After lots of study abroad and then a decade of living in various countries, I have pretty some strong opinions on what's worth packing for foreign stays of a few months to a year.
So now, with a team of fellow travelling students and nomads, we've put together the ultimate recommendations for study abroad packing.
Most students on study abroad will build a temporary life in their chosen city, but also travel a bit. So it's important to both pack the necessities to be comfortable while not going overboard and carrying so much that it will be hard to move about.
The most frequent mistake is packing too much. You need less than you think; and often it's better to just buy local products later on the spot if needed. But we also think there are a few essentials to pack, and we've got recommendations for each.
- The Best Backpack for Study Abroad
- The Best Phone Plan for Americans on Foreign Trips
- The Top Language Prep for Study Abroad
- The Best Hanging Toiletry Bags for Student Travel
- The Best Universal Travel Plug Power Adapter (with USB-C)
- Foldable Hair Dryer
- For Reading and Language Progress While Studying Abroad: A Kindle
- For Lingerie: A Washing Bag
- Microfiber Quick-Drying Travel Towel
- Passport Holder and/or Money Belt
- An Online Backup of Your Important Documents: Dropbox or Google Docs
- Travel Socks
- Portable Extra USB Battery
- Condoms, Yes, for Study Abroad
- Needle and Thread or Sewing Kit
- Travel Water Bottle
- Things NOT to Pack for a Study Abroad Trip
Update History of This Article
The Best Backpack for Study Abroad
There is a reflex among young people to opt for the travel backpacker pack, and it's true that there are some benefits in the flexibility of being able to pop the bag up on your shoulders — whether for a flight of stairs in the Paris metro system or walking up to your beachside bungalow in Brazil.
But this need is vastly overrated for most people on study abroad — 90% of the time you'll be happier rolling your luggage on wheels.
Fortunately there's a perfect combo option: the rolling travel backpack. These backpacks' straps can be tucked into a slot when not needed, and you can simply roll the pack behind you.
Our favorite full-sized rolling travel backpack is a bit expensive but very well worth it: the Osprey Meridian 75L. It comes with a detachable daypack that is perfect as both a carry-on and for use in getting to classes once you are abroad in your chosen city. It's light but full-featured, and extremely durable. It comes from Osprey, a company offering a solid warranty on its pack builds, and a history of great follow-up should anything go wrong, anywhere in the world.
We have full coverage of what we love about this Osprey Meridian 75L in our review of the top rolling travel backpacks, and we also have run a comparison of only the Osprey lines of rolling full-size travel backpacks for those who want to compare that particular company's options side-by-side.
As people gain travel experience, they inevitably learn how to pack less and less in order to give themselves more freedom for improvising on the road. I myself now travel and work internationally for six months at a time with only a carry-on. While this might be too much (too little, really) for most study abroad students, if you're ready to give ultra-light travel a try, you can see our recommendations for the best rolling backpack carry-on.
The Best Phone Plan for Americans on Foreign Trips
American cell phone plans have hefty roaming fees when used abroad, and so to avoid them one used to buy an unlocked international phone before leaving and then purchase a new prepaid SIM at the airport or a phone shop upon arrival in the new country (this means swapping out the phone's SIM card). This extra step was annoying and in some countries could be expensive or complicated (because of required documentation or technical flaws).
Then Google came up with Project Fi, which is by far the best phone plan we've ever found for Americans on study abroad or otherwise travelling internationally. Now we land in a foreign airport and are immediately connected with the same very affordable internet connection (almost) anywhere in the world. This means that it's easy to immediately can get an Uber, search public transport options, look up currency rates online, communicate with our hosts, and the rest. It works without expense and hassle, and the system is lovely to use throughout the length of our stays. It's a safer and more convenient way to always stay connected when switching countries.
There's a bit of a combo-upside-downside in that you always keep your same USA number and phone. This means no hassle of changing anything, but also that you don't have a local phone number in your host country. However, since people in most countries now rely on Whatsapp, Facebook, Viber, or other messaging apps rather than SMS, there really is also no need for a local number, whether for voice/video calls or messages. That said, note that in any case Project Fi does provide free SMS-ing to anywhere in the world, from anywhere in the world. It's nice for staying in touch with your SMS-happy friends (and especially parents) in the USA.
The Top Language Prep for Study Abroad
To really hit the ground running, you need not just any language skills, but those targeted to the dialect of your host university. For instance, if you're going to Spain, the Latin American phrases that you've learned won't be of much use. And if you're studying in Montreal you'd be much better off preparing for the Quebecois accent rather than European French.
University language classes and private schools are rarely equipped to help you with these and other particular challenges of preparing to live and study abroad in a specific locale. Your learning would be much more efficient and motivated with language teachers who are actually native to the country and region where you will be studying.
Fortunately, this is imminently possible via online lessons. In addition, one-on-one personalized classes are likely to be both far cheaper and way more useful than anything you'd have at your home university or private language school.
Our favorite forum for finding talented online language teachers from anywhere is Italki; I've personally used it for years to work on my Russian, Italian, and Serbian, as well as for short-term brush-up on local accents in other languages (such as Brazilian Portuguese).
The site has all kinds of teachers — from highly polished professionals to amateurs — who can also be wonderful for just helping you practice your target language and accent. Some of the teachers are fellow university students and you may even be able to find a language coach who is in the same university as where you plan to attend.
Prices vary by teacher but are generally extremely reasonable, especially compared to offline options. I recommend working with several different teachers rather than just one, in order to get exposed to a variety of perspectives and language patterns.
For more, I have a lot of other language-learning hacks — born of my war to better communicate while studying and living abroad.
The Best Hanging Toiletry Bags for Student Travel
The best toiletry bags / dopp kits for study abroad must hold up well over time and be flexible and useful enough to function as a home for grooming supplies and makeup through any extracurricular road trips before, during, or after the study period.
As mentioned in our in-depth article on the best toiletry bags, we think these should have a few key features: a hook, so that they can be hung anywhere while in use; a small mirror for when you're really roughing it; and a transparent plastic compartment for liquids so that you don't have to change to a plastic bag when passing through airport security.
Also, vitally, they should be able to securely isolate any cosmetics or soaps that might spring a leak during travel.
The two best options are from reputable companies that offer great build quality and warranties:
- The best small toiletry bag is the Osprey UltraLight Zip Organizer. It has all of the features mentioned above and is great for the light travel, overnighters, and as a hanging supplement to a larger toiletry bag that you plan to check (it goes great with the Osprey Washbag Cassette).
- The best large toiletry bag is the Eagle Creek Pack-It Wallaby Toiletry Organizer. It also has the key features we mentioned, but is large enough to be your only home for soaps and cosmetics during a semester or year of study.
Note that while you can certainly pack your favorite toiletries, globalization means that you can now generally get whatever you'll need to fill these bags in whatever country you happen to be studying in.
The Best Universal Travel Plug Power Adapter (with USB-C)
Go into any electronics brick-and-mortar store and you'll likely be sold a large and very overpriced kit with separate adapters for each country.
Fortunately there are universal travel plug adapters that give you the flexibility of going anywhere in the world with just one adapter. And should you buy an electronic product in the country where you are doing your study abroad, you'll also be able to use the universal adapter to convert that plug for use in your home country.
The best one that we've found is the Szroboy Universal Travel Adapter with 4-Port USB Charger. One of those ports is a USB-C charger, so you're all set for fast-charging the latest phones and devices. It also has standard USB-A out ports and a universal plug outlet for plugging in electronic devices from the USA or from anywhere in the world. That, plus it's one of the smallest and lightest options out there.
It is not a voltage converter and so should not be used to plug old, high-power high dryers into sockets with a different voltage. But laptops and phone chargers and other electronics are fine; they show the voltages they accept on the plug (generally 100-240) and so they generally work anywhere in the world with the help of this plug adapter.
Foldable Hair Dryer
While you can also buy or be provided with a hair dryer wherever you're going, it can be useful to take along a foldable travel hair dryer that can run on different voltages.
For Reading and Language Progress While Studying Abroad: A Kindle
Don't carry heavy books! If you haven't yet made the switch over to e-readers, an extended trip abroad is the perfect time to do so.
The Amazon Kindle allows you to take with an almost infinite supply of both books from back home and books about and from your target country. It's light, a pleasure to use, and the battery can last for up to a month before needing a recharge. Kindles also have built-in dictionaries that can aid with reading and quickly looking up foreign language words on the fly. And you can even highlight a passage and have it machine-translated for you.
The Kindle Voyage is also worth considering for study abroad; it adds an adaptive-light display for reading in both dark rooms as well as bright sunlight. And it has worldwide cellular connectivity, so you don't need to be on WiFi to download a new book.
For serious readers, a Kindle Unlimited subscription provides access to a million books, plus audiobooks and magazines. It's perfect for long train rides through Europe. As a student, though, it's better to sign up for the free six-month trial of Amazon Prime Student, which gives you:
- Free reading access to books, magazines, and audiobooks on a Kindle or any other device
- Prime video, Amazon's streaming video service
- Free unlimited photo storage for cataloging the adventures on your trip
- Free two-day shipping and other standard Prime benefits
Interesting that the trial period is six months, no? So you can cancel at the end of your semester abroad and pay nothing.
Finally, as pleasurable as the reading experience on a Kindle is, note that you can also just use the free Kindle Cloud Reader to read e-books on other devices like your laptop.
For Lingerie: A Washing Bag
A washing bag is an easy thing to pack that protects both lingerie and, if your bras have underwires, will protect the washing machines of your host family or wherever you are staying.
Microfiber Quick-Drying Travel Towel
Most places that you stay will provide towels, but it's nevertheless nice to be prepared for hostels or long road trips with a microfiber travel towel. They pack up very small, dry quickly, and can be very handy to have in your bag when on the move.
Also consider Eagle Creek's XL Microfiber Travel Towel if you need something bigger or to take to the beach.
Passport Holder and/or Money Belt
A good passport holder will hold not just your passport but also other basic documents, extra currency, and spare credit cards and other cards. Many are marketed as "RFID-blocking" but there is almost no real-world stealing of information in this manner, so that's unnecessary. Simply go for something in the size and style that fits your needs.
A money belt can also serve this purpose, and has the advantage of being able to be worn under clothing when you are in crowded places (public transport, nightclubs) to prevent pickpocketing.
An Online Backup of Your Important Documents: Dropbox or Google Docs
It's wise to carry a photocopy of your passport, any necessary visas, health insurance, travel insurance, emergency contact, and itenary. These can be very useful should your original documents get lost or stolen.
You should also upload a good scan of your passport and documents to DropBox, Google Drive, Amazon Drive, or any other cloud service (they all have basic free versions); this ensures that you can download them at the drop of a hat (I've even shown the documents to an authority on my phone's screen in a pinch).
These services also offer a better way to store and share a large archive of photos and videos from your trip, rather than storing them on a local device that can get stolen or lost.
Quality merino wool travel socks don't stink, because the merino wool quite successfully inhibits bacteria growth. Further, they can be washed by hand when necessary and dry quickly. We use and quite like the Darn Tough socks for women and men.
Portable Extra USB Battery
A small extra battery can make an enormous difference on the road in a foreign country, since we rely on our phones to do so much: navigate, translate, call an uber, take photos, and more. We've analyzed all of the batteries for USB-C phones and our favorite was the Anker PowerCore+ 20100 USB-C. On a full charge it can recharge a smartphone many times over, and we even use it on the road to top up power on a Chromebook when necessary.
Condoms, Yes, for Study Abroad
Some plan to be perfect celibates on their trip abroad, while others fantasize wildly about the things they'd like to do with foreign tongues. (On my first study abroad trip to Chile, three of the forty students in our group ended up not just dating but eventually marrying local Chilean students.)
Either way, it's wise be prepared. While you can always head to a local pharmacy on arrival, and yes, that's a fun way to practice your language skills, also consider preparing ahead by ordering a stash of your favorite brand of condoms.
Needle and Thread or Sewing Kit
Even if you don't know how to sew, at some point in a foreign country you're likely to learn, in a pinch, when you have to sew on a button. I've always been happy when I remembered to carry a tiny sewing kit.
Ideally it should have a few differently sized needles, some thread in various colors, safety pins, a tiny pair of scissors for cutting the thread, and not much else. This sewing kit is perfect.
Travel Water Bottle
A good travel water bottle is collapsible, so that it takes little space when not in use. It can be emptied before hitting airport security, and then refilled. And it is sturdy enough for daily use to keep you hydrated in your university classes wherever in the world you roam.
A good water bottle shouldn't use BPA plastics, which can leach into your water and cause hormonal issues; even the alternative plastics that replace BPA could possibly be problematic.
We thus think that collapsible silicone water bottles are the best choice for their safety and convenience.
The more traditional and very Spanish choice is the bota, a sheepskin vessel that squirts.
Things NOT to Pack for a Study Abroad Trip
A lot of the other packing advice for study abroad out there can be dated (even to pre-mobile phone times: seriously, bring a map???!!! a watch???!!!) or suggest packing unnecessary stuff that will ultimately just weigh you down.
Generally you should also keep in mind that with globalization, you can buy pretty much the same products anywhere in the world, so there's no need to stress too much, and definitely no need to bring anything that you're not sure you'll actually use. Avoid the "just in case" items.
Here are our recommendations for what NOT to bring:
- Paper maps and travel guides (these weigh you down and digital versions of guides like Lonely Planet can be purchased instead)
- Foreign currency purchased through your bank (you can withdraw local currency from an ATM at a much better rate; it is wise however to bring $200 or so of hard American currency as a backup)
- Travellers' checks (fortunately these are completely obsolete)
- Dictionaries and other books (use your Kindle as mentioned above, plus WordReference, Reverso, Google Translate, and other online tools)
That's it for our recommendations of what to bring, and what not to bring. Your additions and advice are welcome in the comments.