in terms of the number of students, with about 51,000 students. It has four campuses, almost 30 research centers, and eight faculties. There are 35 residencies throughout the four campuses, and UJ has privately owned accommodation outside the campuses. Around 19,000 students can benefit from them.

In their international section, they explain the process of application in detail, including visa requirements, documents, Matriculation Exemption, language proficiency certification, etc. Make sure to check the programs carefully, as this is a comprehensive university, which means they offer undergraduate degrees and technological programs.

Regarding tuition fees in 2019, international students will have to pay between R 102,280 and R 110,330 (around $7,000 and $7,800) depending on the major. This could make it the most expensive university on the list depending on the program you choose, but students aren’t required to pay everything upfront.  Actually, fees have to be paid in three partial amounts of 30%, 35%, and 35%.

FAQS About Studying in South Africa

What do I Need to Study at a University in South Africa as an International Student?

In order to enroll in a South African university, the application process is done online on the website of each university. Each institution establishes its own document and GPA requirements, but there are some steps that are common for all universities.

South African universities require students to submit a “Matriculation Exemption”. This is a legal document that is given to South African students when they successfully finish their secondary education and it must be submitted when applying to a university.

International students are also required to submit the Matriculation Exemption, but as they didn’t complete their secondary education in South Africa, they’ll have to apply to get one. This document is issued by the Matriculation Board, to which international students must send a series of documents. The board will check and approve the documents that qualify and will give students their Matriculation Exemption so they can enroll in the university they choose.

Depending on the degree program you choose, requirements may vary. For some, you’ll have to submit essays, for others you have to take tests, and there are some to which you’ll only have to send the required documents.

Students must have a valid student visa before moving to South Africa, so we suggest you start the process as early as you can because getting the visa and the Matriculation Exemption could take a while.

Lastly, language shouldn’t be a big concern here as English is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. However, you must submit a language proficiency certification if you aren’t from an English-speaking country. Also, there are some universities that have degree programs that combine English with another commonly spoken official language, such as Afrikaans. So, make sure to check all the details of the program you want to study before applying.

Check Also: Available Programs for International Students


We hope that this article on cheap universities in South Africa was helpful. If you are interested in pursuing your education abroad, feel free to check out the Available Programs for International Students.

About the Author: Hyun Lee

Hi! I am Hyun, and I am the founder at Global Scholarships. I've received a full-tuition scholarship at Birmingham-Southern College and a $1,000 Burger King Scholarship for my undergraduate degree and was offered a fully funded scholarship consisting of tuition, living stipend, and health insurance for computer science Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University. You can read more about my scholarship journey here. If you are interested, you can follow me on Linkedin where I regularly write about scholarship opportunities.

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