As the Managing Director for a study abroad program that runs on four continents and includes primarily field courses, I’ve made lots of packing lists in my day.
I’ve also traveled to 82 countries, many on my own while living out of a backpack. So while every study abroad packing list will be different, and every location and program has its own needs, here are some things to consider when packing for your study abroad adventure.
I don’t advocate for buying a lot of stuff to study abroad. After all, you already have clothes, shoes, and, presumably, everything you need to go to school. Anything you really need to live in a country? They sell it in that country. So whenever possible, don’t buy lots of new stuff before you go!
Save your money for in-country expenses, keep your bag light, and be comfortable in your own clothes.
That said, if you’re missing something that you need and can’t find someone to borrow from, or you just aren’t sure where to start, here are some ideas!
The Perfect Bag
A large camping backpack can be an excellent solution for your study abroad packing. Though rolling suitcases are great, a large backpack can be maneuvered more easily on winding roads, cobblestone streets, muddy paths, or railway station stairs. They can also be packed (not full) for a short weekend getaway and easily carried.
A universal adapter is a great, cheap option that can be used again and again in your travels. Think about bringing a power strip that you can plug into the adapter so that you have multiple outlets! Be sure to check that the country you’re visiting is included in a universal adapter.
It could be if you’ll only be in one country, that a smaller adapter makes more sense and you can easily pack a couple with you (for example, leaving one attached to your phone cord). Some students choose to buy a phone or computer cord matching their study abroad country’s outlets so they don’t have to worry about having an adapter with them at all times.
(PS – power strips generally cannot be carried onto airplanes, so if you bring one, put it in your checked bag!)
Remember that an adapter is NOT a converter. (Converters are generally heavier and more expensive.) So some items that are dangerous at a different voltage, such as hairdryers and straighteners, may not be advisable to bring to your study abroad program (and may not be allowed).
A power bank for your phone may be a life-saver on long journeys. Your phone will likely be your connection to people in-country and at home, as well as your emergency outreach, your camera, and even your translator, method of payment, or way to get around (with Uber or Grab). This is a good way to make sure you’re never left stranded!
I know some people consider this excessive, but I generally like to bring a travel umbrella. Whether you’re getting to class with your laptop or traveling with all your possessions on your back, a travel umbrella can be an easy and affordable way to make sure everything stays dry.
Lightweight Rain Jacket
Of course, this depends on the climate of where you’re going to be studying abroad, but I generally consider a lightweight rain jacket to be a great travel investment. You can stay warm, clean, covered, and dry in inclement weather, and it packs up small and light.
While you can likely buy insect repellent at your program location if you need it, having at least a small bottle with you ensures you’ll have it at all times. Avoiding mosquito bites helps you stay comfortable and can prevent serious illnesses. A small bottle of 100% Deet can last a LONG time, since you use very small amounts, and is easy to carry.
Motion Sickness Medicine
I would consider this a study abroad essential. You can restock abroad, but having some in your bag can turn a miserable experience into a pleasant one. From stormy ferry rides to twisty mountain roads, turbulent airplanes to unexpectedly bumpy trains, have some of this in your bag.
Portable Clothes Washer
Doing laundry during study abroad can be expensive, inconvenient, or both. One great option is to simply wash items as needed in the shower. Admittedly, you don’t need any special products to do that! But if the idea of washing clothes in the shower sounds tricky to you, you can save money and time with a product like this one (which fits easily in your bag).
Essential on the plane? Check. Great for mid-program travel? Check. Good for late-night study sessions when you need extra neck support after writing a paper for hours? Check. Great to supplement your crappy dorm pillow while sleeping? Check.
The style that snaps together in the front provides better neck support while sleeping upright than the U-shaped ones.
Learn what apps are popular in the places you’ll be visiting. Do they use Uber or Grab? Do they use WhatsApp or Line? Are there local food apps that can help you? Do people use an app to pay directly from their phones? Google Maps and Google Translate are likely helpful almost anywhere, but a few new apps can make things a LOT easier for you when you arrive in your temporary home country.
Collapsible Water Bottle
A reusable, refillable water bottle is a must when traveling. You can use less waste, save money, and stay hydrated easily. But a collapsible water bottle is even MORE helpful because it doesn’t take up space in your bag when it’s empty.
I always travel with a giant scarf. Need a blanket? Need a towel? Need a pillow? Need to cover up a stain? Need to cover up to visit a temple or other modest location? Need a privacy screen? Need a tote bag? Need a beach cover-up? Need a skirt? A top? A head-covering? A bedspread? A decorative wall hanging?
Guess what: a big scarf can be all these things. Get a BIG, light one and thank me later.
This one is specific to people who wear dresses, but if you do, this is a great study abroad item. A comfortable black dress that has long sleeves and covers your knees is GREAT to have in your bag.
If you need to attend a faculty dinner, a concert, or a funeral, you’re covered. It’s appropriate for almost any religious building or service, for a graduation, or for any school event. It’s appropriate for an interview or giving a presentation. It also works for walking around the city, going to dinner, or really anything. You can dress it up or down, accessorize it differently, and keep it in your closet year after year. (PS – it has pockets!)
Dry shampoo can make you feel like a person again on a long plane ride, or when the line for the hostel bathroom is too long for you to shower before class. A little bit will last a long time and is lightweight to travel with.
Journal and Pens
Whether you keep notes on your phone app, a journal on your laptop, or a paper journal, keep notes of your study abroad experience. Even a voice recorder or video recorder would do! You’ll want to remember the experience forever, and this will help. If you are a pen-and-paper person like me, this set is almost indestructible, lasts forever, writes clearly, doesn’t smudge, and is also fun for coloring.
Medications and Copies of All Prescriptions
Bring your prescriptions – and check to make sure you can bring what you need into your country of travel! Also, bring copies of your prescriptions (it’s good to keep a digital copy on your phone as well), and store your prescriptions in your carry-on luggage in case your bag gets lost.
Bring over-the-counter meds you routinely take as well, so that you have them if you feel sick and you can show them to a pharmacist to easily buy more if needed. Items you sometimes use, like glasses or a wrist brace, you’d want to bring too. Better safe than sorry!
Phone and Laptop Cases
Travel is loud. Airplanes and trains are loud. Coffee shops where you’re trying to work are loud. Hostels and hotels and dorms are loud. That noise can steal your concentration, your sleep, and your peace… and it can all be prevented with something the size of your thumb. Get a reusable pair and cut down on waste and space.
Sense of Adventure
Whatever you pack, be sure to bring your sense of adventure to your study abroad experience. Try new foods, talk to new people, and make an effort to learn the local language and culture. You may feel tired or overwhelmed, but once you’re back home, you’ll be happy that you took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself.
Sense of Humility
Get out and have adventures, but don’t forget your sense of humility. You are a guest in the culture you are visiting, and you are there to listen, learn, and grow. Take the opportunity to experience another culture without judging it, and watch yourself change in positive ways.