Key Takeaways 🔑
- It’s important to bring photocopies of important documents such as your passport, travel insurance, and required visa, just in case the originals get stolen.
- Dress according to the region, weather conditions, and country’s cultural norms. Do your research! Don’t show up in leggings and a crop top, if the locals are in rain boots and modest clothing.
- Be strategic about what you bring with you abroad, and don’t forget to leave some extra space in your bag for all the cool, new souvenirs you’ll be bringing back home.
You’ve got all your required visas, you've been brushing up on the local language on Duolingo, and you’re ready to start your study abroad adventure...once you pack, that is!
But what do you bring to your new “home away from home”? Though seemingly daunting, packing for your study abroad trip is easier than you might think. With this guide, we’ll be outlining what to bring when studying abroad—the essentials you’ll need to carry, the clothes you need to pack, and even the items you should leave behind.
It should serve as a great jumping-off point, no matter where your study abroad adventures take you!
What to pack for study abroad: the essentials
These are the things you definitely don’t want to forget. In fact, everything on your essentials list should be packed in a carry-on bag rather than a checked bag, in case your airline loses your bag or if there’s a luggage thief on the loose.
1. Passport & visa (plus photocopies!)
If you’re leaving your home country to study overseas, chances are you’ll need to take your passport with you. Most countries with study abroad programs also require you to get a visa in advance, so make sure you apply for it before you even start packing. It’s a good idea to have copies of your passport and visa in case they get lost. Be sure to store the photocopies in a separate place from the originals. You can also keep electronic copies in an online storage folder or a USB / hard drive, so you can print them out when needed. This will make replacing both passport and visa at the American consulate a whole lot easier if ever the originals should be lost or stolen.
You should also leave copies with someone reliable at home. This will come in handy in case you lose everything.
2. Important documents
While your passport is the most important identity document you’ll need on your trip, it’s not the only document you’ll need to bring when you’re looking for what to pack for study abroad.
Picture this. You land in an airport in a foreign country and the immigration officer asks the purpose of your visit. You tell them you’re studying abroad, but when they ask for proof, you fail to show relevant school paperwork that supports your claim. Forgetting this essential item on your study abroad packing checklist can easily put a dot on your study abroad adventure.
To guarantee a hassle-free time abroad, understand the documents needed for your trip and for the destination you’re traveling to. Here’s a general list of documents that should be kept with you in your carry-on:
- Passport (and extra copies of passport photos)
- Printed copy of student visa
- Copy of your birth certificate
- FBI background check (if required)
- Local and international driver’s license
- University enrollment confirmation, acceptance letter, or program verification
- Housing contract
- University transcripts
- Electronic Travel Authorization (if required)
- Proof of medical and travel insurance
- Embassy / consulate phone numbers and / or email
- List of emergency contacts
- Health records: copy of medical records, vaccination certificates
- Travel itinerary details: flight tickets, arrival hotel (if staying in one)
- Bank statements (if required to show proof of funds)
You would also want to make photocopies of these documents, and upload them on your cloud storage, in case they get stolen. As with your passport, put your copies in separate places in your luggage, but make sure you stow them somewhere neat and accessible.
It’s also a good idea to place at least one identification document on top of your check-in luggage in case the tag falls off during transit.
3. Basic first aid kit & medication prescriptions
While we hope you’ll only be needing a few band-aids on your study abroad experience, it’s always good to be prepared for any emergency.
Assemble a basic first aid kit with useful medical items that will help you look after yourself. Purchase a compressed and dark hard-wearing nylon bag that possesses plenty of space.
What you carry in your first-aid kit should be tailored to what you’ll need in your destination, the type of activities you’ll be doing, and your specific health needs.
Basic essentials to keep in your first-aid kit:
- Bandages in different sizes, including a bigger one which you can cut into the size you need
- Wound dressings in a variety of sizes
- Antibacterial wipes
- Cotton swabs and cotton wool
- Medical tape
You should also consider packing over-the-counter medications such as pain relievers, antibiotics, antihistamines and anti-diarrheal tablets.
If you're taking any prescription medications, it's a good idea to get enough to ensure you're covered the whole time you're away. Foreign pharmacists likely will not honor an American prescription, but it’s better to have a copy of it so you can show it to a local doctor in case you need more.
Place copies of your medical insurance, emergency contacts, and other helpful information in your first aid kit. Once you’re all set, make sure you know what’s in your kit and how to use them. If you don’t, these items won’t be useful at all!
4. Local currency
These days, the best way to gain access to foreign funds is typically through a U.S. credit or debit card, but you may want to travel with some foreign currency or traveler's checks, just in case. It’s good practice to always keep some foreign cash in your wallet, in case you want to eat at a local market or you’re in a situation where cards are not accepted. You can visit your local bank at home or a kiosk in the airport to do your currency exchange.
5. Essential toiletries
Your essential toiletries should be stowed in your carry-on bag; If you need to freshen up while traveling to your study abroad destination, you’ll have them within reach.
We’d classify must-have essentials as:
- Body wash / soap
- Hair brush / comb
- Sanitary items (for women)
To encourage responsible travel, we recommend opting for sustainable products, rather than buying one-time use travel-size toiletries.
Simple swaps you can make:
- Shampoo bars instead of travel shampoo bottles
- Soap bars instead of travel body gels
- Bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic, disposable toothbrushes
- Toothpaste tablets
- Reusable menstrual cups
- Deodorant bar or refillable deodorant tubes
- Reusable makeup remover pads
- Bamboo cotton buds or reusable silicone cotton swabs
- Reusable tissue
In some countries, you may not be able to easily get your go-to hygiene products, so you need to pack enough of what you’ll need while settling in. Specialty items such as insect repellent, sunscreen, and contact lens solution can be packed as they are, since they tend to be outrageously expensive in other countries.
If you’re unsure what toiletries will be available on-site in your host country, you can always ask your study abroad coordinator!
6. Power Adapters & Converters
Whether it's for your phone, computer, or e-reader, you'll likely need a few chargers on your journey. For that, you'll need a converter and possibly an adapter.
Not all countries use the same electricity voltage, which means that merely changing the shape of the plug might not be enough to make your charger work – and could even be dangerous and short out the device. Be sure to verify which plugs and voltage are used in the country you're traveling to so you have the right adapters for all your devices.
It’s also good to take a trusty power bank or a portable solar charger with you, in the event of a blackout in your study abroad destination.
7. Basic school supplies
Surprisingly, school supplies are often overlooked when compiling a list of what to bring when studying abroad.
Your instructors for each course may ask you to bring a particular set of school materials in your study abroad packing list, so be sure to read the syllabus and check with your study abroad coordinator for school supplies you need to take with you for each course.
What to pack for study abroad: clothes
When packing clothes for study abroad, you’ll want to follow these essential rules. Plus, plan accordingly to the weather and region you’re traveling to.
1. Consider the season
If your study abroad destination has a hot climate, opt for light, breathable fabrics. This will be your secret to staying both cool and comfortable as you study overseas.
Packing light when studying abroad in winter or in a destination with a colder climate is more difficult compared to packing light for summer or for warmer destinations. You’ll need more layers and extra accessories to keep you warm.
If you’re spending a semester abroad in winter, it’s a good idea to pack a lightweight jacket that suits the average temperature, or a coat that falls right above the knees to shield your legs from strong winds.
We advise dressing in thinner, insulating layers like base layers, long-sleeved shirts, and light sweaters, rather than heavy sweaters, sweatshirts, and hoodies. Invest in winter clothes made from merino wool or technical textiles to add warmth to your wardrobe.
For hats, try going with a beanie or a compact down jacket for your head, which you can find in most outdoor shops. Gloves with touchscreen fingertips are helpful, since you won’t need to take them on and off when using your smartphone.
When packing socks, we recommend packing several warm, odor-resistant pairs that you can use a couple of times before washing. Two to three pairs should be enough. You might want to look for ones made of merino wool too, since they’re made of material that really keeps your feet warm.
Alternating between snowy and sunny weather leads to ice or slush. Wet feet or a rough fall can ruin anyone’s day, so be sure to pack waterproof shoes with an anti-slip footbed.
2. Pack lightweight clothing
When studying abroad, it’s best to bring lightweight clothing items that work for every kind of activity and weather condition, from waterproof walking shoes for city strolls to a lightweight down jacket for cold winters.
If you pack light and right, you can enjoy studying abroad in any weather without a luggage full of heavy clothing.
3. Pack clothes you can mix and match
There’s nothing more annoying than being halfway throughout your study abroad program and realizing you didn’t even wear half the clothes you packed.
Packing versatile clothes you can match and interchange on your study abroad packing checklist will help reduce the amount of clothes you bring with you.
Consider bringing these functional clothing items:
- Shirts, blouses, trousers, shoes, etc. in solid and / or neutral shades are easy to pair. Clothes with limited patterns are also a good addition. You’ll be able to wear them more often without drawing attention to your reduced wardrobe.
- Waterproof walking shoes are a must if you’re planning to do a lot of walking in any weather or if you engage in any physical activity.
- If you’re studying abroad in warmer climate, we recommend reversible swimsuits
4. Respect the local culture
Although it’s perfectly normal to be unfamiliar with the cultural norms of other countries, ignorance can result in disrespectful behavior, such as wearing inappropriate clothing. The way you dress can lead to unintentional conflict, which leaves a bitter aftertaste both for you and the locals involved.
Out of respect for local customs, it’s best to bring clothes that respect local dress culture. Do your research and ask your study abroad coordinator about all dress rules on modesty and acceptability.
Take note of other local customs surrounding clothing, too, such as removing shoes before you enter a home, and covering your head and arms when you’re in public. This will help you avoid culture shock when you get to your study abroad destination.
Learning about local customs is both fun and interesting, and respecting other cultures is a genuine reflection of how grateful you are to be welcomed in your host country.
5. Consider your access to laundry, especially when packing underwear and socks
If you have access to a washer and / or dryer in your dorm or hostel, that will make a big difference on the amount of clothes you need to include in your study abroad packing list. Instead of taking extra outfits, use of these provided amenities.
On the other hand, if access to laundry is difficult, consider bringing some detergent in reusable containers so you can wash your undergarments between loads.
Even if you do laundry weekly, you always need extra underwear and socks. Let’s say you’re planning to hike or ski during school breaks. Extra underwear and socks will come in handy and help you avoid discomfort and poor hygiene from sweaty and smelly undergarments.
You can also get very busy when you study abroad. These extras will also be useful in case you’re late to do your weekly laundry.
6. Shoes take up space
For shoes, you’ll need three essential pairs:
- Flip-flops for communal showers
- Comfortable walking shoes
- Anicer pair of shoes you can wear when going out or eating dinner
Try to fight the urge to pack any more pairs than that.
We also recommend bringing versatile footwear, like pairs you can use in class and at dinner. Look for shoes that can take a beating (so, no, definitely not a cheap pair of H&M flats!) You’ll be surprised how quickly shoes can wear through when you’re wearing them every day.
Travel shoe bags keep your other clothes and belongings clean. You wouldn’t want to put your muddy sneakers together with your underwear and lightweight layers.
7. Prioritize comfort over fashion
There’s nothing worse than getting distracted in your classes by an itchy sweater or getting a blister after a long city walk in your platform boots. That’s why it’s absolutely important to always think about comfort when looking for what to pack for study abroad.
Tight and revealing clothes should be left out from your study abroad packing checklist, especially if you’re planning to study overseas in conservative countries. Keep it modest and loose.
Everyone’s study abroad experience is going to vary, so be sure to do lots of research so you know how to pack for study abroad.
What to pack for study abroad: miscellaneous
Here’s a few more items you may want to consider including in your study abroad packing checklist:
- A small padlock, for hostel lockers
- A small backpack or day pack, for day-long excursions
- Camera to capture memories, and SD card to store them
- A smartphone, laptop or tablet
- Other electronics like headphones and flash drive
- E-reader, like a Kindle or Nook
- Non-electronic activities, like a book, a deck of cards, or a few crossword/sudoku puzzles, for times when you don't have access to electricity
- Journal to take notes or document your trip
- Other items for personal hygiene such as clippers, razors, and tweezers
- Compact and versatile makeup suitable for classes and going out
- Contraceptives to be safe
- A reusable water bottle for refills on campus
- Something from home to help you deal with homesickness like a portrait of you and your family or a necklace you can wear while you study abroad
What not to pack for study abroad
Whether you’re worried about finding your favorite snacks in Kenya or feeling hesitant about abandoning the teddy bear you’ve had since childhood at your parents’ house, it can seem like there are just too many things that need to go in your suitcase.
Here are a few items that definitely do not need to come along for the ride:
- Lots of food or snacks: It can be fun to have a bag of candy or some snacks unique to your home country to share with new friends, but don’t shove the entire grocery store into your bag. Plus, swapping your favorite food and snacks with local ones can give you new treats that you’ll love.
- Heavy liquids: You’ll be wasting limited suitcase space! Consider bringing it in a reusable travel-size toiletry bottle or buying it at your destination.
- Books: If you’re a voracious reader, it might be painful to leave your books at home. However, they can be insanely heavy and take up lots of space. Consider an e-reader or visiting your university's library.
- Tons of electronics or electronic appliances: Obviously, some things like smartphones and laptops are a necessity for a semester abroad. Beyond that, think strategically about which electronic devices you actually need. Electronics are one of the top targets for theft!
- Bedding: We know you love your comfy pillow from home, but it’s best to buy bedding once you arrive in your host country. Bedding can take up a huge chunk of your luggage, and every inch of space counts!
- Valuables & luxury items: You can buy affordable but functional versions of items such as watches, wallets, and sunglasses that will get you through your time abroad, but won’t break your heart if they go missing.
- Anything culturally inappropriate: There’s a very distinct line between cultural appreciation and appropriation, with the latter causing more harm to racially excluded communities by enforcing stereotypes, and disregarding cultural origins. Keep in mind that you’re representing your home country when you study abroad, so always strive to be the best version of yourself.
Packing hacks: how to pack for study abroad
Now that you’ve got your study abroad packing checklist, take the stress out of fitting your study abroad essentials in your luggage with these packing hacks:
- Use packing cubes and organizers: Packing cubes and travel organizers neatly arrange your clothes, electronics, documents, and toiletries in your suitcase. They’re efficient in keeping your study abroad essentials organized and easily accessible.
- Roll don’t fold: The best way to compress thin fabrics is to roll them. Rolled-up clothes take up less space and prevent wrinkling.
- Stuff small items in your shoes: Use the space in your shoes by stuffing socks, belts, and any other small items in it. Besides freeing up more space in your luggage, your shoes retain their shape, so you don’t have to fret about them getting squashed at the bottom of your pack.
- Wrap shower caps around your shoes: This will help them stay together in transit, and protect both your shoes and your clothes from getting dirty.
- Use binder clips: Binder clips are a great way to keep your study abroad essentials organized. Whether you want to use them to keep chargers from tangling, seal snacks, or hold documents together, you’ll be grateful you brought them!
- Invest in leak-proof containers for liquids: We recommend transferring your liquid items to reusable liquid-proof containers. They’re foolproof, so you wouldn’t have to worry about your shampoo soaking your school supplies.
- Don’t pack things you can find in your destination: If you can find what you need in your host country, you’ll save some luggage space if you buy it there.
- Wear bulky items instead of packing them: Wear any heavier clothes like jackets, sweaters, and boots on the plane, so you can leave extra space for the souvenirs you’ll be taking home with you.
- Use a smaller bag: If you're spending a whole semester or year abroad, you'll accumulate things as you're there, just like you would at home, and it's more important to just bring the basics. Your stuff will be waiting for you when you get back and you can live without them for a bit!
Pack light, pack right
Now, you're all set to pack for study abroad! Just be strategic about what you’ll bring with you and what you’ll leave for when you return. Practice packing a few times, and part with items that won’t be essential to your time overseas. Even if you forget to bring some things with you, don’t worry, because it’s likely you’ll find the most basic items abroad. If not, you’ll find close substitutes.
Get ready for the exciting activities, the meaningful connections you’ll make, and the lessons you’ll learn in and out of the classroom. We’re sure you’ll have a life-changing experience during your adventure overseas!