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A Student's Guide to Living in Brazil

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Oscar Niemeyer (Architect – UN Headquarters in New York and Serpentine building in London’s Hyde Park), Paulo Coelho (Mystical author), Fernando Meirelles (Film director – The Constant Gardener), Francisco Costa (Calvin Klein designer), Gisele Bündchen (Supermodel), Rubens Barichello (F1 driver) and Pelé (Football legend)… What do they have in common? They’re all from Brazil!

The country has been producing some fascinating and diverse people known the world over. A country of contrast, a laid back attitude, a geography like no other, a Latin American culture unlike any of its neighbouring countries – what will you make of Brazil?

If you are a sports fan Brazil is an exciting place to be in the next few years: the FIFA World Cup 2014 will be hosted in Brazil (and I have it on good authority that Brazilians are quite keen on football!) and the 2016 Olympic Games will be in Rio de Janeiro (famous for its amazing annual carnival).

In contrast to its rigorous higher education system, Brazil’s laid back attitude (you may hear “Calma gringo, calma” = Relax foreigner, relax), is something of national philosophy so don’t be surprised if people seem very relaxed about everything in Brazil. Just beware that the laid back attitude can extend to everyday life and don’t be surprised if buses are late or if, in shops or restaurants, things don’t move as fast as you are used to.

Visas and immigration

Interestingly enough, and despite a relaxed attitude to life, there is actually a lot of red tape and bureaucracy in Brazil. The process of obtaining a visa is rather lengthy. It is difficult to say whether it is the laid back character of Brazilian officials or the bureaucratic process which causes this (laid back bureaucracy? Did I not say Brazil was a country of contrast?!)

As a student, you will have to apply for a visa belonging to the category of “temporary residence” visas which involve considerably more bureaucracy than the simple tourist visa (which would not be long enough for your Masters or PhD). Visas for studies in Brazil are issued for up to one year (renewable).

You will have to apply for your student visa well before your departure to Brazil at a Brazilian embassy or consulate in your home country. In most cases the application process takes two – three months so allow plenty of time.

For a temporary residence visa, students have to submit the following documents:

  • A passport with a minimum remaining validity of 6 months.
  • Application form (Pedido de Visto) in duplicate.
  • Two passport-size photos.
  • Police statement of no criminal record (not older than 3 months), 1 original and 1 copy
  • Proof of sufficient funds for the duration of the stay This may be bank statements, scholarship letter or a letter of guarantee from your parents.
  • Medical examination and yellow fever vaccination card (only if you are from countries it applies to).
  • Confirmation from your educational institution in Brazil stating your enrolment and the duration of your stay. Your host university has to be recognised by the Brazilian Ministry of Education.

Once in Brazil you have to register with the Federal Police within 30 days of your arrival. Beware, Federal police offices are sometimes found in international airports rather than in the city you are living in (therefore if you can bear it, complete your police registration when you land in the city you’ll be studying in). Police registration is necessary in order to formalise your stay and to get an ID card for foreigners. If you fail to present yourself for police registration, a tax will be charged for each day past the 30 days limit. It may prevent you from applying for visa extensions or visa renewal.

As a temporary residence visa holder, you may also apply for a visa for accompanying family members. Note also that as a student in Brazil you are not permitted to take up any remunerated job and it is the same for any dependents or spouse that comes with you.

When you are at the point of requiring a visa renewal, you will have to submit an application to the Federal Police Department at least 30 days before the expiration date.

Living costs and banking

Living costs

Brazil remains a fairly affordable country to live in and, unless you are aiming to live in luxury it is easy to eat well and take part in leisure activities without breaking the bank. Below are some indicative prices to help you plan a budget. Variations will reflect differences in prices between regions or in large cities.

Product or Service Price in R$

Meal at an inexpensive restaurant


Meal for two at mid-range restaurant


Cappuccino in a café


One-way ticket (Local Transport)


Monthly public transport pass


Basic utilities (electricity, heating, water, rubbish collection) for medium-sized flat

150-260/month (not applicable if lodging or in pensionata)



Fitness club (outside of university)


Cinema ticket


Opening a bank account

The Brazilian banking system is one of the most complex and bureaucratic in the civilized world. But in a way this doesn’t matter too much because temporary residents (such as students) generally cannot hold a bank account Brazil. It is recommended therefore that you try opening an account with an international bank such as Citibank, HSBC or others that may also operate in your home country. This may facilitate transfers of funds you may have in your country of origin. Before you leave for Brazil, check whether your bank has branches in Brazil. If not, you may have to open a new account at home first.

Healthcare and health insurance

Few universities offer student accommodation to international students so your options are a bit more limited than in other countries. It will also be quite difficult to secure accommodation before your arrival. The international office of your university may have some advice about finding a place to stay. One option on arrival are hostels (R$35-100/day). For longer term options, you will have the choice of:

  • Lodging (ie: renting out a bedroom in a property where the owner lives) R$160-350/month. This a great option if you want to immerse yourself in the Brazilian culture.
  • Pensionata: R$350-800/month for a room with meals included.
  • Furnished flat: up to R$2,000/month (depending on the city you live in, prices can be as reasonable as R$400)

Discovering Brazil

Food and drink

The variety in Brazilian cuisine comes from indigenous European and African influences. You’ll find there is a national cuisine but it is marked by regional culinary tradition. Despite its unique characteristics, Brazilian cuisine is not well-known internationally which actually is weird (when you come to think of it) for a country of that size and with the diversity of food specialities and fresh produce it has.

Brazilian food can be very simple, based on fresh vegetables, beans (and other pulses), rice and meat or fish. It doesn’t mean, however, that it lacks in favour. Feijoada, a stew of beans with beef and pork, is considered as the national dish and it originates from Portugal (you’ll find similar dishes in other former Portuguese colonies).

Markets are definitely worth exploring if you want to source out fresh produce, exotic fruit in particular. Root vegetables such as cassava, yams/sweet potato, and fruit like açaí, cupuaçu, mango, papaya, guava, orange, passion fruit, pineapple, and hog plum are among the local ingredients used in cooking.

Coffee is the most common beverage in Brazil and cachaça is the native liquor, distilled from sugar cane and the main ingredient in the cocktail, caipirinha.


Brazil is a huge country so depending on where you live, the climate can vary considerably. In general you can expect a fairly temperate climate in coastal regions (where most of the 200 million Brazilians live).

In the North (the Amazonian regions), the rainy season is from November to May while the Southern regions experience hot summers and very cold winters. Remember also that Brazil is the Southern hemisphere and that the worse of the winter will be in July and August.


Bus travel in Brazil is comfortable, efficient, and affordable. The only problem is it's a long way from anywhere to anywhere else. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time with reserved seats. All buses are non-smoking, and in most cases people adhere to the regulations. On many popular routes travellers can opt for a deluxe coach with air-conditioning and leito (seats that recline almost flat).

Renting a car is expensive, and the distances are huge. From Recife to Brasilia is 2,121km (1,315 miles) while the route from Salvador to Rio is a 1,800km (1,116-mile) drive. Within Brazilian cities driving a car is not for the faint-hearted: you may find that local drivers are on the aggressive side, driving rules are sporadically applied, and parking is a competitive sport.

Although both the bus and road networks are of good quality, the sheer vastness of Brazil (and the lack of rail travel) makes air travel the most time-efficient way of travelling. Since the closure of several Brazilian airlines, Varig, Transbrasil and Vasp, the choice of companies is more limited. However, TAM (now the only national airline) continues to operate internal flights and worldwide routes. Low-cost company Gol is also a good option to travel within Brazil or to other South American countries.

Sites you must see

The fifth largest country in the world offers many attractions and historic sites for students, although, be warned, you may struggle to see everything!

With white sandy beaches, tropical islands, music-filled metropolises and charming colonial towns, Brazil’s coasts as much to offer, from the easy going coast and carnival culture of Salvador to the historic ports of São Luís. The country’s capital city is Brasilia, not Rio or São Paulo, as people often mistakenly suggest (notably during trivia games). Brasilia is not particularly well known and competes for the limelight against the iconic Rio de Janeiro and the vast metropolis of São Paulo.

Inland there are a few cities, such as Manaus, but the tourist attractions are the imposing waterfalls, such as those found in the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Iguaçu National Park, wetlands filled with wildlife, and the untouched wilderness of the Amazon River and Rainforest.

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