We all know those school exchange trip packing lists, the ones that tell you to pack approximately 25 pairs of socks and at least 3 pairs of shoes; the ones that end in making endless shopping trips to expand on the wardrobe you already have at home. But when you’re taking a study abroad trip, every sock-sized compartment in your travel backpack matters. How do you reconcile what that Googled list says you should bring, what you want to bring, and what you actually need?
After a summer backpacking Europe, several trips to Central and South America, over a year in Southeast Asia, another in Oceania, and now a year-long study abroad program in the Netherlands, I’ve solved the packing problem via trial and error. No, you don’t need to pack for all four seasons, and no, there’s no need to saw the end off your toothbrush to make more space. We’re not that desperate (yet), right?
Here’s what to pack if you want to get through security with ease, arrive in your new “home” country well prepared, and avoid hauling along stuff you don’t need.
What to Bring:
A specific list for this section is unrealistic. The clothes you’ll need will depend on your destination. Quickly research to see what the recommended style is for the time of year you’ll be arriving as well as the season after that. Keep in mind that you will be able to pick up clothes in your destination country – thrift stores and shopping centers are universal.
Pack only 4-5 base outfits, including both lightweight and warmer pieces. Trust me when I say that you do not need to pack your whole closet; doing so may actually cost you hundreds in airline fees. Keep it interesting by choosing pieces within a basic color scheme; that’s called a capsule wardrobe. Packing this way makes it easy to mix and match for dozens of styles later.
In addition, pack:
- A jacket (bonus points if it’s weatherproof)
- 1-2 pairs of shoes
- One dressy outfit
- 3-4 pairs of socks
- 5-7 pairs of underwear
- Bathing suit
- 2 pairs leggings (can be layered underneath skirts or pants for warmth)
Less is more, you already know that. Downsize, and make your electronics do double duty where you can. Yeah, you’ll need a laptop for school, but do you really need a tablet too? Will your cell phone camera do? Don’t forget convertors and adaptors. Pare down, people.
- Camera (remember the case and chargers)
- Cell phone
- Outlet adaptors (2-3)
- USB cable
- Chargers (camera, laptop, phone, etc)
Keep in mind that you only need to pack the toiletries you’ll need for a week or less; you’ve just got to get there. Shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and other essentials are readily available at a quality standard most places in the world.
- Toothbrush & travel toothpaste
- Travel-sized soap (check container regulations with your airline)
- Hairbrush (as well as any must-have sprays, dryers, curlers etc. Try to keep it light, and keep in mind TSA rules for liquids)
- Hand sanitizer
- Nail clipper
- Travel-sized sunscreen
- Shaving supplies
- Tissues/toilet paper
- 1 pack feminine hygiene products, if applicable
Note: High quality tampons are worth stocking up on if traveling to a developing country. Pads are available globally.
Most over-the-counter medications can be found almost anywhere in the world, but be sure to pack along any serious medical essentials you require. Check with your host university to be sure you’ll be able to refill prescriptions during your stay. Even if your medical needs are relatively minor, it’s always a good idea to carry a basic first aid kit with bandaids, antiseptics, pain meds, and gauze.
- Adhesive bandages
- Allergy medicine
- Motion sickness medicine
- Over-the-counter pain medicine
- Birth control (Stock up on 3-6 months worth before leaving, though most contraceptive options are available internationally. Double check this with your host university health center.)
Documents & Finances
Double-check, triple-check, and then check again. If you don’t have all of these, your trip might end at the airport check-in desk.
- Copies of your birth certificate, social security card, passport, and any university or visa paperwork
- State ID, school ID, and driver’s license
- Health insurance card & copies of travel insurance paperwork
- Credit & debit cards (notify your bank before leaving in order to avoid having accounts frozen)
- Emergency contact list
- Prescriptions for medications
- Travel itinerary
- Travel tickets & boarding passes
- Cash (bring some USD and the currency of your host location – enough to use in case of emergency)
What to Leave:
Though the temptation will be strong, avoid packing everything in your closet. With proper destination research, it’s possible to travel light while still looking great. Do a bit of prior research and pack only what you really need. Keep in mind that it’s easier to buy a new sweater once you touch down than it is to wrestle 60+ pounds of luggage to your new home campus.
- More than 3 pairs of socks & 7 pairs of underwear
- 3+ pairs of footwear
- Camo-print clothing (illegal in some countries)
- Ultra-expensive travel clothing (if you already have it, great; if not, normal clothes do the trick abroad, just like at home)
Toiletries & Medical
Pack only what you know you’ll never find abroad and what you need for one week of travel. The rest can be purchased once you arrive, saving you time, stress, and a few ziplock bags.
- Large bottles of liquids
- Aerosol hairsprays
- Medicines that may be illegal in other countries (medical marajuana, Tramadol, codeine, etc)
Luggage Matters: What to Pack In
While it might be tempting to pull that oversized wheeled suitcase out from under your mom’s bed and fill ‘er up: Don’t. This is not your mother’s trip. This is your adventure.
If you’re like me, you envision your semester abroad to include weekend trips to cosmopolitan cities and quaint beach towns. Perhaps you plan to do a little solo travel before, or after, your semester. Giant wheeled luggage could ruin your trip, will weigh you down, and is definitely going to cramp your style.
For my study abroad year, I packed the Setout Backpack. For me, this is the perfect study abroad bag. As a maximum sized carry on, I can get everything I need in this bag, even my computer for school. It’s the only bag I’ve carried that doesn’t hurt my back, and I’ve tried a lot of bags. The understated fabric and styling are perfect for Europe, which is where I’m spending my study abroad year, and I don’t look like a college backpacker.
Bouncing between countries on the train has been a breeze. Those notoriously affordable budget airlines in Europe are irresistable. Setout makes all of my adventures better.
Not all study abroad packing lists include the truly travel-worthy must-haves, so here are a few tried-and-true things that every traveler absolutely needs. These are personal lifesavers that I’ll never leave home without!
Layers, layers, layers. Make sure what you pack can be easily adapted to surprising changes in weather. Don’t forget a warm outfit, even if you’re heading to a tropical destination.
- A quick-dry travel towel
- Heavy duty hiking socks
- All-weather adventure footwear, like Keens
- A bandana
- A lightweight shawl (doubles as a blanket, something to carry laundry in, a head covering, a beach towel, and so much more)
Toiletries & Medical
- Travel-sized hand sanitizer (your new best friend)
- Emergency toilet paper or tissues
- Lush brand shampoo/body bar (comes with perfect travel sized tin)
- Altoids (often help with motion sickness)
- High quality contraceptives & feminine hygiene products
- A portable USB charger
- Worldwide outlet adaptor
- Noise-cancelling headphones
- Gift for your host family or new housemates
- Travel guide
- Metal thermos style drink bottle
Packing for study abroad can be overwhelming, but not with this essential packing list! To pack the perfect lightweight luggage for a semester or two abroad, remember that most common conveniences are available all over the world.
- Focus on packing only what you most need; pick up extras on arrival
- Pack a capsule wardrobe of just 4-6 outfits
- Keep hygiene and medical products to a minimum; buy them there
- Electronics, prescription medicines, and a few travel must-haves should be packed
- Don’t forget to bring all essential documents, including your passport, prescriptions, visa information, and further identification
- A stash of emergency cash can’t hurt
Most of all, stay relaxed. Odds are, anything forgotten can be easily picked up on arrival. Double check this packing list before leaving and you’ll be well-prepared for the adventure ahead.