UFSM's presence in the municipality of Santa Maria is one of the reasons why the city is sometimes called "university city" or "culture city". Santa Maria is located in western Rio Grande do Sul, approximately 290 km far from the capital city of the state, Porto Alegre. Set in the heart of the pampas of Brazil, the city thrives with gaúcho culture.UFSM is a public, free university, and students do not pay any tuition fees. It is the oldest federal university not located in a Brazilian state capital city, and the largest in number of undergraduate courses offered in Rio Grande do Sul state.
UFSM has four campuses: the main one in Santa Maria; one campus in the municipality of Silveira Martins, near Santa Maria; and two smaller ones in northern Rio Grande do Sul, in the municipalities of Frederico Westphalen and Palmeira das Missões. In Santa Maria, however, the courses of Law, Business, Accounting, Psychology, Economics, International Relations, and Dentistry are still offered off-campus, in the city centre.