Your GI Bill benefits don’t just help you pay for tuition at colleges in the United States – they can be a passport to the world’s universities.

But if you opt to use the GI Bill at a foreign school, be ready for a long list of challenges, from VA bureaucracy to language and cultural issues.

“You definitely have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is going to be challenging on multiple levels,” said Will Hubbard, chief of staff at Student Veterans of America. “The kind of support for veterans in the United States, compared to the support for veterans overseas, is a little different.”

You’ll encounter one of the biggest challenges immediately at the start of the process: Getting the Veterans Affairs Department to approve and correctly process GI Bill benefit usage at the foreign school.

Less than one-third of one percent of GI Bill beneficiaries attended foreign universities in fiscal 2018 – about 2,750 students among 912,100 overall GI Bill users, according to VA.

Look out for the red tape

Bureaucratic problems are likely a big part of the reason for those small numbers.

Foreign universities contacted by Military Times indicated serious frustration and confusion over VA rules, said they had no ability to track their student veterans and in some cases didn’t respond at all.

Anders Olof Hagstrom, director of global educational affairs at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, said he knows of one student who pursued an MBA at his institution in 2006 – and that’s it. Since then, a couple of students tried to start the approval process to use the GI Bill at the school, but based on available records, Hagstrom believes they ultimately didn’t attend.

For the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, VA reporting requirements are a major hurdle. The agency requires schools to track and report student grades, academic progress and other information. But foreign schools are often restricted from doing so without the explicit permission of students, particularly colleges and universities in the European Union, which must follow strict new privacy rules.

Hagstrom said an even bigger problem is the fact that his university doesn’t have automatic processes in place to do this.

“If we would commit to provide the VA with the information they require, it would be manual work, i.e. someone in our student services team, responsible for the administrative support for 22,000 [students], would need to keep an eye on the odd VA students record (perhaps one every Olympic cycle),” Hagstrom said in an email.

“For a non-standardized process, the risk overlooking a student’s lack of progress is one we are not willing to take.

As a result, the school cannot agree to the reporting requirements that VA has established for foreign schools to use the GI Bill, he said.

The University of Amsterdam referred Military Times questions to a group in the Netherlands focused on international education, called Nuffic. That group said privacy rules make it impossible to know how many GI Bill users attend universities in the Netherlands, and it knew little about issues related to veteran education.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any expertise on the GI Bill here at Nuffic,” Anne Lutgerink, a spokeswoman for the group, said in an email.

Meanwhile, Hubbard said he’s heard from SVA members who have run into trouble trying to attend universities in Australia, with the Yellow Ribbon program, a GI Bill add-on benefit, being particularly tricky.

“Broadly speaking, the VA is not an organization that is set up to be flexible and forward-leaning,” Hubbard said. “The challenge is, the bureaucracies and the lines of administration are not necessarily set up to support [using the GI Bill at foreign universities].”

Take responsibility for the paperwork

While that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to attend foreign universities on the GI Bill, it does mean that you’ll probably have to keep a close eye on policies, paperwork and other technical details that you could largely ignore if going to school in the U.S.

VA suggests that you start early.

“You should submit your application early enough to have the program of education approved before leaving the United States,” a VA explanatory web page recommends.

In order to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Montgomery GI Bill or other eligible VA education benefits at a foreign university, you’ll need VA approval for the specific program that you’ll be enrolling in – above and beyond the requirements applying to the larger university.

You’ll have to ask VA or the university whether they already have VA approval for the program in question. If they don’t, you’ll have to ask the university to submit the paperwork to VA for program approval – you can’t submit that paperwork yourself as the student.

You may also need to submit written permission to your school allowing them to share your academic information with VA to meet VA reporting requirements. Don’t forget to get your passport and visa squared away so that you won’t experience travel hassles. And be ready to do some of this multiple times as you re-enroll in school between academic years.

Note that these rules apply to students attending foreign universities. If you’re attending a U.S. school that offers and administers a study abroad program, that program is typically handled by the U.S. school’s rules and processes, which should lead to less bureaucratic confusion.

The DIY college experience

Going to college is often a more communal experience in the U.S. than in foreign countries. Students can rely on meal plans rather than cooking, have extensive student support systems if they run into problems, and can take advantage of many structured university social events to connect with peers.

“In the U.S., a lot of things are offered to you, … whereas in Europe you have to ask for them,” Graham said.

This is particularly true for student veterans, who have seen schools roll out the red carpet in recent years for them.

“When it comes to things like having a veterans center on campus … they may not have those same resources,” Hubbard said.

European universities typically focus less on sports and school spirit, according to students.

But foreign schools will usually be less expensive than American colleges. And they’re more likely to skip general education classes that U.S. schools require, allowing you to earn your degree faster. Professors don’t assign busy work but expect students to keep up with the material on their own, Graham said.

“It’s a little bit more of an independent education, I would say,” she said. “You’re kind of in charge of setting your own pace.”