The world’s international student population numbers more than 3.7 million, and is increasing by about 12% each year, benefiting individuals and entire nations alike.

These days, record numbers of students are studying abroad all over the world.

According to the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the number of international students worldwide rose from 0.8 million in 1975 to 3.7 million in 2009. In addition, Unesco’s Institute for Statistics finds that the number is increasing by about 12% each year.

The United States attracts the most international students, according to the Institute of International Education, with 691,000 students studying abroad in the US during the 2009 to 2010 school year. Of students who study in the US, the majority go to California, New York and Texas, respectively. The world’s second most popular study-abroad destination is the United Kingdom.

China has become a major destination for study abroad, too, with around 265,000 students from other countries studying there in 2010, according to China’s Ministry of Education. China also sends more students abroad than any other country in the world, followed by India and South Korea, respectively. For Chinese students in the 2010 to 2011 term, the top field of study was business/management, with engineering following close behind. Business/management was also the top field of study for Korean students abroad, while engineering was the number one field of study for students from India.

Latin American countries are also working to send more students overseas. In 2011, Brazil launched an initiative to provide 75,000 scholarships for international study in science and technology by 2014. The country’s private sector plans to provide 25,000 more scholarships in the same timeframe, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a newspaper geared toward college and university faculty members and administrators. Chile plans to offer 30,000 such scholarships by 2018, and even tiny El Salvador is offering 35 scholarships per year. Latin American students are also winning more international grants -- the amount of money for the prestigious US-funded Fulbright scholarships awarded to Latin Americans, for instance, went up from $7.5 million in 2000 to $21 million in 2010.

Universities in the United States are also recognising the importance of study abroad programs. This year the Harvard Business School started sending its entire class of 900 students to learn and work overseas as part of its Global Immersion Program. Split into teams of six, this year the students worked with organisations in 10 different countries (ranging from Ghana to Vietnam) to learn how to launch a new product for a developing market, according to Fortune Magazine.

As for the gender demographics of study abroad programs, more women than men travel overseas to study. In the US, research reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that women account for two-thirds of participation in overseas programs. According to a study by the University of Iowa, for men, the decision of whether or not to study abroad tends to be impacted by peer influence, but that isn’t the case for women. Conversely, women were more likely to be influenced by their previous studies, such as courses that focused on different cultures and societies.

The benefits of studying abroad are felt both by individuals and entire nations. International students in the US, for instance, contribute approximately $20 billion to the US economy each year. Plus, countries that encourage their students to study abroad usually do so with the hope that they will return and give back to their home economies. Among Chinese students who study overseas, more than 70% end up returning to China. International students can also boost a country’s higher education standards, with universities doing their best to attract the world’s best and brightest in the fields they specialise in.

For the students themselves, studying abroad can present opportunities for learning new languages, travelling, career development, experiencing new cultures and forming new friendships. But there can be downsides to studying in other countries as well. Tuition and travel costs are often very high, especially for students from developing nations, and student visas can be difficult to obtain and maintain. As with any form of travel, there are health and safety concerns to take into account. Depending on where students are travelling to, vaccinations may be necessary, and they may need to get medical insurance to cover unforeseeable events during their stays. For students considering studying abroad, this roundup of advice from higher education experts may provide some guidance.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.