What you really need to bring when studying abroad
I HATE PACKING. It is probably my least favorite part of travel. It’s the least favorite part of a trip for a ton of other people as well, and rightfully so! How are you supposed to know what to pack when you’re going somewhere you may have never been before? Or what if you’re going somewhere that’s the total opposite of where you’re originally from? Is the culture different when it comes to clothes? What if I forget something? There are so many things to do when preparing to study abroad, and worrying about packing can put a real damper on your pre-departure excitement. So, here is an article about what you really need to bring on your study abroad adventure, and more importantly, what you don’t need to bring -- based on my personal experience as a globetrotter and over-packer!
First things first: to pack effectively and efficiently, there are a few steps you should take before you start packing.
Research the area
By doing this, you’ll learn a little bit about your host country before your departure and it’ll give you more insight into how the culture and climate of your host country will change what you bring. I cannot stress this enough: CHECK THE WEATHER!!!! And do it BEFORE you get to your host country. Use multiple resources when deciding what your host country is like. Do research online and try to reach out to people who have traveled to your host country before, including CEA alumni, to see what locals wear, and what is appropriate.
Check baggage requirements
Start by checking what baggage is included with the ticket you’ve purchased. Then make a list of weight limits, overage fees, and the costs for extra luggage. It's important to take note of what “level” of ticket you have when checking your airline's baggage requirements as well. For example, most economy tickets for airlines include on personal item (bookbag, purse, etc.) and one carry-on (small suitcase). However, BASIC economy only allows one personal item. If you use the CEA recommended website Student Universe to book your flights, this is a common level of ticket they will offer to save you some money. While these tickets can be cheaper, I would not recommend purchasing this ticket for the initial flight to your host country.
Review your itinerary
When packing, it’s important to take into account what kind of excursions you’ll be going on while abroad. Are you outdoorsy and know you want to go hiking? Bring hiking boots. Want to take a trip to the mountains and go skiing? You'd better make sure to pack a heavy coat. Know your itinerary well to make sure you pack what you need. Even if you’re not 100% positive on the activities you want to do, it’s better to pack it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Make a list and check it twice... or more
The last thing I recommend you do before you begin packing is to make a list. Once you have a good idea of what styles are like in your host country, you have your itinerary, and you know what restrictions there are in terms of baggage requirements, you can really know what you need to bring and what you have to space to bring.
Working With Your Wardrobe
Now that you’ve done your research, it’s time to actually pick out what you want to bring. When it comes to cultivating your study abroad wardrobe, it can be difficult to decide whether or not to bring that cute pair of Fashion Nova jeans or those sick Vans you bought this summer. My tips for you: Be hard on yourself, and bring what’s versatile.
Shirts - at most 14, at least 7
As the title says, do you REALLY need 10 T-shirts? Probably not. Try to bring one shirt in each neutral color. Brown, black, white, and grey. Bringing these nice neutrals will give your the freedom to pair with other colors, statement pieces, or to just wear the t-shirt how it is. Try to make sure that your pajama shirts can also be worn during the daytime. Having a versatile wardrobe will save you serious space when packing.
It’s also a good idea to bring shirts that show off your personality and interests. If you have a favorite band tee that may not match with a ton, feel free to pack it if you have the space. Clothing can be a great conversation starter. It can also be something that connects you to home, which is important when you’re away from it for 4 months or more.
Pants - at most 6, at least 3
When it comes to pants, it’s best to keep it simple and, again, versatile. Have one pair of light-wash jeans, one pair of dark-wash, and one pair of medium-wash. It may also be good to have one pair of ripped jeans. The nice thing about jeans is that they can usually be worn multiple times, but they take up a lot of luggage space. So try not to pack too many pairs if you’re trying to save space.
“Nice” Clothes - at most 3 outfits, at least 1 outfit
It’s always good to bring at least one outfit you can wear to a fancy event, just to be safe. Look into what kind of itinerary your program has planned to see just how fancy your nice clothes should be. Ladies, try to make sure your dresses or dress pants could double as day clothes. Gentlemen, use your button-up as a layer over a cool t-shirt.
Underwear - at most 20, at least 7
This is the one thing I will say you can never have too much of. Not having enough underwear or socks can be stressful and uncomfortable. It’s always better to have more of these items that not enough.
Shoes - at most 6, at least 3
Shoes are a great way to completely change the look of an outfit. Unfortunately, they also add a lot of weight to your luggage. When choosing the shoes you want to bring, try to have one pair for each kind of activity you’ll be doing. One pair of general everyday shoes. One pair of comfortable tennis shoes for exercising and long days walking. A pair of sandals for days at the beach or for when it warms up. A pair of heels or nicer shoes for if you go out or have a nice event. Shoes that can be optional depending on your itinerary can include boots or hiking shoes.
If you’re worried about going over your airline's weight limit, you can always buy shoes once you arrive in the area. I would recommend buying your tennis shoes new before you leave because you will be using them a lot. Also, consider bringing shoes that are at the end of their life as well. That way, if you are traveling at the end of your program, you can just throw those shoes away and get more space in your suitcase!
Everyone is different, so when it comes to personal items and comforts of home it’s important to listen to yourself to decide what you really need to bring. When I told my boyfriend I HAD to get a day planner before I left, he thought I was crazy. He couldn't care less about planning his days, but I know having a planner is the way I stay organized. So, make sure you bring things that remind you of home and that will make your day-to-day life easier.
It’s a nice way to remember all the fun things you do while abroad, plus it’s a nice memento for the future
Make sure you have a bag you can take with you on excursions or to school
This includes any special soaps you may have, face wash, new makeup
Leave any blow dryers and flat irons at home. Most of these things from the U.S. are not compatible in other countries, and they can be easily purchased once you’re in your host country
Feminine hygiene products
Tampons are less popular in some countries, and therefore harder to find
Good for staying organized
Bring extras in case jewelry such as piercings accidentally fall out
Don’t bring jewelry with huge sentimental value; you’ll be too afraid of losing it to actually wear it
Roku/Amazon Fire Stick
Some countries do not promote the use of smart TVs. This can be a nice and simple way to turn any TV in to one you can watch Netflix on
Extra headphones and charging cables of all forms
New phones have different headphone jacks. Make sure you bring a pair that can plug into your phone, but that can also plug into your computer
Books in your native language can be a nice thing to have
Having your favorite movie downloaded on your laptop can be a nice thing to help curb homesickness
Not only is having pictures of your friends and family back home a comfort -- you’ll also want those pictures to show all the new friends you make while studying abroad!
Things I wish I had brought, but didn’t:
More things that remind me of home
Basic Medicine (Tylenol, Advil, allergy medicine)
A heavy jacket
Having all of these things may not be an absolute necessity for you, but having them could make you more comfortable during your time abroad.
My Final Tips For Packing Like a Pro:
1. Bring clothes you’re cool with leaving behind
Donate your clothes if you plan on traveling after you’re done with your program and are trying to make space
Take a trip to your local Goodwill before you leave to find cute clothes that don’t have sentimental value
2. Look up useful ways to pack
Rolling your clothes can save you a lot of space. Roll one or two outfits into a bundle and use a rubber band to hold it together
Putting things like socks and underwear in your shoes. It’s perfect space that often goes unused.
3. Bring things that are versatile
If you don’t wear it at home, don’t bring it
Neutrals and basics with a few statement pieces will make a good wardrobe if you’re trying to save space
4. Be realistic!
Be honest about what you do and don’t wear
Evaluate what you’re bringing and get rid of items multiple times if you’re trying to save space
5. Pack with a partner
Pack with a close friend or family member so they can think of things that you may have forgotten, or so they can tell you what you really do not need to bring
6. Double and triple check once you’re done
I did this and still forgot to bring a day bag!
7. Wear multiple layers on the plane
This can save space in your luggage and keep you toasty at the airport
By following these steps, I was able to only bring my personal item and my carry on to my host country. Normally I’m the one who overpacks, but now I looked like the person who didn’t pack enough! While there were things that I wish I would’ve brought, having a limited wardrobe forced me to think outside of the box when creating outfits. I wore a white T-shirt in eight different ways. It was also nice because at the end of my study abroad program, I went to three other countries. My friends who brought three suitcases worth of stuff either had to pay expensive shipping fees to get their luggage back home or had to pay high fees to bring it with them. That said, if you have the space and know that you want to bring a lot of things with you, pack whatever your heart desires.
Just remember, no matter what you pack or what you forget, you can probably just buy it once you get there -- so try not to stress and enjoy preparing for your study abroad adventure!
Brianna Boynton is a CEA Content Contributor and is studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during the Fall 2019 semester. She is currently a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.