Helping You With Your Study Abroad Packing List Since We’ve BOTH Done It!
Let’s be serious and cut right to the point: studying abroad is a super exciting time and we have both lived and studied abroad at different times in our university years. Our time studying and living abroad has absolutely shaped the people we are today. So, we speak from a lot of experience here!
Eric studied at a medieval castle in England (honestly) and did his Master’s while living in Edinburgh. Lisa studied abroad in Copenhagen and then did an exchange semester in Spain. In time, we hope to write about our exact study abroad packing lists for Scotland, England, and Spain. We also know how difficult it can be to pack for different seasons and weather – so we’ll even produce a summer study abroad packing list as well!
For now, let us walk you through what you need to know about packing for study aboard of any length. We know how important it is to bring everything you need – including essential documents for visas/immigration and your studies. Let’s start there. Ready to put together your packing list for study abroad? Let’s pack!
Sometimes you might have to bring certain documents with you for immigration purposes or because you host university requires them. Making sure you have the correct documents can be critical. This is because getting them sent to you afterward can be a hassle, and if you don’t have them – there’s a chance you can’t get into your country of study!
- Passport: Your passport is an absolute MUST. Bring your passport and ID card if you have one. It’s always good to have more than one way to identify yourself in case something gets stolen. It’s also a good idea to bring a copy of your passport for the same reason. As a general rule of thumb: photocopies of important stuff makes your life better. Make many copies and store them in different bags/places.
- Immigration Papers: Depending on where you are going to study abroad, you might have to bring certain immigration documents, e.g. papers for a student visa, etc. Make sure to bring everything you need as it can be a hassle to get things in order at a later date!
- Documents for the School/University: Sometimes you might have to bring papers from your home university and have them filled out by your host university. It could also be the case that you already know that you have to hand in certain documents for registration at your host university. If you already know that, print the papers out and bring them along with you – this saves the hassle of having to find a print shop on your first couples days in a new city.
- Passport Photos: A tip from Lisa: she always brings at least a couple of passport photos with her since her experience has shown that more often than not you’ll need one. It’s just so much easier knowing you have them handy than having to worry about finding a photographer or photo booth in a city that you don’t know that well yet. Often times, you’ll need one for your student ID at your host university, library, or public transportation card, etc.
- Wallet: You should not forget your wallet. Ideally, you have a few different money cards that allow you to get money in case one stops working. Also, your wallet should be a secure place where you can confidently store identification or other important cards. Is yours falling apart? Think about getting a new one.
- A sheet of Paper with Important Phone Numbers: In this day and age we barely remember any phone numbers – and here at Penguin and Pia we are definitely guilty of this. However, this can be problematic if you accidentally lose your phone or have it stolen. Having a list of important numbers written down can be helpful in case you can’t access your phone. This way, you’ll still be able to keep in touch with your family/friends easily. It’s generally a good idea to write down important numbers for family, close friends, banks (to lock credit cards quickly), local police, fire, gas/electricity, etc. in the new country and store them somewhere you can see them quickly if needed. Lisa had a list like that in Spain with her, and luckily never had to use it.
Here’s something easier said than done: try not to bring to much luggage initially. Even though you plan not to, at the end of your study abroad time you’ll most likely end up with more stuff than you thought (which is completely normal). We both speak from experience.
But do you really want to travel back home with THREE big suitcases?! Probably not.
So, try to only bring essential and important things with you. You won’t be in the middle of nowhere and you’ll be able to buy additional items if you find you absolutely need an additional pair of pants, for example.
- Suitcase: Even if you don’t usually travel with a suitcase (we don’t), it will be very difficult to bring your belongings over without one. Lisa has a suitcase she absolutely loves. It’s from the brand Eminent but since she bought it almost ten years ago it doesn’t seem to be available anymore. It is a hard shell suitcase with four wheels and it is just the perfect size. When it is completely full it usually just hits 23 kg (which is the baggage allowance for most major airlines) so the likelihood of her over-packing is pretty small.
- Backpack: A backpack can double as a bag for short weekend trips and as your bag for university stuff. It will also work perfectly as your carry-on luggage for the flight. Lisa has a Northface Borealis Backpack which she really likes. It has a special place for laptops and enough storage for everything else. Eric uses a MEC backpack but in Edinburgh had a messenger bag for work/professional life.
- (Small) Purse/Handbag: If you don’t always want to take a backpack or carry everything in your pant pockets, bringing a small purse/handbag is probably a good idea. Lisa brought a small cross-body bag to Spain that she used when she was out in the city, meeting with friends, etc. It was easy to toss into the suitcase during the flight and didn’t take up to much room. So, maybe don’t go for a giant bag and try to take a small one that has enough room for the essentials.
Remember how we were talking about only bringing one suitcase? This set up means that you won’t have a ton of room. So, you shouldn’t fill your bag with toiletries that you can easily buy in your new city. However, we would recommend bringing the following:
- Toothbrush: an essential item so there’s not much more to say.
- Travel-Sized Shampoo, Body Wash, Toothpaste, Deodorant: It is a good idea to bring these staple items as a travel size. That way, your first worry in the new city won’t be to find a drugstore since you’ll be fine for the first few days. At the same time, you won’t fill your suitcase up with big bottles of toiletries.
- Hairbrush: If you have a special type of hairbrush that you like, bring it with you.
- Hair Dryer (maybe): Lisa doesn’t usually dry her hair with one (and Eric never does anyway) so she has travelled without a hair dryer before. In Spain, she did have a small foldable travel hairdryer which worked great.
If you have to take medication regularly, you’ll have two options for when you study abroad – depending on the length of stay. You can make sure to bring enough to last you the entire duration of your stay OR bring some for the beginning of your experience and research how you get more while in your host country (going to a doctor, etc.).
Regardless of what you take and what you bring with you, there are two pieces of advice that have been useful in recent years. They are: always bring prescriptions for you in the original bottles and, in general, bring other meds in the original packaging/pill bottle. We recognize that this might not always be feasible due to packing constraints but it can be good practice.
We crossed the border into Croatia from Bosnia by bus and each bag was searched. When the woman looked in Eric’s toiletree bag, she could see that he had a jar of ibuprofen cause it said it on the bottle. Totally harmless. The guy next to him on the bus (no disrespect – he was American) has the most disorganized and dodgy looking arrangement of pills, supplemets, and capsules all in different unlabelled bags.
The border guards were NOT pleased. What’s more – he actually put up a sarcastic fuss when they tested samples of the substances. And while they turned out to actually be vitamins and supplements (from the Ukraine), he held up the bus and got WAY more heat than he needed. All because he made himself a seemingly untrustworthy target. In short, make sure meds are clearly marked and explainable.
Since this topic really depends on the individual person and their health, we can’t give any complete recommendations here. Give it a thought for you and where you’ll be living!
This section obviously changes depending on where you are going to be living for the next few months and the climate of the destination. Lisa went to Spain and was fine wearing mainly t-shirts or a thin jacket in November. Eric, on the other hand, lived in Scotland, so a raincoat was an absolute must. The following list is very general, so please adjust it to fit your needs!
- Jacket: This will depend on the climate of the destination you are going to. Make sure to bring a jacket that is versatile and has a hood if you are going to live in a city where rain is common. Try to limit yourself to one or a maximum of two jackets.
- Everyday Shirts: These are the shirts you’d wear on an everyday basis – and this includes to class. Most of the time, universities don’t have certain dress codes but make sure to double check beforehand. A mix of long and short sleeved shirts, in addition to a cardigan and sweater, is probably a safe way to go.
- Everyday Bottoms: For Lisa, this would mean a couple pairs of jeans, a pair of chino pants, one or two pairs of shorts (not too short) and a skirt. Eric wore a pair of blue or a pair of burgundy chinos alternating the entire year. Yup, simple!
- Going Out Shirts/Dress: Since you’ll probably be going out a few times with your new friends, it would make sense to bring at least one going out shirt/dress. Ideally, you make sure it is not too revealing so it can be also worn on other occasions like social events in your school or faculty.
- Going Out Bottoms: If you usually live in jeans and sweatpants or shorts, it would be a good idea to bring one nicer pair of bottoms for going out. Sometimes bars or clubs have dress codes and don’t allow people in who wear blue jeans.
- Special Occasion (e.g. Class Presentations): Depending on your university, you might be expected to dress up a little when giving presentations. You might even attend certain events with industry professionals where you’re expected to dress up. A blazer, blouse, or nice dress shirt should be fine enough. These don’t take up too much extra room and you’re on the safe side if you do need something fancier.
- Lounge Wear/Sleep Wear: These items are just as important – if not more important – than the items mentioned above. Make sure you bring a couple sweatpants/leggings that make you feel comfortable and can double up as sleepwear. You might get hit by homesickness at one point or another and having your favourite pair of comfy pants can actually help a lot.
- Underwear: Underwear for 7-10 days is usually more than enough. Most likely you’ll have the opportunity to do laundry in your apartment/building so there is no need to bring more.
- Socks: Same as with underwear – bring a few different pairs but don’t pack too many. Depending on the season you might want to opt for ankle socks or thicker, warmer socks.
- Workout Gear: If you know that you’re going to work out while studying abroad you should make sure to bring your workout gear. That said, be sure to only bring the things you actually need and use. Do you really need 4 different workout shirts? Probably not since you can always (hand)wash them. Make sure to bring the equipment you need if it’s small to pack.
- Swimwear: Going to live close to the ocean/a lake or are going to live in a warm location? You might swim – so bring one bikini, bathing suit, or swim shorts.
Of course, it is a personal preference what shoes to bring and what shoes you feel comfortable in. We can only recommend to not bring too many shoes… which is definitely easier said than done. We usually opt for comfort instead of style when possible because you might regret it at a later date. We would pack the following – but obviously, your preference might be a completely different one:
- A pair of everyday shoes: These are the shoes you’d wear on an everyday basis such as to classes, running errands, etc. It could easily be a pair of sneakers. For Lisa, it would be a pair of black Toms with a hard sole. She literally wears them (almost) every single day and they go with everything. Eric usually has a shoe with a thick thread/more of a boot since they are very versatile. Scotland also just called for a more dependable boot type of shoe.
- A pair of sturdy shoes/running shoes: Depending on your physical activities, you might opt for a good pair of running shoes that you can wear when exercising. Lisa had a pair of runners with her in Spain as she knew she’d go for runs regularly. Looking back, it would have also been a good idea to have a pair of sturdier shoes to wear when hiking etc. since Bilbao had some great mountains for that. She has since gotten a pair of Merrell hiking boots and would have brought them to Spain if she’d had them at the time. If you know that you’ll not go hiking nor running, only bring one “activity” shoe just so you have a good overall walking shoe. If you know you’ll need both, take both.
- A going out pair: When studying abroad, you’ll most likely go out at least a few times (probably more often). It can be a good idea to bring a pair of going out shoes especially if your everyday shoes are a pair of sneakers. These can be heels if you are absolutely sure that you’ll wear them (remember, many European old towns are full of cobblestone roads), but usually, flats are more convenient and take up less room in your suitcase. Lisa took a pair of ballet flats to Spain and they were great. Eric had dress shoes for going out and they doubled as shoes to wear to nicer social events at the university. Pretty smart!
As with some of the other sections, try to limit yourself to the essentials here. You probably don’t use most of the accessories you have at home anyway, so try to only bring things that you wear on a regular basis. These are the things we packed for our study abroad periods – maybe you’ll have some additions:
- Sunglasses: If you are travelling in the summer and/or to a warmer place, you probably don’t want to leave your sunglasses at home.
- Belt: Try to take one belt if you usually wear one – choose one that goes with pretty much all your clothes. If you don’t usually wear a belt there is no need to bring one.
- Jewelry: Only take a few basics – one to two pairs of earrings, a necklace, and a bracelet or ring. Depending on where you’re going to study be careful with flashy jewelry as unfortunately it can make you a target for pickpockets in some parts of the world.
- Scarf: Depending on the time of the year and the temperature of your study destination, you might want to consider bringing a lightweight scarf. Eric had one for Edinburgh winter and it was great.
- Seasonal Additions: If you know that you’ll study in Norway in the winter it is pretty safe to assume that you’ll need a hat and gloves, etc. Therefore, check the climate of your destination beforehand and then adjust the list accordingly. BUT don’t pack small things that you MIGHT (but most likely won’t) need. These items just take up unnecessary room and you’ll most likely be able to buy them there if you really need them.
Short travels nowadays rarely happen without bringing electronics – let alone moving abroad for a certain period of time. We brought the following items when we moved for our study abroad times. Maybe you have additional items (such as a tablet) that you absolutely have to bring. You can read more about the best essential gadgets for travel here.
- Laptop + Charger: You probably use your laptop regularly in your free time anyway but a laptop is obviously very useful for university tasks so we would definitely recommend bringing your own laptop. Sometimes university libraries have computers available for students, but they are not always in great shape.
- Phone + Charger: Depending on where you are moving to you can just use the same phone with the same number that you use at home (if you’re moving within the EU for example). Other times, you should look into getting a new sim card. This is what Eric did in the UK. If your phone is locked to a certain provider in your home country, make sure to get it unlocked before you leave.
- Camera + Charger: Since we are both big fans of photography we, of course, took our cameras. Even if you don’t usually take a lot of photos, you might consider taking a camera to document this exciting time. Alternatively, your phone camera could also be enough. Lisa has a mirror-less Fujifilm X-T10 which is quite small and not too heavy while Eric has a Nikon D3300.
- USB stick/External Hard Drive: Usually a USB stick is enough but depending on how much extra storage space you need you should consider taking an external hard drive. A “junk drive” is also handy if you have to print out things at the university or print shop. Eric didn’t have a printer in Edinburgh so he took documents on a data stick to the local print shop to print for cheap.
And there you have it – our take on what you need to pack for your study abroad experience. Now, of course, there are might be other things that you’ll need or things that you love and want to bring along. That’s totally fine! We just wanted to provide you with a study abroad packing list of the basics, our most important items, and the rationale for bringing them! Hopefully it’s helpful! If you study abroad, feel free to reach out – we’d love to hear about where you are and how it’s going!
As always, Happy Study Abroad Waddlin’,