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Packing: Preparing for a Semester Abroad – What Should I Bring?

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In this post we discuss what items you may consider packing when preparing for a (university) semester abroad program.

We recommend bringing the essentials and other items that may drastically alter the experience without them (i.e. medicine, electronics etc.). By starting with a less-is-more approach, you’ll have a chance to spend some time in-country and assess what additional items you may need to purchase based upon your schedule, activities, weather etc.

Note that most of these recommendations assume you are based in a place with moderate-to-high accessibility to goods. For those studying in the bush, rural areas, or an atypical setup, this post may need to be adjusted to suit your specific circumstance.

Study abroad: immersing yourself in a new culture

The reason why a student may consider a study abroad program is to immerse themselves in a culture other than that which is familiar.

For this reason, trying to recreate home in a new place is not advised, and packing contributes to this. The more that you bring, the more you have to carry, manage and maintain.

Consider the following common scenarios:

  • What if you had to lug your bags up/down subway stations, over cobblestone paths, gravel or other uneven surfaces;
  • or haul your bags up multiple flights of stairs because no elevator is available in the building;
  • or there is only enough space for a single bag to fit overhead in a commuter bus – the rest goes under the bus with no security;
  • or your accommodation offers a small bedroom with little floor space and/or small closet;
  • or overweight baggage costs extra money that could have been used for in-country experiences;
  • or your bags are too large to fit into train/bus lockers and you have to carry them around for weekend excursions;
  • or you’d like to travel throughout your host country and beyond on week(end) getaways

Core idea: travel as light as you can

If you are studying in a major city, bustling university town, or larger township, food, clothes and housewares will be available. While the local flavors and fashions may be different than you’re used to, this may be an opportunity to try something new in your host country.

There may be instances where you exact, familiar brand is not accessible and we advise packing items like prescriptions, medications, lotions/formulas/creams for sensitive skin etc. that may (negatively) change your experience without them.

Think about packing for a study abroad experience as packing for a one-week vacation, with a few added items that can be expensive/tricky to find on the road.

Ahead of arrival, confirm with your accommodation their expectations around what they will provide (e.g. linens, furniture, dishware etc). The more communication you have upfront, the less you may have to pack.

Pack: Luggage

  • Water resistant backpack (every day carry + weekender bag)
  • Cross-body or sling purse (as an alternative to an every day carry backpack)
  • 1 40L backpack (use packing cubes to organize)

Pack: must prepare/pack before arrival

We found that these items were the trickiest/most difficult to obtain in a pinch:

  • Passport + applicable visas
  • Computer + charger — bring the correct power cable that will work in your host country
  • Smart phone (also doubles as a camera) — bring the correct power cable that will work in your host country
  • Medications (ask your doctor for extra amounts of your normal prescriptions so you don’t have to worry about ordering on the road)
  • Glasses/contact lenses (order extra)
  • Toiletry kit — have enough supplies to get you through three days of travel but plan to pick up supplies once you’ve reached your accommodation
  • Power cables that convert your electronics to the correct voltage — Electric convertor — Read our post on Travel Converters Versus Travel Adapters

Pack: clothing

Determine what season you will be in and pack for that time of year.

Pack everything you think you’d like to bring, then half it, and half it again.

Pack: important documents

Stored in a waterproof pouch & digitized + available offline on computer and smart phone).

Immigration authorities reserve to the right to see these documents. You may have to fill out application forms at a new university or program, so having these items accessible as a physical hard copy and digital copy will save you a (frantic) phone call home.

  • Passport
  • Visas
  • Birth certificate
  • School diploma or certificate
  • Official letter stating your university program and point of contact
  • Location of homestay/accommodation address + contact information
  • Vaccination records
  • Marriage license (where applicable)

Also plan to prepare:

  • If you are staying with a family, bring a gift from your home family as a sentiment of gratitude for their hospitality.
  • Download the Google Translate app if you are not fluent in the host language.
  • Download Google Maps and save an offline map of your location.
  • If your clothing measurements fall outside of the commonly stocked sizes in your home country, plan to pack more clothing as it could be more difficult to find.
  • Contact your accommodation about what they plan to provide around furniture, dish ware, cookware and linens.

Confirm with your accommodation that these items will be provided:

  • Linens
  • Towels
  • Dishware
  • Cookware
  • Pillows

Don’t Pack

Students in university tend to have a limited set of travel experiences and may be tempted to bring anything that could be considered a creature comfort.

If you’ve ever had to lug a massive suitcase across cobblestone, attempt to catch a train while hauling your items through the carriages etc. you will soon regret bringing your DVD collection of Seinfeld.

  • Leave behind any illegal substances; if you are unsure of what that entails, look into the country’s laws and rules for consumption. When in doubt, ditch it. Also familiarize yourself with your host country’s laws — every country has varying ideas of what crime looks like and knowing what those rules are and correlated punishments could be life saving.
  • Toiletries (unless you have a specific brand or formula that works for you)
  • Electronics with the wrong voltage
  • Books – bring one or two and leave the rest behind (they get bulky quickly); lean on the library, second-hand book stores and e-books for new material along the way
  • Entertainment like DVDs, knick-knacks etc.
  • Decor like candles, framed photos etc.
  • Limit the amount of “going-out” clothing options
  • “Uncomfortable but pretty” shoes

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