What Were the Top Destinations for International Students in 2023?

Over the past decade, international student populations around the world have risen substantially. While much of this growth has occurred in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US, students are increasingly interested in studying in other destinations.

Earlier this year, we predicted that 2024 is likely to see a marked shift of student flows towards a broad range of host countries. In turn, this growing student interest has caused many countries to adopt new or revised policies to attract students to their institutions.1 These policy shifts will accelerate developing trends in global student mobility, especially towards non-traditional markets.

With this in mind, we’ve turned to the authority on global student movement statistics: Project Atlas. A global research initiative studying postsecondary student migration, Project Atlas illuminates the top destinations for international students.2 Which countries boomed in 2023 and which ones face waning student interest? Read on to find out more about the top trends from Project Atlas 2023.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • In 2023, there were 6.4 million international students around the world—that’s the same number of international students studying in 2022.
  • The “big four” markets—Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US—accounted for nearly 44% of all international students in 2023, up from 40% in 2022.
  • Institutions in the US welcomed over 1 million international students in 2023, returning to pre-pandemic levels.
  • France surpassed Australia as the fourth most popular destination for international students for the first time since 2017.

Top International Destinations — 2020 vs. 2023

Despite the many obstacles posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there were nearly 5.6 million international students studying at institutions abroad. At that time, nearly half of these students studied in one of the “big four” destination markets: Australia (7%), Canada (9%), the US (20%), and the UK (10%).3

Three years later, the international student population has stabilized. In 2023, 6.4 million postsecondary students studied abroad, the same total as in 2022.

This lack of growth highlights how dynamic the international education sector has become. Institutions in “big four” countries welcomed 44% of the global international student population in 2023. By comparison, those same institutions accounted for 40% of globally mobile students in 2022.

Let’s take a closer look at the distribution of international students over the past three years:

While the proportion of international students headed to many countries has remained stable, this doesn’t tell the whole story. The number of students traveling to a “big four” institution rose by 200,000 from 2020 to 2023. However, students headed to other destinations climbed by over 600,000. That means resurgent and emerging host countries grew at a much faster rate than the big four over the past three years.

Fastest-Growing Destination Countries in the World

As competition for international students increases, growth rates help show which countries are attracting students away from other destinations. This doesn’t just include emerging markets, either: Canada and the UK have both experienced over 30% growth in the last three years.

The table below ranks the fastest-growing destination countries in the world from 2020 to 2023:

As we detailed in our 2024 Trends Report, international students are increasingly seen as a key part of long-term population growth for major global economies. Yet some new government policies—adopted to address cost of living, post-graduation work, and immigration pathway challenges—may push students to consider new host countries in the coming years.

Shifting Trends in Host Countries

Here are some of the most interesting trends, broken down by region:

Europe on the Rise

European countries—especially the UK, France, and Germany—have long been popular destinations for international students. Prior to significantly increased student flows to Canada and Australia arising in the mid-2010s, Europe attracted nearly half of all students studying abroad.4

Now, European destinations are rising in popularity once again. Since 2010, five countries in the EU have achieved international student population growth over 5%, as has the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany all surpassed 10% growth since 2020. Not far behind, France and Spain have also seen thriving international education sectors. In fact, France reclaimed its spot as the fourth most popular destination for studying abroad in 2023, passing Australia for the first time since 2017.

What’s causing this boom? The UK’s recent growth is largely thanks to the International Education Strategy, a ten-year plan that has already far surpassed the government’s goal of 600,000 international students in the UK by 2030. However, recent changes to the UK’s Graduate Route, and plans to review the program entirely, will likely curtail this growth trend. Coupled with the UK government’s announcement to limit international student dependents, these policies will likely push students away from the UK in 2024.

Germany’s success is likely largely tied to greater student consideration of program affordability. Germany offers free tuition to non-EU students at most public institutions.5 And, thanks to new labour force integration initiatives, Germany is creating a welcoming environment for students to immigrate after graduation.

Another growing European destination market for international students is the Netherlands. The top source market for institutions in the Netherlands in 2023 was Germany, and most international students in the Netherlands come from other EU nations. As we explored last year, the Netherlands has benefited from a competitive post-graduation work program and immigration pathways.6

Sweden has also seen promising growth over the past three years. Sweden, which had less than 20,000 international students in 2013,7 has seen consistent growth year after year. Known for informal teaching strategies and a focus on group work,8 Swedish institutions pride themselves on offering a different kind of education.

By contrast, Spanish institutions have benefitted from the rise in student mobility among Spanish-speaking students in the Americas. The number of students from Mexico and South America studying in Spain increased by 15% from 2020 to 2023. This was only surpassed by a 25% surge in students from France studying in Spain, likely buoyed by the popularity of the EU’s Erasmus+ program and low tuition fees.9

South America Growing in Popularity

While Spain is a popular destination among students from South America, it’s facing increased pressure from institutions in Argentina and Chile:

Over the past three years, Chile was the second fastest growing destination for international students, exceeding 80% growth. Its neighbour, Argentina, experienced a 31% rise in international students from 2020 to 2023.

One of the main factors driving this growth? The booming popularity of Spanish-language instruction for postsecondary studies. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world.10 In 2013, the British Council even ranked Spanish as the #1 “Language of the Future” due to rising global influence. And, with Spanish language skills in high demand throughout the US, the attractiveness of Spanish-led programs is likely to continue to grow.

Pacific Nations Trending Down

When international student populations are stable, not all destination countries can experience growth. From 2020 to 2023, Japan and New Zealand saw declining popularity among students looking to study abroad:

Both countries have seen reduced student interest since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But these trends aren’t as dire as they may seem. Each nation has set out its own plan to attract students from around the world, and many have seen great results already:

While it may take years to know the full impact of these efforts, there’s a nearby nation that may entice students towards a different destination.

The Philippines was the fastest-growing destination for international students from 2020 to 2023. In 2020, nearly 8,000 students traveled to the Philippines for their postsecondary education. By 2023, this number had rocketed to over 24,000—that’s a growth rate of over 225%.

Although the number of students studying abroad in the Philippines remains relatively small, the source of this growth is important. Over 70% of international students in the Philippines come from India, and sustained demand from Indian students could drive major growth in the coming years.11

Could the Philippines switch from a major source market to a key host nation? Probably not anytime soon. Over 24,000 Canadian study permits were approved for Filipino students in 2022, showing that student outflows remain a dominant trend.

Growing Opportunities for International Students

There are more options than ever before for students looking to find a high-quality international education. Around the world, governments have realized the value of international students for their institutions, their economies, and their long-term growth.

This means that opportunities abound for students willing to explore growing, non-traditional markets. Many destinations we explored in this piece—and others including South Korea, Taiwan, and Egypt—are actively introducing new measures to attract students from abroad. This is great news for students, especially for those who are worried about the cost of their international education.

The international education sector is as volatile now as it has been since the pandemic. But countries that implement policies and processes that remove barriers for students can take advantage of the unusual uncertainty surrounding the big four destinations. Streamlined intake processes, measures to address cost of living concerns, and robust post-graduation work opportunities are just some of the key factors that will impact international student flows.

Institutions need to work hand in hand with their governments to ensure a positive experience for international students throughout their journey, from enrollment to immigration.


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About the ApplyInsights Team

Led by ApplyBoard Co-Founder and CEO Meti Basiri, the ApplyInsights Team analyzes the latest government, third-party, and ApplyBoard internal data to provide a complete picture of trends in the international education industry. They also work with industry experts and ApplyBoard team members to gather local insights across key source and destination countries, where ApplyBoard has helped more than 800,000 students around the world.



1. See our ApplyInsights article on recent policy shifts in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US.

2. Project Atlas data is provided by in-country partners involved in the international education sector, including government departments and NGOs, on a voluntary basis. As a result, data is not available for all countries for all years. Additionally, each country calculates postsecondary student numbers using different methodologies, meaning it is not possible to uniformly compare data from all countries. Despite these challenges, Project Atlas is one of the few global initiatives to provide clarity into global student flows.

3. All data courtesy of Project Atlas, 2023 Release, unless otherwise stated.

4. Based on analysis of UNESCO student mobility data from 2000 to 2014.

5. All German states abolished tuition fees for undergraduate and Master’s students at public institutions in 2016, although Baden-Württemberg reintroduced fees for non-EU students in 2017.

6. International student graduates can apply for a one-year residency permit within three years of graduating, allowing students to return home before returning to work in the Netherlands.

7. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

8. According to Sweden’s official Study in Sweden portal.

9. Based on price per credit information available through Estudiar en Espana.

10. According to the 2023 edition of Ethnologue.

11. As seen historically in Canada and recently in the UK.


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