Packing for Study Abroad: A Review

With so many articles about study abroad packing, many avoid talking about packing successes and failures. Here is a review of how I could have done better. | Study Abroad and BeyondIt’s about that time of year when students begin packing for study abroad!

Packing is ridiculously hard – you suddenly feel like everything in your life is incredibly valuable.  And how can you possibly choose what to leave behind?!

I’ve gotten to the point of packing only in a carry-on for trips lasting less than a month, but moving abroad for over a year was a challenge.

I didn’t start packing until the day before my flight.  Now that I think about it, that was a bad idea (sorry, Mom!)

Had I laid out my clothes and belongings earlier, I would have been able to better visualize what I needed.

I now know just how much I value the ability to feel comfortable wherever I live.  I can also easily determine what brought me comfort, and how I could have attained it.

Here is a review of what I packed:

  • Things I am SO GLAD I brought
  • Things I regret not bringing
  • Things I just didn’t need
  • Things I totally didn’t need to bring, but brought me such great joy
  • Things I would have done to better prepare

Things I am SO GLAD I brought:

Personal things

Those posters, pictures, and notes from family and friends, and magnets and books, made me feel at home right away.

Before I went to bed the first night, I made sure to put everything up.  

They all remained unchanged until I moved back home over a year later.

The best part of most of these? They are flat and don’t take up much room!


Sometimes people opt to leave their laptops home, especially with computer labs.

(I know – computer labs ARE actually still a thing.)

I was so happy I brought my laptop so I could have Internet freedom in my own home.  It was so much easier to stay in touch with family and friends, upload pictures to my hard drive, book trips, and otherwise entertain myself.

And who doesn’t love binging on Netflix on rainy days?

Favorite clothes

Sure, I could have bought clothes while abroad.

But my comfy jeans, sweater, t-shirts, and pajamas?


And they all looked great with the new clothes I bought for work!

A fluffy bath sheet

Bigger than pretty much any bath towel anywhere, this thing was pure bliss.

I loved wrapping myself in it and lounging in it all day (when I wasn’t working).

I mean, I did get funny stares when I brought it that one time to the public bathhouse… but quickly acknowledged my error and didn’t make that mistake again.

Things I regret not bringing:


I underestimated just how hard it was to find shoes in my size.  Size 9 (39 EU, 7 UK) isn’t as common in some countries.

My mother (she is a wonderful woman, and queen of shipping) mailed me a box of my shoes after my first month abroad.

In hindsight, I would have brought more fun and functional footwear initially.  But I did get a great deal on Birkenstocks at Costco, so… it balances out, I suppose.

Wait, did I say Costco?

Yeah, I had that in Korea.  Anyway…


Had I done more research, I would have deliberately brought some more snacks for me.

Peanut butter is hard to come by, but macaroni and cheese is probably the hardest to obtain.

My mother (bless her) shipped me Bruegger’s Bagels and Annie’s Mac and Cheese when I was abroad multiple times.

Haven’t heard of either?

Well, they both taste like the hopes and dreams of a nation.  And home.

For whatever you might miss, if you have a loved one who is willing to ship you things… make sure you know the shipping policies and customs requirements before you make your requests.


This was a regret before tablets were really a thing.

I ended up making a lot of weekend trips to the English language bookshop in Seoul to pick up some books.

However, now I make sure to add digital books to my app before I leave for trips.

If you aren’t a member of your local library in the US, make sure to do so before you leave!  You can download books from anywhere for specific borrowing time; the opportunities are endless!

Related: 10 Ways to Save Money While Living Abroad

A small bottle of fabric softener

You know, like in a “break in case of emergency” type situation.

I LOVE the smell of fabric softener.  To me, it is a comforting smell and makes me feel snuggly.

When my parents visited, I hugged them and immediately made a scene in the coffeeshop because they smelled so distinctly like home.

Granted, they tried to pry me off because they thought they smelled terrible.  And they had just traveled over 24 hours to see me and were probably a little tired.

They really smelled like Downy mixed with heaven…

Anyway, that fabric softener would have gone really far in making me feel like home.

Things I just didn’t need:

Hair things, comma non-specific

You would have thought I was moving to the moon.  I brought two GIGANTIC bottles of shampoo and conditioner with me when I moved abroad.

Not. Necessary. At. All.

I lived within a 15 minute taxi ride of Costco (I’ve literally never lived as close since).  And, shampoo is something that is sold at grocery stores and some pharmacies in sooo many countries.

If your hair is woven silk that is super picky, yes, you might need to bring special shampoo.  Mine?  Definitely not.

Also, I did not need the hair dryer or straightener.  It would have made plenty more sense to buy them locally with the proper plugs and wattages.  I almost fried them even with the adaptors I got.

… Although, to be fair, I didn’t blow up a socket with a hair dryer.  That was a toaster oven.

More on that way later. The more you know…

As many adaptors

You can buy adaptors pretty much anywhere.

I was going based on the assumption that I would be stranded without any access to technology stores.

… That was decidedly untrue.

Instead, I only really needed one adaptor, and I could have bought the rest on arrival.

Cosmetics… or anything else that is cheaper or better where you are going

Granted, this is a location-specific thing.  In Korea, cosmetics are incredible and incredibly cheap.

I would have just left everything at home and purchased new stuff there.

This can translate to other things in other locations: clothes, bathing suits, personal care items, et cetera.

Just ask friends or returned students what they miss most about living in your destination and prepare accordingly :).

Things I totally didn’t need to bring, but brought me such great joy:

My comforter

“Absolutely frivolous,” some would say.

“That’s as big as your suitcase!” others would say.

“I DON’T CARE I’M DOING IT!” I exclaimed.

No regrets.  That fluffy thing kept me warm (in conjunction with the provided sheets and thick blanket). It smelled like home.  

Things I would have done to better prepare:

This is why I wrote the “Checklist: Things to Do During Your First Week Abroad.”

I made a lot of mistakes.  Namely, not bringing much (read: any) cash.  I didn’t look up foreign transaction fees on my credit card.  Also, I didn’t really research the destination.  I avoided looking up directions.  I avoided packing until the day before.  Finally, I didn’t have a phone.

Now, I want others to prepare better for their time abroad!

More than anything, it’s important to be open to challenges and prepare to laugh when things are tough.

Finally, like I learned in grad school, “plan like hell and go with the flow!”

Study Abroad Guide: Departure Phase
9 Tactics to Survive the Pre Semester Panic
Checklist: Things to Do During Your First Week Abroad
The “What the Hell Have I Done” Moment
An Open Letter to Students Departing for Study Abroad

Leave a Reply