Why Study Abroad in Australia or New Zealand?

Australia and New Zealand may be on the other side of the world, but they’re some of the globe’s most popular study abroad destinations. Australia, in fact, is the sixth-most-popular study abroad location for American students. Whether it’s the shared language, the stunning scenery or the locals’ reputation as some of the world’s nicest people, these two countries are both incredibly appealing places to spend a semester or two.

But how to decide? Both places have tons of benefits and great study abroad options, so it may seem impossible to choose just one. Still, there are some major factors to consider, including the climate, culture, different types of programs, expenses, your feelings about rugby, and, most importantly, those accents.

Population, Climate and Location

Nestled next to each other in the Oceania corner of the world, these two island nations are not exactly conveniently located if you’re coming from – well, pretty much anywhere else. Still, their isolation from other continents is part of their appeal – both countries boast unique flora and fauna that can’t be found in any other part of the world. With so much natural beauty, adventure sports for adrenaline junkies and friendly locals, you won’t ever want to leave – which is good, because the nearest countries are still hundreds or even thousands of miles away!

Australia, the world’s sixth-largest country, is the big brother in terms of both population and land mass. The nation has almost 23 million residents – a big increase from the island’s initial Aboriginal population and a few thousand British prisoners – and a whopping 89 percent of them live in the coastal urban areas. In fact, more than half of Australia’s population (14 million, to be exact) lives in the country’s five largest cities.

The famous Outback, which takes up most of the center of the island, is still largely wild, unpopulated territory – pretty, for sure, but probably not where you’ll be doing most of your studies. Home to the Great Barrier Reef (one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world), Ayers Rock, pristine beaches and everyone’s favorite marsupials, Australia has an abundance of natural riches. With this kind of scenery, it’s no wonder the locals are so cheerful. Covered by broad swaths of desert and receiving the second-lowest rainfall of all seven continents (after Antarctica), Australia is mostly hot and dry, with a tropical northern coast and a more temperate climate in the southeast near Sydney. If you’re heading to Australia, make sure to pack your sunscreen.

Comparatively tiny New Zealand – or Aotearoa, as it’s known in the Maori language – is divided between two main islands, creatively named the North and South Islands, and a group of much smaller outlying islands. As one of the world’s youngest and still-changing land masses, New Zealand’s volatile ground has created what might be the globe’s most spectacular land of contrasts. From the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps to the black sand beaches of Muriwai, the stunning fjords of Te Anau National Park to the ski slopes of Queenstown, there’s no reason to spend any more time inside than absolutely necessary.

Just like the topography, the climate of New Zealand varies wildly from one location to another, from the semi-arid Central Otago vineyard plains to the snowcapped peaks of the South Island’s mountains. The islands have mostly cool, temperate weather with plenty of rainfall, but the weather can change unpredictably – the local wisdom is that the only dependable weather prediction is the opposite of whatever the meteorologist on TV says.

With just 4.4 million residents in the whole country, New Zealand actually is, as the joke goes, home to far more sheep than people (about a 7:1 sheep:human ratio, to be exact). Almost 75 percent of those people live on the North Island, with about a third concentrated in the Auckland metropolitan area, so there are plenty of places where you can actually see the stars.

Cost of Living in Australia vs New Zealand

The conventional wisdom about Australia has always been that it’s expensive, and unfortunately this is one stereotype that’s based in fact. Living on an island is, by definition, rarely cheap, since anything you might want that doesn’t grow there has to be imported. Fear not though, study abroad students! There is budget fun to be had down under.

Mercer’s cost of living rankings from 2012 had Sydney at #11, just barely missing the cut to join the illustrious club of the world’s top 10 most expensive cities. Melbourne was close behind at 15, Perth was 19th, and capital Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide followed right behind at 23, 24 and 27, respectively. A more recent study put both Sydney and Melbourne in the world’s top five, with Sydney ranked third.

At the current exchange rate, the Australian dollar is about equal to the US dollar, but prices are far from equivalent. Some goods retail for similar prices to those found overseas, but food in particular can be extremely expensive. A six-pack of beer sells for around $15, while a pint out at a bar will run you about $10 – prices that could even give pause to a New Yorker. The University of Technology Sydney recommends that international students prepare for life in the city by arriving with somewhere between A$14,786 and A$25,680 for a full year there. In fact, as of July 2012, international students headed to Australia must demonstrate that they have at least A$18,610 if they intend to spend a year studying in the country. If your heart is set on Australia, you should start saving your pennies (and hundred dollar bills) now.

In comparison, studying abroad in New Zealand is certainly a affordable option, with the highest-ranked city, Auckland, clocking in at #56. The only other city to land in the top 200 was the capital of Wellington, at a respectable 74. They’re still not cheap cities, compared to other regions of the world, but next to their neighbor, they’re positively a bargain.

Right now, USD $1 will get you NZD$1.2 – not a huge difference, but that .2 adds up eventually. A pint of beer at a bar should cost about $3.75 and an average movie ticket will be about $8.50. You can get a basic meal at a restaurant for between $6.75- $12.50, while two miles in a taxi will cost about $7.50. These prices still aren’t dirt-cheap, but they’re probably more equivalent to what you’re used to paying in cities at home.

“Between Australia and New Zealand, I would say NZ all the way. New Zealand has somewhat of a “frontier” feel to it; people look out for each other and there is a sense that we’re all in this together. If you’re looking to go to a place where you can have an adventure, meet some great people, and not spend as much as you would in Europe, New Zealand is the place for you.” – Sarah Timmings, former NZ student

Universities and Programs in Australia versus New Zealand

If you choose to study abroad in Australia, you’re almost certainly going to be in one of the major cities. Sydney has the widest range of different programs and universities, including Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, generally considered one of the top schools in the country. Programs offer studies in fields from botany to linguistics, and many include cultural activities and excursions to places like the Great Barrier Reef, the Outback, or even other countries like New Zealand or Thailand. Programs in other cities like Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth all have their own benefits like access to world-class arts programs and research, proximity to natural attractions like the Gold Coast and koala sanctuaries, and one-of-a-kind study opportunities like marine biology or conservation work.

With only a handful of cities, study abroad programs in New Zealand are concentrated almost entirely in Auckland and Wellington, with a few scattered in smaller cities like Dunedin and Christchurch. Most Auckland programs are affiliated with the highly regarded University of Auckland (the country’s top school), and they offer students the chance to study everything from political science to Hebrew. In Dunedin, you can study at the University of Otago, New Zealand’s first university, or head to Victoria University in the cultural hub of Wellington. Some programs also provide opportunities for internships with local businesses or organizations- considering the country’s relatively small workforce, these are a great way to get more involved with the culture and issues you care about!

Culture and Life Down Under

As one of the world’s most urbanized countries, Australia’s cities are the place to be. Cosmopolitan Sydney boasts world-famous architecture, top restaurants, excellent museums and theater and one of the globe’s best aquariums. We’ve heard there’s a famous building there, too. Smaller cities like culturally rich Melbourne and the more industrial western coastal city of Perth don’t have the same international draw, but still have plenty to keep you busy for a semester (constant beach access, anyone?).

Australia is an interesting mix of Western Anglo and Aborigine influences, with the country trying to find a balance between the two very different backgrounds of its population. Known for wine production, tall movie stars and attractive Olympic swimmers, Australia is a relaxed nation of friendly, fun-loving people who are just as happy to toss a Frisbee around with you as to give you directions or share a beer (or three).

Like any siblings, New Zealand and Australia have a long-running, mostly-friendly rivalry, based primarily on making jokes about the other nationality’s romantic preferences for sheep and peculiar accent patterns. The competition only really heats up around important rugby matches, so just be aware which country you’re in before you say anything flattering about the other nation.

Even more so than Australia, New Zealand is all about the outdoors and thrill-seaking: every region has its own distinct features, activities and awe-inspiring scenery. It seems like everyone in the country has a part-time job at an outdoor adventure company, at least two pair of hiking boots and a tent ready to go at a moment’s notice. With one of the lowest median incomes in the developed world, New Zealand residents (or Kiwis, as they’re better known) are used to making the best of what they have – and for most of them, this means spending as much time as possible enjoying the natural beauty of their surroundings. Cities like Auckland, Wellington and still-recovering Christchurch have plenty to offer in the way of restaurants, art and nightlife, but the main draw of the country will always be its non-manmade features.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of New Zealand is its renewed emphasis on recognizing and celebrating the culture of the Maori people – the islands’ original residents. Currently, almost 15 percent of the population identifies as Maori, with an even higher percentage among younger groups. Over the last few decades, there has been a large-scale effort to preserve the Maori culture and incorporate it into all aspects of Kiwi life.

Many signs across the country are printed in both English and Maori, and people will often refer to locations by their Maori names. The language is taught in schools across the country – if you have time to study it, it’s a fascinating and important piece of New Zealand’s heritage.

The culture is relaxed and casual – it’s not uncommon to see people walking around the streets of urban Auckland with no shoes. There are even offices that allow their employees to go shoeless – however shirts, as far as we know, are still required. Rugby is king here, so brush up on your knowledge of tries and scrums before you venture out in an All Blacks (the beloved national team) jersey. Kiwis are very conscious about their international image – as a foreigner, everyone in the country will interrogate you about your experience there, and even one tiny criticism is enough to cause concern. Luckily, there’s very little to criticize about this gorgeous, friendly nation.

Travel as much as you can within Australia. It can be expensive and time-consuming, because Australia’s such a big country. But I saved beforehand, and it was so worth it – I saw country houses, the beach, the outback, mountains, the Great Ocean Road, the beautiful big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, the Sydney Opera House…there are so many different landscapes to see and experiences to be had in one country! – Megan Sugrue, former OZ student

The Breakdown

Wanna read the fine print? Here are some conclusions: you should choose to study abroad in Australia if you want to live in a vibrant, active city, can “keep up” with the partying locals, and prefer hot, dry weather and beaches. It also helps if you’ve always wanted to see a kangaroo in person and don’t mind breaking the piggy bank to do it!

On the flip side, you should head to New Zealand if you want to be in the middle of nature, are okay with eating lamb three times a week and don’t mind changing weather (and lots of rain!). If you’ve often wondered if you are a hobbit or not (shoes are overrated) and think jumping off of a bridge sounds GREAT, New Zealand will be the perfect fit! Students in New Zealand often rave about the fantastic time they had studying abroad there.

Both New Zealand and Australia have tons to offer study abroad students. There are differences in price, weather, location and free-time activities, but both countries are high-demand destinations for a reason. Most people who study abroad in either of these countries return home already planning their next visit back. By all means, go, but be prepared to fall in love with whichever country you ultimately choose.